A German professor has sent the president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome an open letter criticizing its leadership for recent controversial changes to the institute, saying they “contradict the fundamental rights and duties of academic institutions.”
In the Aug. 20 letter to Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, Professor Berthold Wald, an emeritus professor of systematic philosophy at the theological faculty of Paderborn University, argues that it is “strictly necessary to involve academic bodies in the deliberation about statutes and university regulations” and that it is a “faculty’s right” to have a say in choosing new professors.
“These principles have been ignored in an unprecedented way,” Wald maintains, alluding to reports that professors were not consulted about the institute’s new statutes finalized last month, despite frequent promises that they would be.
In particular, he says the changes are contrary to the Bologna Process, a 1999 agreement signed by 47 European countries — the Holy See among them — to harmonize higher education standards, including employment rights.
Wald believes that the most “fundamental change” concerns the elimination of the chair of fundamental morals under the new statutes. This decision led to the sudden dismissal of Professor Livio Melina, Msgr. Sequeri’s predecessor — a move that Wald believes “implicitly undermines the Institute’s goal to study fundamental anthropological and ethical questions, a goal that John Paul II considered indispensable.”
Others were also dismissed from teaching at the institute, including a close friend of St. John Paul II, Prof. Stanislaw Grygiel, and his daughter Monika. A group of 49 academics from universities around the world has since asked the institute’s administrators to reinstate the dismissed teachers.
Wald warns that these “arbitrary acts” damage not only the academic reputation of the Institute itself but also “nourish a general anti-Roman attitude and thus endanger the academic status of ecclesiastical universities as a whole.”
Below is the letter in full:
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Dear Msgr. Sequeri,
We met in Rome at a colloquium of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in November 2017. At that time, you had already been holding the office of the institute’s president for one year, succeeding professor [Fathe Livio] Melina. You had seemed concerned with safeguarding the Institute’s continuity in terms of its faculty members and academic contents throughout the changes that were to come. Now, with the recent approbation of its new statutes, the institute’s refoundation, announced by Pope Francis’ motu proprio Summa Familiae Cura in September 2017, is being implemented. However, as one can gather from various news reports, the concrete ways of implementing the Institute’s refoundation contradict the fundamental rights and duties of academic institutions. In both ecclesiastical and secular legal frameworks for establishing and administering institutions of higher learning, it is strictly necessary to involve academic bodies in the deliberation about statutes and university regulations. Likewise, a faculty’s right to having a fundamental say in the process of choosing new professors is part of the framework of ecclesiastical norms and is to be respected. The grand chancellor of a pontifical institute or an ecclesiastical university is not above these norms. Rather, his office obliges him to ensure that these norms are observed.
As one was able to read in the news, in the process of reorienting the John Paul II Institute, these principles have been ignored in an unprecedented way. The new statutes were defined without academic cooperation and without consultation of the professors, who were simply informed about their dismissal due to the Institute’s new orientation. The possible objection that these are not dismissals but rather a simple non-employment in a new institution, does not hold water. This would only be an argument if the institute had been closed after the academic bodies had been consulted, if the professors had been informed in good time of the need to close it, and if the institute had actually ceased activity at least for a time. None of this was the case. At every state university such a pseudo-legal justification of the dismissal of tenured professors would be seen as an attempt to deceive the public. The goal should have been the reorientation of the institute in a way that would permit it to continue dedicating itself to the topic of marriage and the family, and this in a way that justifies the reference in its name to its initial founder, Pope John Paul II.
The most consequential change is probably the elimination of the chair of fundamental morals, which implicitly undermines the Institute’s goal to study fundamental anthropological and ethical questions, a goal that John Paul II considered indispensable. The fact that John Paul II still figures prominently in the institute’s name will not mislead anyone. In reality, the continuity with its predecessor institution, which had a strong philosophical-anthropological basic orientation, is only apparent.
Without discussing the questionable material contents of this decision, one can see that the formal procedure adopted in establishing this new Institute can endanger the public recognition of academic institutions legally affiliated with the Catholic Church. As the chairman of the Association of Catholic Theological Faculties (Katholisch-Theologischer Fakultätentag), I was directly involved in the implementation of the Bologna Process in cooperation with the Roman Congregation for Catholic Education, the German bishops’ conference and the pertinent state institutions dealing with policies of higher education. It would not have occurred to anyone to ignore the right of faculties to have a say, which would have rendered the reform of the study program absolutely impossible. In fact, both the German Conference of University Presidents and the German Science Council at that time recognized that the active participation of Catholic faculties and universities in the Bologna Process had been exemplary and in conformity with the standards of scholarship. The equality of ecclesiastical academic institutions with state universities is not to be taken for granted, as there is no guarantee of permanence for it. This equality is essentially based on the recognition of the same basic rules that serve to protect and preserve academic freedom. The fact that the state recognizes the possibility of having institutions of higher learning that are bound to the Catholic religious confession is, however, no carte blanche for authoritarian interference in the academic rights of professors. Having collaborated in two commissions of the German Science Council, I know that it is precisely the suspicion of ecclesiastical interference with academic processes that most damages the reputation of Catholic institutions of higher learning.
The fact that from a German perspective, Rome is far away does not reassure me at all. On the contrary, I am afraid that the arbitrary acts by ecclesiastical authorities that have surfaced when the Institute was re-founded will not merely damage the academic reputation of the Institute itself. They may also nourish a general anti-Roman attitude and thus endanger the academic status of ecclesiastical universities as a whole. Even the phenomenon of the abuse of academic freedom can be understood as a latent, subconscious reflex to ward off the threat of ecclesiastical interference with academic freedom. Any university professor who has ever held a position of responsibility at an ecclesiastical faculty knows this only too well. I wonder what are the real reasons why you, as a renowned academic, do not see the threat of the Church’s academic institutions robbing themselves of their own value. Since this is by no means an exclusively Roman affair, my letter will also appear in the German and possibly international press.
Berthold Wald is professor emeritus for systematic philosophy at the Theological Faculty Paderborn, Germany.