On July 24, 241 students and alumni at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome signed a letter expressing their frustration over newly approved statutes, saying the new direction will undermine the institute’s identity and curriculum. The letter was previously sent to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the institute’s grand chancellor, and Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, its president.
The institute, whose statutes were approved June 19 and published July 18, is accused of carrying out a purge of renowned and long-serving professors, thereby putting in jeopardy the heritage of the institute’s namesake.
The promulgation of the new statutes follows the 2017 apostolic letter Summa Familiae Cura, in which Pope Francis established the dissolution of the John Paul II Institute and the erection of a new institute that would focus on theology to include the “science of the family.” In this interview with the Register, Father José Granados, a priest of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary and a tenured professor of dogmatic theology and vice president of Rome’s John Paul II Institute since 2011, expresses his concern over the institute’s future and discusses the stakes of the preservation of John Paul II’s teachings in today’s society. One of the priests dismissed, Father José Noriega, is the superior general of Father Granados’ order.
The new statutes of the institute are said to weaken John Paul II’s heritage, especially his teachings developed in Veritatis Splendor (1993), which is considered a defense against the pervading relativism in our culture. Do you agree with that?
The new statutes diminish by half the teachings in moral theology. In the 2011 statutes there were three chairs on moral theology (fundamental moral theology, special moral theology, and bioethics). In the 2019 statues the last two remain, with different names (moral theology of love and marriage, theological ethics of life), although the “moral theology of love” will have only half of the credits than most of the other chairs.
The fact that the chair on fundamental moral theology was suppressed is very worrying, for this is the chair that deals with Veritatis Splendor. Questions like “What is flourishing in life?”; “what are the virtues?”; “what is conscience”; “what acts are intrinsically evil?” are raised in this chair. These questions are crucial in order to be able to reflect on the special cases of marriage and the family. Without first reflecting on these questions, we would not understand why, as the pope emeritus says in his “Notes on the Sexual Abuse in the Church,” there are certain actions that can never be ordered towards God [intrinsically evil acts]. This is especially important in the field of sexual morality, as in the defense of life (the application of the Fifth and Sixth Commandments), two matters crucial for the John Paul II Institute. Obviously, this chair is not only about intrinsically evil actions: It teaches, above all, the power of Christ’s grace so that human action can be in pursuit of the good and [this grace can] help us live a great and beautiful life. This dignity of the human being and of his action in the light of Christ was crucial to John Paul II, who was also a moral theologian and put special care that this chair be entrusted to the first president, the late Cardinal [Carlo] Caffarra.
The reason given by the press office of the institute for the suppression of this chair is that fundamental moral theology is taught at the bachelor of sacred theology (STB) level, so students should know it by the time they enter the institute. Now, one should ask this question to the press office of the institute: Why, then, was the chair on theological anthropology not suppressed? Why was a chair on fundamental theology added? Both are subject matters taught at the STB level. Moreover, why have there been no problems in the 38 years of the existence of the chair?
We need to see who they are going to invite now to teach moral theology. But if rumors are confirmed — if professor Maurizio Chiodi (a priest who teaches, in some cases, both the admissibility of contraception and homosexual acts as a “possible good”) is appointed — then it would not only be a question of a weakening, but actually the eradication of John Paul II’s heritage. And this is not because John Paul II’s approach was focused on norms, but because his approach was focused on the dignity of the person, on the sanctity of the person’s body and on the person’s vocation to true love.
In this light, how will the institute concretely promote St. John Paul II’s teachings, as Pope Francis strongly recommended in his apostolic letter Summa Familiae Cura?
We don’t know the detailed curriculum for next year yet, so it is difficult to answer this question. The fact, however, that most of the professors from Poland have been told that they would not teach next year is worrying. Indeed, both professor Przemyslaw Kwiatkowski and professor Jarosław Kupczak were in charge of teaching courses on Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II. And the contribution of professor Stanislaw Grygiel reflected, as well, on John Paul II’s vision.
In an interview with Vatican News, the institute’s president, Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, said that the students’ letter was sent to the media before he had the chance to read it. Do you think that the students’ reaction could have been too hasty and disproportionate, as Msgr. Sequeri suggested?
The answers I have given so far show that their concerns are legitimate. Our students love the institute. Here, they found a place where they can search for the truth within a close community of professors and students. They study subjects that touch their lives; they see how faithfulness to the Tradition of the Church helps address and solve new problems in original ways; they find concrete and fruitful paths for their pastoral ministries. They have been hurt by the sudden changes. Many of them had already chosen their courses for next year (on the basis of a curriculum approved under Msgr. Sequeri and Archbishop Paglia’s direction). They have been hurt, above all, by the firing of very popular professors, who are admired for the clarity of their teachings and the fruitfulness of their insights. The students are the most important asset of a teaching institution. Their respectful protest is a proof of the institute’s vitality, for it comes from the desire that it can keep flourishing within the Church.
A press release published by the institute in response to criticisms confirms the departure of Fathers Livio Melina and José Noriega from their previous roles, offering a technical explanation of the reasons they cannot keep teaching at the institute. Why didn’t you find it convincing?
Regarding professor Livio Melina, they basically say that there is no longer room for him since his chair has been eliminated. I have already mentioned the gravity of removing that chair after 38 years of existence. Fundamental moral theology was eliminated to free the institute from a widely recognized professor, without any prior judgment nor being given the right to defend himself.
As for Father Noriega, the reason cited is an incompatibility between his chair and his charge as superior general of the religious Congregation of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. However, Canon 152 of the Code of Canon Law only prohibits the exercise of two incompatible functions, and the same is stated in Veritatis Gaudium, No. 29. Are they incompatible in this case, when we know that Father Noriega’s religious community only has 24 full members? The answer requires a prudential judgment. Then, his mandate as superior general will end in five months, and Archbishop Paglia and Msgr. Sequeri already know that. If it is only a problem of incompatibility, while his work is appreciated, why don’t they simply grant him a six-month leave of absence?
The two former presidents of the institute, Mgrs. Melina and Sequeri, did not consider these two functions incompatible, since they allowed professor Noriega to teach for 12 years while being a superior general.
The communiqué also says that rumors of the “suppression” of the Karol Wojtyła Chair in Philosophical Anthropology and the separation of the chair’s director, professor Stanislaw Grygiel, are “destitute of all foundation.” The institute thus suggested that the accusations against its new head were hasty and sometimes made in “bad faith.” Can there be some truth in it?
I haven’t been following all the comments published in the media. I can say that the changes that have been introduced are very serious and that they are a threat to the identity of the institute. The seriousness of the situation could have led to imprecisions in the reporting on changes, which is always regrettable. However, from what I read, the tone actually correlates to the magnitude of what is really happening: An institution that has been greatly fruitful in the life of the Church is being vitally threatened.
Now, the institute’s statement made it clear that the Wojtyła Chair will stay under professor Grygiel’s direction. This is good news. But the communiqué did not say that Grygiel will continue to teach his courses. The Wojtyła Chair is a research chair that usually organizes only one event a year; it is not a teaching chair. Thus the fact that professor Grygiel’s courses were canceled means that his continued presence at the institute during the year will no longer be possible, nor his participation in the faculty’s meetings.
The criticism is said to reflect profound political tensions within the Vatican, between progressive and conservative movements. What could be, according to you, some collaborative ways to address this issue?
I can say that what is at stake in preserving the John Paul II Institute is more than just the survival of an academic institution. Indeed, the institute has played a crucial role in spreading the teachings on Veritatis Splendor, much resisted by many moral theologians. Now, such teachings, as Pope Emeritus [Benedict] recently said in his notes on sexual abuse, are a crucial part of the Church’s confession of faith. I would like to recall that the source of the Church’s unity is not our efforts to remain one but, above all, the unity of the Church with Christ, through the confession of faith in him. Veritatis Splendor ends with a paragraph on martyrdom, and so connects the moral life of the Christians with the radical witness to Our Lord.
Regarding the possibility of a collaborative approach, the faculty of the institute have been cooperating with Archbishop Paglia and Msgr. Sequeri for these last three years. During this period of time, their suggestions were well-accepted, all the while respecting the nature of the institute. Now, the faculty and students are astonished by such sudden and radical unilateral change, made during the summer, without any previous notice. What I would ask Archbishop Paglia and Msgr. Sequeri is that they return to the path of the constructive dialogue we were in; that they reintegrate the professors to their chairs, re-establish the curriculum that was ready for this academic year (a curriculum that was approved both by Msgr. Sequeri and Archbishop Paglia and took into account all of their suggestions). I would also recommend that new appointments in the faculty should be submitted to the regular process followed in all universities, with the approval of the institute’s council, and that the statutes should be revised to better reflect the collegial way in which the institute has been working during its almost 40 years of existence.
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.