Head of pontifical academy offers apology, affirms pro-life commitment

Vatican City, May 11, 2012 / 04:12 am (CNA).- The president of the Pontifical Academy for Life has expressed his full commitment to the “Gospel of Life,” and apologized for communications that were seen as dismissing members’ ethical concerns.

On May 8, Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula acknowledged that an April 2012 letter, criticizing “some pro-life activists” who objected to aspects of a planned Vatican conference on stem cells, “contained unfortunate phrasing which, if misunderstood, could have offended the sensibilities of some persons.”

In Tuesday’s letter to academy members, the bishop and academy president assured them that the offending words 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 fulcrum of our academy has always been and is, now more than ever, the Gospel of Life,” Bishop Carrasco de Paula told members.

His message came four days after a letter addressed to the bishop was made public, in which academy member Professor Josef Seifert sharply criticized the organization’s recent decisions about holding conferences. According to Seifert, some members were calling for resignations among the academy’s leadership.

The controversy began with a February 2012 conference on infertility at the Vatican, in which the pontifical academy played a non-organizing role. The event drew criticism within the academy, for hosting speakers who appeared to endorse techniques and methods condemned by the Church.

In April, the academy announced it was canceling a conference on adult stem cells, which would have featured experts who also specialize in embryonic research. In two sets of letters, officials gave different reasons for the cancellation, and disparaged the objections of “some pro-life activists.”

On May 10, two days after Bishop Carrasco de Paula’s letter, a senior member of the Pontifical Academy for Life offered CNA his thoughts on recent events at the academy as well as its present needs and future direction.

The senior member confirmed that neither the February conference on infertility, nor the canceled gathering on adult stem cells, was organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life. It remains unclear who did organize February’s conference, though there are suggestions that it was the work of a Catholic medical school.

“Dismay” over the infertility conference was “expressed by all members of the Governing Council” of the pontifical academy, the member said.

He recalled that after the “dreadful infertility conference,” and another “unfortunate” conference held several months earlier, “attention came to be focused on the upcoming stem cell conference with sensitivities and sensibilities heightened.”

In the view of this senior member, the April 2012 adult stem cell conference “might have worked – even with speakers who did not agree with the Church – if the entire program were placed within the anthropological and moral vision of the Church from the beginning, at the end, and with interventions from representatives of the Church’s position if a speaker proposed or advocated anything immoral.”

Nonetheless, other speakers “could have been invited with a high level of expertise who were not involved in embryo destruction.”

The senior member said it was “madness to invite speakers who had openly and publicly opposed the Church and her leaders.” While “in principle, there was absolutely nothing wrong with such a conference,” the “big issue was the risk of scandal.”

“As I understand it, the conference on morally licit adult stem cell research was also being organized by someone else, and the Pontifical Academy for Life was providing the patronage for it without actually putting it together,” he explained. “I hope some hard lessons have been learned there!”

In the future, he said, the academy staff “has to be more directly involved in planning conferences. It simply cannot turn the planning of events over to outside groups … If an outside group is involved in planning there has to be vigilant oversight.”

“Better management,” he said, could do much to prevent incidents like February’s infertility conference.

The senior member also highlighted the example of past leaders’ efforts to safeguard the academy’s moral vision.

“When Cardinal (Elio) Sgreccia was President of the Academy, he would call all the speakers to Rome four months before the conference. Each speaker would have to present his or her complete finished paper, as it was going to be delivered. That way there were no surprises.”

“Cardinal (Fiorenzo) Angelini, who preceded Sgreccia, would actually intervene if a speaker said anything contrary to moral truth and point out forcefully to the speaker and the audience that what was just said was contrary to Catholic teaching or morality.”

“As Catholics we have to be engaged with the broader society,” the senior academy member stated.

Simultaneously, he said, “we must always call those who are involved in scientific research, or manufacturing, or government to do everything in accord with the moral vision of the human person articulated and clearly taught by the Church.”

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