Throwing St. John Paul II Under the Bus

The Pontifical Academy for Life is no longer what it was under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  Under its present leader, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the Academy has undertaken some irresponsible initiatives, but none worse than the recently published collection of essays with the Italian title Etica Teologica della Vita (Theological Ethics of Life). Moral theory is the rational framework by which moral questions are considered and resolved.  It’s utterly central to Catholic moral theology because if your moral theory is bad, your conclusions about right and wrong will frequently be bad and so will the acts that are directed by those conclusions.

One of the more irresponsible of its twenty-two essays, by a German scholar, Sigrid Müller, provides a window into the Academy’s present approach to moral theory. Müller sets out to explain what she refers to as “developments” in Catholic moral theory since Vatican II.  Her essay is an out-and-out attack on universal moral norms.

John Paul II’s moral magisterium, as typified in chapter two of his 1993 Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (VS), centered around one principal goal: the refutation and condemnation of errors in moral theology that lead to a rejection of the Catholic Church’s definitive teaching on the existence of intrinsically evil acts and universal moral norms.

He insists that there exist such norms, “universally valid and always binding,” “valid for all people of the present and the future, as for those of the past.” (VS 53)  Unsound theories reject those norms, theories that “maintain that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior which would be in conflict [with human goods], in every circumstance and in every culture.” (VS 75)

Because they reject what the Church definitively holds, John Paul II renders a harsh judgment upon them:

Such theories. . .are not faithful to the Church’s teaching when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition. (VS 76)

Müller advances precisely such a theory.  She says that “not every deviation from a moral norm can be considered a violation of the norm.” And all norms need to be “interpreted in a concrete situation, which is embedded in certain cultural and concrete conditions.” Life circumstances are too complex for a general norm to bind in all circumstances. Therefore, “the Church. . .must not regard the status of the moral norms as the ultimate binding truth in each individual case, but rather recognize the situational need for interpretation by the agent.”

Does this mean that it is sometimes licit to act contrary to these moral norms?  Indeed, sometimes violating them is what’s required of a “concrete” situation: “a conscientious and responsible process of discernment actually also represents what is objectively good in a subjective situation, i.e., under concrete conditions of action, even if it thereby deviates – seen from the outside – from a moral norm as an abstractly formulated rule.”

This flatly contradicts what John Paul II taught about the binding nature of universal moral norms.  He teaches that the central locus of morality – the nexus where human freedom actualizes God’s law – is the human act: “It is precisely through his acts that man attains perfection as man” (VS 71), because human acts “express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them.” (VS 73)

And some acts are “by their nature ‘incapable of being ordered’ to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image.” (VS 80)  These acts “per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.” (VS 80)


In order to single them out as intrinsece malum, the pope strenuously defends “the existence of negative moral norms regarding specific kinds of behavior, norms which are valid without exception.” (VS 90; cf. 79) He insists specifically on their “absoluteness” (i.e., the fact that they “oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. . .forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behavior is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbor”). (VS 52,104)

In order to ensure “the deliberate ordering of human acts to God,” a careful “moral assessment of man’s free acts” is necessary especially an assessment in the light of absolute moral norms. (VS 73-74)

Müller is having none of it: “Moral theory after Vatican II,” she says, “does not set any longer the focus on how to classify an act, but on promoting in a morally justified way the good for the persons involved.”  This requires a focus on “weighing possible options of acting against each other by searching for the good and for ‘what for now is the most generous response which can be given’ (internal quote fr. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 303).”

But John Paul II condemned each such theory – called proportionalism – where goods are weighed against other goods in an attempt to ascertain which of a series of options promises the most benefit.  The latter, he says, “by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the ‘greater good’ or ‘lesser evil’ actually possible in a particular situation.” (VS 75) If good is judged to outweigh evil, the choice under consideration is permissible, even if it entails, as Müller says above, “deviating” from the relevant moral norm.

Rather than a focus on objective moral norms, Müller thinks decision-making should proceed by a kind of “discernment,” which requires a confrontation with and balancing of moral values: “Moral discernment confronts the values that stand in the background of the norm with the ones inherent in the pursuit of a good moral life, and weighs them against each other.”

What if I conclude that respecting values requires me to act contrary to Church teaching?  According to Müller, sometimes it can’t be helped.  The “moral teaching of the Church” and “personal judgment” both “have their respective function and importance and equally their limitations.” We mustn’t be like those “who entirely refuse to take responsibility for themselves and require the Church to formulate clear and concrete norms.”

The president of the Academy, Archbishop Paglia, thinks this mode of challenging Church teaching is an expression of “a new horizon for theology and for the task of theologians” – i.e., “dialogue.”  His colleague at the Academy, Pierangelo Sequeri, refers to it as “an exemplary case of an authentic synodal exercise” and believes it is “a symbol of noticeable intellectual honesty that does honor to the Church itself.”

But there is nothing new about Müller’s horizons.  They extend no farther than to weary old theories that justify dissent against the Church’s authoritative moral teaching.


*Image: In a section of a mural he commissioned for Terni Cathedral when he was bishop there, a naked Vincenzo Paglia, wearing the dark zucchetto, is among those “netted” by Jesus. The mural was painted by Argentinian artist Ricardo Cinalli, who toldthe Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, that the naked people in the nets are meant to be “erotic.” The entire mural:

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E. Christian Brugger is a moral theologian living in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent among various other works.