How John Paul II’s great encyclical is being erased from history


Catholic Herald, 22 August 2019

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.

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