The John Paul II Pontifical Institute in Turmoil

At the canonization ceremony of St. Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis graciously referred to the former pontiff as the “Pope of the Family.” The crowds cheered at this fitting title since there was no doubt about his legacy as a tenacious champion for marriage and family. Part of that legacy was the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome (later renamed the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences).

Pope John Paul II commissioned Cardinal Carlo Caffarra to establish this Institute in 1982. Its purpose was to defend the Church’s teaching on marriage and family and advance John Paul II’s own orthodox but innovative insights on sexual morality. Those views were initially expressed in his magnificent pre-papal work Love and Responsibility, and later in Theology of the Body, along with many other papal letters and encyclicals.  

But ever since the 2016 appointment by Pope Francis of Archbishop Paglia as Grand Chancellor, the Institute’s original vision has been slowly undermined and furtively sabotaged. In 2019, several longtime faculty members, such as Livio Melina, Jaroslaw Kupczak, and Stanislaw Grygiel, were fired without warrant or due process. 

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They were replaced by individuals like Fr. Maurizio Chiodi, a moral theologian who has expressed support for artificial contraception. Contrary to Familiaris Consortio (Pope John Paul II’s exhortation on the family) and Humanae Vitae, Chiodi dismisses the idea that artificial contraception is an intrinsically evil act. In the spirit of Amoris Laetitia, he has also declared that under certain conditions same-sex couples can engage in sexual relations that fortify their relationship.

Father Chiodi was joined at the Institute by Fr. Pier Davide Guenzi, another advocate of sexual relations for same-sex couples. Fr. Guenzi claims that the natural law must be constantly reconceived to conform to a “theological reading” of a changing reality. He has lavished praise on the “potentialities” for “mutual enrichment” embedded in same-sex relationships, observing that “the man-woman bond does not exhaust all forms of human expression even from the affective point of view.” Beyond any doubt, the hiring of these new faculty members signals a major change in the Institute’s pedagogical trajectory.  

The situation at the Institute continues to devolve. Several months ago, Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne, a distinguished moral theologian and rector of L’Institut Catholique de Paris, was selected as the Institute’s new President. If there was any doubt about the orthodoxy and future direction of this institution, his appointment has confirmed our worst fears. 

Like many revisionist moral theologians, Bordeyne favors the private blessing of same-sex unions. He believes in “atypical paths to holiness” for individuals in these irregular relationships. He is hopeful that acceptance of these alternative paths within the Church will inspire “a renewal of the Christian theology of sexuality, precisely because human sexuality, ultimately relatively undetermined, admits of atypical forms and expressions.” These heterodox views cannot be construed as an evolution of the moral doctrine propagated by the ever-faithful Pope John Paul II. Rather, they represent the antithesis of everything he taught about love, human sexuality, and the theology of the body.

In a recent interview with La Croix, Msgr. Bordeyne declared that “we theologians cannot continue to assert certainties about the family when we see the transformations it is undergoing today.” He goes on to say that “The Church has not always been humble enough to recognize that there are important changes in the way families are formed. This is what Pope Francis keeps repeating, especially in the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which followed the synod on the family.  This lack of humility, in my opinion, is reflected in the temptation to oversimplify issues surrounding the family and to give ready-made answers.”

Bordeyne’s ominous remarks conjure a radical theological vision that incorporates an elastic interpretation of marriage and family formation. Thanks to cultural trends, he suggests the need for a retreat from the principle that marriage and family has its own true nature which has been critical for human identity. In making such declarations, Bordeyne dares to call into question a moral certitude that is affirmed by Jesus Himself.   

When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees about the lawfulness of divorce, he replied that marriage in God’s original plan includes two people of the opposite sex who leave their parents and through marital intercourse become a one-flesh union. “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh” (Mark 10:6-9). This sacramental and covenantal union is both monogamous and indissoluble.

Elaborating on this unambiguous teaching, Pope John Paul II explained that the “natural foundation” of the family is marriage, a real communion of persons between a man and a woman. To this “unity of the two” God has, from the beginning, entrusted the work of procreation and family life. The first married couple is immediately told to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). As John Paul II proclaims, “marriage and conjugal love is ordained to the procreation and education of children, in whom it finds its crowning” (Familiaris Consortio, 14). The communion of husband and wife expands into a family community and eventually into generations of families.  

The family first arises through the marital bond, which creates a permanent communion of life and love. Marriage is the foundation for stable family life, and only marriage can do justice to all parties concerned, including the Creator. In Love and Responsibility, the Pope explained that justice to the Creator was achieved through the preservation of the natural order, which includes the natural family, and respect for the value of the person. Only traditional marriage meets these criteria. The mother and father of the child need each other’s complementary presence for mutual support. In addition, children need to be raised and educated by both parents, who witness to a shared union of love and self-sacrifice.  

Thus, the family is not an artificial or arbitrary society, left entirely up to the human will or social convention. The family is a “natural society” based on marital unity. Far from being amorphous, the family structure has an immutable form and meaning: the maturation of a married couple through reciprocal self-giving accompanied by a generous openness to the generation and formation of children. The Creator had only one design in mind for the family, which is exemplified by the Holy Family of Nazareth. God ensured that His Son was raised by Mary and Joseph, a mother and a father who brought to this simple family in Nazareth their complementary gifts.

Instead of defending this sacred vision, which is consistently discredited in modern culture, Bordeyne’s dismaying comments strongly imply that this understanding of the family is subject to modification. Social transformations and the complexities of modern society necessitate an openness to new formats for family life that depart from the Creator’s plan. This rhetoric about social change, however, is right out of the liberal theologians’ playbook. We must be historically minded, they insist, and accept that society’s evolution and complex transformations deprive once accepted judgments of their truth and normativity. The traditional notion of family life as a mother, father, and children still endures but has grown quaint around the edges. The complications of modern life compel us to rethink this simple certitude. 

Yet the past was just as complex and erratic as the present. The Roman empire of Jesus and St. Paul, and the subsequent eras of the Church Fathers and the saints, featured the same challenges: abortion, adultery, contraception, same-sex relations, and so on. To be sure, one new complexity is the technology of artificial reproduction. But there are ample grounds for not permitting a crude technology that reduces the human person to a biological mechanism to cast its dark shadow over the sacrament of matrimony. Moreover, for the most part technology has not changed the substance of these moral problems. When Jesus, St. Paul, and the Church Fathers taught about these matters, they addressed their countercultural discourse to a world in a state of flux and permeated with moral chaos.

Bordeyne says that the Church must be more humble, so it can perceive its mistakes and refrain from offering simplified formulas and “ready-made answers” that do not harmonize with the plastic reality of the modern family. The Monsignor is in good company, since secular, progressive forces are determined to expand the definition of family and parenthood beyond their biological roots. 

As Michael Hanby has pointed out, the U.S. Courts have substituted a functional and legal definition of the family to displace the natural relations of maternity and paternity. It would be especially pernicious to make any concessions that redefine the family based on function rather than on the bonds of natural kinship. Normalizing alternative family forms is inconsistent with the Church’s theology of marriage and family, which is neither impoverished nor antiquated. That doctrine represents an immutable truth anchored in natural law and Sacred Scripture. 

As Vatican II reminds us, “Beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, who is the same yesterday and today” (Gaudium et Spes, 10). And one of those realities with its foundation in Christ is marriage and family. Bordeyne may be right about humility. However, what’s necessary is the humble submission to the truth of creation and the natural order, even in the midst of relentless change. Only in this way can we do justice toward each other and toward the Creator.

[Photo: Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia]


  • Richard A. Spinello

    Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of Four Catholic Philosophers: Rejoicing in the Truth along with The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

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