The John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences has angrily denied ultraconservative ‘fake news’ reports that Pope Francis is dismantling the legacy of his Polish predecessor by reforming the Institute.

Driving the news

Pope John Paul II founded the Institute in 1982 as the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

But Pope Francis decided to reform the Institute in 2017, after the Synods on the Family of 2014 and 2015, explaining at the time that 21st-century anthropological and socio-cultural realities “require an analytical and diversified approach, and [do] not allow us to limit ourselves to practices of pastoral (ministry) and mission that reflect forms and models of the past”.

Institute head Vincenzo Paglia added that the modernising of the Institute was taking place in the spirit of having Catholic thought enter into dialogue “with all the other cultural perspectives, both for convincing them as much as possible, and also for seeing what truth they might contain”.

This is the essence of the “multi-disciplinary” widening of theology in pontifical universities, in dialogue with the social sciences, which Pope Francis called for in his 2017 document Veritatis gaudium.

But the reform of the Institute led to criticisms that culminated last week when the Institute published its new statutes.

More than 150 students supposedly complained in a letter that the changes in the Institute were leading to “the loss of the formational approach, and therefore, of the identity of the Pontifical Theological Institute John Paul II”.

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The intrigue

The Institute released a statement Monday denying the reform was trying to sweep away the legacy of John Paul II.

It blasted reports to that effect as “distorted and biased”, offered “sometimes in bad faith” and published “without even so much as an attempt to verify the information at the source”.

“The academic project of the new Institute, approved by the Congregation for Catholic Education, is designed as a widening of reflection on the family, and not as a replacement of themes and topics. Such expansion, showing even more the centrality of the family in the church and in society, confirms and relaunches with new vigor the original and still fruitful intuition of St. John Paul II”, the Institute affirmed.

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What’s next

In its statement, the Institute dismissed as “groundless” the claim that 150 students had complained about the direction of the school.

It said “only a few” student representatives had “asked for explanations about the innovations taking place”.

“All students were promptly informed of the news and reassured… about the three-year validity of the old curriculum. Everyone will be given the opportunity to choose between old and new systems and to draft any new plans of study”, the Institute said.

The Institute did acknowledge, however, that “according to a policy of consistency and economy” and owing to a partnership with the Pontifical Lateran University the number of course offerings and professors was being reduced, though some faculty members would, in the future, be eligible for rehire.

The Institute also dismissed reports that its new statutes would lead to a concentration of power in the hands of its Grand Chancellor, Vincenzo Paglia.

“The appointment of new permanent teachers must be done through an open competition”, the Institute insisted, putting the lie to claims Paglia will have total control over the hiring of new faculty.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.