The Vatican announced today that Pope Francis has established a new Pontifical John Paul II institute for “Marriage and Family Sciences” to replace the previous academic institution founded by John Paul in 1981.

In an apostolic letter Summa Familiae Cura issued motu proprio and published Sept. 19, the Vatican said the new entity — whose name will be the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences — is being established to carry forward the work of the two recent Synods of Bishops and the apostolic exhortation that came from those meetings, Amoris Laetitia.

The Pope notes the important work carried out by the original institute, called the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, which was founded in the wake of the 1980 Synod on the Family.

Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, who died Sept. 6, was the founding president of that Institute. As a signatory to the dubia given to Pope Francis exactly a year ago today, he had serious concerns about Amoris Laetitia, interpretations of which he found incompatible with John Paul II's teachings and the magisterium of the Church. 

But Pope Francis, who signed Summa Familiae Cura in Colombia just two days after Cardinal Caffarra’s passing, writes that the family synods of 2014 and 2015 have brought a renewed awareness of “the new pastoral challenges to which the Christian community is called to respond.”

Contemporary anthropological and cultural changes, the Pope continues, require “a diversified and analytical approach” which cannot be “limited to pastoral and missionary practices” of the past.

Instead, he says, we must be able to interpret our faith in a context in which individuals are less supported than before as they deal with the complex realities of family life. Faithful to the teachings of Christ, the Pope continues, it is important to explore these “lights and shadows of family life” with realism, wisdom and love.

Like its predecessor, the new institute will continue to work as part of the Pontifical Lateran University. It will also be closely connected to the Holy See through the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Pontifical Academy for Life and the new Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.

The institute, which comes into effect immediately, will offer students courses leading to a diploma, a license and a doctorate in marriage and family sciences.

In an interview with Vatican Radio’s Italian edition, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the institute’s grand chancellor, said the “great insight” of John Paul II “asks to be enlarged and enriched,” adding that it “finds its realization” in the text of Amoris Laetitia.  

“Pope Francis asks that the reality of families in their concreteness… can be protagonists of a renewal in the Church and in society,” Archbishop Paglia added. 

He said he wished to “underline” this “anthropological aspect” which “has been instituted through a new Chair called Gaudium et Spes whose task is to investigate, propose, dialogue with all the human sciences, because the family today rediscovers its vocation not in the abstract.”

He said a “new reflection” is needed and that the new institute will study better and in a more robust fashion areas such as family history and family law. And he added it will be “essential” to enlarge the library and to “revisit” the other John Paul II institutes on marriage and the family on five continents, “because the two celebrated synods [on the family] do not remain a written text without the responsibility to deepen it theologically, scientifically and pastorally.”

Archbishop Paglia insists it will strengthen the theological aspects of the Institute by better underlining the biblical and dogmatic pastoral dimension. He also said the word "science" is used to denote a "much broader dialogue with the great challenges of the contemporary world, and a deepening of the anthropological perspective."

Informed sources say the emphasis on human sciences effectively means a greater focus on psychology, sociology, pedagogy, using the scientific method, medicine, and bioethics — in other words, putting more weight on what is quantifiable regarding the human person. The institute has always had a scientific approach and the juridical statutes of the Institute state that three goals of the method are: didactic, scientific and pastoral, but the concern is that greater emphasis on human sciences will come at the expense of theology and philosophy.

 

Undermining St. John Paul’s Teaching?

Today’s announcement comes after significant changes at the Institute, including the appointments last year of Archbishop Paglia as grand chancellor, and Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, as dean.

Both are known to support a much criticized interpretation of Amoris Laetitia which would allow some remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion, as well as being supportive of a softening of the teaching of Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church’s ban on artificial contraception.

Scholars also within the John Paul II Institute itself have criticized both stances as diametrically opposed to the teachings of St. John Paul II.

Not surprisingly, the John Paul II Institute became a thorn in the side of those pushing for such changes, as became clear throughout the synods of the family when some of the Institute’s professors wrote numerous books resisting attempts by synod participants to allow remarried divorcees or those living in other irregular unions to receive Holy Communion (although the professors argued, in a book published earlier this year, that Amoris Laetitia could be read in continuity with the traditional teaching of the Church). 

These were in contrast to such attempts to weaken the Church’s teaching, such as the “shadow synod” of May 2015, partly organized by Msgr. Sequeri and attended by recently appointed members of the Pontifical Academy for Life headed by Archbishop Paglia.

The Institute’s publications, on the other hand, were widely seen as faithful interpretations of John Paul II’s teachings, drawing largely on his 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, and his 1993 encyclical on the Church’s moral teaching, Veritatis Splendor.

The dubia, five questions Cardinal Caffarra and three other cardinals sent to the Pope last year to clarify ambiguous passages of Amoris Laetitia, have also yet to be answered, pointing to unresolved problems with the apostolic exhortation.

This latest significant development is therefore being viewed in Rome as a further step to removing the obstacles presented by the teachings of St. John Paul II, paving the way for more changes. One of those may involve a reinterpretation of Humanae Vitae, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the document next year.  St. John Paul II’s magisterium has long been seen as the main bulwark against moves by dissenting theologians to weaken the teaching of the encyclical.

Concerns about today’s announcement are further heightened by reasons used to set up the new Institute: to interpret the faith in a context that takes into account “complex realities” and not “limited to pastoral and missionary practices” of the past. Such reasons closely resemble the controversial approaches used in interpreting Amoris Laetitia and which also are likely to be employed in any re-interpretation of Humanae Vitae.

But until the new statutes are published, it won’t be clear if there is a rupture with John Paul II’s teaching and the institute that preceded it, or if there is in fact continuity.

However, the signs of a break are there. The institute’s new leadership has already been trying to strengthen it by making the faculties grow and helping the institution to become more prestigious. That way it attracts professors and students of different perspectives, but it’s an approach which, while welcomed, is seen by some in the Institute as a further subtle attempt to undermine John Paul’s teaching by introducing disparate views, out of sync with his magisterium.

Meanwhile, the Register has learned via reliable sources that members of the German episcopate have recently grown frustrated with the pace of Francis’ reform and have been exerting pressure on the Pope to step up the pace — hence today’s motu proprio, and Magnum Principium, issued last week on liturgical translations. More importantly, they are said to be anxious that the reforms won’t be reversed by a future pope and so want them, as far as possible, set in stone, possibly by means of an Apostolic Constitution.

Pope Francis himself has said privately that he wants to be sure his reforms are irreversible, a view shared by one of his closest confidants. 

This article has been updated to include information on the previous institute's scientific approach.