Representatives of the Australian Catholic Medical Association, with the support of several Catholic moral theologians and bioethicists, have criticized a book published by the Pontifical Academy for Life for its lack of understanding of “current science” and specific areas of medicine. 

The experts argue that the book spreads “misleading and confusing” theological and medical information that contradicts established Church teachings on contraception and assisted reproductive technologies.

The book in question, “Etica Teologica Della Vita” (ETV), covers “Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, and Practical Challenges.” The 528-page Italian publication is a synthesis of a seminar sponsored by the academy in 2021.

The critique, published April 23 in the Linacre Quarterly, the official journal of the Catholic Medical Association, describes contradictions between the book and established Church teachings on contraception and assisted reproductive technologies.

The list of authors comprises medical experts, theologians, and bioethicists: Elvis Šeman; Eamonn Mathieson; Umberto Villa; Deirdre Little; Randy De Los Reyes Juanta; Father Paschal Corby, OFM Conv; Father John Fleming; and Brendan Purcell. 

Mathieson told CNA they were informed of concerns raised by Italian-speaking experts at Milan’s Scuola Camen, a fertility educational institution.

“Despite the high-level profile of the Pontifical Academy for Life, we could not source any official English translation of the original Italian ETV text. After obtaining an accurate English translation, it became clear that ETV contains confusing and misleading theological and medical arguments,” Mathieson said.

The authors told CNA in a written interview they emphasized the need for clarity and adherence to Church teachings, especially in bioethics.

“As representatives of the Australian Catholic Medical Association, we felt morally and fraternally obliged to produce a respectful, publicly available, evidence-based, and peer-reviewed corrective response to the ambiguous and problematic statements in ETV.”

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This is not the first time the book or the Pontifical Academy for Life have come under fire. An open letter in 2022 pointed out a number of errors. The academy’s current president, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, also sparked controversy in 2023 for his statements about abortion and euthanasia. 

Lack of understanding of ‘current science’

One of the primary issues highlighted in the new critique is the “obscurity and confusion” in ETV’s language, which could mislead the faithful: “We were indeed surprised and concerned by both the language and the statements made in ETV. Our concern was such that it inspired us to embark on an 18-month task of writing this response and having it published.”

In his interview with CNA, Mathieson also pointed out the lack of understanding of “current science” and specific areas of medicine in ETV. He stressed that the collaborative effort with various international Catholic medical associations reflects a broader consensus. 

“It’s a wonderful development to work together with our international peers to bring the most up-to-date medical research into the space of Catholic social teaching. It is hoped this international collaboration might continue to flourish and serve as a resource for the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Church in these and other areas of bioethics and medicine into the future,” he said.

The critique centers on three main concerns. First, the doctors highlight “obscurity and confusion” in ETV’s language, which they argue could mislead the faithful on crucial Church teachings. 

Second, they point out a lack of understanding of current scientific advancements and specific areas of medicine. Mathieson emphasized that ETV’s arguments appeared to ignore modern and highly effective natural family planning methods and advances in restorative reproductive medicine that align with Church ethics. 

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Third, the critique underscores contradictions between ETV and established Church teachings on contraception and assisted reproductive technologies, arguing that ETV’s recommendations could lead to a misinterpretation of Church doctrines on these vital bioethical issues.

Regarding the potential impact of this critique, Mathieson expressed hope for ongoing communication: “This article will hopefully serve as a vehicle for ongoing communication and dialogue with the Pontifical Academy for Life as well as with other agencies within the Church.”

The critique also addresses the vital role of the Pontifical Academy for Life in guiding the faithful on bioethical issues.

Mathieson highlighted the importance of adhering to the vision set by St. John Paul II, who instituted the academy in 1994. “In order to fulfill its vital mission in forming and informing the people and culture of our time, the Pontifical Academy for Life must be true to this vision. It is not a static vision but one which welcomes inquiry and initiative in the dynamism of creating a ‘culture of life,’” he told CNA.

The authors recommended that the Pontifical Academy for Life consult with Catholic medical associations, represented by FIAMC (a worldwide Catholics physicians association), to assist with future texts that provide moral guidance on Catholic medical practice and ethics issues. 

“Our understanding, from our communications with the international Catholic medical associations affiliated with FIAMC, and through our involvement with international conferences and congresses, is that there is indeed a consensus with regard to these issues of marriage and sexuality, especially in regard to contraception and ARTs [assisted reproductive technologies],” Mathieson said.

For Catholics and medical professionals navigating issues surrounding fertility and procreation, Mathieson advised seeking out faithful Catholic general practitioners who can clarify medical and bioethical issues. He also recommended several organizations, such as the International Institute of Restorative Reproductive Medicine, that promote methods consistent with Church teachings.

Mathieson concluded by emphasizing the availability of quality fertility services in Australia that align with Church teachings. “We are indeed blessed with numerous quality fertility services in Australia,” he noted.