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What is happening at Rome’s John Paul II Institute?

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (CNS)

The institute has responded to accusations that it is purging long-serving professors

The Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences issued a communiqué late Monday addressing several points in a major years-old controversy that erupted afresh late last week, in connection with reports of the promulgation of the new institute’s statutes.

In his 2017 Apostolic Letter motu proprio, Summa familiae cura, Pope Francis accomplished both the suppression of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, and the erection of the new institute: a twofold move that drew intense and sustained criticism from different quarters and across the spectrum of opinion in the Church. The promulgation of the new charter and by-laws for the institute fanned the flames of long-standing disputes over the nature and general direction of the “renewal in continuity” academic authorities maintain is underway.

The news also raised specific questions regarding the future of two renowned and long-serving professors, who held key positions in the old institute. They are Mgr Livio Melina and Fr José Noriega, who held respectively the chairs in fundamental and special moral theology at the (now-superseded) Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

Early Monday, the Catholic Herald attempted to contact Archbishop Paglia directly, by phone and email, for clarification. The institute sent us to the Pontifical Academy for Life, of which Paglia is also the head. Word there was that he is on vacation. By press time, he had not replied to our email requests for clarification of the issues surrounding the new institute’s statutes, including the practical effects of their implementation.

The new institute did, however, issue a statement to the press late Monday, explaining that the new statutes replace fundamental and special moral theology with “moral theology of marriage and the family” and “theological ethics of life”. The communiqué also said: “The approval of the twofold degree (Licentiate and Doctorate in theology of marriage and the family and in sciences of marriage and the family) assures a gain to the specificity of theological research that is at the same time explicated and connected to the rest of the sciences that study marriage and the family.”

“Moreover,” the communiqué continues, “such a twofold itinerary responds with greater care to the standards envisioned by the Bologna Process,” ie the series of agreements among EU member states aimed at guaranteeing common — or at least comparable — standards in higher education. The Holy See joined the Bologna Process in 2003.

The authors of the new project contend that the work thus far advanced represents “positive, carefully thought-out developments”. That’s how Archbishop Paglia, the chancellor of the new John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, put it. He offered the characterisation in a tweet inviting the Catholic Herald and other English-speaking news organisations to review the documents of record and attend to the “media points” and “talking points” — Archbishop Paglia’s words for them — found in various statements released through the Vatican’s official media organs and in other reports.

Some students of the institute beg to differ with parts, at least, of Archbishop Paglia’s characterisation. According to the Catholic News Agency, the students sent a letter to Archbishop Paglia and the preside (literally “principal” though often rendered “president”), Mgr Pierangelo Sequeri, reportedly expressing “greatest concern” over the identity and mission of the institute.

The students reportedly 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?”

The strongly worded communiqué from the new institute on Monday afternoon sharply criticised some of the reportage that has appeared since news of the new charter, by-laws and handbook appeared last week.

“[D]estitute of foundation,” the communiqué reads, “is the news of a letter by 150 students who complain of the novelties.” The next sentence in the bulleted paragraph addressing the reports of the letter says: “To date, only one letter has reached the academic authorities from the representatives of the students in the Licentiate and Master’s [degree] courses, in which they request explanations regarding the novelties in place.

“In contrast with what has been reported,” the communiqué further explains, “all the students were promptly informed of the news and reassured, in accordance with the Art. 89 of the Statutes, regarding the three-year validity of the old study programmes.” Article 89 states that students who began their studies under the old regime will be able to complete their degrees according to the old curriculum. “Everyone will be given the opportunity to choose between old and new orders and the time to draw up any new study plans,” the statement says.

Whatever construction one would put on the number of students the letter represents; the institute acknowledges receipt of it. Sources close to the new institute told the Catholic Herald it did not bear the signatures of 150 students, but only of their student-representatives. The Herald asked the press office of the institute for a copy of the letter. The press office declined, saying it was not authorised to share the document.

The communiqué from the institute also confirms the departure of Professors Melina and Noriega from their previous roles, offering a technical explanation of the reasons. “It was necessary to take note of the impossibility of Prof Noriega’s continued occupation of the role of stable docent inasmuch as he is Superior General of a religious order (as stipulated in Can. 152 of the Code of Canon Law, Art. 29 of Veritatis gaudium, both received in Article 31 of the Statutes [of the Institute]),” the communiqué recites.

Canon 152 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “Two or more incompatible offices, that is, offices which together cannot be fulfilled at the same time by the same person, are not to be conferred upon one person.” Speaking to the Catholic Herald on background, two canon lawyers explained that Canon 152 is discussing offices that are by their very nature incompatible, for example Promotor of Justice and Defender of the Bond on a marriage tribunal.

Promulgated in 2018, Veritatis Gaudium states in Article 29, “Teachers, in order to carry out their tasks satisfactorily, must be free from other employment which cannot be reconciled with their duty to do research and to instruct, according to what the Statutes require for each rank of teacher.” Article 31 of the Statutes states, in pertinent part: “Docents, in order to carry out the duties of their office, must be free from other incumbencies, incompatible with their research and teaching tasks, according to what is required in the Statutes of the individual orders of teachers,” ie “Ordinary” and “Extraordinary” professors, adjuncts or invited professors.

In any case, Prof Noriega was first elected Superior General of the Disciples in 2008, at which time his election was not, apparently, considered incompatible with his teaching duties or research responsibilities. Prof Noriega had become Ordinary Professor of Special Moral Theology in 2006, and became editorial director of the John Paul II Institute in 2010. His term as superior expires in January 2020.

With regard to Prof Melina, the communiqué says, “[He] was not inserted among the stable docents of the new Institute, since the chair of fundamental moral theology he has heretofore occupied is no longer present.”

“Naturally,” the communiqué continues, “all rights acquired shall be assured to both.”

Follow-up queries to the Institute regarding what rights they have acquired, and how they shall be assured, did not receive answer by press time. The communiqué also says rumours of the suppression of the Karol Wojtyła Chair in Philosophical Anthropology and the separation of the Chair’s 85-year-old director, Prof. Stanislaw Grygiel, are “destitute of all foundation”.

Another point addressed in the communiqué is the reduced number of optional courses and seminars. “This, the statement explains, “has resulted in the failure to renew, for this year, some collaborations with adjunct professors”, though the bulleted paragraph addressing the issue further states that the possibility “of resuming the collaboration for future years has been communicated, thanks to a cyclical programming of some complementary courses.”

The communiqué declares “absolutely false” the “news relative to the firing of any of the institute’s administrative employees”, further stating that staff will all continue in their service, which is “extremely important in this time of change”. The paragraph also expresses “gratitude for all the work done in these weeks”.

The statement explains that the re-nomination of the entire professoriate was a juridical necessity arising from the suppression of the old institute and the erection of the new one: that the direct appointment of faculty by the chancellor and the president for the coming academic year is owing to the fact that the faculty council is not yet in place; that the nomination of new faculty members will in the future involve public concourses – essentially open application, examination, and review — and that “the news circa a concentration of power in the hands of the Grand Chancellor therefore reveals itself to be false.”

Nevertheless, Article 25 of the statutes provides that the Grand Chancellor will choose one of the three members of the commission evaluating any given candidate for promotion to Extraordinary Professor (roughly, stable or tenured status). The preside will participate and preside over the commission, and the faculty council will pick one member. Section 2 of Article 26 establishes that a two-thirds majority vote of the whole faculty council is required to force a reconsideration of a candidate.

Though too soon to say for certain, the concern is that the practical upshot of the arrangement would be a Grand Chancellor who could regularly find himself controlling — at least indirectly — two of the three votes on the evaluating commission. The faculty council, meanwhile, would need a remarkably high level of unity in opposition, in order to thwart an unpopular candidate’s advancement.

In a September 2017 interview with Crux, Archbishop Paglia and the president of the new institute, Mgr Pierangelo Sequeri, discussed the re-foundation of the institute. “Today,” Paglia said, “there’s a general disorientation of the family,” for which an institute capable of sustaining a broad reflection on the constitution and state of the family — not only the Christian family, but the family as such — is necessary and indeed indispensable.

“Pope Francis has intuited this,” Paglia continued. “He’s maintained the talent that was already there, and that’s still here, from the institute as envisioned by John Paul II, but he felt the responsibility to double it, not to put it underground.”

Mgr Sequeri said: “Listen, this is still a good car, it still runs. It was an ingenious invention. Now, it needs to develop a new capacity that’s adequate for the situation we face today.” Sequeri went on to say: “The trick is to develop other capacities, and the first thing is to neutralise the prejudice that says it can’t be done because it was born in another time.”

“You’re not looking to subtract anyone, but to add?” Crux asked flatly.

Sequeri: Right, to add something doesn’t mean taking away anything of what was there before. I’ve committed to working with this car, and with these people. I’ve said that, it’s a guarantee. I’m working with these people.

Paglia: All that, of course, on the understanding that this isn’t a museum. It has to be lived in, and it has to be cultivated. Just like a diocese or a bishops’ conference, if, inside the institute, something isn’t working anymore, if something has become lazy or useless, then it has to be changed, but that’s true of any institution in the world.

Sequeri: Right, if something isn’t serving the aims of the institute then changes have to be made, but that’s not a matter of changing strategy, it’s just normal life. Believe me, we don’t have any vision for saying, ‘I’m going to change this, I’m going to send these people away and find others.’

Paglia: This new institution is also strongly supported by the Congregation for Catholic Education, because there’s a general reorganization going on of which this is probably the first example. In this sense, all the affiliated institutions on the different continents will have to adjust themselves to the new requested standards.

Sequeri: But we can also reassure everyone, because the Congregation also said to us, if you guarantee something, that’s enough, and we can do it, such as appointments of professors and approval of courses. That’s important to make sure that everyone who works for us has the proper recognition to do it. We also want anyone who gets certification from us to know it’s a real one, and we’ll handle that in a brief amount of time.

“These clarifications herein given,” the concluding paragraph of the communiqué from the new John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences says, “arise in the face of a distorted, biased communication, sometimes in bad faith, which often has never even sought a verification of the news at the source.”

“We would like to thank all those journalists who, even with legitimate positions critical of certain choices, desired to recount the changes underway with honesty,” the statement goes on to say. “The press office is always available for clarifications and information.”

The questions the student-representatives reportedly raised in their letter, however, remain outstanding.