On the face of it, the closure of Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute does not seem especially earth-shaking news. True, the institution has a high international reputation for the quality of its teaching and its academic research on bioethics and the family. But it has only existed since 2001, and it is not unique, globally speaking – there are 10 or so other campuses around the world also affiliated with the John Paul II Institute in Rome.
But when Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne announced last week that the institute will close, it provoked an extraordinary reaction. The website of Australia’s Catholic Weekly, which broke the story, crashed for the first time ever because so many people were following the story. A Facebook campaign, “Save the John Paul II Institute”, quickly acquired 1,200 members. Current and former students came forward to say how much the institute meant to them, and to ask whether there was any way to save it.
Archbishop Hart’s statement noted that there was an “increasing financial burden placed on the Archdiocese of Melbourne”. But sceptics say that can’t be the only reason. Melbourne is reputedly one of the wealthiest dioceses in the world. In 2011, it moved its operations to a grand 1860s building in central Melbourne, which it bought for A$36 million (£23 million) – enough money to keep the JPII Institute going for decades.
The archbishop also cited low student numbers (there are about 130 active students). But these have been growing since 2010. And since the institute has recently launched new courses – approved this summer by Australia’s national accreditation committee – numbers would probably have continued to rise.
Dioceses do have to make tough choices about spending. Some people will always be disappointed. Yet the closure of the institute needs a bigger explanation. And there is an elephant in the room: the John Paul II Institute has many enemies in Australia.
Its mission – to deepen understanding of the Catholic vision of the family – is a distinctive one. According to one former student, the institute’s supporters viewed it as “a shining light of Catholic orthodoxy amidst a swamp of modernism in so much of the Catholic educational structure”. That attachment to orthodoxy made it unpopular.
When the institute began in 2001, it had strong support from the Melbourne hierarchy. The archbishop at the time was George Pell; when he was moved to Sydney later that year, it was widely felt that Catholic intellectual life had moved with him. In some ways the institute and Melbourne archdiocese have been an awkward fit.
Also significant are recent changes at the original John Paul II Institute in Rome. Pope Francis has appointed two new leaders: Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as grand chancellor, and Mgr Pierangelo Sequeri as president. Both are sympathetic to reforms of communion discipline which would contradict John Paul II’s teaching – a teaching which Cardinal Ratzinger once said “cannot be modified”. One Vatican official reportedly called the appointments a “diminishment” of the institute’s work.
Pope Francis has taken a keen interest in the John Paul II Institute. To appoint Archbishop Paglia, he had to bypass the institute’s rules, which state that the chancellor must be the vicar general of Rome. Soon after, the Pope intervened again: he cancelled a start-of-term address by Cardinal Robert Sarah. Instead, Francis himself made a speech, in which he rebuked theologians who offer “a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage”.
These are not the only signs that Francis is lukewarm about John Paul’s legacy. When, during World Youth Day, Francis preached at the Sanctuary of St John Paul II in Kraków, he made only a single glancing reference to his predecessor.
The John Paul II Institute of Melbourne, then, has found itself isolated under the current pontificate. That helps to explain why it has fallen out of favour in Melbourne; it also suggests why there was such an outpouring when it was closed. Australian Catholics who have been inspired by John Paul’s teachings – on marriage, family, the human person and the moral law – have been alarmed by this blow to the institute.
They are discussing possible solutions. The “Save the John Paul II Institute” campaign is collecting testimonies from grateful students: medical professionals who were helped to uphold the Church’s teachings, trainee teachers whose passion for religious education was fired, and lay people who gained the formation to live faithfully in secular environments.
They hope the weight of testimony will move the archdiocese to change its decision. Natasha Marsh, a current student, says: “Even if it moves on, reassembles in some other form, it won’t be the Institute, and Melbourne Catholic life will lose one of its crowning jewels.”
But there is a possible second home for the institute. Sydney’s Archbishop, Anthony Fisher, is a Dominican and a bioethicist, and one of the leading theological minds in the Australian Church. He also helped to found the institute. It would make an interesting chapter in the old Sydney-Melbourne rivalry if Archbishop Fisher now offered a rescue plan.
This article first appeared in the November 4 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here