Catholic News Agency
By Benjamin Mann
Officials at the Pontifical Academy for Life are offering two different and contrasting explanations for canceling a controversial summit that would have included embryonic stem cell researchers.
In one letter, which was sent to a scheduled speaker, the academy's chancellor and officer for studies state that the conference was canceled for economic reasons – and not because of the “lobbying activity” of “some pro-life activists” who “do not enjoy any credit” from the pontifical academy.
But in a separate letter to some academy members, Chancellor Father Renzo Pegoraro said the meeting's indefinite postponement was due in part to the “threats coming from some persons” using “false and tendentious information” to raise “doubts or even fears” about the conference.
One member of the academy, who has seen both letters and because of the sensitivity of the situation requested anonymity, stated that the “attempt to explain the cancellation of the Congress as required for purely economic reasons is an obvious lie.”
The Third Conference on Responsible Stem Cell Research was due to take place at the Vatican from April 25-28. It was to feature contributions from several researchers whose work with embryonic stem cells involves techniques condemned by the Church.
Organizers at the pontifical academy said these researchers would be sharing their expertise in non-embryonic areas of research – such as adult stem cells – and would not promote views contrary to Catholic teaching. In late March, however, the conference was canceled without a public explanation.
In two subsequent letters, both dated April 4, the academy's chancellor appeared to offer conflicting accounts of the cancellation.
“Unfortunately we were obliged to take the grave and painful decision to call it off because we have not been able to get a sufficient number of sponsors,” chancellor Fr. Pegoraro and Officer for Studies Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau wrote in a letter to speakers for the conference.
“The still limited number of registrations to the congress, at one month from it, kept the returns well below what was expected, which did not guarantee that we could reach the necessary balance in the congress budget,” the chancellor and officer wrote.
“Most probably you heard about the growing opposition from the congress that came from some pro-life activists,” they noted in their letter. “These persons do not enjoy any credit from the Pontifical Academy for Life, as well as from the other organisms of the Holy See.”
“There has been therefore no decisive link between their lobbying activity against the Stem Cell Rome 2012 Congress and the decision to call it off.”
But a letter sent to some members of the academy, signed only by the chancellor and not by Msgr. Suaudeau, explained the decision differently.
“One of the reasons – but not the decisive one – of the postponing of the meeting to a date that remains to be chosen, were the threats coming from some persons who, with false and tendentious information, were able to rise (sic) interrogatives, doubts or even fears in influential persons worthy of respect.”
“As in the two previous occasions, the theme of this third congress was the clinical application of the research of somatic adult and umbilical stem cells,” Fr. Pegoraro explained in the letter to academy members.
The meeting, he said, aimed to “give support to the scientific progress in that field” – putting aside what he called “useless controversies about human embryonic stem cells,” a topic the conference would not have dealt with directly.
Fr. Pegoraro followed up this explanation to academy members by noting that the indefinite postponement of the meeting “became also necessary because of the lack of funding.”
Meanwhile, at least three members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, who had declared their opposition to the embryonic researchers' participation in the congress, told CNA they have not received either of the April 4 letters explaining its cancellation.
The Pontifical Academy for Life's own statutes permit collaboration with “non-Catholic and non-Christian medical experts, so long as they recognize the essential moral foundation of science and medicine in the dignity of man and the inviolability of human life from conception to natural death.”
In comments provided to CNA, one member of the academy noted that the choice of speakers for the canceled conference was “obviously contrary to the statutes,” and “attracted opposition not merely from pro-life leaders who are not members,” but also “from a significant number of members of the Pontifical Academy for Life including some on the governing council.”
According to this source, some academy members' “objections to unsuitable speakers were simply rejected by the president,” Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula.
The member, who asked not to be identified, criticized certain officers of the academy for “seeking to deceive the public about the reasons for the cancellation of the stem cell congress, when evidence for the real reasons can be so readily provided to the public.”
According to this source, an earlier e-mail from one of the organizing officials gives “the real reasons for cancellation” – namely, that the academy was “ordered by a higher authority to replace the unsuitable speakers,” but decided the order was “not feasible” and instead chose to cancel the event.
The source within the academy also took issue with the perceived criticism of pro-life activists in the letter sent to the conference’s speakers, in which it was said that activists opposing the congress “do not enjoy any credit from the Pontifical Academy for Life, as well as from the other organisms of the Holy See.”
“Apart from any other considerations that observation seems to me disgraceful,” the academy source remarked. “What does the Pontifical Academy of Life stand for if has no respect for pro-life activists?”