Recent Key Appointments Unsettle John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia (photo: Wikipedia)

Last month, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, until now president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, as the new grand chancellor of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

The Institute, established in 1981, is devoted to the study of the truth about the human person in all its dimensions with the aim of generating a “culture of life”. Headquartered in Rome, it has centers in Washington D.C. and around the world.

Archbishop Paglia has often spoken out in defense of the Church’s teaching on family, marriage and human sexuality, but he has also made it clear through his statements and actions that he is no standard-bearer of the Church’s traditional approach to these issues, ones the Institute has tried to uphold.

He has controversially supported the “Kasper proposal”, a “penitential path” that would allow remarried divorcees living in a state of adultery to receive Holy Communion, and shown himself to be in favor of recognizing extra-marital unions. He has been accepting of homosexual relationships on several occasions, most notably at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last year. In 2015, he appeared to praise the pro-homosexual television show Modern Family as initiating dialogue about “the family”.

In July, he allowed the Pontifical Council for the Family to commend a high school-level sex education program that has been widely criticized. The Cardinal Newman Society said the program makes “frequent use of sexually explicit and morally objectionable images” and “fails to clearly identify and explain Catholic doctrine.” The program, published on the pontifical council’s website, “represents a significant break from the traditional approach to Catholic instruction and learning about human sexuality,” the Society said.

Dr. Thomas Ward, founder and president of the UK’s National Association of Catholic Families, said he found it “monstrous” that the pontifical council would not only back a “sexual education program for teens but one that bypasses parents as the primary educator of their children.”

In between the two Synods on the Family, Archbishop Paglia also oversaw the publication of a book called Family and Church: An Indissoluble Bond containing lectures given in 2015 at three seminars promoted by his dicastery. Critics have said the arguments in the book, although exploratory in nature, largely rejected prior teaching on marriage and the family, especially that of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in favor of the Kasper proposal.

The book’s defenders, however, said the arguments aimed to deal with the complex nature of relationships today, to better aid those preparing to marry and those experiencing marital problems, and reach out to those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment. They also said the text, which also drew on lectures given by professors from the John Paul II Institute, warned against trying to pigeon-hole Church leaders as being in either-or categories of loving ministers of God’s mercy or strong defenders of God’s truth.

In an interview at the time with the Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana, Archbishop Paglia said that finding pastoral approaches to express God’s mercy while being faithful to Church teaching is complicated, but it is “pharisaical to limit ourselves to repeating laws and denouncing sins.” The Church, he said, “must be frank in admonishing, but it also must be ready to find new paths to follow.”

In a Sept. 10 interview with Crux, Archbishop Paglia stressed the importance of building bridges “to reach others" but at the same time "realizing that neither you nor the person you’re reaching out to ever have the full and complete truth, once and for all time.” The truth, he said, “isn’t just an idea, but it’s also friendship, it’s also dialogue".

As well as Archbishop Paglia’s appointment, the Pope also named Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, president of the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy in Milan, as the new president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. A musician and expert in using music to rehabilitate young people suffering from mental and other disorders, he replaces Msgr. Livio Melina, a respected moral theologian.

Msgr. Sequeri is known to take a similar line on marriage and family issues as Archbishop Paglia, and on behalf of the pontifical council, chaired a roundtable discussion on the Synod on the Family, hosted by the Jesuit publication, La Civilta Cattolica.

Given the willingness of both Archbishop Paglia and Msgr. Sequeri to entertain views and pastoral practices which critics say would contradict the moral clarity of traditional Church approaches to these issues, some are concerned by their appointments to such key roles related to life, marriage and family, and the changes they might enact.

That concern is no less keenly felt than at the John Paul II Institute where one Vatican official described the appointments as a “diminishment” of its work. They also come on the heels of the Synods on the Family when the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II on marriage and the family was sidelined by the synod's organizers, particularly during the first meeting in October 2014.

It is not clear yet what Archbishop Paglia will do as grand chancellor — usually the role is honorary, but observers say he is expected to take a more active lead. In order to appoint him, the Pope circumvented the statutes of Institute, which as a pope he is free to do, overturning a requirement that only the vicar general of Rome be grand chancellor.

Still, academic freedom remains and so it is improbable that any of the Institute’s professors will be limited in any significant way. Also no new appointments are expected for the next few years, so neither Archbishop Paglia nor Msgr. Sequeri are likely to have much influence on those either.

But given their backgrounds, and at a time when St. John Paul II’s teaching in this area appears to be judged inappropriate, their arrival as heads of the pontifical institute is undoubtedly a cause for concern among those who work there and further afield.

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