At the heart of the controversy over the dismantling of the John Paul II Institute in Rome is the effective sacking of two leading moral theologians, Mgr Livio Melina and Fr José Noriega, who held the chairs of fundamental and special moral theology respectively.
Indeed, it’s worse than just sacking them, which is very hard to do when they are tenured professors. Rather the “re-founded” JPII Institute eliminated the chairs of moral theology altogether. Mgr Melina and Fr Noriega were pushed out by Archbishop Vicenzo Paglia, grand chancellor of the new institute, by eliminating the chairs in moral theology, which were at the heart of the original institute. Indeed, Mgr Melina was president of the original institute for more than 10 years while holding the chair in fundamental moral theology.
Why is there no room for moral theology at the “new” JPII Institute when it was at the heart of the “old”?
Here we arrive, as is often the case under Pope Francis, at the role of Veritatis Splendor (VS), St John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical on moral theology. It was an unusual encyclical in that it was not written to address a particular moral question, but rather to treat the entire approach of the Church to moral theology.
A critical teaching of VS was that there were some acts that were intrinsically evil, always and everywhere, and which could never be morally justified. Sexual sins are not the only such sins, but given the aftermath of the sexual revolution and the widespread dissent from Humanae Vitae, they got the most attention when VS was published.
It remains true that culpability for such intrinsically evil acts can vary. A person can commit such an act and not be morally culpable due to lack of knowledge or lack of freedom, but the act itself remains evil. VS rejected moral theories which suggested that in some circumstances the act itself could become morally good.
The publication of Amoris Laetitia (AL) in 2016 appeared to advance just such theories. It was deliberately ambiguous on the point of whether, in some restricted circumstances, couples in objectively adulterous unions – one party was validly married to someone else – could engage in conjugal relations as a morally good act. VS was sympathetic to the situation of such couples in terms of assigning moral culpability, but was crystal clear on the immorality of such conjugal acts. So VS was an enormous obstacle for certain interpretations of AL.
What then to do about it? We have seen four steps.
The first step was simply to pretend that VS did not exist. In AL, one of the longest documents in papal history, there are more than 400 footnotes. Not a single one refers to VS.
The dubia (requests for clarification) submitted subsequently by four cardinals essentially asked one question in five parts: should AL be interpreted in light of the teaching of VS?
The second step was to ignore the issue. Pope Francis famously never answered the dubia, and the various interpretations of AL that garnered approval from the Holy Father simply did not address the apparent contradictions with VS.
The third step was to provide some theological ballast for the approach of AL. This was done on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis in 2018, when various theologians were asked to write a series of small volumes on the Holy Father’s theology. Among those authors were leading theologians who loudly and vigorously had argued that the central teaching of VS on intrinsically evil acts was wrong.
This step backfired badly when Mgr Dario Viganò (not to be confused with Archbishop Viganò), then prefect of communications, asked Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to write an endorsement for the books. Benedict saw right through that manoeuvre and refused to do, indicating his surprise that a dissenter from VS was employed to praise the theology of Pope Francis. Mgr Viganò then presented the press with a doctored image of what Benedict had written. He resigned when his calculated deceit was exposed, only to be reappointed by Francis to a deputy leadership position in the same communications department.
Now the fourth step. No academic is more associated with the renewal of moral theology according to VS, especially in relation to marriage and family questions, than Mgr Melina. And no institute has done more work in that area than the “old” JPII Institute. Mgr Melina has devoted enormous efforts to arguing precisely that AL must be interpreted in continuity with VS. That’s a difficult task, but Melina has attempted to do so.
The teaching of VS simply will not go away, but maddeningly, stubbornly, enduringly remains. So Archbishop Paglia is trying something else. He can’t get rid of the teaching, so he has got rid of the teachers.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca