Pope Francis has re-founded a major Church institute on marriage and the family dedicated to St John Paul II by shifting its focus to studying the everyday realities of family life.
In a ruling on Tuesday (19 September), the Pope announced a new Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences replacing one set up by St John Paul II in 1981, which had been focussed on promoting the teachings of the Polish Pope and being a pro-life voice speaking out against abortion, contraception and euthanasia.
The new body will be taking a different approach, and be focussed on studying the “lights and shadows” of the contemporary family with an awareness of “the new pastoral challenges to which the Christian community is called upon to respond.”
The latest changes were issued through an apostolic letter, delivered “Motu Proprio”, and stress that the institute will be devoted to continuing the work of the family synod gatherings of 2014 and 2015 and Francis’ document which followed, “Amoris Laetitia”.
This landmark text aims to show pastoral sensitivity to the griefs, joys and hopes of families and in the process opens the door to divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.
While critics of “Amoris Laetitia” say it is a break with Church teaching banning the remarried from the sacraments, a number of prominent theologians, including Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, say it is an “organic development” of Catholic doctrine.
The cardinal has argued that John Paul II’s family life document “Familiaris Consortio" - produced following the 1981 synod of bishops gathering - accepts the different situations that divorced and remarried Catholics find themselves in. “Amoris Laetitia”, the argument goes, builds on this by suggesting the sacraments may be possible for them in certain circumstances.
While the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences carries the Polish Pope’s name, nowhere in Francis’ text is there any mention of the Theology of the Body. This was St John Paul II’s major work on human sexuality, which the former institute was keen to promote. Made up of 129 talks given by the deceased Pope it is a long, philosophical body of teaching which puts forward a bold defence of traditional Catholic teaching on sex.
With his latest move, Francis has sought to link his teaching more closely to that of his predecessor and is an attempt to ensure Amoris Laetitia becomes more firmly embedded in the body of Church doctrine.
The re-founding of the John Paul II institute is also part of Francis’ wider move to broaden the focus of Vatican institutes dedicated to pro-life causes and the family onto a broad range of topics. In August 2016 the Pope appointed Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia President of the Pontifical Academy for Life and Chancellor of what was then called the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Paglia has set about reshaping the mission of both, including a raft of new members at the pontifical academy with diverse areas of expertise.
Some were deemed controversial with critics citing the appointment of Oxford Professor Nigel Biggar, an Anglican, who is an expert ethicist but has expressed support for abortion up to 18 weeks. Also among the new appointees are an Argentine rabbi and bioethicist and a Muslim scholar in comparative religion.
Archbishop Paglia says that his move to widening membership allows the academy to build a pro-life consensus and is “a sign that the protection and promotion of human life knows no divisions.”
PICTURE: Pope Francis celebrates marriage for couples during a nuptial Mass in St. Peter's Basilica in 2014