An exercise in raw intellectual vandalism has been underway in Rome since July 23: what was originally known as the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family has been peremptorily but systematically stripped of its most distinguished faculty, and its core courses in fundamental moral theology have been cancelled. Concurrently, academics known to be opposed to the teaching of Humanae Vitae on the appropriate means of regulating fertility and the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on intrinsically evil acts are being appointed to teach at the reconfigured Institute, which is housed at the Pontifical Lateran University – the pope’s own institution of higher learning. Sixteen hundred nine years after the first Vandal sack of Rime, they’re at it again, although this time the chief vandal wears an archbishop’s zucchetto.
There is a history here, and it’s worth revisiting in order to get the destruction underway into clearer focus.
Despite the global media addiction to the “liberal/conservative” trope for analyzing the Second Vatican Council and the debates following it, the really consequential division after the Council (which, as several conciliar theologians’ diaries attest, began to open up during the Council’s third and fourth periods) was between two groups of previously-allied reformist theologians, one group of which seemed determined to embrace intellectual modernity and its sundry skepticisms in full, while the other was committed to ballasting authentic Catholic reform by grounding theological development in the Church’s living tradition. This “War of the Conciliar Succession” (as I call it in my forthcoming book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History) was no mere donnybrook among intellectuals; it had real consequences in the life of the Catholic Church.
It led to the development of the international theological quarterly, Communio, as a counterpoint to the ultra-progressive Concilium. It led to the establishment of Ignatius Press and the great renewal of Anglophone theology influenced by Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. It led to battles for the control of faculty slots in theology departments around the world. And, after a decade and a half of contention, it led to the election of Karol Wojtyła, who as John Paul II would appoint Joseph Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Resistance to the magisterium of John Paul II (a magisterium that was influenced, of course, by then-Cardinal Ratzinger) was deep-seated and bitter among those self-styled progressives who imagined that they had won the War of the Conciliar Succession and yet suddenly found themselves, after the second conclave of 1978, on the outs in the great game of ecclesiastical politics – even though they continued to maintain an iron grip on most theological faculty appointments and on a lot of theological publishing. John Paul II’s response to this recalcitrance and intellectual pride was not to attack it head-on, purging progressivist faculty from the Roman universities. Rather, his 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.
In both cases, the goal was to foster the genuine renewal of Catholic theology according to the mind of Vatican II – and not according to the minds of Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx. Reversing Gresham, John Paul II was quietly confident that good coinage – good theology – would eventually drive out bad ethical coinage, for the latter was bankrupting human lives and leading people into confusion and misery
The John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family was the linchpin in this effort to create vibrant alternatives to Catholic Lite scholarship, which had become increasingly bizarre when John Paul II came to the Chair of Peter. (In the United States, for example, the prestigious Catholic Theological Society of America commissioned a mid-1970s study of human sexuality that could not quite bring itself to condemn bestiality as intrinsically evil.) And over 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.
Thus the John Paul II Institute in Rome, as the hub of several affiliated institutes around the world, was a key instrument for deepening the entire Church’s reception of John Paul’s 1993 encyclical on the reform of the moral life, Veritatis Splendor. And this was the offense that those who, much to their surprise and anger, were losing the War of the Conciliar Succession would not and could not tolerate. Because if their project were to be revived, Veritatis Splendor and its teaching on the reality of intrinsically evil acts had to go.
So these stubborn and, it now seems, ruthless men bided their time. In recent years, they have continued to lose every serious debate on the nature of the moral life, on the morality of conjugal life, on sacramental discipline, and on the ethics of human love; and the more intelligent among them know it, or at least fear that that’s the case. So in a bizarre repetition of the anti-Modernist purge of theological faculties that followed Pius X’s 1907 encyclical Pascendi, they have now abandoned argument and resorted to thuggery and brute force in order to win what they had failed to win by scholarly debate and persuasion.
That unbecoming score-settling is why the senior faculty of the John Paul II Institute was abruptly dismissed last week, and that is why there is absolutely no guarantee that, in the immediate future, the Institute that bears his name will have any resemblance to what John Paul II intended for it. Cardinal Angelo Scola, emeritus archbishop of Milan and a former rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, described what is afoot in Rome these days as “torpedoing” the John Paul II Institute through an academic “purge.” 150 students of the Institute signed a letter saying that the changes underway will destroy the institute’s identity and mission; in the present Roman circumstances, they have about as much chance of being heard as Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky had at the Moscow Purge Trials in 1937-38.
That these Stalinistic acts of intellectual brigandage against the theological and pastoral heritage of Pope St. John Paul II are being carried out by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia – who came to international attention in 2017 for having commissioned a homoerotic fresco in the apse of the cathedral of Terni-Narni-Amelia – is ironic in the extreme. Paglia was simply another ambitious cleric when his work as ecclesiastical advisor to the Sant’Egidio Community drew him to John Paul’s attention. Years of sycophancy followed, during which Paglia would brag about how he had turned the pope around on the subject of murdered Salvador archbishop Oscar Romero by telling John Paul that “Romero was not the Left’s bishop, he was the Church’s bishop.” Paglia’s appointment as Grand Chancellor of the John Paul II Institute – a position for which he had and has no discernible qualifications – was puzzling when it happened two years ago. But now it, too, comes into focus: he is acting precisely like those who manipulated the Synods of 2014, 2015, and 2018, i.e., another cabal of ambitious (and, frankly, not-so-bright) clerics who continually lost arguments and then tried to compensate by brutality and threats.
Is there a red hat in Archbishop Paglia’s future? If so, it will be as a reward for knee-capping scholars of impeccable scholarly credentials and personal probity, deeply beloved by their students. One wonders if the Grand-Chancellor-Become-Lord-High-Executioner of the John Paul II Institute has ever read A Man for All Seasons and Thomas More’s devastating response to his betrayal by the grasping bureaucrat, Richard Rich: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Wales?”
Thus the Roman atmosphere of the moment: sulphurous, febrile, and extremely nasty, with more than a whiff of panic about it. This is not the way people behave who believe they are firmly in control and likely to remain that way. Do those who like to imagine that they have gained the upper hand in the War of the Conciliar Succession fear the future? They should. Because, as John Paul II knew, truth will always win out, however long it takes, because error is lifeless and stultifying.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II(1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform will be published by Basic Books on September 17.