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Students say changes at Rome’s JPII Institute undermine its mission

Pope Francis greets Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, grand chancellor of the John Paul II Institute (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

A professor added that 'the continuity of the identity of the Institute is dead'

More than 150 students at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome have signed a letter saying that newly approved statutes will undermine the institute’s mission and identity.

“We want to express our greatest concern: the loss of the formational approach, and therefore, of the identity of the Pontifical Theological Institute John Paul II,” the students wrote in their July 24 letter, which was sent to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the institute’s grand chancellor, and Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, its president.

“Many students have expressed their immense concern after the unexpected publication of the new statutes and the new program of studies for our new Institute, together with the sad news of the expulsion of two professors whose chairs have a central role in the formation offered by the institute,” they added.

The letter was sent soon after the approval of new statutes for the Institute, two years after Pope Francis announced that he would reestablish the school, broadening its focus on theology to include the “science of the family.”

The pope called for the development of new statutes to govern the school, which was legally reconstituted in 2017.

A faculty member at the Institute expressed concern to CNA that the new statutes concentrate the hiring of faculty and development of curriculum in the chancellor’s office, now occupied by Paglia.

The faculty member said that tenured professors will no longer be involved in the search for new faculty members, and will only be able to stop a new hire with a two-thirds majority vote. This, the professor said, will be “practically impossible” because of faculty appointment recently made at the institute.

The professor said that when the Pontifical John Paul II Institute was founded, it had been especially important to then-Pope John Paul II that tenured professors consent to new faculty appointments, “to secure the continuity of the Institute’s identity.”

“With this new process, the continuity of the identity of the Institute is dead,” the professor told CNA.

The professor also confirmed that the Institute’s faculty chair of moral theology will be eliminated, an idea he called “inconceivable.”

He also said that the new process for hiring faculty is a break with ordinary academic practices.

“I don’t remember any academic precedent that has ever eliminated chairs and tenures by arguing that the current Institute is a totally new organization and that therefore the previous professors with tenure have no rights: this is simply a juridical scam.  And the juridical scam is being used against the two experts of morals: (Monsignor Livio) Melina and (Father Jose) Noriega.”

Melina and Noriega will not return to teach at the John Paul II Institute next year. Technically, because all professors will be given new contracts under the new statutes of the Institute, they were not fired; instead, their contracts have not been renewed.

They will, reportedly, be able to continue working with students completing dissertations under their direction.

At the time changes to the Institute were announced in 2017, Paglia said that faculty would not be cut, but rather expanded, bringing in new professors and experts to discuss themes relevant to the “sciences of marriage and family.”

But Italian Catholic news agency La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana reported this week that all faculty members in Rome were recently informed that, because of the new statutes, professors would be suspended until they could be evaluated in light of the Institute’s needs, and possibly reassigned to teach new courses in the fall.

Melina, who was reportedly informed that he will not continue at the institute, earned in 1985 the first doctoral degree given by the Institute, and served as its long-time president.

His dismissal, and that of Noriega, came as a shock to many at the Institute.

“All these decisions about curricula and personnel have been made during the summer, without the input of a single faculty member,” one professor told CNA.

Among new faculty members appointed to teach at the university is Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, who argued in 2018 that the use of artificial contraception could, in some cases, “be recognized as an act of responsibility that is carried out, not in order to radically reject the gift of a child but because in those situations, responsibility calls the couple and the family to other forms of welcome and hospitality.”

The letter sent by the students raised particular concern about the reported elimination of the Institute’s chair of moral theology.

“At the center of our concern regarding the identity of the Institute is the suppression of the chair of fundamental moral theology. We know how important that study of human action was for Pope John Paul II, to the point of entrusting the (moral theology) chair precisely to the first president, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra,” their letter said.

After voicing objection to the reported dismissal of Molina and Noriega, the students’ letter said that the Institute seems to be remaking itself in a way that models a secularized approach to studying the family.

The letter asked: “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?”

A source connected to the Institute told CNA that the newly approved statutes also raise concerns about the Institute’s academic integrity and reputation.

“Any reputable academician would be concerned about how the academic aspect of the Institute has been handled. Pope Francis deserves that Amoris laetitia be fairly discussed, rather than it being imposed by theological partisanship. This new approach to the faculty and curriculum totally imperils the credibility of the Institute,” the source said.

“I also wonder: There are clear academic guidelines standardized by the European Union that have to be respected if the Institute wants its degrees to be valid. Have these norms been taken into consideration?”

The source noted the importance of due process in academic settings, in order to protect academic freedom.

The new processes, he said “are violating all academic standards, thus casting a big shadow over the credibility of the Institute.”

“When John Paul II created the Institute,” he said, “he did not fire teachers in other universities who thought differently from him, like Bernhard Häring or others opposed to Humanae vitae, even at pontifical universities. Instead, he created an institute to address the issues in dispute in an academic manner.”

In response to recent criticisms, Sequeri told CNA that the new statutes will strengthen the Institute’s identity.

“The approval of the statutes and of the new study plan of the John Paul II Institute put into effect the reform that Pope Francis asked for in the motu proprio Summa familiae cura; they reiterate and relaunch with new strength John Paul II’s original inspiration, and give a specific centrality to family, which is now the object of study from every perspective.”

With regard to theology, Sequeri said that “the new study plan strengthens the theological reflection on family. The study of moral theology is part of the theological reflection. The study of moral theology is still critical and it is framed in a broader area of studies which consents to better understand the reality of families.”

“By focusing on the issue of the Gospel’s sense of family life, ecclesial reflection can more vigorously move towards the anthropological-cultural change that influences all aspects of life and requires an analytic and varied approach.”

Paglia declined to comment.

The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family was founded in 1981 in order to develop the themes in John Paul II’s 1960 book “Love and Responsibility,” written when he was still Cardinal Wojtyla, and as well as the theology of the body he developed while pope.

While the Institute’s main headquarters remains in Rome, the school has campuses all over the world, including Washington DC, Nigeria, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, India and South Korea, among others. It is not yet known how the new statutes might impact those campuses.

Andrea Gagliarducci contributed to this report.