John Paul II Institute No Longer Reflects the Aims of Its Namesake, Critics Contend

Since its refounding in 2017, the institute’s main focus is to promote the work of the family synods of 2015-2016 and Pope Francis’ document Amoris Laetitia.

Pope John Paul II embracing a child on September 16, 1998.
Pope John Paul II embracing a child on September 16, 1998. (photo: Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — Nearly four years ago Pope Francis changed the trajectory of the Rome-based John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family and “re-founded” the academic institution John Paul founded with Cardinal Carlo Caffarra in 1981. 

Since that time, many changes have taken place, and critics of today’s institute have told the Register it is hardly recognizable, with staff faithful to the late pontiff’s magisterium largely removed, and new senior and lower-level faculty members openly contradicting John Paul’s teaching. The name of the institute, they insist, must therefore be changed.

Pope Francis published his apostolic letter Summa Familiae Cura, issued motu proprio, that changed the name to the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences just 13 days after Cardinal Caffarra, the archbishop of emeritus of Bologna, died on Sept. 6, 2017.

From that point on, the apostolic letter stated, the refounded body would carry forward the work of the 2014-2015 synods on the family and the 2016 apostolic exhortation that came from those meetings, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)a document notable for omitting any references to John Paul II’s encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. 

Cardinal Caffarra’s connection with the timing of the institute’s refounding was not incidental. He, along with Cardinals Walter Brandmuller, Raymond Burke and Joaquim Meisner, had sent five questions, or dubia, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the fall of 2016 in a bid to clear up “grave disorientation and great confusion” which, they said, Amoris Laetitia had caused

To this day, the Pope has neither formally replied to the dubia, nor offered audiences to the cardinals to discuss the issue, leaving two of the four — Cardinal Caffarra and Cardinal Joachim Meisner — to pass away in 2017 before having their wishes granted.

Instead, this pontificate has forged ahead to dismantle the institution that, like Veritatis Splendor, was meant to serve as a bulwark against dissent from Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth), and instead reform the institution to make it coincide more closely with the ideals set forth in Amoris Laetitia. 

Founded as an integral part of Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, the institute was the fruit of the 1980 Synod on the Family and his apostolic constitution on that synod, Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World). John Paul wanted the pontifical institute because he was “convinced that defense and promotion of marriage and the family would be one of the most important elements of the Church’s mission in the third millennium,” Cardinal Caffarra said in 2011. 

The late Polish Pontiff, he added, wanted “to build, at the intellectual level, an adequate anthropology, an internal theology of the body and a rational — philosophical and theological — foundation for Humanae Vitae.” 

But the writing was on the wall early on in Pope Francis’ pontificate when not a single member of the Institute was represented at the first the Synod on the Family in 2014. 

Less than two years later, in August 2016, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who has faced criticism also for his leadership of the Pontifical Academy for Life (in 2017 he appointed the pro-abortion theologian Nigel Biggar as a member of the academy and in June voiced support for changing the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality) was appointed grand chancellor of the institute. 

The change of the institute’s name in 2017 further sounded the alarm. Stanislaw Grygiel, one of the institute’s founding professors and a former friend of John Paul II, told the Register June 20, “Immediately after the founding of the new Institute, during a meeting of professors and academic authorities, I asked to remove the name of John Paul II from the title of the Institute — without effect.” 

But it wasn’t until the change of statutes in July 2019 that Francis’ intentions for the institute became considerably clearer. 

The new statutes led first to the suspension of five master’s degree programs, a course on priestly formation and the dismissal of Grygiel as a lecturer (he remains the director of the institute’s Karol Wojtyla Chair) and two leading professors from tenured positions. These were Msgr. Livio Melina, a former president of the institute, whose chair of fundamental moral theology, a position first held by Cardinal Caffarra, was abolished; and Father José Noriega, a moral theologian who was removed on grounds that being a superior general of a religious congregation (Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary) was incompatible with being a tenured professor in the new institute. 

None of these professors were notified in advance of the decision, nor were they given recourse to challenge their dismissals, leading to a number of protests, including by its own students and alumni and more than 200 international scholars who signed an open letter asking Archbishop Paglia to reinstate them without success. Six other professors were also let go in the second wave that followed days later, and a number of other respected professors have since also been dismissed in the third wave, or left of their own accord, including Father José Granados, a former vice-president of the institute and a member of Father Noriega’s congregation. 

In the lead-up to the publication of the new statutes, staff had already criticized the drafting process, noting that not all prior consultations promised by the institute’s leaders had taken place, and most of the professors had only learned about the statutes when they were published in L’Osservatore Romano on July 18, 2019. 

Sources have told the Register that throughout 2018 and 2019, the institute’s president, Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, had led faculty staff to believe he was working with them to update the old statutes only to astonish them by presenting completely different rules in July 2019. The professors also noted that various points in the draft statutes, ones that they had rejected, remained in the final version. 

Msgr. Sequeri insisted the body’s new statutes were “in continuity” with those John Paul II established in 1982 and that they were the result of a “three-year process and dialogue.” The professors, however, forcefully disagreed. The institute wasn’t being renewed and expanded, Grygiel said in an interview, but rather dissolved and destroyed. 

In the same month as these dismissals, the institute announced it was hiring Father Maurizio Chiodi, an Italian moral theologian who dissents from Humanae Vitae and has taught that “responsible parenthood” can obligate a married couple to use artificial birth control. Father Chiodi has also argued, on the basis of Amoris Laetitia, for the need to go beyond “nature” and consider the possibility that homosexual acts can, in certain circumstances, be morally good. 

The institute also hired Father Pier Davide Guenzi, a professor of anthropology and the ethics of birth at the University of Milan, who is similarly well known for questioning moral absolutes. In an interview with Avvenire, the newspaper for the Italian bishops’ conference, he equivocated on whether homosexual acts could ever be licit and argued that the natural law “must be continually rethought.” 

Signs that these changes were affecting the institute emerged earlier this year when, on its Facebook page, the institute reposted an article from the Huffington Post sympathetic to President Joe Biden’s “social gospel.” Some commenters questioned why the institute appeared to be supporting praise for Biden on the social media platform, to which the head of the institute’s press office, Arnaldo Casali, commented that “defending the right to abortion does not mean defending abortion.” He added that “above all, if we have to assign Catholicity licenses based on the political positions, very few politicians could describe themselves as Catholic.” 

Casali, who is not a theologian but instead a friend of Archbishop Paglia dating to when the archbishop was bishop of Terni, apologized for the comment. 

Riccardo Cascioli, editor of the Italian-language Catholic daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, said such thinking was directly opposed to John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life), which condemned the ethical relativism that’s often used to justify abortion, and added his name to a long list of critics calling for the institute’s name to be changed. 

Cascioli, as well as many associated with the institute, believe it would be more appropriate to rename it the “Amoris Laetitia Institute” or something similar. Keeping the name is an attempt to hide the destruction of the curriculum desired by John Paul, some former staff and students believe, and therefore a means of manipulating bishops unaware of the recent changes. 

These very public changes haven’t gone unnoticed, not least by prospective students keen to promote John Paul II’s teaching. This slow but steady drift away from the late Pope’s vision has influenced enrolments, and the institute has reportedly been forced to cut some courses because they did not attract a minimum number of students. Others are said to have lost 90% of students, according to Catholic News Agency. The shift in emphasis away from theology toward human sciences is cited as another problem, along with a relativistic shift promoted by the institute that critics say attacks the natural family. 

“It denies the relevance of the truth that Christ redeems God’s plan on human sexuality rooted in creation,” said one source close to the institution. Instead, the source said, these views are embraced, unavoidably leading to “abuse and fracture within families and also within seminaries, when they are being taught the opposite of truth by those who are formed at the new institute.” 

“When such institutions succumb to and proliferate the distortions of a worldly insipid view on the family, they end up losing the taste of the salt which the Church is called to preserve in its mission of teaching,” the source said. “Therefore, students who sincerely search for the beauty of God's plan for the family will have to look elsewhere to find it.”

Others whom the Register contacted were not so critical, arguing that hearing views contrary to John Paul II’s magisterium challenges the students, makes them think, and avoids them being spoon-fed. “It’s part of a good formation to engage with different professors,” said a source.

A former student of the institute disagreed, telling the Register that opposing views to the magisterium had always been presented and intelligibly dismantled by the dismissed professors to help the students build a strong response to the post-modernist pansexual perspective. 

“The difference now is that such views are no longer refuted in the new institute, but presented from a relativistic perspective,” said the ex-student who, like many associated with the academic institution, asked to speak anonymously. 

The latest news affecting the institute, and which critics say is conclusive proof that the institute no longer represents John Paul II’s founding intentions, is the appointment of Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne as its new president. The rector of the Institut Catholique de Paris since 2011, Msgr. Bordeyne is known to dissent from Humanae Vitae and its reaffirmation of a ban on artificial contraception, writing in 2015 that the “discernment on birth control methods” should be left “to the wisdom of couples.” 

Some accused him of further dissenting from the magisterium when, in response to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s definitive “No” to the blessing of same-sex unions in March, he wrote that although he did not support the blessing of the unions as such, he did back the private blessings of individuals in those unions and using special liturgical formulas. 

In June, Msgr. Bordeyne was also appointed administrator of the Pious establishments of France in Rome and Lorette, a body that manages five French churches in Rome. From September, he will therefore hold two contemporaneous positions — a reason the institute used against Father Noriega to dismiss him from his position in 2019. 

“This double standard shows the real aim of these appointments of this institution over the past three years,” said the informed source close to the John Paul II Institute. “The elimination of those professors faithful to the teaching of the Church has, in fact, been part of the wider aim to destroy the original mission of the Institute.”

Msgr. Bordeyne replaces Msgr. Sequeri, 75, whose term has ended. But although he dissents from a number of key positions, some are viewing it as a positive appointment given the great respect he enjoys in France and, moreover, argue that he is reputedly closer to John Paul II’s magisterium than some think. Some were expecting the institute to close in a year or two, but with Msgr. Bordeyne, they believe it is likely to survive longer than that. 

The French professor won’t take up his position as the pontifical institute’s president until September, and therefore declined to respond to questions from the Register at this time. 

Archbishop Paglia was also asked to comment for this article but Casali said he was “very busy” and could not give the treatment this subject deserves at this time.

Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

Supreme Court, JPII Institute (Aug. 10)

The Supreme Court may take up a significant religious freedom question next term on whether a city or state can require religious adoption services to place children with same-sex couples despite their faith-based objections. This week on Register Radio we talk to Register Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond about foster care, religious liberty and the courts. We also discuss with Joan the ongoing crisis at the John Paul II Institute in Rome — is the Catholic identity of the iconic school in danger?