I don’t envy Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia’s position. Having one difficult job is bad enough. Having two can be especially challenging. When both jobs are subject to public scrutiny and any mistake will lead to an onslaught of harsh criticism and personal attacks, it can be a nightmare. Archbishop Paglia has two such jobs. In August 2016, after serving for five years as President of the Pontifical Council for the Family (a position to which Pope Benedict XVI appointed him), Pope Francis tapped Paglia to head two initiatives begun by St. John Paul II, naming him President of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) and the Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (JPII Institute).

The Academy

Archbishop Paglia’s 2016 appointment corresponded with the removal of many figures who had long served these institutions. Soon thereafter, Pope Francis overhauled both of them. In February 2017, Pope Francis dismissed the entire membership of the PAV, many of whom had lifetime appointments. By contrast, the academy’s new statutes called for renewable 5-year terms and mandatory retirement at 80 years of age. In June of that year, Pope Francis appointed only 45 members to serve in the PAV — consisting of both new and old members. Some of the new members were non-Catholics, and included some figures who were not totally aligned with Catholic teachings.

The Academy’s new statutes no longer says that members must affirm the “Declaration of the Servants of Life,” as was the case prior to the overhaul. That said, the statutes do require that “New Academicians commit themselves to promoting and defending the principles regarding the value of life and the dignity of the human person, interpreted in a way consonant with the Church’s Magisterium” (Art. 5, §5b), and that “Status as an Academician can be revoked pursuant to the Academy’s own Regulations in the event of a public and deliberate action or statement by a Member clearly contrary to the principles stated in paragraph b) above, or seriously offensive to the dignity and prestige of the Catholic Church or of the Academy itself” (Art. 5, §5e).

The new statutes described the role of the Academy as “primarily scientific,” studying “various matters dealing with care for the dignity of the human person at different stages of life, mutual respect between the sexes and generations; the defence of the dignity of each individual human being; and the promotion of a quality of human life that integrates material and spiritual values” (Art. 1 §3).

By removing some of the more outspoken and confrontational members and by broadening its scope, the pope wanted to raise the caliber of the work of the Academy. Commenting on the re-constituted Academy at the time, Crux opined that Pope Francis wanted “a body less inclined to be pugnacious or rambunctious.”

Indeed, even in the years prior to Francis’s papacy and Paglia’s appointment, members of the Academy were known to be quite vocal in their public criticism of its leadership. For example, 27 members of the academy signed a letter demanding a clarification and expressing dismay at the confusion caused by then-president Archbishop Rino Fisichella for a March 2009 article in L’Osservatore Romano where he criticized a Brazilian archbishop’s handling of the case of a 9-year-old girl who had an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. According to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Fisichella had written that due to the Brazilian archbishop’s decision to emphasize the excommunication (which happened automatically, regardless of an official declaration) of all those involved in the abortion, that “unfortunately the credibility of our teaching suffers as it appears to the eyes of many as insensitive, incomprehensible and without mercy.”

This all came to a head in February 2010, when Fisichella was the subject of a strongly-worded public letter signed by five members of the Academy. In the letter, they rejected a July 2009 clarification of the matter published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The members condemned the CDF’s assertion that Fisichella’s article had been the subject of “manipulation and exploitation.” They claimed that this language was not in the original draft, and that the text was added to the clarification by Fisichella immediately prior to publication.

In the conclusion of their letter, the members effectively called for his removal, saying that the Academy was “being led by an ecclesiastic who does not understand what absolute respect for innocent human lives entails. This is an absurd state of affairs in a Pontifical Academy for Life but one which can be rectified only by those who are responsible for his appointment as President” (emphasis in original).

Archbishop Fisichella was appointed to a new position later that year, but his successor, an Opus Dei member from Spain, Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, faced similar backlash from Academy members during his 6-year tenure as president of the PAV. In February 2012, the PAV sponsored a conference on infertility that featured participants who did not hold to the Church’s position on in vitro fertilization. Once again, members of the Academy protested. Among them was Professor Josef Siefert, who wrote a six-page open letter to the bishop, expressing that he was concerned the academy was losing “its full and pure commitment to truth.”

Bishop Carrasco de Paula wrote a response to the letter, but shortly thereafter issued an apology to those whom he offended.

A Pope Francis Revolution

After Pope Francis’s election in 2013, the situation at the JPII institute would prove to be no less problematic. In 2016, concurrent with his announcement that Archbishop Paglia would be the Institute’s new chancellor, Francis appointed Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri to replace its longtime president, Msgr. Livio Melina. Several other key faculty members were replaced as well, and the Institute’s mission and mandate were revised in 2017.

Although the outcry from critics of the reorganization — or, as they would describe it, “demolition” — of the Institute was loud and widely-publicized, it was undeniable that some of the strongest and most damaging opposition to Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia — the pope’s landmark document on marriage and the family — came from the Institute. Faculty members wrote responses, books, and academic papers that claimed to be faithful to the exhortation, but in reality undermined the official interpretations of the magisterial document. In addition, the Institute’s first president, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, was one of the four notorious “dubia” cardinals, signing and publishing a document calling the pope’s doctrinal orthodoxy into question. And it has long been rumored that Msgr. Melina himself was a primary ghostwriter of the dubia.

Unlike the JPII Institute faculty, whose opposition to the current pope was less overt and more strategic, members of the PAV were among the most outspoken and radical opponents of Pope Francis, including Luke Gormally (who was one of the five signatories calling for the removal of Archbishop Fisichella) and the aforementioned Josef Siefert. By the time of their dismissal, both were vocal in their criticism of Pope Francis’s official teachings, and both would make public accusations accusing the pope of teaching doctrinal error. They were joined by other former members of the Academy in writing articles and signing petitions that openly challenged the pope’s orthodoxy.

Given this situation, the reasons why Pope Francis was motivated to “clean house” in both institutions were obvious. He gave Archbishop Paglia the responsibility of overseeing their reorganization. Having removed the most reactionary and confrontational figures from the Academy’s membership and the Institute’s faculty in Rome, the locus of criticism shifted from within these organizations to the outside.

Aggrieved former members of the Academy have found allies and friendly platforms in Catholic media, successfully crafting a popular narrative in conservative and pro-life circles that casts both institutes as having become damaged, heterodox, and morally suspect. New faculty members and academicians are placed under scrutiny, with their positive attributes ignored and their perceived faults turned into headlines and memes.

An easy target

Since his appointment to both institutes in 2016, Archbishop Paglia has been the direct target of much scrutiny. For a certain subset of Catholics, he is the embodiment of everything they believe is wrong about the current pontificate. Those who oppose the pope but are reluctant to directly attack him don’t hesitate to make accusations against Paglia. In December, an article in the Pillar accused him of diverting hundreds of thousands of charity dollars to renovate his apartment. Two days later, Archbishop Charles Chaput’s longtime ghostwriter Francis X. Maier wrote a piece in the Catholic Thing, in which he offered a very negative assessment of Paglia’s character based on his observations during the planning of the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia: “Flamboyant, eccentric, changeable in his moods and thinking, and with a taste for last minute, expensive program complications, Paglia was a constant irritant to Chaput and stateside event staff.”

In response to the Pillar article, Paglia sent a message through his assistant to the Pillar that he was filing a defamation lawsuit against them, but according to an April 24 article on the Pillar website, “no communication from Paglia’s lawyer has been received and The Pillar stands by its original reporting, in full.”

Financial mismanagement and corruption are the sorts of things one hears frequently in discussions about Vatican corruption and lack of financial transparency. This sort of activity has apparently long been common in Rome’s curial culture. We will likely never discover with absolute certainty if Paglia is guilty unless he actually follows through with the lawsuit or shows us his books (which seems extremely unlikely).

Besides the allegations of financial corruption, there is even lower-hanging fruit. Before Pope Benedict called Paglia to Rome, he was the bishop of the Italian Diocese of Terni-Narni-Amelia. As bishop, he commissioned the Argentine artist Ricardo Cinalli to paint a large fresco depicting the Last Judgement in his cathedral. The reaction to this mural by critics of Paglia has been fierce, and the fresco is mentioned frequently in articles criticizing Paglia for other matters. It is described as homoerotic, pornographic, blasphemous, and disgusting. Even though this is hardly the first Italian fresco prominently featuring a significant number of naked male beefcakes, the regular reminders of this mural have confirmed (fairly or not) in the minds of many of his critics that Archbishop Paglia is a card-carrying member of the “Lavender Mafia.”

This fresco has been used as a tool to discredit him, and has had the effect of intensifying other criticism against him, the PAV, and the JP2 Institute. Unfortunately for Archbishop Paglia, there has been a lot of criticism.

The American Pro-Life Outlook

One thing that may surprise many US pro-lifers is that the American pro-life movement is radically unlike anything that can be found in Italy and most countries in Western Europe. The American view is very goal-oriented, with emphasis on certain benchmarks and outcomes. It is often driven by specific legislative proposals and court cases. By contrast, many Europeans (including Italians) who support Catholic teaching on on abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide do not think of these issues primarily in political or legal terms because efforts in those areas are typically futile.

This contrast is a consequence of history and the unique cultural situations in these countries. In the US at the time of Roe v Wade — the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that recognized abortion as a constitutional right — just six states and Washington, DC, had liberal abortion laws, and those had only been put into place within the previous four years. Resistance to such laws had already begun mobilizing. For example, the New York legislature voted in 1972 to repeal its abortion law, although it was vetoed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Two state referendums that same year that would have decriminalized abortion were shot down by large majorities — 63 percent in Michigan and 78 in North Dakota.

These efforts were ultimately for naught, however. The 7-2 Roe decision swept away all restrictions on abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy in the US. This did not stop the pro-life movement, however. It immediately sprang into action, working to chip away at abortion laws as much as possible. It was no secret that the ultimate aim of the movement was to re-shape the Supreme Court so that it would overturn the 1973 decision. As a result, the issue of abortion in the US pro-life movement has been centered on overturning Roe. This has meant that for five decades, the politics of abortion have been inseparable from the moral, biological, psychological, philosophical, emotional, and theological aspects of the issue.

Yes, many activists did amazing work to counsel and support women and their families, but the goal of overturning Roe was always there. Old-time activists wax poetic about those early days of the movement, talking about how the first March for Life was planned by a small group gathered around the dining room table in the late Nellie Gray’s Washington, DC, apartment. And of course the March would take place every year on Roe’s anniversary.

A few years ago, I listened to another old friend of Gray’s recalling that when he was a young Capuchin priest, she served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as he sat on her sofa during a planning meeting in the same apartment. This priest, Sean Patrick O’Malley, is now the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston and a close advisor to Pope Francis. When Nellie Gray died in 2012, the cardinal wrote a warm tribute to her life and work. In it, he described more of the things they did together in those days, such as how “back at the beginnings of the March, Nellie and ‘Father Seán O’Malley’ with his sandals, would trot through the Rayburn House Office Building leafleting all the offices.”

The March for Life, self-described as “the largest annual human rights demonstration in the world” has ballooned from the estimated 5,000-20,000 people who joined Nellie Gray in the nation’s capital on a cold January day in 1974 to a massive gathering of hundreds of thousands of participants, overwhelmingly made up of young people from all over the country. Besides young people, participants in the March for Life will see more Catholic priests, sisters, and seminarians gathered in one place than anywhere outside of Rome. The USCCB and the Archdiocese of Washington have become deeply involved in the preparation for the March for Life and the events surrounding it. As a Catholic who has lived in the Washington, DC, area for nearly my entire life, it is an annual routine that suburban parishes charter busses to take parishioners downtown for the March. The orange hats worn by the hundreds of students from my alma mater have become a staple of the event. I have been myself maybe 20 times. And in my experience, the most commonly repeated chant at the March for Life is, “Hey hey, ho ho, Roe v Wade has got to go!”

The reason that the March is held in January is to commemorate the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision, and its being overturned has long been its focus because, as San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy noted in an interview with San Diego’s NBC affiliate, “Roe froze us in time.” Even though the Dobbs decision doesn’t necessarily make abortion illegal, it transferred the authority over abortion policies from the Supreme Court to state governments, where elected representatives and popular referendums can determine regulations and restrictions at the local level, rather than an unelected court setting the standards for the entire nation.

It is simply a fact that for a large contingent of American Catholics, including many bishops, the legal fight against abortion is as intertwined with the faith as grace before meals and loving your neighbor. In fact, for some it has been even more foundational to the faith because it’s a life-or-death issue and the number of abortions is staggering. To such Catholics, there is nothing more scandalous than a Catholic US president who opposes them in this fight. Nearly as scandalous is a Catholic who would vote for him, even if the alternative is Donald Trump.

For decades, many observers and commentators opined that the reversal of the Roe v Wade decision was unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the persistence of the pro-life movement finally paid off. In 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe in a 6-3 decision, with three of the justices having been nominated by former president Donald Trump. This, of course, came at a cost, but it also provided a sense of vindication for those who persistently placed the overturning of Roe at the top of their political priorities.

The response from the Pontifical Academy for Life to the Dobbs decision could hardly be described as jubilant in tone. The only part of the statement that might be understood as “praise” for the decision is in the opening paragraph: “The Pontifical Academy for Life joins [the] U.S. Bishops’ statement on the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States.” In addition to the missing “the,” the statement does not link to the US Bishops’ statement that it “joins.” And the passage from the USCCB statement it quotes does not address the Dobbs decision itself, but reflects on the path forward (“It is a time for healing wounds and repairing social divisions…”). Many pro-lifers noticed this and immediately criticized the PAV for its lack of affirmation.

The Italian Pro-Life Framework

One likely reason why Archbishop Paglia (not unlike Archbishop Fisichella before him) consistently fails to gain any traction with US pro-lifers is that abortion politics in Italy are seen as long-settled. In 1978, the government passed ‘Law 194,’ establishing a right to abortion in the first trimester. The only serious attempt to overturn it was a May 1981 referendum. In the days leading up to the vote, on May 10, Pope John Paul II dedicated his Sunday Regina Caeli address to implore the Italian people to support the referendum, saying, “the Church regards any legislation favoring procured abortion as a most serious offense against the primary rights of man and the divine commandment of ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” Three days later, on May 13, he was shot 3 times in St. Peter’s Square. The referendum failed as the pope recovered from his injuries in the hospital, with 68 percent of Italian voters upholding the legal right to abortion. Effectively, that was the end of the political movement to end legal abortion in Italy.

For over forty years, therefore, Italians who support Catholic teaching on the sanctity of unborn life have done so without any realistic hope of abolition. Even “Far-right” and “ultraconservative” Italian politicians like Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni have repeatedly affirmed that they are committed to keeping Law 194 in place, and even the slightest hint that the law is under threat often leads to political protests by activists who are determined to keep the law in place. The idea of “voting pro-life” is foreign to most Italians because there are rarely any serious pro-life candidates.

In the United States, the consensus in favor of legal abortion has never been that strong. In the vast majority of states, liberal abortion policy was not enacted democratically or legislatively, but by judicial fiat. The court dramatically altered the moral landscape of the country without consulting the people, leading to a five-decade campaign to reverse the decision. Unlike in Italy, anti-abortion candidates have been successful in winning elections. The pro-life movement turned out to be an extremely motivated voter base, and they were willing to compromise on many issues, just as long as their candidates paid lip service to the long-term goal of overturning Roe.

Many have speculated on what abortion policy in the United States might look like today had Roe never happened. Many have suggested that our policies might look more like those in Europe: somewhat more restrictive than in the US, but without serious political opposition and a bigger social safety net for women facing difficult pregnancies. As Cardinal McElroy suggested in the aforementioned interview, “In many of the countries in Europe, for example, they had a more natural discourse on how to solve this problem of abortion that kept in mind both women who find themselves in very difficult pregnancies often or are young and also the unborn child and tried to balance those out. In Europe, there was a greater effort to balance that. It was starting in this country, but it was short-circuited by Roe v. Wade, so [the Dobbs decision] allows that conversation to occur.”

When Archbishop Paglia said last year, “I think that Law 194 is now a pillar of our social life” in Italy, he was harshly criticized. But he was likely correct. The legality of abortion in Italy seems completely entrenched and unchangeable. Pro-lifers in the US held out hope for 49 years that Roe v Wade would be overturned. All this required was getting a majority of anti-abortion justices on the Supreme Court to overturn the decision. And they succeeded in 2022. Italian pro-lifers put forth a feeble attempt to overturn Law 194. They failed miserably, and gave up. For four decades, opposing abortion in Italy has not had a meaningful political aspect.

As a result, Italians have the ‘luxury’ of focusing on abortion as one of many life issues. To an Italian, the idea of fixating primarily on abortion policy (or treating it as the “preeminent” political issue) would sound as absurd as mobilizing to outlaw divorce would seem to most Americans. But in his position of leadership, Archbishop Paglia could have made a better attempt to understand why US Catholics see abortion as a political issue, as divisive and tumultuous as that is.

This is where the archbishop bears great responsibility and needs to improve. As the president of a pontifical academy with a long history of controversy and hard feelings, Archbishop Paglia has consistently failed to bridge the communications gap between two very different approaches to pro-life activity.

Assisted Suicide and Archbishop Paglia

Last month, both on Twitter and in an episode of The Debrief, I was extremely critical of the way Archbishop Paglia and the PAV handled the backlash against a speech he gave on a proposed Italian policy that would regulate assisted suicide in Italy. Many the headlines in English-language Catholic media stated that Paglia had “expressed support” for assisted suicide in some cases, or that he had openly “contradicted Catholic teaching.”

I doubted that this was what he really meant to say. I’ve spent the last five years doing my best to clarify and provide correct context on issues that have been distorted by conservative Catholic media. I truly wanted to read his words charitably and help clarify what he was really trying to say. Unfortunately, the speech was in Italian, so I had to rely on a machine translation, which produced many awkward and unclear phrases. The “clarification” from the PAV was unhelpful, because all it did was vouch for Paglia’s doctrinal orthodoxy and provide additional Italian political gobbledygook that my poor American brain is unable to process.

What he seemed to be saying (or at least what I hoped he seemed to be saying) was that because the Italian constitutional court had decriminalized assisted suicide — and the court’s ruling is apparently impossible to reverse — he was expressing support for a proposed set of regulations because it was the best available option in the current situation. Or something like that. I’m not certain, because he didn’t say that explicitly.

That’s my charitable inference (I can’t really say “interpretation” because there was no adequate or clear explanation). I don’t know if my inference is correct. And I am not going to put my reputation on the line to defend Archbishop Paglia or the Academy when they fail to competently explain what’s really going on.

This is a source of endless frustration. I could provide more examples of miscommunication by Paglia and examples of official PAV “clarifications” harming more than helping, but if you are a regular consumer of Catholic media, you have seen them before. It’s unacceptable and absurd that a large number of Catholics in the English-speaking world are sincerely convinced that the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life is actively promoting assisted suicide. That he cannot effectively dispel this rumor is surreal. Yes, Archbishop Paglia was put into a tough spot, but after six years, shouldn’t he have realized that it might be prudent to put someone — perhaps a non-Italian Anglophone, or anyone — who understands the US pro-life movement on his communications staff.

I don’t know Archbishop Paglia personally, but we have several mutual acquaintances who speak highly of him. I also have friends who are in the Academy and on the JPII Institute faculty. I trust that the archbishop means well and is committed to protecting the inviolability of human life. But his repeated failures to communicate effectively and in terms that the pro-life movement in the English-speaking world can understand has caused unnecessary division and scandal. Improvement is needed, and soon.

Image: Vatican Media.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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