One Academic to Others: A Brief for Prudence on the Case of the John Paul II Institute

COMMENTARY: There is a synergy among these institutes that may unfortunately change should any one of them take on a ‘different direction.’

Entrance to the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome.
Entrance to the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. (photo: CNA/2014.)

Much has been written about the decision to reconstitute the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome. I do not believe the point has been sufficiently made that the graduates of the institute in Rome, and of those elsewhere as well, have made enormous contributions to the Church. It is possibly the most effective effort for the New Evangelization.

The fruits of the John Paul II institutes are countless. Their approach, rightly and deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church, provides at the same time a truly fresh and attractive way to address issues of sexuality, of marriage and family and of other related issues. This approach flows from an understanding that it is the dignity of the human person that undergirds the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and on social issues.

A partial but representative list of the achievements, positions and activities of graduates from the institutes in Rome and D.C.: teaching in seminaries, universities, colleges and high schools; publishing well-received scholarly books and articles in major academic journals; starting theological journals; serving as heads of religious orders and departments of the USCCB and major organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, the March for Life.

Graduates’ accomplishments also include becoming chastity speakers and authors; serving as directors of diocesan family life offices, offices of evangelization, ecumenical and interreligious outreach, and of natural family planning associations; serving as theological advisers to bishops; working as producers of documentary films, campus ministers and at Vatican News and Vatican Radio and many other social media outlets; and founding lay-led ministries for married couples, for children of divorce and for couples suffering from infertility.

In addition, many graduates are living out their vocations as parish priests, religious and as mothers and fathers. Graduates of the John Paul II Institute have also recently created a K-12 curriculum to teach the principles of the theology of the body — a curriculum that has already been accepted by several dioceses. At least one graduate is now a bishop.

Moreover, graduates fill positions such as those listed above in countries all over the world (e.g., the U.S., Canada, Cameroon, Italy, Peru, Uganda, Mexico, India, Greece, Spain and Portugal.) Indeed, there are John Paul II Institutes in eight countries: Italy, the United States, Benin, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Lebanon and the Philippines. (Institutes in Ireland and in Australia have closed.)

There is a synergy among these institutes that may unfortunately change should any one of them take on a “different direction.”

It would seem that before any major changes are made to these institutions, there should be a polling of graduates and — even more importantly — the universities, seminaries, dioceses and other institutions that employ their graduates.

The graduates I have met speak with boundless gratitude and praise for the education they received. There are bishops who are deeply grateful to the institutes and regularly hire their well-educated graduates to provide the intellectual and pastoral care needed by Catholics today. Employers have not found them lacking in understanding the importance of the social sciences, and in fact have found them very able to incorporate the findings of social sciences in their work.

There are those in the Church who believe the theology of marriage advanced by John Paul II and his defense of traditional moral theology (enriched by his phenomenological personalism) do not serve the Church well today. A look at what those theologies have accomplished should disabuse people of that idea. Some theologians maintain that the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia (“The Gospel of Love”) advanced by the faculty at the John Paul II Institute in Rome is not correct and see the reconstitution of the institute as a means for advancing the interpretation they believe is correct and which they believe will better serve the needs of Catholics and others today.

Yes, there are competing interpretations of Amoris Laetitia and these go beyond a doctrinal vs. pastoral approach to issues. It would seem that until the magisterium determines clearly and explicitly what is the proper interpretation, both should be permitted to be advanced.

Prudence seems to require that an institution as successful as the John Paul II Institute — one established by a saint — should remain in existence, certainly as long as John Paul II and his interests are in living memory. What better way to honor a saint of our times? Those who wish to advance an interpretation of Amoris Laetitia that does not fit neatly into the current curriculum of the Pope John Paul II Institute are surely free to set up another institute, either freestanding or under the auspices of a university or diocese — perhaps something called the “Amoris Laetitia Institute on Marriage and the Family.”

If such an institution should be established in Rome, students at each institution — that is, the proposed Amoris Laetitia  and existing John Paul II Institute — could be required to take a course or a few courses at the other institution. Freedom of thought and exposure to opposing ideas have always been the mark of a true academic institution.

Whatever changes are made under the new leadership of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, they should build upon — not eliminate — the faculty and programs that earned such great respect and have produced such successful graduates. Respected faculty and programs should be retained and the experience and wisdom of the faculty should guide any changes made.

Truly, this is just good common sense, not to mention that it is routine academic procedure that exists for many reasons. Most importantly, such a procedure prevents untested current theories from dismantling valuable achievements.

Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a moral theologian who speaks and writes on life issues.

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