Essence of Battle is Ideological
In the past few weeks, a long-brewing skirmish over the identity and mission of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome erupted into open warfare. Things boiled over after the new administration of the Institute abruptly terminated two long-standing and key chairs of moral theology and suspended the entirety of the remaining faculty pending review. At the same time, the new leadership also introduced new statutes, and announced radical restructuring of the programs and course offerings. In effect, the new statutes mean that the original John Paul II Institute has been suppressed, and a new one erected in place of the old.
In response, hundreds of current and former students at the institute have signed an open letter expressing their alarm that the mission of the Institute is being irreparably undermined. The students list several specific concerns. Surely the most astonishing, however, is that “in the new ordinance of studies there is no mention of the theology of the body; there is no course dedicated to this topic nor to any of the teachings of John Paul II.” If true, this is – to put it mildly – a counter-intuitive direction to take an institution specifically founded to promulgate and develop John Paul II’s theological thinking.
Some of the dismissed faculty and administrators have also publicly aired their discontent. “It seems to me that the identity of the Institute is seriously threatened,” Fr. Jose Granados, the Vice-President of the Institute, told Catholic News Agency. Others have used even stronger language. One highly respected theologian accused the new administration of using “Stalinist methods.” The verb “purge” is being employed by more than a few commentators, including at least one cardinal.
Catholic laymen watching this dispute from afar may wonder why they should care. All this internal institutional wrangling and finger-pointing can be extremely difficult to sort through, not to mention distasteful to witness.
Distasteful it may well be. However, I also think it would be difficult to overstate the importance of the battle that is currently underway over the soul of this venerable Institute. In order to grasp that importance, I think we need to understand two things: firstly, the history, nature, and historical importance of the John Paul II Institute; and secondly, how this battle over the JPII Institute both represents, and is a critical event within, a much broader battle between two ideologically irreconcilable views of morality, truth, and the nature of the Church Herself.
The Need for the JPII Institute
In the history of the JPII Institute one extraordinary fact stands out. As Fr. Raymond De Souza reports, St. John Paul II was originally set to publicly announce the formation of this institute on May 13, 1981. Informed Catholics will recognize the date as the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Even more informed Catholics will recognize the date as the one on which St. John Paul II was shot in a failed assassination attempt. The pope was gunned down before he could make the official announcement. Was the attack on the pope in part a plot by the devil to thwart the foundation of this planned school of theology? It would be impossible to say so with any certainty. But so important has the Institute proved to be in the great 20th century battle over the Church’s teachings on life, marriage, and family, that I would not dismiss this as coincidence.
As we know, St. John Paul II did not die that day. Undaunted, he deferred the announcement of the formation of the new Institute until October of the following year. In the apostolic constitution that established the institute, the Holy Father entrusted it to Our Lady of Fatima, to whom John Paul II attributed his miraculous survival from the shooting.
John Paul II’s decision to found the Institute came in response to a call for such a school by the world’s bishops after the 1980 Synod on the Family. At the time, the Church was feeling the full impact of the moral atomic bomb that was the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s. The widespread confusion about sexuality and the nature and purpose of the family had penetrated deeply into Holy Mother Church Herself. Pope Paul VI had attempted to erect a bulwark against the worst of this confusion, reaffirming the perennial Christian teachings about marriage, sexuality, and the intrinsic immorality of contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
In response to this encyclical, many priests, bishops, and theologians openly opposed the pope, promulgating a radically different understanding not just about human sexuality, but also the nature of morality itself. Clever theologians developed elaborate, but ultimately vacuous and spiritually dangerous moral systems based upon consequentialist or situationist principles: no longer (they argued) could we say that there were any intrinsically immoral acts (i.e. artificial contraception, homosexual acts). Instead, the morality or immorality of various acts depended upon circumstances and intention; and thus, a couple could “discern” for themselves that their use of contraception was morally acceptable, regardless of what the Pope in Rome might say. In many of the old institutions of Catholic learning, this sort of theological dissent became the norm. We are all intimately familiar with the results: catastrophic catechetical failure, the widespread abandonment of Catholic teaching, and the explosion of divorce, contraception, abortion, and fornication even among Catholics in the pews.
I experience this sad circumstance and its dire consequences firsthand as I travel around the world on mission. There is a plague, a cancer that has overtaken some dioceses, parishes, Catholic institutions of higher learning, and seminaries. Many are crippled by the confusion and lack of clarity in teaching, hesitancy to boldly teach and uphold the moral treasury of the Church, and blatant rejection of Church teaching without correction from their local ordinaries or from the Vatican.
As George Weigel notes in an excellent and impassioned recent article, John Paul II was fully aware that many of the mainstream Catholic theological institutes were profoundly poisoned by dangerous and heterodox theologians and ideas. However, rather than opening a full-frontal war, John Paul II opted instead to do an end-run around the dissident institutions and academic publications. As Weigel writes: “[H]is strategy was to encourage newer and dynamically orthodox foundations like the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (now, arguably, the most intellectually interesting of the Roman schools), and to create new institutes of higher learning in existing universities.”
The John Paul II Institute was, writes Weigel, the “linchpin” of this strategy. He adds:
[O]ver its first decades of work, the John Paul II Institute did exactly what its papal founder wanted it to do: it helped foster a renaissance in Catholic moral theology, recovering and developing the tradition of virtue ethics, exploring with care and compassion the often-tangled issues of living chaste love in various vocations, and creating a cadre of moral theologians around the world who wanted their intellectual work to help convert the late-modern and post-modern worlds, rather than pandering to late-modernity and post-modernity as they careened into decadence and incoherence.
Central to the John Paul II Institute were the teaching and defense of the principles outlined in Humanae Vitae, as well as John Paul II’s revolutionary Theology of the Body, and his seminal encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which – contrary to the predominant intellectual strain of the time – reaffirmed the truth that there exist intrinsically immoral acts. The purpose of the Institute was stated succinctly in the founding Constitution, with a quote from Veritatis Splendor: to “state to everyone the plan of God for marriage and the family in order to safeguard its full vigour and advancement both in a human and a Christian sense” (Familiaris Consortio §3). As Weigel notes, in comparison with the intellectual and moral seriousness of John Paul II’s thinking, many of the outwardly glitzy ideas of the dissidents pale by comparison.
Suffice it to say, John Paul II’s strategy worked. Young Catholic intellectuals hungry for serious and faithful theological training flocked to the institute in Rome. The demand was so great, that the Institute opened numerous satellite schools in the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, India, Australia, and elsewhere. Thousands of scholars have graduated from these schools, steeped in the thinking of John Paul II, and the traditional teachings of the Church. Some of these are now teaching in the growing crop of small Catholic liberal arts colleges committed to faithfully passing on the riches of the Church’s theological and philosophical heritage. Thanks in large part to this Institute, there now exists a vibrant community of Catholic intellectuals who are both zealously committed to Truth, and fully equipped to beat the dissidents at their own game.
Is it any wonder, then, that the John Paul II Institute is being targeted for radical “reform”. However, Weigel and Fr. De Souza are agreed on one thing: any efforts to undermine the Institute’s mission and influence are doomed to long-term failure. As both suggest, the strong-arm tactics being employed by critics of John Paul II’s theological vision to remake the Institute in their own image belie the fundamental weakness of their ideas. As Fr. De Souza writes: “an orthodoxy that has to be enforced from above, that depends upon power rather than persuasion, will not endure. Bureaucratic maneuvering can cost professors their jobs, but it cannot establish the truth.” Weigel says much the same, writing: “This is not the way people behave who believe they are firmly in control and likely to remain that way. … Because, as John Paul II knew, truth will always win out, however long it takes, because error is lifeless and stultifying.”
Nevertheless, there is cause for concern. All across the Catholic world, we are experiencing a direct and violent assault on faith, marriage, life, and the family. The tsunami of evil can only be overcome with Truth – the primary role of Catholic education (on every level). Future generations are in grave danger if we do not confront this cancer. We can imagine the great harm that will be done if (as seems to be happening) thinkers who believe that contraception and “certain” homosexual acts are legitimate are appointed to the John Paul II Institute. This is not Catholic teaching. And it certainly is not the teaching of St. John Paul II.
I support the efforts of those who are raising crucial questions about the radical restructuring of the John Paul II Institute. This Institute has been a light to the world, preserving and promulgating an intellectually serious, pastorally sensitive, dynamic, and utterly faithful theology of sexuality and family – a theology of which our Church and the wider culture are in desperate need. Please pray for the John Paul II institute, in particular that this current controversy will result in a strengthening of its identity and mission.