Losing a Legacy? Assessing the John Paul II Institute Controversy

EDITORIAL: Recent events have thrown the future of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences into theological confusion.

Pope St. John Paul statue
Pope St. John Paul statue (photo: Unsplash)

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that Amoris Laetitia made no mention of Pope St. John Paul II's theology of the body. In fact, Pope Francis' exhortation does contain references to Pope John Paul's catechesis, especially his theology of the body. That sentence has been amended to read: "... Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), which made no mention of Pope John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor." The Register regrets the error.


More than a half-century ago, as Europe struggled to recover from the deep wounds inflicted by the Second World War and Adolf Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jewish people and other “undesirables,” a Polish Catholic philosopher grappled with man’s capacity to choose good over evil.

Studying the Scriptures, he found hope in the Genesis story of the human person’s creation in “the image and likeness of God” and in Gospel passages where Jesus says he has come to restore that original divine image, after Adam and Eve’s disobedience and exile from Paradise.

“From the mystery of his own Being,” God created the human person, and we are called to “live a life similar to that of God,” wrote the Polish philosopher in 1978, shortly after he became Pope John Paul II, in one of his scriptural meditations that are now known as the theology of the body.

Pope St. John Paul II explored how men and women, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, fortified by the grace of the sacraments and the wisdom of the moral law, are capable of making God’s love and mercy visible in marriage, sexuality, family life and the culture.

“Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence,” wrote John Paul, two decades later, in his landmark 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (103), which affirmed that some moral actions were intrinsically evil and could never be justified.

John Paul II’s testament to the power of Christ’s saving action and man’s capacity to live the truth now provides the backdrop for the recent conflict over the direction of the “refounded” John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, the academic program that the Polish pope founded in 1981 at the Lateran University.

Last month, responding to the approval of new statutes for the institute, frustrated students sent a letter to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the institute’s grand chancellor, and Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, its president, expressing what they see as “the loss of the formational approach and, therefore, of the identity” of the school. The institute’s leadership insists their approach “re-presents with new vigor the original and still fruitful intuition of St. John Paul II.” The dispute can be traced to the theological controversies spawned by the 2014 and 2015 Synods on Marriage and the Family, and Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), which made no mention of Pope John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Amid calls for a new paradigm of pastoral accompaniment, some have concluded that adherence to the moral law on marriage and sexual relations should be framed as an “ideal,” rather than a necessary precondition for reception of the Eucharist.

In 2017, Pope Francis suppressed the Rome-based John Paul II Institute and then “refounded” it, to expand course offerings and degrees that gave more weight to the social sciences in the study of marriage and the family.

After the approval of the new statutes, in late July, two eminent moral theologians at the institute — Msgr. Levio Melina, who also served as its president from 2006 to 2016, and Father José Noriega — were effectively fired, and the rest of the faculty was suspended, pending a review by Archbishop Paglia. The new leadership sought to present the removal of the two academics in a benign light: Msgr. Melina’s position was “eliminated” due to the refocusing of the program of studies after the adoption of the new statutes, according to an institute press release.

But now more than 1,000 students and alumni have signed an online letter of protest that defended the institute’s original mandate. “In a world where everything seems to be divided between a relativistic or legalistic vision of ethics,” read the July 24 letter, “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 institute’s vice president, Father José Granados, among other faculty members (see related interview), publicly challenged the firings. And Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI met with Msgr. Melina after he was dismissed, in an apparent act of public solidarity with the moral theologian, a longtime collaborator.

The institute’s officials have been slow to respond to the headlines — even to announce new appointments and course offerings for the fall. And the limited explanations they have provided only raise more questions.

Msgr. Sequeri sought to downplay the scope of the changes in an interview with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, and said the goal was to advance “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 constituting of an academic subject that is able to communicate, competently and without hesitation, in the new frontiers and the internal dialects of the impetuous developments in human sciences.”

But one of the institute’s influential allies, journalist Luciano Moia, offered another explanation for Msgr. Melina’s termination, accusing him in the pages of Avvenire of “correcting” Pope Francis by critiquing pastoral practices that allow divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist. Msgr. Melina has rejected this charge, while defending his right as a  theologian to “interpret” papal teachings from within the Church’s Tradition. “If the decisions taken by Archbishop Paglia are not revoked, then what they are saying is: ‘The interpretation of the magisterium of Pope Francis in continuity with the previous magisterium is intolerable in the Church,’” Msgr. Melina told the Italian daily newspaper La Verità in an Aug. 3 interview.  

Meanwhile, many supporters of the institute’s work over the last three decades fear the recent firings and course changes have already threatened the transmission of John Paul’s legacy to a new generation of scholars and pastors. The institute was established “to articulate and defend a vision of marriage and sexuality founded on a conception of morality … in which human goods — especially the goods of unity and procreation and the truth of the absolute indissolubility of a consummated Christian marriage — are clarified and defended, and where actions contrary to these goods are identified and excluded,” moral theologian Christian Brugger told the Register.  “The ‘paradigm shift,’ which began two years ago, signaled the devaluation” of this pastoral framework, he said.

It is not yet clear whether Archbishop Paglia has acted with the approval of Pope Francis or on his own authority. And some have raised the question: If Francis sought to advance his own distinctive pastoral methodology, why didn’t he build a parallel academic program, as John Paul opted to do when he founded his pontifical institute almost 40 years ago?

The issue now is whether a demoralized and “refounded” institute will continue to present and defend a vision of human freedom in which mercy, pastoral care and absolute commandments operate together. This was John Paul’s hope when he established the institute to advance his teachings, developed within the Tradition of the Church and honed over the many decades that he accompanied his flock through the crucible of totalitarian persecution. And the notion that his blueprint for human liberation has outlived its usefulness is beyond ludicrous.