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The Pontifical Academy for What?

NEW OXFORD NOTEBOOK

By Pieter Vree | December 2022
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR.

When Pope St. John Paul II established the Pontifical Academy for Life in 1994, he commissioned it to conduct studies and offer information and formation on “the principal problems of biomedicine and of law, relative to the promotion and defense of life, above all in the direct relation that they have with Christian morality and the directives of the Church’s Magisterium.” And that’s what the Academy did for the next two decades, promoting and defending the Church’s teaching on medical ethics, including in-vitro fertilization, gene therapy, euthanasia, and abortion. Notable members — all of whom must be appointed by the pope — have included the late Robert Spaemann, a German Catholic ethicist; Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk, archbishop of Utrecht, Netherlands (who has written for the NOR); and John Finnis, permanent senior distinguished research fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture (who has also written for the NOR). The Academy’s first president was Ven. Jérôme Lejeune, the famed French geneticist who discovered the cause of Trisomy 21 and was a stalwart defender of the life of the unborn and the dignity of those born with Down syndrome.

That all came to a screeching halt once Pope Francis got involved.

In 2016 Francis revised the Academy’s statutes and summarily ended the terms of 116 of its 139 members (23 of whom he reappointed). The new statutes no longer require appointees to sign a declaration that they will uphold the Church’s pro-life teachings. Instead, members are chosen “on the basis of their academic qualifications, proven professional integrity, professional expertise and faithful service in the defense and promotion of the right to life of every human person.”

That same year, Francis tapped Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as president. In an interview, Paglia described the new focus of the Academy, which “now aims to be missionary in outlook,” he said, “in collaboration with believers of other churches and faiths as well as non-believers” (CruxNow.com, July 19, 2016). Its “horizons” must “broaden,” Paglia said, “so as not to forget anyone.” The Academy has since focused on themes like the environment, street violence, and “robo-ethics.”

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