VATICAN CITY — Leading Catholic philosophers in the United States have written to the leadership of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome to express their concern that recent changes at the university have not properly respected the academic integrity of the institution.
“Observance in full of previously instituted procedures is part of what defines any academic institution as free in the pursuit of its mission,” leaders of the American Catholic Philosophical Association wrote in a Sept. 17 letter to both the grand chancellor and president of the John Paul II Institute.
“Without collegiality in this consultation and the involvement of governing boards and long-term faculty, the university or institute can no longer claim the imprimatur of seeking the truth. Just this loss of credibility now threatens the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.”
The letter was signed by the 15 American academics who comprise the executive council and the executive committee of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. They are: Thomas Cavanaugh, Jean De Groot, Daniel De Haan, Marie George, Heidi Giebel, Joshua Hochschild, Steven Jensen, Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski, Jesuit Father Arthur Madigan, Thomas Osborne, Michael Pakaluk, Timothy Pawl, Jonathan Sanford, Steven Striby and Christopher Tollefsen. They teach at The Catholic University of America, Fordham University, Boston College, the University of Dallas, University of San Francisco and several other institutions.
The letter was written in response to changes announced this summer to the pontifical theological institute, which was founded by Pope St. John Paul II in 1980.
In July, new statutes were approved for the institute, in response to a 2017 announcement that Pope Francis would legally refound the Institute, and broaden its academic curriculum, from a focus on the theology of marriage and the family to an approach that will also include the study of the family from the perspective of the social sciences.
After the new statutes designed to implement that vision were approved, students, alumni, and faculty raised concerns about the role of faculty members in the institute’s new governing structure, about the reduction of theology courses and the elimination of some theology disciplines, and about the dismissal of some faculty members, including Msgr. Livio Melina and Fr. Jose Noriega.
Faculty members have told CNA they do not object to the Pope’s desire to expand the school’s mission or approach, but say that the administrators responsible for implementing that mission have acted unfairly.
The philosophers agreed with that charge.
Their letter said that the institute has been a “voice of wisdom speaking freely from within the Church tradition,” and regretted that the institute’s credibility is “threatened by recent changes in the Institute, especially the dismissal of long-term faculty.”
“We realize that the justification for these changes is that the Institute has been re-established with new statutes,” the philosophers said, but added that “this re-establishment presents the appearance of a lack of academic due process.”
The philosophers are not the first scholars to express their concerns about the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. In August, a group of 49 academics who have collaborated with professors from the institute expressed similar concerns, in a letter to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the institute’s grand chancellor, and Msgr. Pierangelo Sequiri, its president. This month, the president of the Ukrainian bishops’ conference wrote to Vatican officials on behalf of other Ukrainian bishops, to express support for the institute’s original mission and faculty members.
For their part, the U.S. philosophers said the mission of the John Paul II Institute is unique, and important.
“While the reason given for changes at the John Paul II Institute is to update its course of studies, in fact its mission as envisioned by St. John Paul II continues to be relevant to the fostering of family life amid the pressures on marriage and family in the twenty-first century. We are especially mindful of the fact that there is no other Catholic institution of higher learning in the world that has the focus the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family has had,” the philosophers added.
“In contrast, there are many Catholic institutions of higher learning that foster the social sciences and advance the insights of these disciplines in relation to the Church’s mission of loving pastoral care for all people in their personal lives as sexual and communal beings.”
The philosophers asked institute officials “that the mission of the John Paul II Institute as originally constituted be reinstated and that the faculty members whose contributions have been excluded by the new statutes be restored to their positions in the Institute. Only these measures are consistent with the canons of academic freedom and the very great need for the contribution of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute to the intellectual life of the Church.”