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Sunday Mass should be the culmination of all parish activities, Cardinal Parolin says

Pope Francis says Mass at the chapel of Santa Marta in the Vatican, Sept. 11, 2018. / Vatican Media.

Vatican City, Aug 23, 2021 / 10:37 am (CNA).

After pandemic lockdowns led to the suspension of Catholic liturgies in many parts of the world, the Sunday Mass must be reaffirmed as the source and summit of parish life, the Vatican Secretary of State said in a message sent Monday on behalf of the pope. 

“The suspension of liturgies during the long period of lockdown and the difficulties of the subsequent recovery confirmed what had already been observed in the Sunday assemblies on the Italian peninsula: an alarming indication of … the change of epoch,” Pietro Cardinal Parolin wrote in an Aug. 23 message for Italy’s National Liturgical Week.

The cardinal said that attendance at Sunday Masses in Italy is unbalanced in terms of the generations and cultures represented. 

He said that parishes face difficulties in reestablishing the Mass “in being the true summit of all its activities and the source of missionary dynamism to bring the Gospel of mercy to the geographical and existential peripheries.”

“The Holy Father hopes that the National Liturgical Week, with its proposals for reflection and moments of celebration … may identify and suggest some lines of liturgical pastoral care to be offered to parishes, so that Sunday, the Eucharistic assembly, the ministries and the rite may emerge from the marginality towards which they seem inexorably to precipitate, and to recover their centrality in the faith and spirituality of believers,” he said.

All public liturgies were suspended in Italy for ten weeks in 2020 when the country faced the highest mortality rates of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The sad experience of last year's liturgical ‘fast’ highlighted the goodness of the long journey that has been made since the Second Vatican Council, along the path mapped out by the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium,” Cardinal Parolin asserted.

“The time of privation made it possible to perceive ‘the importance of the divine liturgy for the life of Christians, who find therein that objective mediation required by the fact that Jesus Christ is not an idea or a sentiment, but a living Person, and his Mystery a historical event. The prayer of Christians passes through tangible mediations: Sacred Scripture, the Sacraments, liturgical rites, the community.’”

The 71st National Liturgical Week is taking place in Cremona Aug. 23-26 after it was postponed last year due to the pandemic. Cremona is located in Lombardy, the region in Italy hit hardest by COVID-19.

“The weekly gathering in the ‘name of the Lord’, which from the very beginning has been perceived by Christians as indispensable and indissolubly linked to their identity, was severely affected during the most acute phase of the spread of the pandemic,” Cardinal Parolin said.

“But love for the Lord and pastoral creativity pushed pastors and lay faithful to explore other ways of nourishing the communion of faith and love with the Lord and with their brothers and sisters, while waiting to be able to return to the fullness of the Eucharistic celebration in peace and security.”

“It was a difficult and painful wait, illuminated by the mystery of the Lord's Cross and fruitful in many works of care, fraternal love and service to the people who suffered most from the consequences of the health emergency,” he said.

Pope Francis: Do not water down the truth of the Eucharist

Pope Francis greets pilgrims during the Angelus on July 25, 2021. / Vatican Media/CNA

Vatican City, Aug 22, 2021 / 05:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis on Sunday encouraged Catholics to not water down the reality of Jesus Christ’s humanity and his teaching that the Eucharist is his Body and Blood.

“Indeed, Jesus affirms that the true bread of salvation, which transmits eternal life, is His very flesh,” Pope Francis said during his Angelus message at the Vatican Aug. 22.

“To enter into communion with God, before observing the laws or satisfying religious precepts,” he continued, “it is necessary to live out a real and concrete relationship with Him.”

Pope Francis, speaking from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, reflected on the day’s Gospel reading from St. John.

The passage follows the story of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus invited the crowd “to interpret that sign and believe in Him, who is the true bread come down from heaven, the bread of life; and He revealed that the bread He will give is His body and blood,” Francis said.

“These words,” he stated, “sound harsh and incomprehensible to the ears of the people, so much so that, from that moment, many of His disciples turn back; that is, they stop following the Master.”

Even today the revelation of Jesus’ humanity, and the fact that the Eucharist is Jesus’ Body and Blood, can cause scandal, he said. It is something difficult for people to accept, he added, explaining that this is what Saint Paul calls the ‘folly’ of the Gospel in the face of those who seek miracles or worldly wisdom.”

“What sense can there be, in the eyes of the world, in kneeling before a piece of bread? Why on earth should someone be nourished assiduously with this bread?” he said.

According to Pope Francis, we should be surprised if the words of Jesus Christ do not throw us into crisis, “because we might have watered down His message,” he stated.

He also urged Catholics not to seek God in “dreams and in images of grandeur and power,” but to recognize him in the humanity of Jesus and in the humanity of other people.

“God made Himself flesh and blood: He lowered himself to the point of becoming a man like us,” the pope said. “He humbled Himself to the extent of burdening Himself with our sufferings and sin, and therefore He asks us to not seek Him outside life and history, but in relationship with Christ and with our brothers and sisters.”

He recalled that Catholics, during the recitation of the Nicene Creed at Mass on Christmas and the Annunciation, kneel during the words stating Jesus was made incarnate and became man.

Francis closed his Sunday message by encouraging Catholics to ask for the grace to be provoked and converted by Jesus’ “words of eternal life.”

“May Mary Most Holy, who bore her Son Jesus in the flesh and joined herself to His sacrifice, help us to always bear witness to our faith in our real lives,” he said.

After praying the Angelus, a traditional Marian prayer, Pope Francis greeted various groups present in St. Peter’s Square, including the priests and seminarians of the Pontifical North American College, a major seminary in Rome for seminarians of the United States and other countries.

A group of new students, the class of 2025, arrived at the college last week.

Pope Francis praises martyred Korean priest at Vatican Mass

Pope Francis greets pilgrims in St. Peter's Square after the Wednesday general audience, May 7, 2014. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Vatican City, Aug 21, 2021 / 11:35 am (CNA).

A Vatican Mass in the Korean language on Saturday marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of martyred priest St. Andrew Kim Taegon, whom Pope Francis praised as “an exemplary witness of heroic faith.”

In a message, Pope Francis called the saint a tireless apostle of evangelization, even “in difficult times, marked by persecution and suffering for your people.”

St. Andrew Kim Taegon was the first Korean-born Catholic priest. In 1846, at the age of 25, he was tortured and beheaded near Seoul, South Korea. He was canonized in 1984 with 102 other Korean martyrs.

Pope Francis’ words about the Korean saint were read aloud in St. Peter’s Basilica following Mass Aug. 21.

The pope said “even today, in the face of the many manifestations of evil that disfigure the beautiful face of man, created in the image and likeness of God, we need to rediscover the importance of the mission of every baptized person, who is called to be everywhere operator of peace and hope, willing, like the Good Samaritan, to bend over the wounds of those who are eager for love, help, or simply a fraternal gaze.”

“Good always prevails, because God’s love wins over hatred,” Pope Francis stated. He also expressed the hope that those working for reconciliation on the Korean peninsula “will continue with renewed commitment to be good peacemakers, encouraging everyone to a respectful and constructive dialogue for an ever brighter future.”

The Vatican Mass was celebrated by Korean Archbishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, the new prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, and attended by around 30 priests and 70 lay people.

In his homily, Archbishop You recalled the life of St. Andrew Kim, noting that he and other Korean Catholics “practiced what they believed, even if they lived in a society dominated by a hierarchical social system, and did their best to live the Gospel ideals of human dignity and equality among peoples.”

Calling attention to the ongoing suffering caused by COVID-19, You said it seemed “providential” that the 200th anniversary of Kim’s birth “is celebrated right in the middle of the pandemic.”

The coronavirus pandemic “unfortunately seems to have accentuated our tendency to selfishness and discrimination within society,” he said, pointing out that the example of the martyr St. Andrew Kim “might teach us the path with which we can deal with the current crisis.”

The archbishop also expressed the hope that a pope might someday be able to visit North Korea.

Pope Francis: 'What justifies us is Jesus Christ'

Pope Francis at the general audience on Aug. 18, 2021. / Vatican Media

Vatican City, Aug 18, 2021 / 05:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis said Wednesday that Catholics must observe the commandments with the knowledge that justification comes from Jesus Christ.

“Do we believe in Jesus Christ and do what we want? No,” Pope Francis said in his weekly catechesis on Aug. 18.

“The Commandments exist, but they do not justify us. What justifies us is Jesus Christ … And what do we do with the Commandments? We must observe them, but as an aid to the encounter with Jesus Christ,” the pope said in Paul VI Hall.

The pope offered a reflection on St. Paul’s teaching on the Jewish law as a pedagogue in the Letter to the Galatians 3:23-25.

“The Apostle seems to suggest to Christians to divide the history of salvation, and also his personal story, into two periods: before becoming believers in Christ Jesus and after having received faith,” Francis said.

“At the center is the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which Paul preached in order to inspire faith in the Son of God, the source of salvation.”

/ Vatican Media
/ Vatican Media

Pope Francis explained that St. Paul believed that the function of the Jewish law was positive, but limited in time.

“The Torah, that is, the Law, was an act of magnanimity by God towards His people. After the election of Abraham, the other great act was the Law: fixing the way to go forward,” he said.

“It certainly had restrictive functions, but at the same time it had protected the people, it had educated them, disciplined them and supported them in their weakness, especially by protecting them from paganism; there were so many pagan attitudes in those times.”

Pope Francis began a cycle of catechesis on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians on June 23. This was his fifth reflection on the epistle this summer.

St. Paul wrote his letter to Christian converts in the Roman province of Galatia around the year 53 or 54 AD, according to Catholic Biblical scholars. The central theological question of the Letter to the Galatians is justification: How is a person saved?

“Saint Paul, who loved Jesus and clearly understood what salvation was, has taught us that the ‘children of the promise’ – that is all of us, justified by Jesus Christ - are no longer bound by the Law, but are called to the demanding lifestyle of the freedom of the Gospel,” Pope Francis said.

/ Vatican Media
/ Vatican Media

The pope said that St. Paul’s teaching on justification is very important and deserves to be considered carefully. 

“It will do us good to ask ourselves if we are still living in the period in which we need the Law, or if instead we are well aware that we have received the grace of having become children of God so as to live in love,” he said.

“How do I live? In fear that if I do not do this I will go to hell? Or do I also live with that hope, with that joy of the gratuitousness of salvation in Jesus Christ? … Do I disregard the Commandments? No. I observe them, but not as absolutes, because I know that what justifies me is Jesus Christ.

/ Vatican Media.
/ Vatican Media.

Pope Francis, Ad Council collaborate to promote COVID-19 vaccines in the Americas

Pope Francis shares a video message about COVID-19 vaccines. / Ad Council

Rome, Italy, Aug 17, 2021 / 22:30 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis, along with six cardinals and archbishops from North, South, and Central America, worked in collaboration with the Ad Council to produce a public service announcement promoting COVID-19 vaccines. 

The announcement is the first Ad Council campaign designed for a global audience, and will be distributed in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

The PSA is part of the Ad Council’s COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative to encourage vaccination against the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective and save lives,” the Ad Council stated in an Aug. 17 release.

In the PSA, Pope Francis is heard saying, “Getting the vaccines that are authorized by the respective authorities is an  act of love. I pray to God that each one of us can make his or her own small gesture of love, no matter  how small, love is always grand."

The cardinals and archbishops who also make an appearance in the PSA are Archbishop José Horacio Gómez Velasco of Los Angeles; Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico City; Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa; Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of Sao Paolo; Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez of San Salvador; and Archbishop Héctor Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte of Trujillo.

“To the world’s billion-plus Catholics, the Pope is one of the most trusted messengers and holds unparalleled influence,” said Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council, in the release. “We are extremely grateful to him and the cardinals and archbishops for lending their voices and platforms to help people across the globe feel more confident in the vaccines.”  

Recent data shows that 72 percent of the adult American population and 67 percent of Hispanic adults have been vaccinated, according to the release. 

“Faith-based leaders and institutions play such a significant role in reminding us of our common  humanity,” said John Bridgeland, co-founder and CEO of the COVID Collaborative in the release. “With these powerful  words from Pope Francis and the cardinals and archbishops from across the globe, their message will inspire millions to take action to ‘love thy neighbor’ during this pandemic.” 

The COVID-19 Collaborative wanted to involve religious leaders in the “It’s Up to You” campaign because of their “influence and trust in their communities,” according to the release. Previous participants in the campaign include former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, along with several musicians, religious leaders, and medical experts. 

The PSA comes on the heels of conscience rights controversies in the United States, with some U.S. bishops refusing to issue letters of religious exemption for vaccine mandates. The Archdioceses of Los Angeles and New York have instructed their priests to abstain from issuing such letters should a parishioner request one, while the bishops of Colorado and South Dakota have upheld the conscious rights of Catholics who chose not to get the vaccine.

The Ad Council, a U.S. nonprofit organization, states that it is a “nonpartisan, nondenominational organization, engaging a diverse range of communities, including the faith community, to impact society for good,” according to the release. The COVID Collaborative is a bipartisan group, co-chaired by former Governor and U.S. Senator Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) and former Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA), and led by CEO John Bridgeland and President Gary Edson.

The PSA will stream internationally, with a focus on Spanish-speaking countries.

Pope Francis will not offer a public Mass during Scotland visit

Pope Francis boards his flight to Baghdad, Iraq on March 5, 2021. / Vatican Media/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Aug 17, 2021 / 07:30 am (CNA).

Pope Francis will not offer a public Mass during his short visit to Glasgow in November, according to the Scottish bishops’ conference.

“I can confirm that the Scottish bishops are not planning a public Mass with Pope Francis in November,” Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Scottish bishops, told CNA on Aug. 17.

“The pope will visit as a guest of the UK Government who will be responsible for the arrangement details. We understand he will only be a few hours in Scotland to attend the COP26 gathering and expect he will have only a very short part of this time to meet with the Scottish bishops,” he said.

The pope is expected to attend the “world leaders summit” in the opening days of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow on Nov. 1-12.

Pope Francis’ “very short” trip to Scotland, which could likely be only a day trip, is expected to include meetings with world leaders and Catholic bishops.

The Scottish bishops’ conference made the clarification after media reports circulated in the United Kingdom over the weekend claiming that the pope would preside over an open-air Mass in Glasgow, as his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II did in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow in 2010 and 1982 respectively.

The Vatican has made no official announcements regarding the trip, however the Vatican has announced plans to partner in an event bringing together scientists and leaders of the world’s religions ahead of COP26.

“Faith and Science: Towards COP26” will take place on Oct. 4 at the Vatican. The event is being organized by the British and Italian Embassies to the Holy See.

Following Pope Francis’ colon surgery on July 4, the Scottish bishops' conference issued a statement that the bishops were “delighted to hear that he does hope to attend and would be glad to meet with them in Glasgow.”

COP26 was originally scheduled to take place in November 2020, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 120 heads of state are expected to attend the climate conference this year, according to the BBC.

President Joe Biden, Prince Charles, Greta Thunberg, and climate-envoy John Kerry are among the anticipated attendees.

“Scotland’s Catholic bishops have welcomed the prospect of a meeting with Pope Francis when he attends the COP26 Conference in Glasgow in November,” the spokesperson for the Scottish bishops said.

“While many pastoral, ecumenical and interfaith gatherings would be desirable while he is with us, time constraints, sadly mean such a full programme will not be possible.”

Pope Francis on Assumption feast: 'Humility is the way that leads to heaven'

Pope Francis speaks at the at the Grotto of Lourdes in the Vatican Gardens on May 31st, 2021. / Vatican Media/CNA

Vatican City, Aug 15, 2021 / 07:00 am (CNA).

On the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Pope Francis gave a reminder that God exalts those who humble themselves.

“Today, looking at Mary assumed into heaven, we can say that humility is the way that leads to heaven,” Pope Francis said in his Angelus address on Aug. 15.

“Jesus teaches this: ‘The one who humbles himself will be exalted’ (Lk 14:11). God does not exalt us because of our gifts, because of our wealth, or how well we do things, but because of humility,” he told the pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Marian prayer.

Speaking from the window of Vatican City’s Apostolic Palace, the pope said that it is of fundamental importance for Christians to be “poor in spirit, that is, in need of God.”

“Those who are filled with themselves have no space for God,” Pope Francis said.

“And many times, we are full of ourselves, and the one who is filled with him or herself gives no space to God, but those who remain humble allow the Lord to accomplish great things.”

The pope asked people to examine their lives and to reflect in their own hearts: “How am I doing with humility?”

“Do I want to be recognized by others, to affirm myself and to be praised, or do I think rather about serving? Do I know how to listen, like Mary, or do I want only to speak and receive attention? 

“Do I know how to keep silence, like Mary, or am I always chattering? Do I know how to take a step back, defuse quarrels and arguments, or do I always want to excel? Let us think about these questions, each one of us,” Pope Francis said.

The pope pointed out that the human eye tends to “allow itself to be dazzled by what is flashy,” but that God does not look at appearances; God looks at the heart and is “enchanted by humility.”

“Mary’s secret is humility,” he said, noting that the poet Dante called the Virgin Mary “humbler and loftier than any creature.”

“It is beautiful to think that the humblest and loftiest creature in history, the first to win heaven with her entire being, in soul and body, lived out her life for the most part within the domestic walls, she lived out her life in the ordinary, in humility,” Francis said.

After praying the Angelus, a Marian prayer, with the crowd, Pope Francis asked people to pray for Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents have taken over many cities in the past week following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.

"I ask all of you to pray with me to the God of peace so that the clamor of weapons might cease and solutions can be found at the table of dialogue. Only thus can the battered population of that country – men, women, elderly and children – return to their own homes, and live in peace and security, in total mutual respect," Pope Francis said.

The pope also prayed for the people of Haiti after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake on Aug. 14 killed at least 304 people. He asked the crowd gathered in St. Peter's Square to offer a Hail Mary together to Our Lady of Haiti.

Catholics around the world celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on Aug. 15. The feast commemorates the end of Mary's earthly life when God assumed her, body and soul, into heaven.

Pope Francis encouraged Catholics to visit a Marian shrine on the feast day, recommending people in Rome to visit the Basilica of St. Mary Major to pray before the icon of Salus Populi Romani, Mary Protection of the Roman People.

“Let us celebrate her today with the love of children, let us celebrate her joyfully but humbly, enlivened by the hope of one day being with her in Heaven,” he said.

Pope Francis urges solidarity with Haiti after devastating earthquake

Pope Francis greets pilgrims from the window overlooking St. Peter's Square on July 25, 2021. / Vatican Media/CNA

Vatican City, Aug 15, 2021 / 05:30 am (CNA).

Pope Francis has called for international solidarity to alleviate suffering in Haiti following a major earthquake that killed at least 304 people.

“In recent hours a strong earthquake has occurred in Haiti, causing numerous deaths, injuries and extensive material damage. I wish to express my closeness to those dear people who have been hard hit by the earthquake,” Pope Francis said Aug. 15.

“As I raise my prayers to the Lord for the victims, I address a word of encouragement to the survivors, desiring that the international community will take a shared interest in them. May the solidarity of all alleviate the consequences of the tragedy.”

The pope prayed for the people of Haiti from the window overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the end of his Sunday Angelus prayer. He asked the crowd gathered below to offer a Hail Mary together to Our Lady of Haiti.

The 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti about 90 miles west of the capital Port-au-Prince on the morning of Aug. 14. It was stronger than the 2010 earthquake from which the island is still recovering.

More than 1,800 people were injured by the earthquake and even more remain unaccounted for, according to Haiti’s civil authorities. 

Hundreds of homes and seven churches were also destroyed. Among the victims was a Catholic priest, according to ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish language news agency.

Immediately following the earthquake, Akim Kikonda, the director of Catholic Relief Services in Haiti told ACI Prensa that a Catholic rectory in Les Cayes was severely damaged causing three fatalities, one priest and two employees.

Cardinal Chibly Langlois, the bishop of Les Cayes, was also injured by the earthquake, but his injuries are not life-threatening, according to Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Langlois, 62, became the first Haitian to become Catholic cardinal in 2014.

Kikonda said that the local public hospital has been overwhelmed by the number of emergencies, and is turning away most of the injured.

“All of CRS personnel are safe and sound, but unfortunately one of our employees’ wife died and his baby is gravely injured,” he said.

“We are currently evaluating the extent of the damage. ... Once we have a full evaluation of the injured, dead and affected, we will proceed to provide emergency services, especially to the poorest and most vulnerable people."

The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops also expressed sorrow and prayers after the news of the earthquake.

“We stand in solidarity with the Church in Haiti in offering our prayers, in a particular way this weekend as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin,” Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles said Aug. 14.

Catholics, or anyone of good will, who wishes to assist with Haitian relief efforts following the latest earthquake, should contact Catholic Relief Services, Gomez said.

“In these moments of continued trial, may you feel the comfort, compassion, and embrace of our Blessed Mother,” he said. “Our Lady of Perpetual Help, patroness of Haiti, intercede for us.”

Pope Francis: Nostalgia is the 'siren song of religious life'

Pope Francis' video message to the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious (CLAR) on Aug. 13, 2021. / Screenshot

Rome Newsroom, Aug 14, 2021 / 10:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis warned against misuse of the liturgy that places an emphasis on ideology in a video message sent Friday to a Latin American conference on religious life.

“Let us not forget that a faith that is not inculturated is not authentic. For this reason, I invite you to participate in the process that will provide the true sense of a culture that exists in the soul of the people,” Pope Francis said in the video sent on Aug. 13.

“When this inculturation does not take place, Christian life, and even more so the consecrated life, ends up with the oddest and most ridiculous Gnostic tendencies. We’ve seen this, for example, in the misuse of the liturgy [where] what is important is ideology rather than the reality of the people. This is not the Gospel.”

The pope’s video message was featured at a virtual conference organized by the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious (CLAR).

The conference focused on inculturation, a concept which John Paul II described as the process by which "the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community."

Pope Francis said that many men and women in religious life can be tempted to focus on the decline in numbers of vocations in their orders. He urged them to “renounce the criterion of numbers.”

“Otherwise it can turn you into fearful disciples, trapped in the past and giving into nostalgia. This nostalgia is fundamentally the siren song of religious life,” Francis said.

Instead of focusing on numbers, religious should focus on evangelization and “leave the rest to the Holy Spirit,” the pope said.

“I would like to remind you that joy, the highest expression of life in Christ, is the greatest witness we can offer the holy people of God whom we are called to serve and accompany on their pilgrimage toward the encounter with the Father,” he said. “Peace, joy, and a sense of humor.”

“How sad it is to see consecrated men and  women who have no sense of humor, who take everything so seriously …  To be with Jesus is to be joyful,” Pope Francis said.

“May the Holy Virgin protect you. She knows all about encounter, fraternity, patience, and inculturation,” he said.

Inventors of CRISPR gene editing appointed to Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of CRISPR gene editing, who was appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Aug. 11, 2021. Credit: Christopher Michel via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Vatican City, Aug 12, 2021 / 11:19 am (CNA).

Pope Francis has appointed the co-inventors of the CRISPR genome editing technology to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 

Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who discovered CRISPR fewer than ten years ago, were appointed to the Vatican’s scientific academy consecutively Aug. 10-11.

Their discovery sparked research into new treatments for cancer and other diseases, earning the two female scientists the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but it also poses a host of bioethical questions.

CRISPR is the simplest technology to date for editing human DNA. It allows scientists to use an enzyme called Cas9 to “cut and paste” gene sequences.

This has been applied to experimental treatments for sickle cell anemia and certain cancers, but has also raised bioethical concerns, including its application in “designer babies.”

The existence of these gene altering therapies raises a question of how much modification and enhancement is permissible. The ability to edit genomes could also be used for purposes other than medical treatment. A number of human traits could be enhanced or changed, such as vision, intelligence, or abilities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines when he spoke about the possibility of using CRISPR technology to make stronger biologically enhanced soldiers “who can fight without fear, compassion, regret or pain.”

Ethicists around the world raised concerns after Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of CRISPR-modified babies whose genes had been edited as embryos in 2018. 

He was later sentenced to three years imprisonment for violating the regulations on such work. Many countries limit CRISPR research to discarded embryos leftover from in vitro fertilization. The embryos are then destroyed after being studied.

Current U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations prohibit gene modification on viable human embryos – meaning that human embryos who receive gene modification are always destroyed.

In May, the International Society for Stem Cell Research ended its decades-old rule that limited growing human embryos in a lab beyond 14 days for scientific research, and now proposes that it is possible on a case by case basis.

National Catholic Bioethics Center President Joseph Meaney has condemned experimentation on human embryos.

“There’s a real tendency in modern secular science etc. to say, ‘Well, you can do this, but just don’t allow these children to be born.’ Clone and kill or, you know, edit and kill, and it’s just not in keeping at all with the Catholic perspective on the dignity of the human person,” Meaney told EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.

“There are estimated to be over 2 million spare embryos, thanks to the IVF industry, and science is getting a hold of a lot of these embryos and just doing mass experimentation,” he said.

Meaney added that it could be permissible to use this gene editing technology to correct genetic problems in adults who can give their informed consent after it had been safely tested in animals.

Catholic teaching states that the dignity of a person “must be recognized in every human being from conception until natural death.”

“This fundamental principle expresses a great ‘yes’ to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research,” Dignitas personae, a 2008 instruction on certain bioethical questions published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, said.

Doudna, one of the CRISPR co-founders, has since called for regulation of germline editing, or heritable alterations made to egg and sperm cells. Her book “A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution” also raised questions about the ethical dilemmas and potential unintended consequences of editing the human genome.

The University of California at Berkeley professor is on the board of directors of  Johnson & Johnson, and has founded several start-ups, including Mammoth Biosciences, which applies CRISPR technologies to healthcare, agriculture, and biodefense.

Doudna and Charpentier are among five female scientists and one man who have been appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the last two weeks.

Pope Francis has also appointed Donna Strickland, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018 for her contributions to developing the highest-power lasers in the world.

South African anthropologist Pearl Sithole and Dutch astrophysicist Ewine Fleur van Dishoeck, a pioneer in astrochemistry, were also appointed to the pontifical academy this month. Taiwanese epidemiologist Chen Chien-jen was named to the academy in July.

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences traces its roots to the Accademia dei Lincei, one of the world's first exclusively scientific academies, founded in Rome in 1603. The short-lived academy's members included the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. 

Bl. Pius IX re-established the academy as the Pontifical Academy of the New Lynxes in 1847. Pius XI gave it its current name in 1936.

One of the current members, who are known as "ordinary academicians," is Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project and is the director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Past members included Stephen Hawking and scores of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, such as Guglielmo Marconi, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger.

Religious belief – Catholic or otherwise – is not a criterion for membership in the pontifical academy. This open membership policy exists because the Pontifical Academy is conceived as a place where science and faith can meet and discuss. It is not a confessional forum, but a place where it is possible to have an open discussion and examine scientific developments.

Pope Francis has raised concerns about the use of technology without ethical considerations in his encyclical Laudato si’, in which he condemned experimentation involving human embryos.

“There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development,” Pope Francis said.

“In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit.”