Comment Opinion & Features

The JPII Institute purge is a sign of weakness, not strength

Archbishop Paglia

It’s the beginning of the end for Amoris Laetitia, the document of Pope Francis on the family which attempted to change the Church’s teaching on admitting people in invalid marriages to Holy Communion. When the end will come is not known, but that it will come is now clear.

Recent structural changes at the pontifical institute for marriage and family studies do not indicate a confidence that the teaching of Amoris Laetitia is true and thus will be found theologically sound. Rather, it will be enforced by diktat, abrogating academic rights in order to ensure conformity to a new orthodoxy. But an orthodoxy that has to be enforced from above, that depends upon power rather than persuasion, will not endure. Bureaucratic manoeuvring can cost professors their jobs, but it cannot establish the truth.

Some history is in order. At the 1980 synod on the family, the synod fathers requested that a research and teaching institute be established to promote the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family. The post-Humanae Vitae crisis had, over a decade, demonstrated the urgent need for such scholarly work to better inform the Church’s pastoral practice. On May 13, 1981, John Paul was to announce the creation of such a pontifical institute at a general audience. He never got the chance due to the assassination attempt that day, and the formal announcement was delayed until October 1981.

The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family was created at the Lateran University, the pope’s own university in Rome. The first head was Carlo (later Cardinal) Caffarra. He was also appointed to the chair of moral theology, signifying the importance of those questions to the Church’s teaching and pastoral practice.

So much in demand was the work of the institute that satellite “sessions” were set up in the United States, Brazil, Benin, Chile, India, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Spain and Australia (which has now closed). The various programmes have produced a generation of scholars who have revitalised the Church’s practice of marriage preparation, training in chastity and theology of the body. The institutes took their guidance from John Paul’s magisterium, particularly Familiaris Consortio (1981) and Veritatis Splendor (1993).

That was a problem for the twin synods on the family which the Holy Father convened in 2014 and 2015. Therefore Amoris Laetitia (2016) had to misrepresent the teaching of Familiaris Consortio and pretend that Veritatis Splendor did not exist.

In 2017, Pope Francis moved against the JPII Institute in Rome, filled as it was with bothersome professors who kept on pointing out the difficulties in Amoris Laetitia. He renamed it an institute for “family sciences” and put it under the control of a new grand chancellor, Archbishop Vicenzo Paglia. Mgr Livio Melina was removed as president. The new institute would keep John Paul’s name but not his teaching; it was to take as its guiding light the teaching of Amoris Laetitia.

Last week Archbishop Paglia published the new statutes. All professors lost their positions, and will have to re-apply to see if they are considered reliable allies in advancing the new agenda. Definitively sacked are the two leading moral theologians, Mgr Melina and Fr José Noriega. Indeed, Melina’s position, the chair in moral theology has been eliminated altogether. There will be less theology, less moral reflection and more social sciences in Paglia’s new model.

For good measure, there are reports that professor emeritus Stanisław Grygiel, a close friend of John Paul who was on the original faculty in 1981, has been pushed out.

One Italian journalist described the move as a “purge” on social media. The post was “liked” by Cardinal Angelo Scola, former Archbishop of Milan and former head of the Lateran University.

According to reports, more than 150 students have signed a letter of protest against Paglia’s purge.

Anyone familiar with a university might wonder how Archbishop Paglia managed to defenestrate the top two professors and threaten to cast out the rest, what with tenure and other academic freedoms in place to prevent just that. The method was savvy if underhanded. In effect, the new statutes create an entirely new institute, thereby expiring all previous contracts made with the predecessor institute.

Archbishop Paglia has the power to do it, and has now done it. But to what end? In shredding the academic credibility of his new institute, the very task that he has assigned it – the promotion of Amoris Laetitia – is fatally compromised.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of