A gathering of researchers and scientists convened in Rome to discuss some of the greatest threats to humanity, identifying the tendency to view persons as less than human as a key factor.

"Human beings no longer are looked upon as persons, but as sources of raw material to help those who are the rich and the powerful," said Dr. Jonathan Haas, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

The academy – which works to address "issues in law, in culture, in medicine, in bioethics" – met recently for their annual meeting, Haas told CNA Sept. 27.

Established by Bl. John Paul II, the group aims to promote and defend of human life, especially in the field of bioethics as it regards Christian morality.

"It's really a profound commitment to defend the dignity of the human person from the first moment of their conception," he said.

Throughout his time in the field, Dr. Haas has observed that the most pressing life issue of modern times is "not individual specific issues, such as abortion or embryonic stem cell research, or euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide."

"It seems to me that the most pressing, broad issue is the de-humanization, the de-personalization of the human person."

The academy's president observed the increasing culture-wide epidemic of the weak and the poor being treated as "sources of assistance for those who are…more powerful," as a driving force behind the lack of respect for human dignity.

Citing the black market sale of organs and the freezing of embryos for research as examples, he emphasized that "it's the rich and the powerful really taking advantage of the weak and the vulnerable for their own benefit."

Given the extent of the degradation of human dignity, Dr. Haas explained the approach of the pontifical group, emphasizing that "we are an academy."

This implies, he said, that they seek individuals who are themselves "from the academy; from universities, from institutes of advanced studies, people with backgrounds in law, medicine, philosophy, theology, to address these common threats to human dignity."

Focusing on the organization's acute expertise in varying fields, he explained that their aim is to discuss current life issues from different angles, but also from a "very high-level academic perspective," because "those are the people who are formulating and implementing public policy around the world."

"It's individuals who have expertise in the background, in the field of the natural sciences, the sacred sciences, philosophy, law, who are posing the threats, so we have to come back at these threats from these similar disciplines."

The eight members of the board of directors for the academy had a private audience with the Holy Father on Sept. 27, in which the Pope lauded them for their work, but also stressed the challenges that they face.

In reference to the encounter, Dr. Haas said "it was wonderful, it was beautiful. His words were beautiful."

"He told us that we were going to have to struggle against the current. Everything you do, he said, is against the current, and it will be for the rest of your lives."

Dr. Haas noted that the Pope urged them to keep in mind that "every step that you take forward in the protection of life, the other side, the culture of death, are taking steps forward as well."

One of the qualities which stood out specifically to the academy president "was his gravity."

"You see pictures of him all the time, and he's grinning, he's smiling. But he was very somber, and he looked down, and told us we were going to have to anticipate a lifetime of struggle in addressing these issues."

Having the "support and approbation of the Vicar of Christ, the Successor to St. Peter," who is "the highest moral authority on the planet," the Academy president said, was a "significant encouragement" to them in their work.

On a personal note, Dr. Haas shared that during the audience, he took out a photo of his nine children and twenty-four grandchildren, which he showed to the Pope, who placed his hand over the picture to give the family his official blessing.