On June 13, the Holy See published the list of the 50 members of the Pontifical Academy for Life nominated by Pope Francis. This list comes after the reform of the Academy’s statutes last November, a reform that raised several questions.
The Pontifical Academy for Life now has 50 members: 45 ordinary members and five honorary members. The latter were nominated for an indefinite period of time because they are “linked in a particular way to the life and activity of the Academy,” explained the Holy See in a press release.
These 5 ad honorem members include first of all Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, archbishop emeritus of Bologna, the first president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, who recently drew attention by co-signing, along with three other porporati, the famous Dubia which ignited the controversy surrounding the post-synodal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
Another noteworthy member: Birthe Lejeune, widow of Professor Jérôme Lejeune, the famous geneticist and co-inventor of the chromosomal anomaly responsible for Down’s Syndrome, and the first president of the Academy. She is the vice-president of the Foundation named after her husband.
One fact is worth noting: Pope Francis has decided to open the Academy to persons who do not belong to the Church. Thus, the institution’s 18 new members include Japanese Shinya Yamanaka, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2012 for his research on reprogramming adult skin cells to act as an alternative to embryonic stem cells. There are also two rabbis who are university professors specializing in medical ethics.
One may be surprised at seeing the doors opened to researchers who do not profess the Church’s Credo – far from it – especially since the original goal of the Academy, as exposed by John Paul II in his Motu Proprio Vitae Mysterium on February 11, 1994, is “to study and to provide information and training about the principal problems of law and biomedicine pertaining to the promotion and protection of life, especially in the direct relationship they have with Christian morality and the directives of the Church's magisterium”.
But then came the modification of the Academy’s statues by its president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, in November 2016. This change approved by the Holy Father removed all explicit mention of the magisterium of the Church.
Already when the new statutes of the Academy were published, some suspected its president, Archbishop Paglia, of wishing to take liberties with the magisterium of the Church, especially on ethical questions. But the prelate strongly denied any such intention. In an interview on June 6 with the American newspaper National Catholic Register, he declared that “the Academy’s absolute fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium in no way means that we are unable to undertake joint initiatives or enter into dialogue with persons who do not share our Catholic belief and commitment.” Yet one of the new ordinary members, Professor Avraham Steinberg, a specialist on bioethics, is a rabbi known for his studies and works on the Talmud that are seen as an authority in Judaism.
Also included is Nigel Biggar, a professor at Oxford University and a new member of the Academy, according to whom it is morally acceptable to abort a child up until the 18th week, a position that goes completely against the teaching of the Church.
Comparing the old and new lists of the members of the Academy, one can see that many names have been crossed off: internationally renowned pro-life militants, such as Guatemalan Maria Mercedes Arzù de Wilson, Venezuelan Christine De Marcellus Vollmer, or Burkinabé Etienne Kaboré, and French Bernard Kerdelhué, a disciple of Professor Jérôme Lejeune, as well as Belgian Msgr. Michel Schooyans, and Philippe Schepens.
This change in the statutes of the Pontifical Academy for Life is to be understood in the light of the sovereign pontiff’s address on October 27, 2016. Francis exhorted the Pontifical John Paul II Institute to renew its views on questions dealing with couples and the family and to take the complexity and multiplicity of concrete situations into consideration. Francis even went so far as to claim that the Church so far has presented “a theological ideal of marriage that is too abstract, almost artificially constructed” and “far from the concrete situation of families”.
Making Amoris Laetitia the guideline for the Academy for Life’s work is just one small step away. There is no saying an honorary member like Cardinal Caffarra —who along with Cardinal Burke, Brandmüller, and Meissner, has been asking the pope to “clarify” the ambiguous points, to say the least, in the apostolic exhortation— will be ready to take this step.