Massimo Faggioli is right. Francis is Pope now, so Francis gets to call the shots. If Pope Francis wants to recast and retool a Roman institution, and fit it to his purpose, Pope Francis can do it. With the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, Pope Francis has done just that, like it or not.
It is plain to see that the “renewal” of the institute is really a purge. Everyone from every angle of the outside looking in agrees on that, except the people Pope Francis has put in charge of the business. They insist here’s nothing to see here. “[T]he academic project of the new Institute, approved by the Congregation for Catholic Education, is configured as an enlargement of the reflection on the family and not as a substitution of themes and arguments,” assured a press release from the JP II Institute late last month.
That statement couched itself as a response to critics, but was little more than an attempt to get the message back under control. “Such an enlargement,” the statement went on to say, “demonstrating even more the centrality of the family in the Church and in society, confirms and re-launches with new vigor the original and still fecund intuition of St. John Paul II.” Nobody bought it.
For one thing, authorities’ explanations of the major bones of contention simply didn’t pass the smell test.
By way of example, the reasons given for the effective dismissal of two long-serving and highly regarded professors, Msgr. Livio Melina (who served many years as President of the Institute in Rome) and Fr. José Noriega DCJM, were particularly unconvincing. Both were out of a job because the chairs they had heretofore occupied — respectively in fundamental and special moral theology — didn’t make it into the revamped Institute.
At best, that is tantamount to claiming they weren’t fired, because their positions were eliminated. It is typical corporate jargon, like Msgr. Sequeri’s talk of “targeted growth” in the teaching staff and “new tools” for their didactic toolbox, which he offered in a July 19 interview with the Italian bishops’ official newspaper, Avvenire. “Our goals include targeted growth in the number of faculty and new tools for tailoring individual degree programs,” Sequeri explained.
Strengthening the social scientific side of the Institute is fine, but the promise was that the theological focus of the Institute would remain, and the implication was that it would be strengthened alongside the social sciences. “[T]o add something doesn’t mean taking away anything of what was there before,” Msgr. Sequeri told Crux in September 2017, shortly after the announcement of the planned overhaul.
In that same interview, Archbishop Paglia hedged. “[I]f, inside the institute, something isn’t working anymore, if something has become lazy or useless, then it has to be changed, but that’s true of any institution in the world,” Paglia offered. One may call Melina and Noriega many things, but not lazy or useless. So, Paglia clearly couldn’t have been referring to them.
In any case, Profs. Melina and Noriega are out, and the weight of core theology courses in degree programs has been roughly halved.
In Noriega’s case, there was another reason adduced for his exclusion from the new Institute: he could not possibly continue as a stable professor (roughly a tenured professor), since his concurrent position as head of his religious congregation, the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, is incompatible with his job at the Institute.
Leave aside for the moment that the controlling law the JPII Institute’s authorities invoked — Canon 152 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law — deals with offices that are incompatible by their very nature, like prosecutor and defense attorney (which no one man can fairly hold, at least, not in the same case). Noriega has led the DCJM since 2008 — two years after he became a stable professor at the old JPII Institute — and his term as DCJM superior ends in January of the coming year. You do the math.
It’s tough to say whether the powers at the JPII Institute are trying too hard, or hardly trying.
One thing is certain: the powers responsible for this business want it both ways. They want their purge, and they want to be able to claim — with at least a bare minimum of plausibility — that they are not purging the Institute. The proverbial elephant in the room is Pope Francis’s post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris laetitia, but that is the subject of another essay.
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