This attack on John Paul’s legacy is intellectually embarrassing

Workers cover a statue of St John Paul II in Brittany (Getty Images)

His institute was built to defend marriage and the family. Why tear it down?

It’s no secret that marriage and family have been under heavy attack in Western culture for quite some time. Not intelligent attacks, mind you, but brutish ones that trade on crippled desires. No one has taken these attacks on our social nature more seriously than the Catholic Church.

It’s quite remarkable that despite her own serious struggles, the Church has managed to continually give aid to the embattled institutions of marriage and family. Just as the sexual revolution was roaring, Pope Paul VI dropped the bomb of Humanae Vitae. When most of the Catholic moral theologians were themselves becoming utilitarians more concerned to revise sexual ethics in dialogue with the sexual revolution than sexual reality, Pope John Paul II was hard at work: writing Familiaris Consortio in 1981, founding the Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family in 1982, and almost single-handedly stemming the tide of proportionalism in fundamental moral theology with Veritatis Splendor in 1993.

Understanding all of this is crucial for appreciating why so many faithful Catholics loyal to the Holy Father have begun to express profound concern for the fate of one of those established lines of defense: the Pontifical Institute for Marriage and Family.

In 2017, Pope Francis issued a motu proprio, Summa Familiae Cura, essentially re-founding and re-naming the Pontifical Institute to accord with Amoris Laetitia. The Holy Father explicitly praised John Paul the Great’s vision which gave rise to the Institute, but said that the re-founding was important for “expanding the field of interest, both in terms of the new dimensions of the pastoral task and the ecclesial mission, as well as in the development of human sciences and the anthropological culture in such a crucial field for the culture of life.” In this way, Pope Francis hoped, the Institute would be “better known and appreciated in its fruitfulness and relevance.”

Yet expansion of a vision, or even a field of interest, does not usually entail annulling the constitution which gave birth to such a fruitful, human institution. More puzzling still is the notion that an institution which was conceived precisely to equip Catholic leaders with the metaphysical, moral, and theological understanding of marriage and family would suddenly be able to do without professors of moral theology, such as has been recently decided by the Institute, and protested by students, faculty, and alumni.

Yesterday, the Pontifical Academy for Life, which has immediate oversight over the implementation of the re-constituted institute, responded to these criticisms mainly by stating that “moral doctrine of marriage and family”, and “theological ethics of life”, remain a part of the institute’s coursework even if there are no professors of fundamental moral theology. Now I am just a simple theologian, but precisely how does one incorporate “moral doctrine” into an education without professors of moral doctrine? It’s laughable that one would consider sociology essential but moral theology a mere “pre-requisite” for a proper understanding of marriage and family.

Of course, none of these particular puzzles were demanded by Pope Francis’ motu proprio. So from whence do such reforms come? The Institute’s Grand Chancellor, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, is probably the best person to answer that question. But his Institute’s statement yesterday clarified nothing. One drafter of the protest has called it a “coup d’etat,” but if it is, it is an intellectually embarrassing one.

There are two kinds of reform. One is the intelligent kind that builds on a deep understanding of an institution’s purpose, and exhibits deep familiarity with its constitution and culture. It’s the sort of reform that leads to renewal. It’s a great thing, and I would not oppose it anywhere so long as it brought out the treasures of the Faith. But there is another kind of reform – call it the boorish kind – that tears down whatever is not understood for the sake of some new thing vaguely envisioned.

Boorish reforms can live up to the very caricature of a conservative who is so ideologically set that he fails to conserve anything at all. And they can also live up to the very caricature of the dissenter who speaks sweetly of dialogue with non-Catholics one day, while undermining the Church’s teaching on marriage and family the next. Boorish reforms are not about being conservative or progressive, but are always about getting what you want rather than understanding what is most needed.

Marriage and family need the Church’s pivotal defenses now more than ever. Yet with many others, I fear the tearing down of what is not understood. To paraphrase GK Chesterton: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”