AUSTIN, Texas - (March 18, 2013) - When the call came for Dr. Robert Buchanan last January, it was in English - but with such a strong Italian accent, his office assistant who answered the phone didn't really understand what the caller was saying.
But a subsequent email was clear: Dr. Buchanan, the Seton Brain and Spine Institute's chief of functional and restorative neurosurgery and neuroscience, soon would have an additional title:
Dr. Buchanan journeyed to the Vatican in late February to become one of eight new corresponding members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, founded in 1994 by Pope John Paul II to promote and defend human life, especially regarding bioethics as it affects Christian morality. He will serve a five-year term.
"It's a big deal, an amazing honor. It took me by surprise," Dr. Buchanan said.
The Pontifical Academy for Life meets annually in the Vatican to address crucial issues concerning human life and offer guidance to the Pope. It also holds a mid-year meeting via phone. In between, members often meet individually or in groups - in person, by email and on the phone - to address current issues and work on documents that are in progress. Due to members living and working around the world, that means talks can occur at any hour, day or night.
"The Catholic Church has always been very engaged in these kinds of issues," Dr. Buchanan noted. While protecting the life of the unborn is a paramount concern, other thoughtful issues concern embryonic stem cells, cloning, pre-birth screening for diseases and deformities and "transhumanism," which addresses people's relationship with new and still-to-come technologies and mechanical devices.
"God gives life and God takes life. Our respect for life should be very straightforward," he said.
Nomination to this academy is based on education, experience and service to the Catholic Church. Dr. Buchanan's experience is broad in all these areas, but a couple endeavors stand out: he is a U.S. leader for the international Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta and a plays key roles within the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He also is adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychology and The Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin and a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry for UT Southwestern Medical School.
Academy members, who include scientists and theologians, number about 120, but Dr. Buchanan is among fewer than a dozen of them who are Americans. He was the only American among the new appointees last month.
The Pope usually opens the academy's annual meeting, but this year Pope Benedict XVI did not do so as his schedule changed in the wake of his announced retirement.
Dr. Buchanan has met and talked with Pope Benedict XVI several times previously and observed that the Pope has a nice sense of humor. A favorite story is when Dr. Buchanan was accidentally introduced once as "chair of neurosurgery for Texas," after which the Pope played along, raising his hands and noting how "Texas is about big as Europe, and the job would be like being the Pope."
Dr. Buchanan's new role also comes with new, high-tech access: he now has his own user name and password to the Vatican website.