Questions Abound Regarding Future of the JPII Institute in Washington

The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family will be replaced by a new institute with a broader mission and field of study founded by Pope Francis.

(photo: Bogdan Sonjachnyj/Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — With a stroke of the papal pen on Sept. 19, the institute founded in Rome by Pope St. John Paul II in 1982 to study and teach about marriage and the family in the light of Catholic theology and philosophy came to an end — and with it the mission of 10 satellite campuses, including the U.S. branch in Washington.

The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family will be replaced by a new institute with a broader mission and field of study founded by Pope Francis.

The unexpected reorganization, and its yet-to-determined ramifications, has sent shock waves reverberating across the entire institution — including the John Paul II Institute at The Catholic University of America, which has served in recent decades as a treasured repository of faithful knowledge for U.S. Catholics.

“The JP II Institute has been an exemplary institution of higher learning in the Church,” said Chad Pecknold, associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America. “It has shaped generations of Catholics to think through the full breadth of the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage and the family as the most basic unit of society.”

In an apostolic letter, issued motu proprio (of the Pope’s own accord), titled, Summa Familiae Cura, Pope Francis announced that the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family would be replaced by the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science.

The Holy Father’s motu proprio states that it is “essential that the original inspiration that gave life to the former Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family continue to bear fruit in the broader field of activity of the new Theological Institute, effectively contributing to making it correspond fully to the current demands of the pastoral mission of the Church.”

“Anthropological-cultural change, that today influences all aspects of life and requires an analytic and diversified approach, does not permit us to limit ourselves to practices in pastoral ministry and mission that reflect forms and models of the past,” the document continues, adding, “We must be informed and impassioned interpreters of the wisdom of faith in a context in which individuals are less well supported than in the past by social structures and in their emotional and family life. With the clear purpose of remaining faithful to the teaching of Christ, we must, therefore, look, with the intellect of love and with wise realism, at the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with its lights and its shadows.”


The U.S. Branch

The John Paul II Institute at The Catholic University of America in Washington was established after the late Washington Archbishop Cardinal James Hickey and then-Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus Virgil Dechant petitioned Rome to establish a branch in Washington. The Congregation for Catholic Education Aug. 22, 1988, granted the Washington institute permission to grant ecclesiastical degrees. It is also accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, to grant civil degrees. In addition to the Washington branch, the Roman Pontifical John Paul II Institute was connected after its foundation to other similar “sessions” — or branches — around the world, including in Australia, India, Spain and Mexico.

The Washington campus has two layers of government: one in Rome and one in the U.S. Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, serves as the grand chancellor of the new institute worldwide, and Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri serves as president. They are the ultimate authorities, except for the Holy Father.

In the U.S., the vice chancellor of the institute is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who holds the position ex officio. Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, is vice president of the institute. Although the Washington campus is under the authority of the Roman institute, it has traditionally done its own hiring and with regard to practical matters has had a degree of autonomy.

John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, declined to comment because, despite its official name, the institute is an independent institution. The institute also declined to comment at this time, as did the Knights of Columbus. Cardinal Wuerl had not responded to a query as of press time.

Although faculty at the institute are maintaining a tight-lipped stance with regard to their future, it was clear that the motu proprio caught U.S. Catholic academics, intellectuals and institute alumni off guard and left many scrambling to discover what the Pope’s initiative will mean for the future of a respected institution that has been a bulwark of orthodoxy.

Kurt Martens, professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America and editor of The Jurist, said the motu proprio could upend academic plans for currently enrolled students.

“It is unusual for a number of reasons,” Martens told the Register. “First, it wasn’t well-done legislation. It was done from a Roman perspective.”

“The academic year hasn’t started yet in Rome, but it has started here in the U.S. That could mean that students here who have signed up for a doctorate in theology will now be working toward a doctorate in something else,” he said.

Martens suggested that the motu proprio would have benefited from more international consultation with those affected.

“This is a Pope who talks about decentralization and synodality, and yet nobody knew that this was coming. Wouldn’t you have expected some consultation before this was issued?” he asked.

“The other question is: Why was the institute abolished and then resurrected? Wouldn’t it have been easier to make changes gradually?”

The alumni of the Washington-based institute have also begun to air their concerns.

“The news took me by surprise, and I was saddened,” said William Hamant, assistant professor of theology at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, who received a doctoral degree from the John Paul II Institute in 2011, “because it is one of the few places I could imagine getting a doctoral degree.”

“It shaped me in a way that is irreplaceable. It was there that I was given a unique way to view reality, and that influences every aspect of my teaching and how I try to live as a faithful Catholic,” he told the Register.


Awaiting Clarification

At present, few details have been supplied to answer critical questions about what the new institute will look like or what the fate of the faculty will be, and many are waiting for statutes to be published in Rome, but Archbishop Paglia, grand chancellor of the new institute, shed some light on the matter in an interview with Crux.

Archbishop Paglia said that Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love),Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family that was issued after two synods on the family, will be the “Magna Carta” for the new institute. The archbishop said that this shift will not represent a break with the institute’s original mandate because Pope Francis is the “best interpreter” of Familiaris Consortio, Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” which inspired the foundation of the original institute.

“I can give you a clear example, which is the divorced and remarried,” Archbishop Paglia continued.

“The real revolution there happened under John Paul II, not Francis, which hasn’t really yet been understood. You have to remember that before [Familiaris Consortio], it wasn’t that the divorced and remarried just couldn’t get Communion — it was they were practically excommunicated and expelled. They were outsiders. After John Paul, everybody was inside the house,” Archbishop Paglia said.

In an interview with Vatican Radio, the archbishop expounded further on this theme, saying that the “great insight” of John Paul II regarding the family as expressed in Familiaris Consortio “finds its realization” in the words of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia.


Continuity or Rupture?

Theologian Pecknold agrees that Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia is at the heart of the refounding of the institute.

“What the Holy Father is doing is straightforward,” said Pecknold.

“He wants to do with Amoris Laetitia what St. John Paul II did after the 1980 Synod on the Family, when he institutionalized his teachings in Familiaris Consortio.” And then, based on the 1980 synod fathers’ recommendation to found theological centers of study focused on the Church’s teaching on marriage and family, he established the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

But if that is Pope Francis’ intent, Pecknold added, it is not clear “why the Holy Father had to reconstitute the institute. If Amoris Laetitia is not a break in continuity, why dissolve an institution empowered to carry out that tradition?”

Father Gerald Murray, a prolific writer and commentator, is worried that the motu proprio signals a profound shift in the mission and perspective of an important institution.

“I am concerned that it is going to change the nature of the institute’s focus,” said Father Murray, who serves as pastor of the Church of the Holy Family in New York City.

“It looks like social science will play more of a role in the institute, and theology and philosophy weren’t mentioned in the document.”

“There is a value to social science, but it can be done in secular institutions. The gift of the Church to the world is to teach theology based on sound philosophy, and in the matter of marriage, that is so important. The challenges the Church faces are not verifying the sociology of family breakup, but [presenting] a philosophical reason why the Church’s teaching on the family is a solution to these problems,” he said.

Other Catholic commentators who endorsed the mission and work of the original institute expressed similar reservations.

“There’s nothing wrong with using psychology and sociology, which look to be more prominent in the new dispensation,” said Robert Royal, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Faith & Reason Institute.

“But the vector of the work after that is crucial. For example, when you document why it is that most marriages break up, do you use that knowledge to offer better catechesis, pastoral support, marriage prep, or do you play down — as often happens now — moral theology so as not to clash with an increasingly troubling reality?” he asked.

“It seems that the role of a special institute on marriage and the family is precisely to push back against trends which, by the way, were far from being ignored by the old John Paul II Institute,” Royal said.


Future of the Faculty

As for the current faculty of the Institute in Washington, D.C., Summa Familiae Cura states that the original institutes are to be “temporarily governed by the statutory regulations” of the former John Paul II Institute, “to the extent that they are not in conflict” with the Pope’s new document. But it can’t be comfortable working for an institution that no longer formally exists. Catholic scholars friendly to the institute and faculty expressed concern about their employment contracts and other matters connected with working at the institute.

It is graduate William Hamant’s hope that the current faculty will not be left out of the conversation when the new statutes governing the new institute are written in Rome. “If we are going to have decentralization in the Church and a respect for subsidiarity,” Hamant said, “then I would hope that the faculty are consulted in the drafting of the new constitution and statutes.”

But, at this point, Rome has yet to make clear the next steps.

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.

Clockwise from top left: Christ is adored in downtown Indianapolis July 20; Bishop Andrew Cozzens blesses the faithful with the Blessed Sacrament from the Indiana War Memorial July 20; the Host is elevated at Mass and adored at Lucas Oil Stadium on Day 2 of the NEC.

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