Cardinals Angelo Comastri and Gianfranco Ravasi greet another cardinal before a meeting of the world's cardinals with Pope Benedict XVI in the synod hall at the Vatican Feb. 17. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The recent call for the resignation of top officials at the Pontifical Academy for Life stems from some members’ concern that inviting speakers who oppose church teaching in their scientific practice confuses the faithful and compromises the academy’s commitment to the truth.

Any kind of “neutral scientific description” of practices opposed to church teaching have “absolutely no place in our academy,” wrote Joseph Seifert, an academy member and founding rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein.

However, a Vatican cardinal who has been leading a global initiative engaging Catholics, atheists and agnostics in dialogue said when Catholics are well-formed in their faith they have nothing to fear from listening to opposing views.

It’s a shaky or fundamentalist grasp of faith that sparks suspicion or fear of the other, said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. The cardinal spearheads and coordinates the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project, which seeks to promote discussions between Christians and nonbelievers on themes as diverse as art, spirituality and bioethics.

“Oftentimes this fear (of dialogue) stems from the fact that the person doesn’t feel capable of defending or justifying his own reasons, hence he doesn’t want to listen to the other,” he told Catholic News Service May 10.

The culture council, too, faced negative reaction and controversy in November, he said, when it hosted an international conference on the latest research using adult stem cells.

Though the conference topic focused on adult stem cells, some of the speakers were also involved in research using embryonic stem cells, which the Catholic Church opposes because it involves the destruction of human life. However, the church supports research and therapies utilizing adult stem cells, which can develop into a variety of specialized cells, alleviating degenerative illnesses by repairing damaged tissues.

Cardinal Ravasi said the conference was a success because the key to successful dialogue in any field is not to pick just the best and the brightest, but to choose the most qualified experts who also are open to a mutual exchange of ideas and criticism.

An obstinate fundamentalist attitude, open hostility or blatant indifference are recipes for failure no matter how famous or accomplished the expert, he said.

A handful of members of the Pontifical Academy for Life had harshly criticized the academy’s plans to host a conference in April on adult stem-cell research that would have featured some of the same speakers as the council for culture’s event.

Academy organizers canceled the meeting a month before it was to be held due to a lack of funding; members critical of the event praised its demise citing concern that scientists not in line with church teaching speaking at a Vatican-sponsored event would confuse the faithful.

Another Vatican-related advisory group, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, had a working group meet to discuss developments in stem-cell research in mid-April. The meeting was held behind closed doors to avoid any media-stoked speculation or controversy.

The latest disagreement at the life academy comes from the reaction of a few members to a workshop held in February on the causes, prevention and treatment of infertility.

Seifert wrote a sharply critical six-page open letter to the life academy’s president, Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, and distributed to media outlets, saying the academy’s directory board should resign.

He said the infertility workshop was “possibly the worst day in the history” of the academy because there was too much emphasis on “a neutral scientific discussion” of infertility treatments rather than scientific presentations that were “primarily from an ethical and magisterial viewpoint.”

The Pontifical Academy for Life, established in 1994, “was explicitly founded to deal with (scientific) matters in the light of anthropological, theological and moral truth,” Seifert wrote.

“Any ‘purely scientific’ treatment of (topics) falsifies them by failing to take into account the most important truths about the questions at hand,” said his letter, dated May 4.

Father Scott Borgman, an academy official, told CNS that the academy was created for scientific research to further “the promotion and defense of human life from conception to natural death.”

Firmly rooted in “the stability of knowing what the magisterium teaches,” the academy also wants to be aware of advances in scientific research even if they do not conform to church teaching, he said.

“This doesn’t mean that we uphold people’s teachings that are against church teachings,” he said. But there is research that does respect Christian morality being conducted by researchers whose scope also includes methods that do not conform to church teaching and “we want to be able to be open to dialogue” to find the latest therapies that the church can endorse.

Msgr. Michel Schooyans, an academy member and retired professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, told CNS that dialogue with people who don’t agree with church teaching may be acceptable outside of the Vatican, but inviting such experts to a Vatican-sponsored event, he said, gives them an opportunity to “falsify the doctrine of the church in respect to human life.”

“When you start compromising the Vatican you are starting a process that troubles public opinion” and confuses the faithful about what the church believes, he said.

When asked whether he believed such a situation could damage the church or would confuse Catholics, Cardinal Ravasi said, “No, that’s not true.”

However, Catholics need to be well-formed first, he said, hence the importance of the Year of Faith to strengthen people’s understanding of what their faith teaches.

“When you are well-formed, you can listen to other people’s reasons,” he said, so solid, serious catechesis goes hand-in-hand with respectful dialogue.

A solid Catholic identity — whether as a layperson, a religious or as a Catholic institution — provides the needed foundation for confronting differing opinions and also for critiquing views, since listening doesn’t always mean agreeing, he said.

When asked specifically about the tensions at the life academy, he said, “this is why it’s necessary to have a precise identity,” which means “an identity that’s serious and well-formed, not just fundamentalist.”

— By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service