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We’re not ready to answer questions about JPII Institute shake-up, says Vatican

Archbishop Paglia (CNS)

The admission comes amid growing criticism of sweeping reforms at the institute

The Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences has said that it is not, for the time being, answering questions regarding the ongoing implementation of its new charter and by-laws.

An official in the personal secretariat of the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who is also Grand Chancellor of the John Paul II Institute, confirmed the decision for the Catholic Herald. “This unavailability is momentary,” Fr Riccardo Mensuali explained, “because we want to be absolutely serious,” in answering questions raised.

“The institute remains desirous of giving exhaustive responses, but asks a few weeks’ time in the month of August in order to formulate adequate responses.”

Fr Mensuali also said one reason for the temporary indisposition is that professors’ nominations are awaiting approval in the Congregation for Catholic Education. In addition to unresolved issues regarding the teaching staff, there are also final decisions to make regarding curriculum, though Fr Riccardo told the Catholic Herald he could not speak about those. “I don’t know,” he said.

The position and its motivation came after a Monday statement from the JPII Institute’s press office proclaimed, “The press office is always available for clarifications and information.” On Tuesday and Wednesday, phone calls and emails to the institute’s press officer went unanswered, while officials at the Academy for Life promised answers that never came.

Last month, the president of the institute, Mgr Pierangelo Sequeri, discussed the doings at the institute with the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Avvenire. Prompted to discuss the institute’s readiness to “turn the page” and asked what is changing, Sequeri replied: “Rather than calling it simply a ‘turning of the page,’ we prefer to speak of ‘writing Volume Two’ of the history of the institute.”

“In this optic,” Msgr Sequeri continued, “we are faced particularly with the question of seeing to it that the new institution is more flexible and more effective in dealing with the needs that made a ‘re-creation’ appropriate: dialogue and broader interaction with all schools of thought in the Catholic Church in order to produce tools for learning that are theologically orthodox and pastorally adequate in the contemporary world; as well, the development of an academic institution that is able to communicate, competently and with no hesitation, in the new borderlands and the dialectics that characterise surprising advances in human knowledge.

“Our goals,” Mgr Sequeri further explained, “include targeted growth in the number of faculty and new tools for tailoring individual degree programs. Both of these are being finalized for implementation.”

Concerned voices from around the world and across a broad spectrum of opinion raised specific concerns about the new modes and orders being inaugurated at the institute. The press release the JPII Institute issued late Monday attempted to calm the waters, but left many questions outstanding. Some of those questions were technical in nature, while others regarded persistent concerns on the part of students, especially, over the Institute’s identity and mission.

The statement called news of a letter from some 150 students, “destitute of foundation” but noted that the president of the institute, Msgr Pierangelo Sequeri, had in fact received a letter, copied to the grand chancellor, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, from student representatives.

The students wrote: “Saddened and disconcerted by the way in which we have been notified about the crucial changes that affect us directly as students, we would like to begin by expressing our greatest concern: the loss of the formational approach and, therefore, of the identity of the Pontifical Theological John Paul II Institute.”

A cardinal element of the didactic programme and approach to formation at the old institute was advanced study in moral science, through the chairs in fundamental (general) and special moral theology, alongside the more tightly focused course offerings dealing with specific questions regarding marriage and the family. “This formational approach,” the students wrote, “was the main reason why most students (and their superiors) chose this institute for their education.”

“In a world where everything seems to be divided between a relativistic or legalistic vision of ethics,” the students wrote, “the vision taught by the institute allows us to understand morality as a path of fullness and meaning for the human being, where people are responsible for their actions while, at same time, always counting on the help of grace and of the virtues that help them live a good life.”

The press release from the new institute sought to reassure current students that they would be able to complete their programmes of study under the old system if they chose to do so, and noted the creation of new offerings in morals of marriage and the family and theological ethics of life. The communiqué also highlighted the approval of a twofold degree (Licentiate and Doctorate in theology of marriage and the family and in sciences of marriage and the family), which, the statement said, “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.”

“Not having so far obtained from the academic authorities of our institute, neither from the President nor from the Grand Chancellor, any satisfactory and clear answer to this letter, and also not having received in writing and publicly the absolute guarantee of the concrete fulfilment of Article 89 of the new statutes (on the continuity of the old programs and on the situation of the teachers),” the students published their letter.

They also invited concerned persons to sign. The students’ website claims over 535 signatures, of which more than 370 are current or former students.

The closing lines of the press release sharply criticised some of the reportage regarding the controversy, taking some journalists and news outlets to task for “not seeking information at the source”, before inviting journalists to contact the press office, promising it would be “always available”.

Meanwhile, criticism of the whole process of reconstituting the institute intensifies.

“There are grave elements, which put the identity and mission of the institute in danger,” the vice president of the old institute, Fr José Granados, told The Catholic Herald.

Fr Granados was an ordinary – roughly, a tenured – professor of the old institute, in addition to his administrative duties. He explained that his nomination is among those awaiting approval from the Congregation for Catholic Education, though he continues as vice president during the time of transition and has already been asked to teach in the coming year.

Speaking to the Spanish-language Religion confidencial, Fr Granados said a specific area of concern is one he shares with students: the teaching of theology at the institute, and particularly the elimination of the chair in fundamental moral theology, one of the two that did not make the cut.

The other, as noted, was special moral theology, taught by Fr José Noriega, who is Fr Granados’s superior in the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The Monday press release explained that Fr Noriega’s position at the institute was untenable in light of his role as superior, though it had never been an impediment in the more than 10 years since he was elected, and notwithstanding his term’s expiry in January of the coming year.

“It is said,” Fr Granados explained to Religion confidencial, “that [moral theology] is a subject of the first cycle,” ie the baccalaureate level of theology, which students entering the institute are expected to have completed.

“Now,” Fr Granados explains, “there are at least two other chairs (theological anthropology, fundamental theology),” which apparently remain as part of the institute, and create no problems for the authors of the changes.

“In addition,” Granados said, “it is known that a chair of a general nature, when given at the upper level of the Licentiate, is not limited to repeating what has been learned in the [first] cycle,” at which students receive basic introduction to methodology and history of the discipline, as well as an acquaintance with major themes and problems.

“[The second cycle] is about deepening in different aspects, as anyone can see, who takes a look at the courses [Prof Livio] Melina,” who held the fundamental chair until its elimination, used to offer. “Melina has delved into specific aspects of fundamental moral science, to illuminate marital and family morals from there,” he said.

“The identity is not dead, but it is seriously threatened.” Granados went on to say, “[I]t is necessary to present, with respect but clearly, the objective difficulties of this change and warn of the danger to the original mission of the institute, which Pope Francis has clearly said he wants to preserve.”