The Catholic world was surprised – though not entirely so – last week when the previously announced “refounding” of the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family resulted in the firing of two prominent longtime professors and the “suspension” – for the time being, we may hope – of all faculty. All this in service of what was reported as Pope Francis’ intention  to “broaden its academic curriculum, from a focus on the theology of marriage and the family to an approach that will also include the study of the family from the perspective of the social sciences.”
We’ve encountered this “social science” approach repeatedly in recent years: in the Working Documents of the two Synods on the Family, the Synod on Youth, and now the Synod on the Amazon. Third-order sociological analysis was prominent, while there was a relative lack of the distinctive elements that the Church brings to the world – systematic theology, authoritative moral reflection, and long experience of all things human.
In the latest episode, the intentions are clearer than ever. Msgr. Livio Melina (professor of moral theology and president of the Institute for over a decade) was fired – the official explanation: the chair in moral theology was being eliminated. That elimination already speaks volumes, as does the lame, circular explanation: his chair was being eliminated so there was no further need for him at the Institute.
Another prominent professor, Fr. José Noriega, who taught specialized courses in moral theology, was also let go allegedly because, as head of his religious community, canon law did not allow him to occupy another demanding post. The Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary have only twenty-four members, no onerous responsibilities. And besides, Noriega’s headship of the order – which had never previously been regarded as a problem – ends in a few months.
Several Institute professors and about 250 students have complained to the new officials, Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, generously – though perhaps naively – saying that they didn’t mind the expansion of the mission to include the social sciences. But they rightly worry that what’s happening is an obvious reversal of the very reasons why JPII founded the Institute.
Institute spokesmen have since announced that there would be no further explanations provided until late in August. An objective observer might speculate that the mid-summer announcement was timed to pass unnoticed. And that when the radical moves became known (as everything does, instantaneously, on social media these days) no real rationale had been prepared.
Some have speculated that these radical moves reflect weakness, not strength: If the new leaders of the Institute were sure of their views, they would allow the academic dialogue to play out. Perhaps so. But in the meantime, which may be a long stretch indeed, there’s a theological and moral shift underway in Rome, rooted less in the desire to provide a broader and richer academic program than – let’s be frank – to use so-called “social science” to heterodox ends.
We know what “social science” as the world understands it has done in providing alleged justification for homosexuality. And now “science” has provided essentially veto power over any public attempt to stop the social contagion that has caused a whole wave of people to believe that they are “trans.”
The Church has been slow to accept findings of modern science, at times wrongly, at others quite rightly, because of suspicions that what’s being offered as scientific truth conceals dubious philosophical presuppositions, or worse, is ideology masquerading as cutting-edge research.
The world has seen and suffered in modern times from “scientific” socialism, “scientific” racism, political and social and psychological “sciences” that have delivered us up to chaos. It wasn’t all that long ago, for example, that the psychological “sciences” claimed to be able to treat and cure priests with pedophile inclinations.
There are precedents in the Church for all this. At Vatican II, discussions often oscillated between ressourcement and aggiornamento. The first meant going back to the “sources” in Scripture and the early Church Fathers for the sake of the latter, the updating needed for the Church to be an even stronger presence in the modern world.
It’s important to recognize that these did not exactly line up with what we might think of as liberal vs. conservative positions. You might think going back to the sources would be a “conservative” thing. But in certain hands it became a way to demolish many settled practices, as a prelude to experimentation in liturgy, theology, and morals.
We’re seeing some similar moves surfacing again, with far less subtlety. We’ve been told, for example, that the new and improved JPII Institute is deepening and continuing the saint-pope’s legacy, when in fact it’s largely reversing it. There’s never been such an allergy in the Church to “objective truth,” such as JPII advocated in Veritatis Splendor. Truth of that kind is now deemed harsh, legalistic, puritanical. That’s why social “science” must come to the rescue.
A similar operation is underway with regard to Cardinal John Henry Newman, who will be canonized during the Amazon Synod this October. Newman was a stalwart opponent of the way most people now understand “conscience.” More than a century ago, he warned that people were coming to regard “conscience” as a license to decide whatever they want. The Catholic view has always been that conscience, properly understood, is the “aboriginal voice of God.” That has not stopped Cardinal Cupich and others in the hierarchy from turning Newman upside down.
It’s possible that the attention to Newman will get people actually to read him and see the truth. But moves such as we’ve seen at the JPII Institute will clearly try to misrepresent Newman and many others in the tradition.
That falseness will not last forever. But it can put off the real renewal we now need: a deep dive into the Catholic tradition to offset not only the materialism and superficiality of the “world,” but the bad-faith embrace of “social science” for heterodox purposes.