The news from the Vatican this past week that the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family would be no more—or, should I say, would be “rebooted” with a new name: John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences—was like a punch in the stomach. Surprising, but not shocking.
Let me explain why.
I was a member of the first graduating class of the Washington, D.C. “session”—one of many branches founded after the school was founded at the Pontifical Lateran University in the early 1980s as a mandate of John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris consortio (FC)—in May of 1990, earning an S.T.L. (and later the S.T.D. in 1998). The school was housed then at the Dominican House of Studies (DHS), and now located across the street at The Catholic University of America (CUA). I was drawn to the JPII Institute and its pontifical degree in 1988 primarily for three reasons: first, because of its namesake; second, its theologically rigorous focus on marriage and family; and thirdly, its world-renown faculty. Nowhere else in the world, I remember thinking, could someone study in one place with the kind of interdisciplinary faculty they had assembled—among them, its founding vice-president and then-academic dean Carl Anderson, Benedict M. Ashley (d. 2013), O.P., John Haas, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete (d. 2014), Fr. Francis Martin (d. 2017), and later William E. May (d. 2014)—nor have access to first-rate professors in the philosophy department at CUA (e.g., Msgr. Robert Sokolowski) and the professors at the DHS (e.g., the now-Archbishop J.A. DiNoia, O.P.). Remember, these were the days before the internet and the kind of technological “bilocation” we have today, made possible by social media and online courses.
After finishing my M.A. in theology at CUA, I decided to literally walk across Michigan Ave. and enroll at the fledgling Institute. Since this was the great apostle of marriage and the family John Paul’s new initiative, I wanted to be a part of it, even if it was a bit of a “leap of faith.” Thanks to the generosity of the Knights of Columbus, I was able to pursue this degree with a Fr. Michael J. McGivney Fellowship (I worked as Fr. Ashley’s graduate assistant over four semesters).
Fast forward to today, more than a quarter of a century later. We read in Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio, Summa Familiae Cura (September 20, 2017), announcing that the new Institute “succeeds and substitutes” the old one (see Article 1), that there is a change in name for the Institute. I find this name change a curious and troubling development. The JPII Institute I knew and have known was already “theological” and already “scientific.” In fact, the curriculum couldn’t have been any more theological than it was, with courses on philosophical and theological anthropology, natural law, sexual ethics, moral theology, the sacrament of marriage, Humanae vitae, and so much more. Seminars with the future Cardinal Carlo Caffarra (d. 2017) on St. Augustine, John Finnis on the human person, Paul Vitz on psychology, Stanislaw Grygiel, Kenneth Schmitz (d. 2017), and Ralph McInerny (d. 2010) helped to round out the program .
Secondly, the curriculum was from the beginning “scientific”. The Institute’s raison d’être was to engage the culture from the standpoint of faith, and not simply the thought of John Paul II but also the teachings of Vatican Council II as well as other sound philosophical and theological schools of thought. We students often remarked on how we were exposed to different points-of-view—e.g., Benedict Ashley’s more traditional Thomism or William E. May’s “new natural law” theory—and how people would be surprised to learn that such a real diversity of thought existed at the JPII Institute. But it was a diversity rooted in the “truth about God and man,” as John Paul II often stated. It wasn’t some monolithic institution with the Theology of the Body (TOB) simply being shoved down our collective throats. Yes, we had courses on JPII’s TOB (with the brilliant and hilarious Albacete), but we also had courses on modern science and theology (with the “human encyclopedia” Ashley).
So, when Francis writes, “I have arrived at the deliberation of instituting a Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science, broadening its field of interest, both in relation to the new dimensions of the pastoral task and of the ecclesial mission, and with reference to developments in the human sciences and in anthropological culture in a field so fundamental for the culture of life”, I must say that some “tweaking” or updating could have accomplished the same goals that the Holy Father is now charging the new Institute with pursuing. In fact, some of that had already occurred years ago (e.g., more and more courses were offered that had a practical and/or pastoral thrust to them). Thus, there was, to my mind, no need for a complete “re-tooling”.
Moreover, the “Mission” of the JPII Institute demonstrates it has been dedicated to these very same goals all along. Here are its first two (of five):
1. To provide a comprehensive understanding of person, marriage and family faithful to the Catholic tradition in light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II, and, reciprocally, to explore the implications of this understanding for the whole of theology and philosophy—all by means of a multidisciplinary education centered in theology and philosophy and integrated in light of John Paul II’s notion of man and woman as an embodied, sexually differentiated communion of persons created in the image of God and destined for a state of life;
2. To develop a critical understanding of issues on marriage and family, biotechnology, and ethics in light of Western/modern assumptions regarding the human person, as these bear on the nature and dignity of human life and the transcendental meaning of beauty, truth, and goodness, in a way that fosters a unity of theory and practice at the service of the Church’s “new evangelization”…
If Familiaris consortio was the original inspiration and charter for the JPII Institute, it seems, unfortunately, that Francis’ controversial and confusing Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia will serve as the same for the new Institute, as he makes clear in his motu proprio.
Pope Francis writes: “…at the level of academic formation – in reflection on marriage and on the family the pastoral perspective and attention to the wounds of humanity must never be lacking. If a fruitful examination of pastoral theology cannot be conducted neglecting the special ecclesial profile of the family, likewise that same pastoral sensibility must be aware of the valuable contribution of thought and reflection that research, in the deepest and most rigorous way, the truth of the revelation and wisdom of the tradition of faith, in view of its better comprehension at the present time.”
Once again, I argue, these concerns were already integral to the JPII Institute’s work; they were never overlooked.
My prayer is that the new Institute will not lose the profound thought and insight of its founder, St. John Paul II. If so, it would constitute yet one more attempt to marginalize the Pontiff’s thought—especially the TOB—in the current ecclesiastical environment. Of course, it’s not as if the JPII Institute was the “only place in town” for the TOB, but it would be a tremendous loss if it was short-circuited at the very institution named after and known world-wide as the “flagship” for its study. There are still, after almost four decades since the TOB was developed, areas of theology and Church life that have not yet been illumined by its light.