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Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, Chancellor of the new JPII Institute.Photo by Edward Pentin

ROME, August 15, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — The “firefighters for the new direction” being taken at the John Paul II Institute in Rome are “struggling” to put out a blaze of public scandal, as controversy sparked by a recent purge of professors threatens to reach the door of the Pope’s residence at Santa Marta.

In a new letter published by respected Italian journalist, Aldo Maria Valli, an informed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the “violent upheaval in the teaching staff” and “drastic change in the curriculum and orientation of academic research” has sent “shockwaves” through the Church, and generated a reaction that is “unprecedented in the pontificate of Pope Francis, both in intensity and in duration.”

The “firefighters for the new direction,” i.e. Institute Chancellor, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, and Institute President, Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri, have “powerful means of mass media containment and threat deterrence at their fingertips,” he source said. He noted that several journalists were “forced to give up writing about the matter” after their editors received “pressing phone calls.” 

Yet these “firefighters” are still “struggling to put out the fire,” as shock over recent events continues to echo through the Catholic world “thanks to several Italian and international newspapers and websites.”

Despite increasing pressure, those at the helm of the new JPII Institute — including Archbishop Paglia, Monsignor Sequeri and their “superiors in the Roman Curia” — have “not yet decided to back down,” the source said.

“True, loyal and courageous men with great minds moved by charity, justice and truth (to say nothing of love of Christ and his Church) would step back in praiseworthy humility, admit their own error and begin a dialogue with all the parties involved,” he observed.

“Instead,” he said, “at least for now, there is nothing of the kind,” adding that the “academic authorities seem to be preparing a text to respond to criticisms.” 

Earlier this month, in fact, the personal secretary to Archbishop Paglia, Father Riccardo Mensuali, said for the time being they are not answering questions regarding recent changes to the JP II Institute. 

Mensuali told the Catholic Herald that “the institute remains desirous of giving exhaustive responses but asks a few weeks’ time in the month of August in order to formulate adequate responses.”

One key question that has gone unanswered is what role Pope Francis played in the dismissal of top JPII professors such as former president and chair of fundamental moral theology, Msgr. Livio Melina, and chair of specific moral theology, Fr. José Noriega. It is also unclear what role the Holy Father played in sweeping changes to the curriculum, including the elimination of the Institute’s five masters programs and key courses such as fundamental moral theology. 

Observers note that Archbishop Paglia could not have acted on his own in carrying out such sweeping changes. 

In Sept. 2017, with the motu proprio Summa familiaePope Francis suppressed the original institute founded by John Paul II, replacing it with a new institute to carry forward the teaching contained in Amoris Laetitia. He has not yet commented on the matter. 

In presenting the anonymous letter on Aug. 11, Aldo Maria Valli writes:

I offer you an intervention that unfortunately cannot be signed but that, as you will understand by reading it, comes from a person well informed about the facts and history of the institution. It is an important contribution for framing the issue, grasping the depth of what’s at stake, and getting to know better some of the protagonists of the revolution underway.

Here below is an English translation of the letter, which first appeared in Italian on Duc in Altum.


Dear Dr. Valli, 

The recent incredible event concerning the prestigious Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family (which was suppressed by the motu proprio Summa familiae, issued by Pope Francis on September 8, 2017, and formally replaced by the same document with the “Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for the Sciences of Marriage and the Family”) has seen a violent upheaval in the teaching staff and a drastic change in the curriculum and orientation of academic research. 

What has occurred in recent weeks is sending growing shockwaves through minds and hearts. It is generating a reaction in the people of God and among some of their pastors (those who are not concerned with pursuing an “ecclesiastical career” but with serving in love and self-denial the Church of Christ and the good of the faithful) that is unprecedented in the pontificate of Pope Francis, both in intensity and in duration. 

A “mobilization of science and knowledge” about love, marriage, family and human life is growing day by day, and the “firemen for this new direction,” while having powerful means of mass media containment and threat deterrence at their fingertips (some journalists were forced to give up writing pieces on the matter by their directors after they received pressing phone calls …), are struggling to put out the fire.

Concerns (and, in many cases, even indignation) over the dismissal “without just cause” of several officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the “departure before retirement” of the Prefect of the same Congregation, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller (on July 1, 2017); over the unjustified humiliation of the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah (for an “excessively orthodox” interpretation of the motu proprio Magnum principium issued by the Guinean cardinal); or over the crack-down on several institutes of consecrated life that were “too faithful” to their original charism and rich in young vocations, have not generated such an intense and enduring public and private response inside and outside the Church. And its echo is still being heard thanks to several Italian and international newspapers and websites, including Duc in altum.

It would suffice to reconsider carefully what has been said in interviews or written directly by the protagonists (despite themselves) about this “purge” of professors and teachings — but above all of the Magisterium on the family and human life of St. John Paul II, who founded this ecclesial academic institution and whose name it bears — to ask how the Grand Chancellor, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri, and their superiors in the Roman Curia have not yet decided to back down. (The word “purge” also came out of the mouth of a former president of the Institute, Cardinal Angelo Scola, who is usually very prudent in his judgments regarding ecclesial disputes.) 

True, loyal and courageous men with great minds moved by charity, justice and truth (to say nothing of love of Christ and his Church) would step back in praiseworthy humility, admit their own error and begin a dialogue with all the parties involved. These parties include the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, which is closely connected to the John Paul II Theological Institute; the professors of the institute; the students and diocesan bishops and superiors general from every part of the Church who sent these students to Rome not to enroll in courses at just any university where questions of love and sexuality, life and marriage are dealt with according to “secular” anthropology and ethics, albeit in dialogue with the “Catholic” morality, but so that they might learn and study in-depth the beauty and truth inherent in the corpus of the Roman Magisterium on these fundamental aspects of life for the believer, which found its summit in the teaching of St. John Paul II. 

And instead (at least for now), nothing of the kind: the two academic authorities seem to be preparing a text to respond to criticisms that, instead of appreciating the truth and goodness present in such criticisms (apart from resentful tones and polemical aspects which are inevitable in those who are wounded in body and soul by unilateral and coercive measures), denigrates and disqualifies opposing critiques despite the evidence and reasonableness they exhibit and which is there for all to see. “Only a blind man would not be able to see it,” as Cardinal Carlo Caffarra said in other circumstances.

I would like to add just three further considerations, which are not unrelated to the arguments put forward thus far, but which I hope will help those in charge to rethink the John Paul II Institute. (At least this: if not reach a new decision, which would be the right and proper thing to do).

  1. Provided (and not granted, since up to now the benefit of a face to face exchange with ecclesiastical authorities has not occurred) that the professors who were removed from the Institute have expressed theses and proposed teachings that raise critical questions about Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, what they are accused of (a) does not constitute, in itself, an offense or act of disobedience, nor even a lack of homage to the person and supreme ecclesial office of the Pope. (In the Church, disagreement over certain arguments of the non-infallible Magisterium has been distinguishable, and in fact has in many cases been distinct, from disobedience or incitement to disobedience towards the established authority, which is incompatible with the role of teacher in a pontifical academic institution); (b) furthermore, the exercise of a reasoned scrutiny of the internal and external coherence of what is stated in the Magisterial texts, and of its continuity with the development of doctrine in matters of faith and morals, is a recognized and proper part of the work of a scholar and professor who works at a university or institute of higher education where theology, philosophy and related sciences are fundamental disciplines (and who is called to a deeper understanding of the sources of Divine Revelation and the Magisterium); and (c) this has never been a reason for such drastic disciplinary action, without possibility of appeal. The professors’ critique was made with due respect for the person of the Holy Father and an acceptance of all that has been unanimously affirmed by Catholic doctrine as a whole, both historical and systematic, in particular as expressed in the synthesis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the Councils and in the entire corpus of Magisterial texts.
  2. It is even more striking that the theologians who supported this “censorship” of their colleagues at the John Paul II Institute, who are guilty of not having radically rethought their research and teaching in the (only) light of Amoris laetitia, are precisely those who — in the not so distant past — did not deign to hold in esteem magisterial documents on fundamental and special morals (especially sexual, family and human life). In fact, they have fiercely criticized them and made them look bad to their students. Monsignor Sequeri could easily testify how, at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy (FTIS, Milan) where he served as president, studies, teaching and baccalaureate, license or doctorate theses that took magisterial documents as their foundation or systematically considered them in depth, were branded as “Denzinger Theologie.” (The reference is to the well-known edition of Magisterial texts originally edited by Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger and which bears the name “Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum”). Such an approach was not considered worthy of scientific, rigorous, fruitful and pastorally useful theology. One of the harshest critics of St. John Paul II’s encyclicals Veritatis splendor(on fundamental moral theology) and Evangelium vitae(on the ethics of human life) and the apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio (on the theology and morals of marriage), and of the encyclical Humanae vitaeof St. Paul VI, not to mention other magisterial documents issued during their pontificates and approved by them (such as the Declaration Persona humana and the instruction Donum vitaeof the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) is Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, whom many have indicated as a leading lecturer of the “new moral theology” to be studied and taught at the “new Institute” of which Monsignor Paglia is now Grand Chancellor. Perhaps President Sequeri, denying his recent past at the top of the FTIS where Don Chiodi teaches and which distinguished itself for a methodological-theological rigor that does not allow any “Denzinger Theologie,” now intends to endorse an “Amoris laetitiaTheologie,” which would seem even more unacceptable according to that faculty’s logic, in so far as it takes as its starting point, for the understanding of faith and morals on marriage and the family, not the entire corpus of the Magisterium read in its internal and external coherence and organic development, but a single papal document whose theological note is certainly not that of the infallibility proper to a pronouncementex cathedra
  3. From the point of view of justice (which is not a secondary perspective for the life of the Church and relations between its members and the hierarchy of superiors), it seems shocking that theologians who, in the past (during the pontificates of Paul VI to Benedict XVI), were publicly critical of the Magisterium for its doctrinal interventions and taught in their courses that some of its texts are unacceptable due to an alleged lack of consistency and theological rigor or biblical foundation, have suffered no disciplinary measure, nor have they been removed from teaching posts at universities, faculties or ecclesiastical institutes, are now silent or even cheerful over the punishments inflicted on some of their colleagues at the John Paul II Institute. It is also incomprehensible how a president [i.e. Sequeri] who has always been a champion of academic freedom (in research and teaching) for his professors at the FTIS has now given himself over to this sort of operation, which involves not a few professors whose legitimate academic expectations he should be the first to guarantee. How can we forget that the signatories of the famous Document of dissent from the Magisterium, issued by sixty-three Italian theologians (on May 15, 1989) included Gianantonio Borgonovo, Tullio Citrini, Mario Serenthà, Roberto Dell’Oro and Franco Giulio Brambilla, all from the FTIS and the Archdiocesan Seminary of Venegono? The latter even became bishop of Novara and the penultimate was appointed a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Double standards for those who have expressed academic and public criticism of the Magisterium prior to Pope Francis and for those who read and teach Amoris laetitia in light of the entire corpus of the Catholic Magisterium, including that of the current Holy Father. Two ecclesiastical institutions and two communities of professors: the FTIS in Milan and the John Paul II Institute at the Lateran which, for accusations incomparable in terms of gravity, has been treated in a manifestly discriminatory manner.

And I will stop at justice: if we were to consider mercy, I wouldn’t know what to write.

Thank you for your attention. 

Cordial greetings.

Signed letter

Translation by Diane Montagna of LifeSiteNews.