On May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II had lunch in the papal apartment with Dr. Jerome Lejeune, the renowned French pediatrician and geneticist who identified the chromosomal abnormality that causes Down syndrome.
Dr. Lejeune was a prominent pro-life advocate and the two men discussed initiatives the Vatican might take to advance the cause of life through a sound moral theology informed by the best of modern science, and through public policies supportive of a culture of life. It’s not hard to imagine that John Paul and Dr. Lejeune also discussed what the pope would describe in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae as a corrosive “culture of death.” The irony, of course, was that, a few hours after that lunch, one form of the culture of death asserted itself when Mehmet Ali Agca shot John Paul II in the pope’s front yard, St. Peter’s Square.
That lunchtime conversation between two men of genius influenced the creation of two new institutions in Rome: The John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, centered at the Pontifical Lateran University, and the Pontifical Academy of Life. The Academy was to be an in-house Vatican think tank, in which men and women of good will from all over the world could work together to build cultures capable of cherishing life, especially the lives of the weakest and most vulnerable. The Institute, for its part, was intended to be a high-octane intellectual center for the renewal of Catholic moral theology in the twenty-first century and third millennium. Both initiatives were special gifts of John Paul II to the universal Church.
The John Paul II Institute flourished for three decades, training a generation of theologians dedicated to re-grounding Catholic moral theology in a sound and contemporary philosophical concept of the human person, while re-centering Catholic moral reflection on the virtues and the Beatitudes (the Magna Carta of the Catholic moral life). The Rome-based institute quickly spun off affiliate institutes around the world, the most formidable of which would be based in Washington, D.C. To visit any of these academic centers was to enter a world of great theological adventure, full of men and women apostolically committed to converting the cultures in which they lived.
All of this caused consternation within the dominant Catholic theological guilds of the time, caught as they were in the quicksand pits of a sixties-based concept of moral theology in which there are no moral absolutes, nothing is always evil, and the moral life is considered an ongoing negotiation involving fluctuating ethical norms, society, and the individual conscience. It need not be doubted that this anorexic theological project was heavily influenced by the sexual revolution. And it is not too harsh to suggest that “proportionalism” (as this negotiation-model of the moral life came to be called) evolved into a form of surrender to that cultural tsunami.
The guilds are now having their revenge.
In 2021, the Pontifical Academy of Life sponsored a conference whose proceedings have now been released by the Vatican Publishing House under the title Theological Ethics and Life: Scripture, Tradition, and Practical Challenges. The book proposes nothing less than a radical change in the way the Church teaches about the moral life: a “paradigm shift,” as one author put it, that would enshrine proportionalism (and its refusal to admit that some things are simply wrong, period) as the Church’s official method of moral reasoning. To do so would, of course, mean repudiating the teaching of Pope St. Paul VI in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, and the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II in the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor and the aforementioned Evangelium Vitae. Discussions of such a repudiation have not been lacking in recent years, however, at the reconstituted John Paul II Institute in Rome (a husk of its former self) and at Rome’s Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University.
In their distinctive ways, Humanae Vitae, Veritatis Splendor, and Evangelium Vitae all rejected proportionalism as contrary to the gospel and to a truly humane understanding of the moral life. All three encyclicals caused the dominant theological guilds in the West to writhe with contempt and seethe with fury. And according to recent media reports, those guilds are now pressing for a new papal encyclical: one that would take the Church into the promised land of moral “discernment,” which lies “beyond” what proportionalist guild-speak now caricatures as John Paul II’s “black-and-white morality,” “rigorism,” and “fundamentalism.”
Surely one assassination attempt against the pope whose teaching and example animate the living parts of the world Church was enough.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
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Photo by Tullio Saba is in the Public Domain. Image cropped.