Today in Rome, Pope Francis issued the 16thMotu Proprio of his pontificate, Summa Familiae Cura. The apostolic letter, dated for promulgation today – exactly one year after five dubia were presented to the pope concerning his exhortation Amoris Laetitia — establishes a new educational institution. Called “The Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences,” it will replace the original (and similarly named) John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. The latter was founded by the late Cardinal Caffarra at Pope John Paul II’s request after the conclusion of the 1980 Synod on the Family; that synod also gave rise to the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio.
It was upon the occasion of that founding that Sister Lucia of Fatima responded to a letter from Caffarra requesting prayers for the new undertaking, telling him that “the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family.”
“Don’t be afraid,” she went on, “because anyone who operates for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be contended and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue … however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.”
Pope Francis signed today’s apostolic letter remaking the institute during his apostolic visit to Colombia on September 8, only two days after the cardinal — who was recently described by Vatican watcher Sandro Magister as the “driving figure” behind the dubia — passed away unexpectedly in Bologna at the age of 79.
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Caffarra’s concerns as expressed in the dubia were shared not only by Cardinals Raymond Burke, Walter Brandmueller, and the late Joachim Meisner — the other three so-called “Dubia Cardinals” — but many of the faithful throughout the world. Nevertheless, Francis writes in Summa Familiae Cura that the synods of 2014 and 2015, which culminated in the writing of Amoris Laetitia, have “led the Church to a renewed awareness of the family gospel and the new pastoral challenges to which the Christian community is called upon to respond.” Francis goes on to cite his own exhortation, saying, “The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church.”
Citing paragraph 32 of Amoris Laetitia, the new motu proprio continues:
The anthropological-cultural change, which today affects all aspects of life and requires an analytical and diversified approach, does not allow us to limit ourselves to pastoral and missionary practices that reflect forms and models of the past. We must be conscious and passionate interpreters of the wisdom of faith in a context in which individuals are less sustained than in the past by social structures, in their affective and family life. In the clear purpose of remaining faithful to the teaching of Christ, we must look with the intellect of love and with wisdom of realism to the reality of the family today, in all its complexity, in its lights and in its shadows.
Co-opting Catholic teaching on marriage and family
The retention of the name of Pope John Paul II on the newly reconfigured institute has already raised suspicions that his reputation on life and family issues will be used to provide cover for a heterodox agenda. Such concerns are not without merit. Over the past year we have witnessed certain prelates — those who are actively advancing the most radical re-interpretation of the Church’s teaching on the family — transparently co-opting the work of popes Paul VI and John Paul II to this end.
In August 2016, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia — a vocal advocate for Communion for the “remarried” who was responsible for inviting homosexual couples to the 2015 World Meeting of Families — was chosen by Pope Francis to head up the Pontifical Academy for Life, as well as the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Paglia — who was later discovered (without consequence) to have been responsible for commissioning of a homoerotic mural featuring his likeness in his Cathedral in Terni-Narni-Amelia — told Vatican Radio upon news of his appointment that he believed the pope wanted him to continue the “new course” that came from the synods, as well as from Amoris Laetitia. Having taken over the institute founded by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Caffarra, Paglia said, “I understand the pope’s [Francis] own wish for a kind of acceleration of the nearness of the Church and for the breaching of borders — with reflection, courage, and creativity.”
In October 2016, Cardinal Walter Kasper — one of the driving forces behind the recent synods on the family and the exhortation that followed — drew uponFamiliaris Consortio 84 to justify the controversial concessions in Amoris Laetitiathat would allow those living in objective grave sin a chance to receive the Sacraments without a change of life. Kasper argued that when John Paul II decided to allow “remarried” Catholics to receive the sacraments if they lived as brother and sister, this, too, was “in fact a concession.” Pope Francis, Kasper said, merely “goes a step further, by putting the problem in a process of an embracing pastoral [approach] of gradual integration.”
Also that same October, we learned that Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri would be the new president of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome. Sequeri had acted as consultor for the the two synods, and went on to help with the drafting of Amoris Laetitia. Simultaneously, news broke that Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, Australia, “shocked students and staff” by announcing that the Melbourne campus of the John Paul II Institute would be closing in 2018. In a statement on the Institute’s website, it was admitted that there was no looming financial crisis and that student needs were being met.
In November, 2016, the entire membership of the Pontifical Academy of Life (PAL) — another creation of Pope John Paul II, now also under Archbishop Paglia — was dismissed, including those members, like Professor Josef Seifert, who were appointed to their positions for life. At the same time, the statutes were re-written in such a way that members would no longer be required to sign a declaration stating they would uphold Catholic teachings on life. The requirement that members be Catholic was also dropped. By June 2017, the pope had appointed 45 new ordinary members of the emptied-out PAL, some of whom were, by Paglia’s own admission, non-believers, and at least one of whom was a known supporter of abortion up to 18 weeks of gestation.
In May 2017, Italian journalist and Vatican watcher Marco Tosatti revealed information he had received that a “secret commission” had been formed to “examine and potentially study changes to the Church’s position on the issue of contraception as it was explained in 1968 by Paul VI in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.” In June 2017, Italian Catholic historian and author Roberto de Mattei verifiedthe existence of the commission, revealing that yet another person involved with the John Paul II Institute — a professor at the institute named Monsignor Gilfredo Marengo — would be in charge of the work. Marengo was “nominated by Pope Francis,” according to de Mattei, “to ‘re-interpret’ the encyclical Humane Vitae by Paul VI, in the light of Amoris Laetitia, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the former’s promulgation, which falls next year.” De Mattei also brought to light the involvement of Monsignor Sequeri, the aforementioned newly-appointed president of the John Paul II Institute in Rome.
De Mattei went on to give valuable insight into the thinking of Monsignor Marengo, who suggested in a piece at Vatican Insider in September, 2015, that Catholics should abandon “a conception of the doctrinal patrimony of the Church as a closed system, impermeable to questions and provocations of the here and now, in which the Christian community is called to justify its faith, through its proclamation and testimony”. In another article, de Mattei revealed that Marengo had asked if “the polemical game – the [contraceptive] pill yes – the pill no, like today’s – Communion to the divorced yes – Communion to the divorced no – is only an appearance of discomfort and strain, [which is] much more decisive in the fabric of ecclesial life.” Marengo went on in that article to say he believed that the way the teaching of Paul VI [in Humanae Vitae] is defended creates problems for today’s Catholics. To illustrate his point, Marengo cited Pope Francis, who said, “we have presented a too abstract theological ideal on marriage, almost artificially constructed, far from the concrete situation and the effective possibilities of families as they really are. This excessive idealization, above all when we have reawakened trust in grace, has not made marriage more attractive and desirable, but quite the opposite.”
By July 2017, the Humanae Vitae commission’s existence was being summarily denied by Archbishop Paglia. However, Monsignor Marengo admitted in an interview with Vatican Radio that a “research group” looking into Humanae Vitae did exist, although he insisted that it was “a work of historical-critical investigation without any aim other than reconstructing as well as possible the whole process of composing the encyclical.”
But as Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register asked earlier this month, “Why make all the effort to deepen and study something that will not fundamentally change?” Pentin also noted the “unprecedented level of access” to the Vatican Secret Archives given to commission members. That kind of access, says Pentin, has not even been granted to those researching the much-maligned pontificate of Venerable Pope Pius XII during World War II, despite years of requests made to that end. “All of which,” writes Pentin, “amounts to a concern that the commission is being used as a cover: to look at the scientific and historical character of the document, but with the ultimate goal of presenting the Pope with enough information for the encyclical’s dissenters to say: ‘Times have changed — Humanae Vitae needs to be interpreted in the light of conscience, according to the complexity of people’s lives today.’”
So what does the pope himself think? We have at least two significant clues.
In an interview in March 2014, Francis was asked to comment on Humanae Vitae.Specifically, he was questioned on whether the Church could “take up again the topic of birth control”.
“It all depends,” the pope responded, “on how the text of ‘Humanae Vitae’ is interpreted. Paul VI himself, towards the end, recommended to confessors much mercy and attention to concrete situations.” He also said, “it is a matter of going into the issue in depth and to ensure that the pastoral ministry takes into account the situations of each person and what that person can do. This will also be discussed on the path to the Synod.”
In 2016, he said in response to a question about contraceptive use during an outbreak of the microcephaly-causing Zika virus that couples in affected areas could licitly “avoid pregnancy” by making recourse to a “lesser evil.” By way of example, the pope cited an apocryphal story alleging that Pope Paul VI had allowed nuns in Africa to use contraceptives if they were likely to be raped. Vatican spokesman Fr. Frederico Lombardi later clarified that in his answer, the pope was indeed speaking of the use of “condoms and contraceptives” for the purposes of “avoiding pregnancy.” “The contraceptive or condom,” Fr. Lombardi said, “in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said.”
Summa Familiae Cura — a clue from the past?
As we have seen, over the course of a very short time, progressive forces within the Church have moved rapidly to take over trusted institutions or appropriate the reputations or work of those who have held the line on Catholic teaching to advance the cause of undermining the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage.
The question is: where does the re-imagining of the John Paul II Institute fit in?
Like many, I was struck by the sudden and unexpected nature of today’s motu proprio. The sudden changing of the name, structure, and focus of the Institute, especially so soon after its founding president’s death, seemed very odd.
Also odd, to my ears at least, was the wording of the new title. The “Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.“ Sciences? Which sciences? The question of science, as it most commonly intersects with Church teaching at present, relates to the perceived supremacy of the empirical over the theological, as well as the “evolution” of doctrine based on a notion that modern man knows so much more than those who came before him that he has the wisdom to change what cannot be changed.
More to the point, it made me think of contraception, the acceptance of which within ecclesiastical circles follows that exact line of thinking.
So as I sat down to research this article, I followed the hunch. I was able to locate an online copy of the Schema for a Document on Responsible Parenthood — the so-called “majority report” of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control, given to Pope Paul VI in 1966. It was the leaking of this document that led many to believe that Pope Paul VI would affirm that contraception and Catholic teaching on Marriage and fecundity were compatible. It was also the reason that so many were shocked by what Humanae Vitae ultimately said.
There is much of relevance in the document, itself now half a century old, that resonates in the present moment. “Because of the complexity of modern life,” one early section says, sounding eerily familiar, “the concrete moral norms to be followed must not be pushed to an extreme.”
But it was when I made it to the second part of the text, on “Pastoral Necessities,” that I almost jumped out of my chair. Under the heading Chapter II: Further Consideration; Application of the Doctrine of Matrimony to Different Parts of the World , the first paragraph reads:
It seems very necessary to establish some pontifical institute or secretariat for the study of the sciences connected with married life. In this commission there could be continual collaboration in open dialogue among experts competent in various areas. The aim of this institute (or secretariat) would be, among other duties, to carry further the research and reflection begun by the commission. The various studies which the commission has already done could be made public. It would be in a special way for this institute to study how the doctrine of matrimony should be applied to different parts of the world and to contribute to the formation of priests and married couples dedicated to the family apostolate by sending experts to them (cf., Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, II, c.1, par.52). [emphasis added]