Pontifical Academy attacks Catholic doctrine on human life

Last Saturday, 3 September, in the early autumn sunshine, the pro-life movement gathered on the streets of London to defend the inviolability of human life, from conception and without exception. An estimated 7000 participants joined this year’s UK March for Life. The organisers credited the record turnout to the announcement by the US Supreme Court that it had reversed its decision in the case of Roe v Wade — the 1973 ruling that invented a constitutional right to abortion throughout America. This victory has encouraged the pro-life movement across the world by demonstrating that, even after 49 years of unchecked power, the abortion industry can be defeated.

It is all the more bizarre then, that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church should choose this time of renewed optimism to signal its capitulation to the world and its acceptance of abortion. On Friday 26 August, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the President of the Pontificia Academia pro Vita (PAV) appeared on the Italian political talk show, Agorà.1 Commenting on Law 194, the 1978 statute, responsible for six million abortions in Italy, Monsignor Paglia said, “I think that Law 194 is now a pillar of our social life.” When the presenter asked whether he intended to question this law, he replied, “No, absolutely, absolutely!”

Subsequently, a spokesman for the PAV said that the Archbishop’s remarks had been taken out of context. This claim would be more convincing were this not merely the most recent incident in a series of alarming statements, conferences and publications that indicate a widening gap between the Catholic faith and the views promoted by the PAV. Originally founded by John Paul II in 1981, the PAV led the Holy See’s defence of the sanctity of human life at an international level. However, worrying signs that it had taken a new direction began to appear soon after it was reconstituted by Pope Francis in 2017, under the presidency of Archbishop Paglia. From that time on, members were no longer required to adhere to Catholic teaching.

In December 2017, Father Maurizio Chiodi, an Italian moral theologian newly appointed to the PAV, presented a paper at a public lecture at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome with the title Re-reading Humanae Vitae (1968) in light of Amoris Laetitia (2016). He argued that, since Paul VI’s encyclical has not been declared infallible, it is therefore open to change. He even suggested that Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, “Accompanying, discerning and integrating weakness”, not only permits the use of contraception but, in some circumstances, might even require it. 

Chiodi’s critics dismiss his thesis as historicism and moral relativism. They point to its incompatibility not only with Humanae Vitae but also with Veritatis Splendor (1993),Pius XII’s address to the Italian Association of Catholic Midwives (1951), Casti Connubii (1930) and the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church as it has been held always and everywhere.

Efforts to rewrite Catholic morality using the various documents promulgated by Pope Francis have continued by the PAV ever since. July 2022 saw the publication of Theological ethics of life. Scripture, tradition, practical challenges, the proceedings of the interdisciplinary study seminar organised by the PAV and held in Rome from 30 October to 1 November 2021. This book on bioethics reflects the PAV’s obsession with updating the teaching on contraception but it also undermines the current prohibition on IVF and euthanasia. When Paglia, who edited the book, was interviewed by Vatican Media about it, he said that Pope Francis was informed of every step and encouraged the project, as it “followed a path of study and reflection that led us to see the issues of bioethics in a new light…”.

“Within this broad framework, we also find issues related to the origin of life and the role of sexuality, suffering, death, and the care of a dying person. Some specific issues, such as the environment and life (including animal life) on the planet, responsible generation and procreation, care of a dying person, and new technologies are addressed as a testing ground for the overall approach set forth in the [book].”2

Commenting on the launch of Theological Ethics of Life, an article published by America magazine, edited by Fr James Martin SJ, predicted: “Interesting times lie ahead if the reflections reported in the essay speak to what may be afoot at the Vatican”. It also quoted Father Jorge José Ferrer SJ, a professor of moral theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico who believes that Pope Francis will soon promulgate a new encyclical or apostolic exhortation on bioethics that might be called Gaudium Vitae (“The joy of life”). Whether such speculation proves to be accurate, the efforts of the PAV are seen as laying the foundation for a complete overhaul of Catholic morality.3 Those seeking to bring this about do not need to convince the faithful that issues once viewed as black are now white, but just that they were merely shades of grey all along. 

The rambling and largely incoherent rhetoric recited by theologians such as Chiodi, extol the primacy of the conscience of married couples to exercise responsible parenthood, or appeal to a sensus fidei4 of the majority of Catholics who have already abandoned the Catholic teaching on sexual morality. Nevertheless, these arguments reject the tenets of divine and natural law. History shows that the legitimation of contraception leads inevitably to the acceptance of abortion. It is no coincidence that the leading advocates of birth control in the twentieth century, Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, founded organisations that are among the largest abortion providers in the world today.

In response to Monsignor Paglia’s apparent approval of Italy’s abortion law, the John Paul II Academy for Human Life and Family issued a call for his removal.

“The damage done to the teaching of the Church on the inviolability of innocent human life and the credibility of the PAV must be acknowledged and immediately undone. Archbishop Paglia must now in person publish a clear and unequivocal statement committing the Pontifical Academy for Life to the unconditional defence of the inviolability of innocent human life from conception until its natural end. If he does not, he should be dismissed forthwith and replaced by a new head of the Pontifical Academy faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church.”

Despite the growing sense of confidence in the pro-life movement, reflected in the record numbers of young people who gathered for the UK March for Life, Europe is set to plunge even deeper into the grip of demographic winter. Research published by The Lancet in 2020 showed that birth rates across the globe are declining faster than previously thought.5 Europe’s fertility rate has sunk well below replacement levels, with the rate in Italy one of the lowest in Europe. According to the World Bank, there were just 1.2 births per woman in Italy during 2020.6 It is probably too late to avoid a demographic collapse and the hardship that this will bring. With a general election scheduled for 25 September, the country’s politicians cannot ignore this threat. It will be interesting to see how the new government plans to deal with it. 

In the meantime, the leaders of the Church seem unconcerned. Few people, if any, expect Paglia to resign or to be held accountable for his repeated attacks on Catholic doctrine. As the Archbishop has pointed out, the Pope is not only well aware of the PAV’s activities, he is encouraging them. 


  1. Riccardo Cascioli, “Legge 194, Paglia adesso fa la vittima”, La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, 30 August 2022. https://lanuovabq.it/it/legge-194-paglia-adesso-fa-la-vittima
  2. “Archbishop Paglia on Pope’s teaching on ‘Theological Ethics of Life’”, Vatican News, 30 June 2022.
  3. Stefano Fontana, “Caso Paglia, ecco come ti distruggo la morale cattolica”, La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, 30 August 2022.https://lanuovabq.it/it/caso-paglia-ecco-come-ti-distruggo-la-morale-cattolica
  4. On the one hand, the theological concept of the sensus fidei refers to the personal capacity of the believer, in communion with the Church, to discern the truth of faith. On the other hand, the sensus fidei also refers to a communal and ecclesial reality: the instinct of faith of the Church herself, by which she recognises her Lord and proclaims his word. In this sense, the sensus fidei is reflected in the convergence of the baptised in a lived adhesion to a doctrine of faith or to an element of Christian practice.
    See “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church”, International Theological Commission (2014)
  5. E Vollset et, “Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study”, (2020) The Lancet, 396, 10258, P 1285-1306
  6. Fertility Rate, total (births per woman), World Bank Data.