News Analysis

The JPII Institute authorities have been caught off guard

Archbishop Paglia

The present and future of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences has students and professors of the recently re-founded school perplexed and alarmed, while reporters dig for answers.

Pope John Paul II founded the Institute nearly 40 years ago, following the 1980 synod on the family. The focus of the institute was to be on advanced theological formation and research. It was meant to immerse students in the Church’s way of thinking theologically and applying that way of thinking to the family, thus preparing them to engage with contemporary culture over the increasingly urgent and pressing questions of the family in the life of the Church and of society.

Pope Francis suppressed the old JPII Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in 2017, and reconstituted it under the new, similar name. The Pope made Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia and Mgr Pierangelo Sequeri respectively Grand Chancellor and President of the newly reconstructed academic institution. Francis tasked Paglia and Sequeri with implementing the Institute’s new modes and orders. That work has not gone as smoothly or uncontroversially as the men tasked with it probably hoped.

Since late July, former professors and administrators have been asking questions and sounding klaxons over the process. Some of the questions are highly technical, and regard things like professors’ terms of employment and academic rights, as well as issues of curricular continuity. Students, especially, are concerned not only with their ability to finish their degrees according to the study programmes under which they began, but with the preservation of the educational ethos of the institution at which they chose to study.

The problem, in other words, is not with the expansion of the JPII Institute’s curriculum and profile to include more offerings and greater emphasis on the sociological study of the family. It is with the apparent reduction of the institute’s theological focus. That focus was supposed to inform and direct the social scientific study of the family.

It was also supposed to provide the intellectual wherewithal for a successful synthesis of all knowledge across disciplines, as well as the basis for further research and engagement with the natural and social scientific communities. From the beginning, all of that was supposed to be in order to respond to current and long-standing challenges in the culture more broadly considered.

In a nutshell: how do things like the elimination of two chairs in moral theology – held by long-serving and much beloved professors of significant stature, whose tenure is not confirmed in the new outfit – contribute to the strengthening and expansion of the institute’s theological vision of teaching and formation?

It’s a reasonable question – and one that wonky appeals to arcane law both ecclesiastical and civil were always unlikely to satisfy.

The Catholic Herald reported from Rome last week that those responsible for implementing the new charter and by-laws of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family are not ready to answer questions about what exactly they are doing at the academic institution, the former iteration of which was loved and respected by students and professors alike.

That admission came at the turn of a week that began with Archbishop Paglia’s Twitter account issuing an invitation to several English-language news outlets to read the official documents and avail themselves of institutional talking points. Last week also saw the JPII Institute chiding reporters for not seeking answers from authorities directly, and announcing: “The press office [of the JPII Institute] is always available for clarification and information.”

An official from Archbishop Paglia’s office in the Pontifical Academy for Life – which Paglia also heads – spoke with the Herald, explaining the reason for the lack of readiness to answer in terms of officials’ desire to be “absolutely serious” in giving responses, and said the delay of “a few weeks in the month of August” is owing in part to unresolved technical and personnel issues.

It was a strange admission on many different levels. The new statutes for the JPII Institute may have come as a surprise to professors and students, but they oughtn’t to have been a surprise to the people who prepared them. Presumably, the academic authorities who prepared them knew what they were doing and why they were doing it. They should have anticipated concerns, and been prepared to answer them.

Instead, the outcry appears to have caught the responsible authorities off guard. At least, the responses that authorities did provide have not satisfied the people who posed the questions and raised the issues.

The public address of the controversy by (current and former) students, teachers, and high officials has been mixed in tone and content. Some of the headlines – especially in the Italian press, to which Vatican officials pay especially close attention – have been rather breathless (not to say overwrought). The business bears all the hallmarks of sclerotic Vatican bureaucracy and unready communications in the two departments most directly interested: the JPII Institute itself and the Pontifical Academy for Life.

One thing is certain: this story is not going away any time soon.