Interview: Josef Seifert on his Dismissal, Amoris Laetitia, & The Fight For an Authentic Catholic Life Ethic

Editor’s Note: The following interview with Dr. Joseph Seifert, founding rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein & President of the newly founded John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family was conducted by Dr. Maike Hickson on behalf of OnePeterFive. 

Maike Hickson (MH): At the end of August of 2017, Archbishop Javier Martínez Fernández, of Granada, dismissed you from your Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair at the International Academy of Philosophy. You decided to take some legal steps against this unjust treatment which was justified by the Diocese with your public criticism of Amoris Laetitia. How is now your own situation with regard to Archbishop Martínez, after he dismissed you from your Chair and you resisted that step with legal means?

Joseph Seifert (JS): Yes, after my dismissal (first, in 2016, on the basis of my article;  from my teaching some courses in the Seminary, as Professor in the Instituto de Filosofía Edith Stein; and in 2017, after the publication of my second article, from my Dietrich von Hildebrand Chair at the IAP-IFES – a new Campus of the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality Liechtenstein together with the Instituto de Filosofía Edith Stein, created by archbishop Martínez), I defended myself against a declaration and action which I considered a grave violation of truth and of justice.

Following the advice of a Cardinal whom I hold in the highest respect, and who told me that also for the sake of a just treatment of other Professors and for the good of the Church, I should not leave this action unchallenged, I took two legal steps. One was an ecclesiastic “remonstratio”, according to Canon Law (which also upholds free expression of thought and academic freedom, and demands that before taking any punitive action one has to give the alleged trespasser the right to defend himself); the other one a civil complaint based on Spanish law. Since the content of the two complaints were almost identical, and I did not unnecessarily want to enter into a long drawn-out legal dispute with an archbishop and personal friend, I withdrew the ecclesiastical suit and made several offers for extrajudicial peaceful agreements in order to end the civil suit as well, before it would come to a judgment of the tribunal, foreseeably against the diocese and IFES. In my “peace-propoals” I offered, among other things, to withdraw any demand to be re-instituted as professor in my chair.

I am happy to inform you that after 4 1/2 months an extrajudicial agreement that ended the legal proceedings was recently signed by both parties. While the diocese never retracted, as I had asked for, the grave (and in my opinion completely unfounded) public charges (that I confounded and damaged the faith and morals of the faithful, undermined papal authority, and did not serve the Church but the world), this agreement gave me and, I believe, did so in truth and justice, the confirmation that I was not forced to retire “normally” according to a Spanish retirement law for University Professors, but dismissed on the basis of my articles on Amoris Laetitia, and that this dismissal was done against justice and law.

MH: What is the content of that peaceful agreement, and how did it come to such a peaceful agreement? Will you be able to return to your previous position?

JS: I am not free to reveal the specific contents and conditions accepted by both sides in the agreement, because we both signed a  clause in the agreement that we would not divulge these to the press. The same discretion prevents me from answering your questions about the exact ways through which this agreement came about. As I, before proposing this agreement through my lawyer, freely abandoned any claim to return to my previous position, and did not pursue the legal suit to its end (which would have demanded the nullity of my dismissal and reinstatement in my chair), I am unable to return to my previous chair in the Institute (IAP-IFES).  However, I have good chances to be offered a research Institute and Research Professorship in another University and at present explore four such possibilities.

MH: Being an Austrian, have you ever contacted Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, whom the Pope has named as best interpreter of Amoris Laetitia, to ask him about the actions of archbishop Martínez and his response to your articles critical of Amoris Laetitia that he so strongly defends?

JS: Yes, I had recently a long telephone conversation with Cardinal Schönborn, who is an old acquaintance and friend of mine (we have been colleagues in the 1980s as professors, as regular visiting professors, in the John Paul II Institute for the Studies of Marriage and Family at the Lateran University in Rome). As is well known, this Institute has been founded by the holy Pope on the day on which the assassination attempt was made against him May 13, 1981. (I lived this horrible and unforgettable day with his friend, his former student and successor in the chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin and co-director of the International Academy of Philosophy in Texas, the ancestor Institute of the IAP in Liechtenstein: Professor Tadeusz Styczeî in Krakow in Poland, where both of us had been invited for a lecture.)

I did not contact Cardinal Schönborn in order to ask him about my situation in Granada, but because the Vice-Rector of a University Institution under his tutelage had contacted me to ask whether I would perhaps accept a chair in this Institute. Knowing that Cardinal Schönborn had been named by the Pope the highest authority in the Church to interpret Amoris Laetitia correctly as being in line with the magisterium of the Church, I expected him to be wholly opposed to the possibility of my professorship at this Institute and totally in support of Archbishop Martinez’s action against me. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised and greatly pleased that he neither was opposed in principle to a professorship of mine in this International Institute, nor in support of my having been dismissed for my articles about AL in Granada. While he certainly thinks similarly to archbishop Martínez on Amoris Laetitia, he expressed astonishment and some bewilderment about the way of my having been treated in Granada and observed that in his opinion the only way to approach such differences of opinion would be an academic response and dialogue and not a disciplinary action.

MH: Were there some high-ranking prelates of the Church, or even close collaborators of Pope Francis involved in this peaceful solution?

JS: Not as far as I know of.

MH: What do you think is the possible effect of the resolution of your own unjust dismissal for other orthodox scholars in the Catholic Church with regard to a well-reasoned and faithful criticism of papal documents?

JS: I greatly hope that my unjust dismissal and the peaceful resolution of the conflict with Archbishop Don Javier Martínez (who treated me up to my articles on Amoris Laetitia always as a friend, whom I admire for many of his actions and to whom I owe much gratitude) will encourage other philosophers and theologians to express, according to the judgment of their conscience, the truth even when it means some criticism of papal documents. It is likewise my hope that my “case” will free many others from a false papolatry, so as if a Catholic would not ever be permitted to criticize something a pope said. I think such an attitude, possibly fostered by the great and holy popes we had during the last 150 years, is not at all Catholic, as the splendid examples of Saint Athanasius, Saint Catherine of Siena and others show. The pope neither is the lord over truth nor the Lord of the Church, but their servant.  Finally I hope that others will be freed by the happy outcome of my legal complaint from the kind of fear that reigns now in the Vatican and elsewhere in the Church, as Cardinal Müller impressively explained in an Interview. For such a fear, especially if it paralyzes us in the defense of truth, is unworthy of a true Catholic, who should be ready to give his life for the defense of the truth, and does great damage to the Church and its credibility.

MH: What are the underlying principles, in short, for a Catholic academician, to conduct a critical examination of Church documents, for example of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia?

JS: Professor Pierantoni, many others such as Professor Spaemann, doctors of the Church, and also myself explained these principles in different articles (I may refer here to two articles and an Interview of Church historians and to an interview with bishop Athanasius Schneider:

Of Bishop Athanasius Schneider see:

A Pope is absolutely protected against errors and heresies only when he pronounces dogmas and speaks “ex cathedra”. Therefore it does not contradict in any way the Catholic belief in the infallibility of the pope if a true pope (or a false pope, of whom the Church had a few) commits errors, such as pope Liberius whom Saint Athanasius resisted, or if a pope even is condemned as heretic like Pope Honorius I, or stricken from the list of Popes such as John XXIII (not the Saint of the 20th century but the earlier one who was asked by a Council to resign and actually resigned during the Council of Constance 1414-1418). This shows that a pope is absolutely not quite generally exempt from error and therefore each Catholic is free and even obliged to reverently but courageously examine also papal utterances in the light of Divine Revelation and the Perpetual Church Teaching. As soon as even an utterance of the apparently “ordinary magisterium” of the Church contradicts the depositum fidei and the perpetual Church teaching, it has to be rejected.

MH: The Pontifical Academy for Life just posted an article on their website which speaks about “a weak point in the traditional moral-theological doctrine of the ‘intrinsically evil action'” in light of Amoris LaetitiaWould you comment on this line of argument, also and especially in light of your own concern about the possible undermining of the moral absolutes as it is laid out in Amoris Laetitia?

JS: First, Gerhard Höver has published this article originally in German. He has recently published an article on human dignity and physician-assisted suicide in which he presents excellent reasons against any compromise through laws that permit physician-assisted suicide in some cases. Therefore the last sentence of the abstract of his article and his claim in the article that the teaching that there are intrinsically evil acts is “too narrow” is surprising, because Höver seems to state in the other article that any direct assault on human life is intrinsically evil. Professor Gerhard Höver is Professor emeritus of the University of Bonn, Germany. From the way he cites Franz Böckle’s Fundamentalmoral, I assume he was a student of Professor Franz Böckle, who was also Professor of Moral Theology at the University of Bonn and a fervent champion of the enemies of Humanae Vitae and of the teaching that there are intrinsically evil acts. Höver published several books jointly with Böckle: Ja zum Menschen : Bausteine einer Konkreten Moral (München: Kösel, 1993), and Franz Böckle; Gerhard Höver; Ludger Honnefelder, Der Streit um das Gewissen,  (München: Kösel, 1995). The teachings of the avalanche of Catholic moral theologians who, like Böckle, opposed Humanae Vitae and introduced a proportionalist ethics that denies not only the intrinsic moral wrongness of contraception, but any intrinsically evil acts, was forcefully and, I would say, gloriously refuted and condemned in Veritatis Splendor.

Secondly, because PAV puts a caveat at the end of Höver’s article: “The article we publish does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Pontifical Academy for Life…” ,  we cannot directly attribute this article to PAV, while I would certainly not agree that our new John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family, whose President I am, publish such an article on our website, because this can only either suggest consent (despite the caveat) or confuse the reader.

Thirdly, I would say that this article expresses, in my opinion, an extremely illogical and weird conclusion from a somewhat obscure explanation of the difference of Bonaventure’s and Aristotle’s notion of time and the assertion that “time is greater than space”. This latter affirmation certainly has some good sense if we recognize that space is only the medium in which physical reality is located and moves, while time also encompasses purely spiritual creatures, such as angels, who have a beginning in time (only God is beginningless), can change in time (Ezekiel 28: 11 ff. reports that Satan was a beautiful  and noble angel in paradise and only at a later time fell, seduced by bis pride), and whose higher form of temporality was called aeon by St. Bonaventure and other philosophers.

After going into this distinction and the medieval notion of the aeon as being in some ways different from the time of physical movement, but still including time, and after he affirmed the superior greatness of time over space, Höver jumps, in a short phrase, into a moral-theological conclusion against the existence of intrinsically evil acts that has nothing, but absolutely nothing, to do with St. Bonaventure’s and Ratzinger’s reflections on time. The author asserts, in his abstract:

“The expanded concept of time, which is theological in the truest sense of the term, also shows us a weak point in the traditional moral-theological doctrine of the ‘intrinsically evil action’, which has its background in the Aristotelian concept of movement and is thus based on a restricted concept of time. Accordingly, the principle that ‘Time is greater than space’ demands both a correction and a constructive development.“

In his longer article he explains that Pope Francis as well rejects in Amoris Laetitia the teaching of the ordinary magisterium of Pope John Paul II, solemnly declared in Veritatis Splendor, as ·too narrow,” saying:

The Pope warns directly: ‘By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God’ (AL 305) This makes it clear that the principle that ‘time is greater than space’ takes on a moral-theological significance that refers to the level of norm structures and affects the previous teaching about ‘intrinsically evil actions.’ It is not without reason that some have requested further clarification on this point.

The doctrine in Thomas and Thomism about “intrinsically evil actions” contains the axiom bonum ex causa integra, malum ex quocumque defectu, that is to say, “goodness” and (in this sense) also “regularity” exist only when all the factors that constitute the ethical quality of an action form an integral unity; if even only one element is defective, the consequence is “badness” and (in this sense) also “irregularity.” If one looks more closely at the Aristotelian background, one sees that the theorem is based on the contrary opposition between form and lack (privatio, “absence”) as a model for the explanation of movements of change in space. According to Bonaventure’s conception of time, however, this means that the theorem is based on a coarctata temporis acceptio, and this means that the definition of that which is “intrinsically evil” is also affected. It seems that theological reasons lead Pope Francis to refuse to go on accepting this restriction.

In this regard, Höver, in an obscure German language and based on a wholly unrelated metaphysics of time, supports Father Chiodi’s “interpretation of Humanae Vitae in the Light of Amoris Laetitia” that stands in direct contradiction to Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. Chiodi proposes that contraception is not only NOT always forbidden, as Humanae Vitae teaches, but can even be obligatory. Against these claims, see the newly discovered and published speech of Pope John Paul II. See also my critique of Chiodi.

While Father Chiodi pretends that his interpretation of AL proposes a “new moral theological paradigm” I will show in a new book to be published this year that this allegedly new moral paradigm is, on the contrary, an old moral-theological heresy condemned most outspokenly and clearly by Saint John Paul II and therefore to be condemned again by Pope Francis, given the unity of Church Teaching.

MH: You are the President of the newly founded John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family (JAHLF). Could you describe to our readers the goals of this new academy? What do you think is the role and importance of JAHLF in a time where we have Vatican institutions such as the PAV publishing articles which put a doubt on essential concepts of the moral teaching, such as “intrinsically evil acts”?

JS: The task of the John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family is the same that the original PAV has been designed for. We want to put the whole range of philosophy, theology, science, etc. into the service of defending and clarifying those fundamental truths about human life and the family that are under attack from countless sides. We believe that many of these truths, for example those taught in Humanae Vitae or in Veritatis Splendor about intrinsically bad acts, are also accessible to human reason. Therefore we wish to explain these truths also by means of philosophy, thus aiming at a synthesis between fides and ratio with respect to human life issues. That the PAV itself again and again attacks these truths (see Höver’s and Chiodi’s writings) is nothing new that would have begun only under Pope Francis. The truth about life had to be, during a number of years under the Presidency of Mons. Fisichella, and also under that of Mons. Carrasco, also defended under Pope Benedict XVI against some events organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life and some publications of its members and even Presidents. As member of PAV, I wrote two open letters at that time, deploring the direct contradiction to Evangelium Vitae in an article by Mons. Fisichella in L’Osservatore Romano, and in a PAV-organized symposium on infertility treatement in which a large majority of speakers directly opposed fundamental moral teachings of the Church. And even in the golden times of PAV, under the PAV Presidency of Mons. (now Cardinal) Sgreggia, its president defended opinions about “brain death” which all members of JAHLF consider deeply erroneous. Thus the John Paul II Academy for Human Life and the Family should have been founded a long time ago. But perhaps this part of our mission, to defend the truth even against The Pontifical Academy for Life, is today more relevant than ever, as can be seen when we just think of the articles of Chiodi and Höver. To this end, we just published a JAHLF statement on a recent conference presented under the auspices of PAV.

The Academy sees it is an especially urgent task, projected as theme for the first General Assembly Meeting and public Congress planned for later this year, to present an in-depth analysis and defense of the encyclicals Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. Having presented a critical analysis of Father Maurizio Chiodi’s re-interpretation of Humanae Vitae in the light of Amoris Laetitia, an article that constitutes a frontal attack on Humanae Vitae and a negation of the central content of Veritatis Splendor – the teaching of intrinsically evil actions (see this article) – I wish to publish a large book on the topic, in German, in 2018, on the theme: “New moraltheological paradigm or old moraltheological heresy?”, and enlist the work of a number of members and corresponding members of our new Academy to present these eternal truths which Chiodi denies (under the title of a new moral theological paradigm he attributes to Pope Francis).

Thus I do think the JAHLF has a great mission in serving the Splendor of Moral Truth and in dispelling the darkness that threatens to throw its shadow, even in the Catholic Church, over Truth’s eternal splendor. May the Holy Spirit prevent this!

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