Recycling the same old same old

Moral theology built from the claim that there are no intrinsically evil acts is presented today as something fresh, new and creative when in fact it was stale, intellectually sterile, pastorally fruitless and socially irresponsible.

Pope John Paul II gestures to the crowd during World Youth Day in Denver in 1993, the same year he promulgated "Veritatis Splendor", which addressed issues and controversies regarding moral theology. (CNS photo/Joe Rimkus Jr.)

In December 2021 and May 2022, I had the pleasure of teaching a mini-course in Rome, exploring the life and thought of St. John Paul II. My students came from a cross-section of world Catholicism and offered a range of insights from different local Churches in our discussions. They were, however, uniformly surprised and disturbed by something I brought to their attention.

Vatican II, I explained, had rightly called for a renewal of Catholic moral theology. What had followed, sadly, was the deconstruction of Catholic moral theology, to the point where prominent moral theologians were claiming that there was no such thing as an “intrinsically evil act:” an act that is gravely wrong by its nature, always and everywhere, irrespective of the actor’s intentions and the act’s consequences.

I then noted that one of John Paul II’s many purposes in writing his 1993 encyclical on the renewal of Catholic moral theology,Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), was to confirm and re-explain Catholicism’s long-settled conviction that there are intrinsically evil acts — a conviction further emphasized in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

My students were stunned: How could anyone not grasp that some acts are gravely evil, period? What about rape? The torture of children? The willful taking of innocent human life? Bombing hospitals and executing civilians in Ukraine? It’s a long story, I said, and among the villains are the philosophers Immanuel Kant and David Hume, whose work eroded one of Western civilization’s foundational convictions: that there are deep truths built into the world and into us, truths that we can grasp by reason.

The most creative moral theology done over the past quarter-century, I observed, took a different tack. Creative theologians embraced what John Paul II taught in Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae and explained that teaching by appealing to the inherent dignity of the human person, which includes our capacity to live freedom nobly. But I had to confess that, over the past nine years, the old errors had re-appeared, and some of them were now dominant in Roman pontifical universities.

What was even stranger, I concluded, was that this old, late-Sixties insistence that the moral theology built from the claim that there are no intrinsically evil acts was presented today as something fresh, new and creative when in fact it was stale, intellectually sterile, pastorally fruitless and socially irresponsible  — one surrender after another to the decadence of the West, just when Western societies were imploding from a deficit in reality contact (and because of that, getting dangerously close to the “dictatorship of relativism” of which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned in 2005).

The growing parts of the world Church are not interested in a return to the distorted perspective on the moral life that Veritatis Splendor tried to correct; they preach and teach our capacity, under grace, to live as God intended and Christ’s Church teaches. The rapidly expanding Church in Africa is not eager to import Western corruptions into societies where Christian truths about human love, marriage and the family come as liberating good news. In Europe and North America, the living parts of the Church have confronted the pastoral failures of Catholic Lite, a Catholicism without stable doctrinal and moral boundaries, and those vibrant parishes, dioceses, religious orders, seminaries and lay renewal movements are growing.

Why? Because they understand that truth and mercy go together, and that the purpose of the Church as “field hospital” is not to bandage wounds temporarily but to heal people and send them forth as missionary disciples — witnesses to Christ’s power to make broken lives whole.

The port side of the Catholic Church likes to contrast the “Pope Francis’ reforms” with the “heresy-hunting Vatican of John Paul II” (as one particularly nasty headline recently put it). That is the kind of juvenile caricature indulged by people who may fear, deep down, that they’re losing an argument and who therefore resort to the cheapest of rhetorical gambits, the ad hominem attack. The truth, of course, is that no pope in the Church’s modern history of the Church made greater efforts to explain the truths of Catholic faith to skeptical and often cynical late-moderns and post-moderns than St. John Paul II.

Those demeaning John Paul’s intellectual and moral heroism in a lame attempt to defend the same old same old — the Liquid Catholicism that has proven an evangelical failure everywhere — may think of themselves as pastorally sensitive. And some undoubtedly are. To my students, however, they seemed examples of intellectual exhaustion and evangelical cowardice in the face of woke cultural aggression.

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About George Weigel 437 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Thank you, George. Well said.
    The Holy Spirit tells us that until the end of time, the Church must deal with false prophets (Matthew 7,15), counterfeit and false apostles (2 Corinthians 11, 13; Revelation 2,2). Catholicism Lite appears to be false teaching of the lukewarm variety (Revelation 3, 16), with respect to which we know what the Lord said.

    • People should read the verses after Revelation 3:16:
      17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. (Revelation 3:17-19 RSVCE)

  2. Quite true what you said about St. John Paul II. That is one of the reasons why he is a Saint. People can allow their intellectual thoughts and processes, interfere with what their heart tells them. And thus diminish their faith. Jesus’s teachings are processed through our brain, but go directly to our hearts if our devotion allows it.

  3. It “was that this old, late-Sixties insistence that the moral theology built from the claim that there are no intrinsically evil acts was presented today as something fresh” (Weigel).
    Although George Weigel is, I’m confident aware the seeds of the same old heresies were planted earlier in the 1950’s. Josef Fuchs, who taught at the Gregorian Pontifical Institute wrote Natural Law and De Castitate were the standard texts for moral theology courses. Then there’s Karl Rahner’s Das Dynamische in Der Kirche [quaestiones disputatae] published Herder 1960. These two progressive figureheads widely respected were instrumental [including other German Jesuits at the Greg] in building the tsunami that inundated the VatII Council. Both taught of a soteriological love of the Redeemer Word that superseded the Creator Word and Natural Law ethics, of absolutely exceptional circumstances. Aquinas correctly taught that the object of the act [confirmed by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor] not the circumstances ultimately determined the object of the act. They taught a proportional greater good that transcended the act itself. Whereas Saint Thomas centered moral good or evil on the singular principle, the act itself [the ea quae sunt ad finem in which we determine the object].
    Morality since has wandered from the truth within the Church based on this profound error virtually neutralizing inherent evil, reappearing in Amoris Laetitia.

    • From Healing the Culture and the Family According to John Paul II, by David C. Hajduk, Ph.D.:

      Excerpt from the foreword by Deborah Savage, Ph.D.:

      In this book, Dr. David Hajduk details Pope John Paul II’s diagnosis and remedy, explaining how Descartes and the philosophical tradition that followed are at the source of the current crisis in the culture and the family. Dr. Hajduk demonstrates how all the symptoms point to a rejection of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as how they bear a striking resemblance to the heretical ideas that throughout Christian history have typically been labeled as “Manichaean.” Finally, he presents John Paul II’s anthropology, particularly as expressed in his oft-misunderstood Theology of the Body, as a corrective especially suited to lead contemporary men and women to the truth about themselves and God’s plan for human love, as well as marking a return to the perennial philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, which John Paul II himself declared as the only way to get past the Cartesian watershed.

  4. Active physical homosexuality already named an abomination by Moses (Leviticus 20:13, 19:22). Instead of giving glory to God the Almighty Creator, this intrinsically evil act causes insult, outrage and disgrace to the Eternal Fatherhood, the Eternal Maleness, to God Himself as those attributes are His main divine principals. The attempt to redefine God’s creation is a diabolical attempt to disgrace humanity as made in the image of God. If Bergoglio says: Who am I to judge? should already disqualify him to be the successor of Saint Peter and the Pontiff of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Holy Church that Christ established in Him and with Him and through Him.

    • edith, there is no doubt that sex, including homosexual, outside of a man and woman marriage, is a sinful act. Even the thought of it! And also that acts of foreplay – besides kissing, hugging and caressing – are sinful?
      Do you really believe you can judge people? That you can see deep within their souls their physical, mental and emotional state? That you could judge people who tell you that they have made their peace with God?
      When a priest, who had an affair with someone, told Pope Francis that he had made his peace with God, Pope Francis was right to say: who am I to judge?

      • Mal, I do not judge anyone! I clearly stated the Truth of the Faith from the prophets to Christ (even looking at a woman with lust, is adultery). That is why the BLOOD of Christ is so precious, yet, Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery: I do not condemn you but SIN NO MORE! The problem of our evil age is that many people deny sin and insist that sin is not sin, defy God’s and Jesus’ truth and commandments. The devil’s lies and deceptions are cunning and malicious. The purpose and mercy is to tell the truth to wake up those who are caught in sin and refuse the precious Truth of Christ , our loving Savior, who wants every soul to go to heaven for all eternity. Pope Francis was asked about homosexuality and said Who am I to judge! He also said: Those little sins under the belt do not matter, but only the big sins of greed and feeding the poor. I listened closely to this Pope for several years and what he says is full of error, ambiguity and confusion. It is not always what he says but what he does. The only thing that matters is to defend Jesus Christ and His truth and to help getting souls to heaven. Eternity is a very long time!

        • Pope Francis is a faithful disciple of Jesus. He explained that quote and the circumstances in which it was said. He was referring to our catechism.
          “On that occasion I said this: If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?” the pope says. “I was paraphrasing by heart the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it says that these people should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.”

          • There are what ought to be self-evident distinctions between judging the moral nature and object of an act and judging the person performing the act. We tend to conflate the two when we don’t want to trouble ourselves to make the distinction for reasons that are usually personal and self-serving. We like to think the evil we do in our own lives can be viewed as morally ambiguous so we can sometimes become willing to accept moral sophistry in one mood even when we reject it in another more sober mood.

            Intentionality does mitigate the culpability of sins, but it does not change the moral nature of an act. Our Western legal tradition recognizes degrees of criminal intent, an understanding it inherited entirely from the Catholic Church recognizing degrees of culpability. Only God knows “all the intentions of the heart.”

            Pope Francis has an obligation to not mischaracterize the catechism which makes these distinctions. He failed to do so. He has an obligation to judge behavior, as we all do. Judging behavior is not judging a soul. We all judge everyone else’s behavior all the time. It is phony to pretend otherwise. A gay man can seek God or he can not really seek God while claiming that he is seeking God. An honest pope, aware of his public obligations, has to make the distinctions the Deposit of Faith makes, which he has not only failed to do on many occasions but dismissed as antiquated.

    • Edith you’re courageously and candidly correct, as by now the faithful must be in clearly stating the truth about this abominable imposition of homosexuality upon the Church.

      • Fr. Peter, edith very clearly stated that Pope Francis was asked about homosexuality when he made that statement. This is not candidly correct. Pope Francis said that he was asked about a person who is gay and seeks out the Lord. Somewhere else he stated another qualifying statement suggesting that this person claimed to make his peace with God.

        • No, Mal. The Church teaches the difference between “tendency” and “lifestyle”; where, in fact, either ranks in temptation and either can be chosen. When it is not taught and when it is not taught correctly, the “qualifiers” will be all wrong; ad this explains why when you keep parlaying words it can add up to helping to propagate scandal.

          Recollect. Jesus didn’t just say “not one jot” will be removed. He said more than that and made it harder. “You will have Moses as your judge.”

          ‘ A further deception, he added, was the emphasis in the statement on the group being in the archdiocese 30 years, falsely giving the impression of continuity with previous archbishops of Bologna — Cardinal Carlo Caffarra and Cardinal Giacomo Biffi. But “In Cammino” operated clandestinely until Cardinal Zuppi’s arrival, Cascioli said, when “everything changed” and he invited the group to come out in the open as part of the archdiocese’s pastoral care. ‘

          • Elias, in this case it was about a particular priest who did have an affair that was apparently over, and done with.
            Homosexuality is considered “intrinsically disordered” by the Catholic Church, and same-sex marriage is invalid since it is not “open in itself to the transmission of life.” While individuals in a same-sex relationship “are in themselves to be valued and appreciated,” the relationship is “not ordered to the Creator’s plan,” the note said.
            Pope Francis okayed this document from the CDF which states:
            The CDF “does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations,” if that individual is willing to abstain from sex.
            “God cannot bless sin,” the document continued, but said God can bless a sinful man, “so that he may recognize that he is part of (God’s) plan of love and allow himself to be changed by (God).”

  5. And to those who would cleverly affirm moral absolutes while also enabling a split between such formal teachings and pastorally enabled actions, St. Pope John Paul II has already clarified and taught:

    “A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid and general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision [not moral judgment] about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a ‘creative’ hermeneutic according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept [thou shalt not]” (Veritatis Splendor, n. 56).

    And, again:

    “The relationship between faith and morality shines forth with all its brilliance in the unconditional respect due to the insistent demands of the personal dignity of every man, demands protected by those moral norms which prohibit without exception [!] actions which are intrinsically evil” (n. 90). “The Church is no way the author or the arbiter [!] of this [‘moral’] norm” (n. 95).

    • Your point is well taken. Though a hypothesis, what might happen if a cultural Marxist were elected pope? How much influence would prior popes messages have on the one elected?

      We don’t know the heart of a man, yet we can often judge anthers words or actions!

      Conjecture is one matter, thankfully we serve a God who knows the heart and mind of all men.

      Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

      Proverbs 4:23 Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

      Genesis 6:5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

      Jeremiah 17:10 “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

      Blessings to all and especially to those in high places.

  6. The truth is that Pope Francis admired Saint John Paul II. It does both Popes a disservice to deny this fact. Pope Francis has never changed Church doctrine, though he might have shifted the focus.
    In the Catholic weekly, there is a beautiful article that acknowledges the respect that Pope Francis had for the person he declared a saint. “In 2001, when I was made a cardinal, I felt a strong desire when I knelt to receive the cardinal’s biretta not only to exchange the sign of peace with him, but to kiss his hand,” Pope Francis said. “Some people criticised me for this gesture, but it was spontaneous.”
    “We cannot forget the suffering of this great pope,” he said. “His refined and acute sensitivity to mercy certainly was influence by the spirituality of St Faustina Kowalska, who died during his adolescence, but also — perhaps, especially — because of his having witnessed the communist and Nazi persecutions. He suffered so much!”
    Pope Francis’ homilies and pastoral letters as a bishop in Argentina in the 1990s were full of quotations from St John Paul.”

    • You make a good point and make it well.
      But, about the “shifted focus,” the concern of many is about what is only “spontaneous”—and about the “quotations” into the present. Where in these quotations does Pope Francis mention Pope John Paul II’s “acute sensitivity to mercy” together with the reflective truth of Veritatis Splendor? Very quotable, actually, mercy with truth, neither without the other.

      The balanced wisdom and focus of John Paul II is evidenced in other instances as well, as in his Catholic Social Teaching that subsidiarity and solidarity must never be politically separated. Such balance is also biblical, as in the admonition in a fallen world, to be both “as cunning as serpents and yet as innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16).

      For all of us in our daily lives, when does a shift in focus disguise a loss of focus? This is not an accusation, but a very subtle and yet crucial question worthy of clarifying discourse. As in the still-awaited reflective response to the dubia…

      • Peter, we who have lived from the time of Pius XII have been fortunate – if that is the right word – to have had one good Pope after another. I have loved and respected all of them, and still do. The Popes have had different backgrounds, upbringings and personal life experiences, which they brought to the office. JP2 was a playwright and poet. He also experienced the terrible times people went through during Nazi and Russian occupations. There were many troubles and upheavals in Pope Francis’ world. In addition, the plight of the neglected, the overlooked, the stranded and the helpless people in Argentina made a lasting impression on him. It is the callousness and utter disregard for the plight of fellow-citizens by the elite that concerns him. He brings this to our attention – in addition to all those that other Popes have done. Caring about something does not necessarily mean that others are neglected.
        Our Lord gave us this commandment, which is to love. However, he could not explain it in just one parable. Each parable focuses on a certain aspect or ingredient of love. Charity in the case of the Good Samaritan; forgiveness in the Prodigal Son; duty to work honestly and efficiently in the parable of the Tenants; and the Parable of the Laborers focusses on the generosity of the boss. And there are more.

    • But we are dealing with the present and there is no question this pontificate is trying to undo JPII’s magisterium. We can look at their own words. As one recent example, there was an international conference on Amoris L. and moral theology in May in Rome, which talks centered much on stating that JPII’s veritatis splendor had problems, essentially errors, which it was now necessary to correct. This includes the notion of intrinsic evils, which speakers claimed are a “controversial philosophical notion” that was essentially introduced by JPII. Such positions were specifically attributed to Francis’s thinking and Amoris L. The keynote speaker also did an interview with America magazine, in which he openly espouses these things:

      The very fact this was much of the content of the conference, and there has been no rebuke of any sort to what was said there, or the statements of the likes of the keynote speaker, indicate there is agreement with it. This is also only one example of officials at the holy see, others in prominent positions and those in Francis’ inner circle saying similar things; and again with no repudiation whatsoever. We need to stop the denial. Read the interview cited and tell us there is nothing afoot here.

      • David, there is an informative article in wherepeteris titled “The Harmony of Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor” which explains how Amoris Laetitia complements Veritas Splendor.
        I see these two views beautifully demonstrated in that memorable encounter involving an adulteress. The religious people knew that what this woman did was sinful. They condemned her for that and hoped that Jesus would recognize that sin and also condemn her to be stoned. Well, Jesus did acknowledge that a sin had been committed (go and sin no more). But did he find her to be guilty? No, Jesus did not condemn her.
        Were the Jews wrong in highlighting the wrong that she had done? No.
        Did Jesus contradict them when he said that he did not find her guilty. No.
        Why is this so? Well, the Jews focused on the wrongdoing, the sin, Jesus looked into the soul of the woman and found her not to be guilty. Obviously, there were circumstances – unknown to the religious people – that Jesus was aware of.
        So, as Catholics, the Church makes us aware of the sins that can be committed, but it also teaches us that, though it is wrong for someone to do wrong, it does not necessarily make the wrongdoer a sinner.

        This is why many believe that the two documents you brought to our attention are complementary.

        • Mal,

          Wherepeteris is hardly a trustworthy site and shows significant signs of heterodoxy. Further, that piece is merely an opinion from one person, who doesn’t even have any training in theology or canon law. Your comment really does not at all address the facts I pointed out. Who was talking about considering the wrongdoer a sinner? We have explicit statements of a repudiation, a “correction” of JPII, by noteworthy people charged with presenting what is to be seen as the correct interpretation of Amoris L. Did you even read the interview? (The professor who gave the keynote address is also an adjunct professor at the revamped jpii institute in rome, or whatever they are calling it now. The conference was also an event organized by the holy see.)

          If such people are openly saying what they are, how can anyone say that this is not what is happening? That’s denial. You can’t say because some guy with zero training at some blog says differently, then it’s so. Otherwise, show us statements from people at the holy see or in Francis’ circle who repudiate such views as expressed at the conference and elsewhere. Then you will have an argument; but you will not find any, but only the contrary. Here is another statement from one of the organizers of the conference saying that jpii’s familiaris consortio was also ignorant or shortsided in its own way, on divorce and remarriage, and did not understand “science,” which now supposedly leads us to know that it is not possible for the divorced and remarried to refrain from relations. What rubbish!; but clearly aimed at erasing JPII’s magisterium.

          • Obviously, we have different opinions. I think highly of wherepeteris while you prefer americanmagazine. For some reason you do not give much credence to the views of a knowledgeable person on the grounds that he “doesn’t even have any training in theology or canon law”. I, on the other hand, realize that some “educated people” do have views that are wrong or corrupted. Like the well-trained Pharisees and Scribes who lived during our Lord’s time!

          • Mal,

            First, I do not prefer America nor are these statements from writers from America. I reference it because they are statements from those in authority about what is being taught regarding amoris L. It also seems that you probably did not read them, perhaps fearing to know the truth. You still dodge the issue at hand and have presented nothing in defense of your position: if you claim that people are misrepresenting Francis and Amoris and that the latter are not aimed at undoing JPII’s magisterium, then you have to explain why so many who have been deputed, some even officially so, to teach and present it are now explicitly saying precisely what critics are pointing out. Instead, you cite one person’s opinion, whose opinion doesn’t matter. At least critics are able to cite the statements of Francis’s own
            defenders, including those in authority, to prove the point; which is also to say it is not just a matter of opinion.

  7. The wild fire inside the Church right now is not simply about intellectual “errors.”

    The problem is about the promotion of evil by hierarchs in the cohort of Pontiff Francis, such as “Eminence” Hollerich SJw, who will be “relating” the Church at large to the “benefits” of sanctioning sodomy, and of course, in trade (to assure the dedired degree of “obedience” and “conformity”), the apostate hierarchs of Pontiff Francis will offer a nod to fornication, etc, so that “something is offered to everybody.”

    This is not an intellectual debate, this is the spiritual civil war waged inside the Church, by Church hierarchs, against the commands of Jesus.

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