Ethics & Public Policy Center

Balderdash on the Tiber

Published in George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference on September 25, 2019


Today’s first reading is from an explication of the academic program of the reconfigured Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences by Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, the institute’s rector (translation provided by the institute):

The recomposition of the thought and practice of faith with the global covenant of man and woman is now, with all evidence, a planetary theological space for the epochal remodeling of the Christian form; and for the reconciliation of the human creature with the beauty of faith. To put it in the simplest terms, by overcoming every intellectualistic separation between theology and pastoral care, spirituality and life, knowledge and love, this evidence must be rendered convincing for all: the knowledge of faith cares about the men and women of our time.

Say what?

The Catholic blogosphere was in an uproar about these two sentences for days, the word “gnostic” appearing with some frequency. One commentator of a literary cast of mind compared Msgr. Sequeri’s discourse to the speech patterns of the agents of N.I.C.E. in C. S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength. My own thoughts turned to H. L. Mencken and the memorable autopsy he performed on President Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address of March 4, 1921:

Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, [Harding] takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line. It reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

(Some might imagine, in charity, that Msgr. Sequeri’s word salad made more sense in the original Italian. Alas, it is equally bizarre when rendered in the good monsignor’s native tongue.)

The John Paul II Institute was founded in 1982 to help reform Catholic moral theology. Over three decades, the institute has trained a new generation of Catholic scholars committed to the gospel conviction that the truth sets us free in the deepest meaning of human freedom. Moreover, the institute’s scholars, following the lead of their now-canonized patron, have helped put Catholic moral theology on a firmer foundation through a searching philosophical reflection on the nature of the human person, created male and female and made for communion in sharing the divine gift of life.

On the occasions when I had the honor of lecturing at the institute (which is based at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome), I found both faculty and students intellectually inquisitive and pastorally sensitive. They were fully aware of the difficulties of proposing the Church’s ethic of human love in cultures dominated by a concept of the human person as a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is a “human right.” Yet they were also determined to make the Church’s proposal in a winsome way, for they were persuaded that truth makes for happiness, that happiness leads to beatitude, and that beatitude is the point of the moral life.

Now, the John Paul II Institute has been hijacked by a new pack of Vandals conducting a new sack of Rome. The new Vandals march under the banner of pastoral “accompaniment.” But it has been clear for some time that their primary purpose is deconstructing John Paul II’s encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), and its teaching that some acts are simply wrong, period, such that no calculus of intentions and consequences can give them moral value. In aid of that destructive program, the Vandals have now fired tenured professors at the institute, remade the curriculum, and hired faculty whose grip on Catholic doctrine is tenuous at best. Now, they attempt to justify this vandalism with gobbledygook about the “planetary theological space for the epochal remodeling of the Christian form.”

This is nonsense on steroids. It has nothing to do with either the New Evangelization or compassionate pastoral care, and everything to do with a craven surrender to the spirit of the age.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

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