Vatican Provides Few Details Regarding Funding of Controversial Conferences

Groups participating in the conferences appear to be paying most or all of the costs, not the Vatican.

Unite to Prevent and Unite to Cure Vatican conference  on May 6, 2021.
Unite to Prevent and Unite to Cure Vatican conference on May 6, 2021. (photo: Screenshot)

VATICAN CITY — International Vatican conferences have for decades brought together experts and scholars from a variety of fields to discuss matters of global significance as part of the Second Vatican Council’s mandate to engage with the modern world. 

Some of these gatherings have drawn welcome attention to global injustices such as human trafficking, the benefits of adult stem-cell research (as opposed to embryonic stem-cell therapy), protection of children in the digital world, or the potential dangers and opportunities related to robotics and artificial intelligence

Four Vatican institutions — the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development — have been at the forefront of this engagement.

Each has hosted international conferences aimed at better understanding the social, economic, and political challenges of the modern world, with the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences being the most prolific, hosting conferences on, for example, a 25th anniversary assessment of Pope St. John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus and numerous summits on combating modern slavery

But in recent years, these departments have focused on those issues having greater public consensus such as climate change (with bans on skepticism of the science), migration or social inequality while avoiding, with the exception of euthanasia, the challenging problems generally accepted by the world such as abortion and gender ideology. 

Often this has led to experts holding views diametrically opposed to Church teaching being invited to speak, and when the topics involve the environment and health, these contributors have tended to support some form of population control

This has naturally led to questions over who is funding these meetings, and whether external benefactors are unduly influencing them to promote their own agendas while co-opting the Church’s moral authority. 

The latest example prompting these concerns is an online Vatican conference beginning today co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture. 

The “Unite to Prevent, Unite to Cure” May 6-8 meeting will feature presenters such as Chelsea Clinton, a radical supporter of abortion, the conservationist Jane Goodall, a population control advocate, as well as a rabbi and a new age guru, but with few Catholics. 

Although originally planned for last May, the conference will also have a significant focus on COVID-19 vaccines, with Dr. Anthony Fauci and the CEOs of pharmaceutical giants and COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, also contributing. 

The John Templeton Foundation (JTF) is listed as one of two main financial supporters of the conference, and is supporting a segment called “Bridging Science and Faith” with a $750,000 grant. JTF spokesman Benjamin Carlson explained to the Register May 4 that the foundation’s support is “consistent with our mission” — to further “the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind” and “encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, as well as between such experts and the public at large.” 

But the values of the foundation, although it supports other Catholics programs, including Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire ministry, are not fully aligned with those of the Church. It runs a “Voluntary Family Planning” portfolio that promotes contraception in partnership with faith-based organizations to help the world “better understand factors that influence family planning decisions” and “provide information on and access to family planning methods.” 

Much of the portfolio is focused on Africa and, within the program, JTF has given to abortion providers such as Marie Stopes International ($1.5 million in 2015 to fund family planning outreach teams in Niger), and Pathfinder International that provides contraception to developing countries.

Since 2012, JTF has also been a member of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition that works with the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) to disseminate all modern contraceptives. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the International Planned Parenthood Federation are reportedly the most generous partners in this coalition. 

Carlson said its Voluntary Family Planning grant-giving program “is among the smallest at the foundation, comprising about 1% of our annual charitable giving,” and that the JTF “only funds research and programs that affirm the value of human life from conception until natural death.” 

Sanford Health is also listed as a major supporter of the May 6-8 conference. As one of the largest health providers in the United States, it offers a variety of contraceptive services as well as IVF and artificial insemination treatments. 

Other supporters and grantors of the Vatican conference include vaccine manufacturers Moderna, Sorrento Therapeutics, United Therapeutics, and Celularity.

The Register asked all these organizations and a dozen other supporters and grantors how they came to be involved in the conference and how much they were financially contributing to it. The John Templeton Foundation, along with the Guthy-Jackson Charitable Foundation, founded to research cures for Neuromyelitis Optica, a life-threatening autoimmune disease, responded. A Guthy-Jackson spokeswoman said the charity has always been honored to financially contribute to this series of health conferences.

The Register also asked both Bishop Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Dr. Robin Smith, head of the Cura Foundation, which is co-hosting the conference with the Vatican, if they could offer precise details of who is funding the conference and how much they are contributing. 

Smith did not respond, and Bishop Tighe did not provide this information, but said, “There is no simple funding model.” He added that the events can have a mixture of external donors. 

All the dicastery’s conferences have complied with “Vatican guidelines and subject to review by competent authorities,” Bishop Tighe explained, but also noted “financial restraints and logistical realities, brought about by the pandemic.”  

This would appear to apply to its May 6-8 meeting. Msgr. Tomasz Trafny of the Pontifical Council for Culture, for example, admitted it has “no budget” for its May 6-8 meeting and so is relying entirely on outside sponsors. Despite being considerably less costly as it will be held entirely online, 41 other conference “supporters and grantors” are listed on the event website.

A representative from the Holy See Press Office acknowledged via email that “particularly in view of the current situation, individual departments do choose to fund certain initiatives resorting to outside funding, in order to reduce the pressure on the budget of the Holy See.”

The Pontifical Academy for Life, the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development (including the Vatican COVID-19 Commission), the Dicastery for Laity Family and Life, and most significantly, the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences were similarly contacted. The Register didn’t receive a response.

The academies have hosted some of the most controversial conferences in recent years that have served as platforms to promote contentious agendas, overt political positions, and featured many speakers in favor of population control and contraception, also failed to respond. 

In 2019, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences openly co-sponsored a conference at the Vatican on food waste with the Rockefeller Foundation, a consistently strong advocate of contraception, abortion, and population control. In December, it hosted a youth symposium that as well as calling for a “new humanism based on a global change of mentality,” launched a Vatican-U.N. collaboration aimed at education the world in sustainable lifestyles and “gender equality.” 

The academy has frequently teamed up with the U.N. or U.N.-affiliated bodies such as the Sustainable Development Solutions Network directed by population control advocate Jeffrey Sachs. 

The Pontifical Academy for Life also was unable to give funding details of its conferences and recommended contacting the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) which manages assets and real estate of the Holy See. A request sent to its president, Archbishop Nunzio Galantino, for financial information on Vatican conferences drew no response.

More cooperative were two initiatives firmly backed by Pope Francis. A spokesman for the Economy of Francesco — a youth initiative launched last November to help young entrepreneurs make the economy more inclusive but which caused controversy by featuring dissenting theologian Leonardo Boff as a keynote speaker — said it was sponsored by the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development but also did not give details on how much the initiative cost. 

A representative for the Global Compact on Education — an initiative backed by Pope Francis and UNESCO to promote a “new humanism” of fraternity and inclusion regardless of religion — said it was collaborating with several universities including the University of Notre Dame, and “for this reason neither donations nor sponsorships have been collected, nor does the Holy See support the Global Compact on Education.” But similarly, the representative did not give details on how much each grantor was contributing. 

The Vatican spokesman sought to reassure anyone concerned about external grantors that all Vatican departments and their activities are “subject to the authorities implementing controls within the Holy See” and that “since June last year, when the new legislation governing public contracts was issued, they must abide by its regulations.” 

However, those norms, aimed at increasing transparency regarding the awarding of contracts in the Vatican and “to achieve the purposes proper to the Church,” contain no specific guidelines on who can or cannot sponsor conferences hosted by the Vatican, nor do they demand that any such financial information be published.

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