News Analysis

The JPII Institute has been plunged into an identity crisis

Pope Francis greets the institute’s grand chancellor Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (CNS)

Whichever view one takes of the changes to the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, now styled the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, it is absolutely of the essence to keep the facts of the business squarely and closely in focus.

As the story of the “renewal in continuity” Pope Francis inaugurated with the promulgation of his Apostolic Letter motu proprio, Summa familiae cura, juridically suppressing the old institute and establishing the new one grows louder and hotter in its telling, that task becomes more difficult, and more crucial.

The facts are, in short: that Pope Francis suppressed the old institute and constituted a new one; the suppression entailed the dissolution of professors’ contracts; professors were recently informed they would have to reapply, and that not all of them would immediately find placement within the new institute; and the curriculum is radically changed, with a focus on the social-scientific study of the family.

Though the project may find its place fairly within the broader reform of the Roman Curia and affiliated Roman institutions, to speak of a reform of the institute is frankly to stretch semantics to the breaking point. Pope Francis suppressed the old institute, and founded a new one, with a similar name to take its place. Good, bad, or indifferent, that’s what he did.

There were two chairs dedicated to the study of moral science at the old institute: fundamental moral theology and special moral theology. The professors who held those chairs, Mgr Livio Melina and Fr José Noriega, no longer have their teaching positions at the new institute. Precisely what role they may have in the new institute remains unclear.

A communiqué issued late Monday afternoon Rome time only partially addressed the concerns of students, who reportedly sent a letter expressing dismay and some consternation over the identity and future of the institute. The communiqué spoke mostly about technical issues regarding currently enrolled students, explaining that they will have three years in which to complete their courses of study under the old regime, or switch to the new regime if they so desire and if it isn’t too much trouble.

According to the Catholic News Agency, however, the heart of the students’ letter spoke of “the loss of the formational approach, and therefore, of the identity of the Pontifical Theological Institute John Paul II.” The student representatives who authored the letter asked flatly: “Why continue to study at the John Paul II Institute if it does not seem to propose anything different from what we can find among the curricula of secular universities, usually in more attractive and effective ways?”

Couched in often highly technical language, the Vatican press release appears to have done little to allay fears or answer criticism, or even adequately address questions posed by news outlets, including the Catholic Herald. In the early hours of Monday morning, a tweet sent from the English account that has the name of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia – president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and grand chancellor of the institute – as its handle, invited the Herald and other English-language news outlets to read the official documents and make use of the official talking points.

It was an unusual request, not exactly typical of a leader feeling the strength of his position in the public conversation. It turns out that it is highly unlikely Archbishop Paglia even knew about the tweet. “Archbishop Paglia knows nothing about the world of Twitter,” one source close to his operation told the Herald, further explaining that the archbishop farms out his personal Twitter handles to third parties.

One of those parties is James M Crowley, a Florida lawyer who confirmed his involvement with Archbishop Paglia’s Anglophone social media output but otherwise steadfastly refused to comment for the record.

Another source close to the Paglia operation wondered whether the early morning tweet on Monday was not, perhaps, an attempt to be helpful. It seemed to the source that several Anglophone news outlets were unaware of the documents listed in the tweet, among which were the aforementioned motu proprio, Summa familiae cura and a memo prepared by Mgr Pierangelo Sequeri, the number two man at the institute, and dated September 19, 2017.

It is an unlikely explanation, to be perfectly frank. One of the items to which the tweet pointed the various outlets was a 2017 interview Archbishop Paglia and Mgr Sequeri, gave to Crux – and Crux’s John Allen was among the tweet’s addressees. Maybe the composer of the tweet thought he would flatter Allen with a mention. Who knows?

Oh, well. A reporter or a news outlet being told they don’t know the job is par for the course. The problem here is that there appear to be tweets going out under the handle of a high-ranking Vatican official who may not be fully aware of what is going out under his name. It’s either that, or Archbishop Paglia actually thought it was a good idea to send that invitation, and it’s tough to say which is worse.