Those who are dismayed by the dramatic transformation of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome can find no comfort in the newest faculty appointments. Longtime faculty members such as Livio Melina and Stanislaw Grygiel have been fired and the Institute’s mission has been redefined under the leadership of Archbishop Paglia, the new Grand Chancellor. Fr. Maurizio Chiodi has joined the faculty this fall. He’s scheduled to teach a seminar called “Conscience and Discernment: Text and Context of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia.” Thus, as expected, Amoris will move to the center stage at the Institute; the works of Pope St. John Paul II will be pushed to the margins. Indeed, a cursory look at the course descriptions and bibliographies reveals that John Paul II’s works will be read in only a few courses.
Fr. Chiodi is a moral theologian known for supporting artificial contraception—which, he claims, could be a moral imperative for married couples under some circumstances. Contrary to Familiaris Consortio (Pope John Paul II’s exhortation on the family) and Humanae Vitae, Fr. Chiodi dismisses the idea that artificial contraception is intrinsically evil. In the spirit of Amoris Laetitia, he has also argued that under certain conditions same-sex couples can engage in sexual relations if this is the most fruitful way to live out a good relationship.
Fr. Chiodi will be joined at the Institute by Fr. Pier Davide Guenzi, another advocate of sexual relations for same-sex couples. He’ll teach a course called “Anthropology and the Ethics of Birth.” Fr. Guenzi has distinct views on natural law and its application. In an interview for the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avennire, he explains how “natural law must be continually rethought [and]… developed within a theological reading of reality”. He goes on to praise the “potentialities” for “mutual enrichment” embedded in same-sex relationships, observing that “the man-woman bond does not exhaust all forms of human expression even from the affective point of view.”
Both of these new faculty members, therefore, subscribe to theological positions that are inconsistent with Catholic doctrine and Tradition as set forth with admirable clarity in the Catechism. Moreover, their heterodox views couldn’t be more at odds with the moral teachings and writings of Pope John Paul II.
In a recent polemic composed for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Fr. Chiodi defends the changes at the Institute—which, he claims, have been wrongly magnified by conservatives. Although the events of this past summer have been stuffed with high drama, he takes exception to the use of terms like “purge” or “power struggle” to describe this whole dispiriting episode. For Fr. Chiodi, these changes simply reflect the natural evolution of moral theology which must now be institutionalized. Moral theology is dynamic and, to some degree, historically contingent; there’s always the need for “necessary updating.” Fidelity to the Word, he says, should not be conflated with adherence to objective and abstract moral norms detached from the “drama of history.”
While Fr. Chiodi condemns pure subjectivism, he also distances himself from any moral theology that takes the form of an “objectified knowledge” dedicated to “establishing the lawful and the illicit, the permissive and the forbidden.” Echoing Amoris Laetitia, he describes this approach as a “cold desk morality” that begs for the warmth of pastoral sensitivity.
Fr. Chiodi also consoles his troubled readers by assuring them of Amoris’s continuity with the teachings of Pope Francis’s predecessors, including Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI and Veritatis Splendor by Pope John Paul II. These papal encyclicals and exhortations form an organic whole that expresses different nuances of Catholic moral doctrine. We cannot “oppose” these papal documents, but must think of them as a unified perspective.
This rosy rhetoric—so typical of the Vatican these days—is disingenuous and contradicts how many of Pope Francis’s allies have described Amoris Laetitia. Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, has spoken about Amoris as a “paradigm shift” for the Church. Blaise Cardinal Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, has reiterated the same portentous message, describing Pope Francis’s thought as a “new paradigm of catholicity.” This description of Amoris Laetitia hardly suggests the continuity and benign unity claimed by Fr. Chiodi. In addition, Amoris Laetitia has no references to Veritatis Splendor and makes no effort to build upon its foundational reasoning.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis brashly declares that a person’s conscience can recognize with “sincerity and honesty” that acting contrary to an objective moral norm (such as the prohibition against adultery) is “what God Himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.” This teaching is not a development of the principles defended in Veritatis Splendor, but a direct contradiction of them. In striking contrast to Pope Francis’s exhortation, John Paul II warns about legitimizing “pastoral solutions” or justifying a “creative hermeneutic” according to which “moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept.” Thus, there are obvious irreconcilable tensions between Amoris Laetitia and the orthodox doctrine of Veritatis Splendor, which is so firmly rooted in Tradition and Scripture.
Both of these discouraging appointments would appear to give new hope to the thwarted ambitions of revisionist moral theologians. Their progress was disrupted by the 1993 publication of Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II’s masterpiece of theological reasoning. This encyclical, now virtually ignored at the Institute that bears his name, enriches the natural law tradition and defends the permanence of moral truth. Both Frs. Chiodi and Guenzi, on the other hand, are keen to emphasize how the moral law must change or “update” in response to cultural evolution and historical experience. Otherwise, we end up with an abstract and petrified theology that derives moral norms from universal essences.
But far from being cold and abstract, the natural law espoused by John Paul II, as well as by orthodox moral theologians such as Professor John Finnis of Oxford, begins with the concrete principles of practical reason which delineate the basic aspects of human flourishing and well-being. The issue never sincerely addressed by Fr. Chiodi and liberal moral theologians who attack natural law’s essentialism is how human nature in its fundamental possibilities of fulfillment never changes.
Those possibilities are understood in terms of fundamental human goods to which we are naturally ordered. Pope John Paul II calls them the bona honesta. They include life and health, knowledge of Truth and Beauty, friendship, and (not least of all) marriage. As Professor Germain Grisez of Mount St. Mary’s University points out, we can find no person or culture for whom these goods are not worthy of pursuit and perfective of human personhood.
Marriage is one such intrinsic good. As a social institution, its conventions may vary from one culture to the next, but the essentials of marriage are unalterable: authentic marital communion requires sexual complementarity, indissolubility, and exclusivity to be properly realized.
This moral reality can never be modified or abolished without abolishing the good of marriage itself. And the absolute prohibition against adultery protects this good and allows a couple to anchor their life in an enduring and fruitful marriage. Chiodi may scoff at such “objectified knowledge,” but the moral truth about marriage made manifest by faith and reason cannot be overthrown by new experiences.
Veritatis Splendor sought to “recall certain fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine” that had been discarded by prominent post-Conciliar moral theologians who wanted a more pliant moral code. Amoris Laetitia is celebrated by Frs. Chiodi and Guenzi precisely because of its moral flexibility, and their task at the Institute is to hasten the displacement of those “fundamental truths” endorsed by John Paul II. But this repudiation of John Paul II’s legacy is a repudiation of a powerful voice in the epic and final battle to save marriage and family from the abyss of the Sexual Revolution.