The John Paul II Institute has fallen. But has it fallen with honour?


In the momentous battle presently going on inside the Church a tower has fallen: The Institute of John Paul II. So as to contextualize the event, the article by George Weigel which carries the title – The Vandals sack Rome again”* is helpful. According to Weigel, after the Second Vatican Council a “War of the Conciliar Succession” opened between “two groups of previously-allied reformist theologians”, identified by two periodicals, Concilium and Communio: the former ultra-progressive, the latter moderate. At stake was the battle “for the control of faculty slots in theology departments around the world”.

The election of John Paul II, who appointed Joseph Ratzinger Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, marked the predominance of the moderates over the extremists. The latter, from 1978 onwards, found themselves “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 – the American writer explains – did not purge the ecclesiastic universities of progressive professors, but instead promoted the foundation of new institutes like the Ateneo di Santa Croce dell’Opus Dei (and we’d add: Regina Apostolorum of the Legions of Christ). Pope Wojtyla was in fact “quietly confident that good coinage – good theology – would eventually drive out bad ethical coinage”.

The John Paul Institute for Marriage and the Family was the “linchpin” of this cultural operation, above all to further the reception of John Paul II’s encyclical, Veritatis splendor (1993) by the entire Church. The progressives, whom Weigel defines as “stubborn” and “ruthless” men, waited for the right moment to settle accounts. The occasion presented itself in the last few weeks, when the new John Paul II Institute – of which Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia is the Grand Chancellor – lead a Stalinistic-style purgation against John Paul II’s theological and pastoral legacy. The most alarming case was the suppression – after 38 years of life – of the Cathedra of Fundamental Moral Theology, occupied by Monsignor Livio Melina. The conclusion, which is also the incipit of Weigels’s article, is that “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 “.

There is a gap however in our friend George Weigel’s construction that that we will try to fill in. First of all, it should be remembered that the twenty-seven years of John Paul II’s pontificate were followed by Benedict XVI’s eight years in the governing of the Church. In all, thirty-five years of ecclesiastic predominance by moderates. How could it happen, notwithstanding this long period of reformist governance, that the Jacobins were able to take power, exercising at present, merciless repression against their adversaries?

The doubt arises that this was due to the intrinsic weakness of the moderate front. Doctrinal weakness, inasmuch as it was based on the attempt to justify an event at any cost, such as the Second Vatican Council, which bears the most serious responsibilities, beginning with its failure to condemn Communism at a historical time when this constituted the gravest threat to the Church and the West. Strategic weakness, given that those who are convinced of defending the truth, cannot tolerate that error has continued to be taught for decades in the ecclesiastic universities and seminaries, as happened during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The strategy of promoting the truth, avoiding the condemnation of error, does not pay. The facts have not confirmed this strategy, but they have corroborated the law of Thomas Gresham (1519-1579), whereby bad money drives out good – and not vice-versa.

Benedict XVI’s renunciation of the papacy on February 11th 2013, was, for that matter, the declaration of the completed failure of this strategy. The hermeneutic of continuity proved to be incapable of countering ecclesiastic Jacobinism, which has no interpretative line of theological documents, but a project to gain power through men and facts. Pope Francis’ election was the inevitable outcome of the historical failure of moderate reform.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio pits his “living magisterium” of the Church, against those who invoke “the living magisterium” of the Second Vatican Council. If a Council of the Church is always right, how can a Pope be faulted by presenting himself as an incarnation of that event? Pope Francis, for his part, like all Jacobins, detests more than anything the ambiguity and contradictions of the moderates, whereas he respects and fears the coherence of the counter-revolutionaries. Further, if the John Paul II Institute is being sacked today by vandals, it is precisely because it did not resist Pope Francis openly, when it was the time to do so.

The exhortation Amoris Laetitia of March 19th 2016, had the clear aim of destroying Veritatis splendor and the moral teaching of John Paul II, to replace it with a new moral paradigm. The professors at the John Paul II Institute, in the name of Veritatis splendor and of their own personal story, should have stood up as one man against this attack on Catholic morality, above all, after Pope Francis’ refusal to receive the Cardinal authors of the dubia in audience and after the rescript of July 5th 2017, whereby the authentic interpretation of the papal document was that of the Argentine Bishops. Pope Francis’ intention was, and is, clear to everyone. None of the theologians of the Institute however signed the Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagati of September 24th 2017, nor did they produce any document wherein Amoris laetitia was subjected to severe criticism.

On August 3rd, in an interview with La Verità, Monsignor Livio Melina presents himself as a victim of unjust purgation, asserting that he had been struck for interpreting Amoris laetitia in the light of the Church’s Magisterium. The problem is that Amoris laetitia cannot be interpreted in the light of the perennial Magisterium, given that it proposes a new moral paradigm, irreconcilable with Veritatis splendor. Pope Francis is convinced of it, and so are we. Perhaps even Monsignor Melina is convinced of it too, but he has never said so publically. This silence did not avert his decapitation. Why be surprised? Hasn’t the history of the French Revolution taught us anything?

Today the battle requires men who fight with clarity pro or contra the Tradition of the Church.

But if it happens that a Pope takes a stand against Tradition, we must respectfully disassociate ourselves from this, remaining firmly inside the Church, from which he, not us, seems to want to separate himself. A gifted theologian like Monsignor Melina has all the intellectual instruments to understand how it is possible to resist the doctrinal and pastoral errors of a Pope without ever lacking in the love and devotion we must reserve for the Cathedra of Peter. The time for minimalism is over. The time has come when the Truth and error must look each other in the eye, without compromise. This is the only possibility the Truth has of winning.

We need men who fight and if necessary fall – but with honour.