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Confusion grows at John Paul II Institute after scholars’ open letter

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, chancellor of the John Paul II Institute (CNS)

It is unclear whether the Institute will respond publicly to the letter

The debate over the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences has entered a new phase, after nearly 50 academics wrote an open letter asking the leadership to reconsider their reforms.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia and Mgr Pierangelo Sequeri, respectively Grand Chancellor and President of the JPII Institute, say they are aiming at “renewal in continuity”. But some of the changes they have introduced have appeared to former and current faculty and students alike as a radical departure from the theologically-oriented ethos that had been the core of the Institute.

There are also concerns over the manner in which those responsible have gone about the founding of the new Institute.

“It is with great distress,” the signatories write, “that we learned the news about the sudden dismissals of two full professors, José Noriega and Livio Melina, together with other colleagues: Maria Luisa Di Pietro, Stanisław Grygiel, Monika Grygiel, Przemysław Kwiatkowski, and Vittorina Marini.” The letter goes on to say, “We cannot see any convincing reason – academic, doctrinal or disciplinary – which justifies their dismissal.”

“If your institute wants to maintain its high academic profile and international reputation,” the letter says, “we ask you to revoke these dismissals and to reassume the aforementioned scholars among the faculty of your Institute.”

Two faculty members in particular are at the centre of the controversy: Prof Livio Melina and Prof José Noriega, who held respectively the chairs of fundamental and special moral theology in the old Institute. Prof Melina also served as president of the Institute in Rome for more than a decade before the Institute was suppressed and re-formed in 2017.

When the new charter and by-laws appeared in July, the two men found that their chairs had been eliminated, sparking several rounds of back-and-forth in the press that ended in the JPII Institute’s request for a few weeks in August to respond to the flood of queries.

Technically, the men were not dismissed from the Institute. When Pope Francis juridically suppressed the old Institute in 2017, professors’ contracts and rights of tenure ceased with it. Francis founded the new Institute in the same Apostolic Letter motu proprio by which he suppressed the old one, naming at the same time Archbishop Paglia Grand Chancellor, and Mgr Sequeri as President of the new Institute, and charged them with crafting and implementing the Institute’s new structure and curriculum.

As reported by The Catholic Herald, the leadership said that Melina and Noriega would be excluded from the new Institute merely because fundamental and special moral theology would no longer be taught. They also explained that Noriega’s current role as head of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary (DCJM) make him ineligible for tenure. Noriega, however, had held both positions – superior general of the DCJM and stable professor in the chair of special moral theology – since 2008, and has only a few months left in the leadership of his congregation.

Those explanations led to further questions. On August 2, Archbishop Paglia’s office said the new JPII Institute was not prepared to answer them. Paglia’s secretary, Fr Riccardo Mensuali, told The Herald, “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,” to questions raised with the Institute.

Prof Stanisław Grygiel’s inclusion among the list of those dismissed, however, has caused some confusion. Though his courses have been eliminated and his role in the life of the institution apparently attenuated, Prof Grygiel nevertheless retains his research position in the new Institute, as director of the Karol Wojtyla Chair in Philosophical Anthropology – an endowed chair without teaching responsibilities attached to it.

Since achieving emeritus status many years ago, Prof Grygiel has not only retained the directorship of the chair, but has until now been invited regularly to teach at the Institute.

A source close to the letter told the Catholic Herald the mention of Prof Grygiel was meant to highlight his effective sidelining, and to beg reconsideration of it. One of the signatories, Prof John C McCarthy, of the Catholic University of America, told the Herald he joined the letter August 3rd, without “having sought independent confirmation of every claim made in the letter,” and noting that the substance of the complaint remains despite the possibly imprecise statement regarding Grygiel’s status.

“I myself would in no way blame the original author or authors of the letter for not having rendered every particular with the utmost exactness, if indeed he or they were at any point inexact,” McCarthy said. “[F]rom what I have seen from various Italian and English-language reports in the media, it is hardly the case Archbishop Paglia and Prof Sequeri have even yet provided a clear and thorough account of the changes they have in mind, much less have they offered a persuasive rationale for what changes they have clearly announced,” he continued.

The Catholic Herald has not yet determined the identity of the letter’s principal draftsman or draftsmen. The signatories are contributors to an 11 hundred-page scholarly work curated by Prof. Noriega, titled Dizionario su sesso, amore e fecondità (Dictionary on Sex, Love, and Fecundity) released this year by the Sienese publishing house, Cantagalli. (Find the full text of the letter and a list of signatories here.)

“In the past three years, we, the undersigned members of ecclesiastical and secular academic institutions throughout the world, have had the privilege to participate at the recent great international scientific enterprise of your Institute,” they write.

They describe the project as “a very fruitful and professional scientific collaboration” that “has highlighted to us the outstanding academic profile of your institute as well as the great scientific and editorial competence of the main curator of the Dizionario, Professor José Noriega.”

One of Archbishop Paglia’s priest-secretaries in the Pontifical Academy for Life – which Paglia also heads – told The Herald on Friday that the Institute would be issuing a response to the open letter in a matter of days, perhaps as early as Monday of the coming week. A spokesperson for the JPII Institute, however, told the Herald that Paglia and Sequeri would “respond directly to the signatories, and not through the media.”