The most controversial document of this controversial pontificate, the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, is again at the center of a heated controversy at the Vatican. The matter at hand—which keeps popping up in different forms—is whether Pope Francis can eradicate the teaching legacy of Pope John Paul II, particularly on questions of human sexuality.
Oddly enough, this summer’s dispute involves a Vatican body named after the canonized former pontiff: the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences. Since its inception, the Institute (which was originally known by the slightly simpler name, the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family) had been an academic greenhouse nourishing the thought that St. John Paul had promoted: explaining the “culture of life” and the “theology of the body.” All those arguments have been notably less prominent in the public ministry of Pope Francis.
So when Francis announced in September 2017 that he had new plans and a new name for the Institute, faculty and students were understandably nervous. Technically the pope suppressed the old Institute and established a new one, explaining that a different focus was necessary to address “the new challenges concerning the value of life.” He said:
I refer to the various aspects concerning the care of the dignity of the human person in the various ages of existence, mutual respect between genders and generations, the defense of the dignity of every single human being, the promotion of quality of human life that integrates the material and spiritual values, in view of an authentic “human ecology,” which helps to restore the original balance of creation between the human person and the whole universe.
The new and improved Institute, the pope said, would expand its range of interests to include the social sciences—in particular, the implications of climate change. Conspicuously missing from his list of concerns were issues like divorce, same-sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, which had been regular fare for the Institute in the past.
Lest there be any doubt about the new direction, Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, who was appointed by Pope Francis as president of the rebooted Institute, said that he would focus on the “central importance of the magisterial teaching of Amoris Laetitia,” a document that would “naturally be integral to the curricula.” So while the name of John Paul II was still attached to the Institute, the thought of the late Polish pontiff was clearly superseded by that of Pope Francis in the institutional mission.
The other shoe dropped in July of this year, with the publication of new canonical statutes for the renovated Institute and the dismissal of old faculty members. Msgr. Livio Melina, who served as president from 2006 to 2016, was informed that his services were no longer required, since the Institute would no longer focus on moral theology. Also dropped from the faculty was Father Jose Noriega, another veteran moral theologian. Among the new additions to the faculty was Father Maurizio Chiodi, who has argued—citing Amoris Laetitia—that there are some circumstances that “precisely for the sake of responsibility, require contraception.” Here Chiodi’s reasoning on contraception is clearly at odds with the teaching of Pope John Paul II, and indeed with the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church. Yet he will be teaching at the renewed Institute, and Melina will not. So it is important to understand the disagreement that led to Melina’s ouster.
Far from being a critic of Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia, Msgr. Melina has done his utmost to defend the papal document, arguing—against the majority opinion—that the current pope’s teaching on marriage can be reconciled with previous Church teaching. On the hotly contested question of whether Pope Francis had opened the way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, Melina conceded that the document seemed to imply a change in Church teaching, but concluded that it should be read in the light of constant Catholic tradition. That argument was roundly condemned in Avvenire, the newspaper published by the Italian bishops’ conference, as “not exactly benevolent toward the Pope.”
But if it is “not exactly benevolent” to suggest that Pope Francis is in line with the constant teaching traditions of the Church, does it not follow that the pope has broken with those traditions, and changed those teachings? Msgr. Melina raised that question in an interview with the Italian daily La Verita. If the new direction of the Institute is confirmed, he reasoned, “what they are saying is: ‘The interpretation of the magisterium of Pope Francis in continuity with the previous magisterium is intolerable in the Church.’” And as Msgr. Nicola Bux—a theologian who has been considerably more critical of Pope Francis—put it, the changes at the John Paul II Institute are part of a larger bid to force change in the Church through the exercise of Vatican power, “using Stalinist methods with velvet gloves.”
Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News and author of Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading his Flock.