Clash Within Pontifical Academy for Life

Recent missteps over conference speakers cause concern.

Lessons have been learned from some serious mistakes surrounding the organization of two Pontifical Academy for Life conferences — errors that should be seen as an “opportunity to examine and reaffirm the identity” of the Vatican institution, according to its coordinating secretary.

Msgr. Scott Borgman told the Register May 12 that the academy had “learned many things these past few weeks” after members of the institution publicly criticized the way its officials had dealt with recent conferences and its management methods in general. He said the pontifical academy “will work hard” to apply those lessons “concretely to the future meetings.”

Recent internal and highly publicized disputes began with a Feb. 24 Vatican conference on infertility, organized not by the academy, but an outside body. The event was roundly criticized by academy members for including speakers who appeared to endorse techniques and methods condemned by the Church. Five in vitro fertilization doctors addressed the conference, each presenting only clinical practice.

No one from the academy was invited to present their research “in an authentic magisterial and anthropological framework,” according to Dr. John Haas, a member of the academy’s governing council and the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

Dr. Thomas Hilgers, founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute, an Omaha, Neb.-based organization that specializes in natural fertility regulation and reproductive medicine, was the only academy member invited to present scientific data that completely supported the Church’s teaching. Yet the doctor was reportedly made to appear isolated and had to defend himself against critical objections from the session’s chairman. “I was flat out treated like a second-class citizen, and I was deeply offended by it,” he told the Register March 14.

Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, president of the academy, apologized to the members in a closed-door meeting the day after the infertility conference, admitting the mistake of “outsourcing” it and promising that it wouldn’t happen again. But a further dispute then erupted when the academy announced it was canceling another “outsourced” conference, this time on adult stem cells, scheduled for April 25-28, which would have featured experts in embryonic stem-cell research, which the Church condemns.

Haas told the Register the conference risked “terrible scandal” because some speakers were involved in embryonic stem-cell research, a few of whom had even testified before Congress against the U.S. bishops, urging that federal funds be made available for such research. The meeting was canceled “due to a variety of organizational factors,” according to Msgr. Borgman. He added that “economic factors were anything but indifferent and played a major role.”

That should have been the end of the matter, but members were then upset to receive two sets of letters, each with different official reasons for the cancellation and containing disparaging remarks about the objections of “some pro-life activists.”

In a letter of apology, dated May 8, Bishop Carrasco said the letters “contained unfortunate phrasing” but were not meant “to show any disrespect, and certainly not to those with whom we have been collaborating closely and gratefully for years in favor of human life and of its defense.” The bishop, a member of Opus Dei, also stressed that “the fulcrum of our academy has always been and is, now more than ever, the gospel of life.”

His letter came after academy member Josef Seifert wrote to the president (at the bishop’s request after he cut Seifert short at the post-conference meeting) sharply criticizing the organization’s recent decisions about holding conferences. Seifert, who reportedly described the infertility conference as “the worst day in the academy’s history,” said some members were calling for resignations among the academy’s leadership. Although his letter to the president was personal, Seifert chose to make it public.

Both he and some other members firmly believe the institution is suffering from an “anti-life conspiracy” led by its authorities, a suspicion that has existed for some years, before the current president took up his post in June 2010. Pontifical academy officials see themselves as “a second Pontifical Academy of Science,” said academy member Christine de Marcellus Vollmer, one that is to “independently examine these questions” rather than act as “the Holy Father’s think tank for empowering the culture of life.”

The academy was founded in 1994 by Blessed John Paul II specifically to foster a culture of life, as well as to study questions and issues related to the defense of human life and to inform the Church of the latest relevant research. But accusations of an “anti-life” agenda at the highest levels of the Vatican were dismissed as “absolute fantasy” by at least one member.

Bishop Carrasco, 74, is a physician respected as a sincere and humble president. Part of the problem may simply be — in an environment where language is crucial — his inability to speak or understand English (though one of his recent predecessors, Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, could not do so either). Orthodox yet “edgy,” the Spanish bishop is considered to be someone willing to push the boundaries of the Church’s teaching, but as a consulter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it’s thought unlikely he is trying to set up an alternative magisterium.

Still, some members genuinely feel marginalized by the academy’s authorities and cite as examples conference speakers seldom being chosen from academics and the public demeaning of Hilgers and other academics. They argue a lack of trust exists on both sides and believe their research is not taken seriously enough by the president and his staff. “There’s a kind of unwillingness at these meetings to say: ‘This is where the Church stands. This is what we offer; this is why it’s good, and this is why society and culture should take a better look at it,’” said Hilgers.

Msgr. Borgman responded by saying the academy was “doing everything on our part to continue the important task of dialogue within the academy itself, as well as being open, in the Church’s Tradition, to an honest dialogue with science.” He said the academy authorities were “collaborating closely with our members, the other institutions which promote scientific research and all pro-life groups, with which we hold the utmost respect.”

But Hilgers said that, while he was all for conversing with opposing groups, academy conferences such as these recent ones were “the wrong forum” for engaging in such dialogue and that to think detractors would change their minds in such a setting was “very naive.” The Church, he said, “has got to get off that kick and get promoting what it believes and what it does.”

Despite the friction, both sides are confident the rift between the academy’s authorities and members — which some simply attribute to “turf wars” — can be resolved. Haas believes “some very practical approaches” need to simply be put into place to prevent these mistakes from happening again, such as gathering all the speakers ahead of the conferences to examine and critique each other’s papers, something Cardinal Sgreccia used to do. “There is a need for efficient management,” said Haas, adding that the authorities, working closely with the Holy Father, should be allowed to address the current situation “in tranquillity.”

Msgr. Borgman said he felt “we are well on our way” to moving forward with John Paul II’s vision for the academy, and he said he was praying unresolved issues would be addressed “quickly and efficiently.” He said the academy can always have “more efficient managers” and that it will “continue to do this, along with increasing our own commitment to presenting the magisterium’s guidance to the fullness of life within the context of faith.” The academy, he added, “will continue an open dialogue with the scientific world, all the while remaining completely faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Hilgers, who recalled attending a similarly poor academy conference 10 years ago, believes it would be “very easy” to put together a “really good top-level conference” with world-class speakers that would deal with “science and theology and show the world what can be done.” Moreover, he would like to see a radical shake-up in how the Church as a whole promotes and defends human life. He believes the Church has done a “horrible job” promoting life issues since Humanae Vitae.

He said, “I know how good [the Church’s teaching] is for the people we serve, and it’s the people we serve who are the ones who are hurting as a result of this.” “It’s really sad, because there’s so much that could be done,” he continued. “We’re in the biggest battle of our lives, maybe of several generations, over abortion and all the life issues, and we’re losing. We’re losing big time, and it’s partly because of the Church. [I] just want people to start working in a direction which says we can win this battle.” Hilgers criticized the Church for currently acting “like it doesn’t want to believe what it teaches.”

He feels the best approach would be to emulate the academy’s founding president, Jerome Lejeune, who “risked everything in his professional career over these life issues,” particularly his research of Down syndrome. “That’s what needs to be done,” he said. “I would love to see the academy taking their role much more seriously — an organization that can not only promote, but bring to light, Catholic teaching and Catholic solutions.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.