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The Renewal of the John Paul II Theological Institute

Carlo Casalone, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Thu, Nov 14th 2019


The impulse toward renewal that Pope Francis is impressing on the life of believers concerns all the dimensions of the ecclesial community and reaches the various areas of the life of the Church. While the importance that the pope attaches to theology is often underestimated, in reality he cares very much about a serious and rigorous understanding of the experience of faith. Francis has repeatedly stressed the need for theological reflection that develops organically, including on the academic level and in institutionally structured forms.


Indications of Francis regarding theological reflection

The pope has revealed on many occasions the aspects he considers most relevant in elaborating thought that can give explanations in matters of faith. Already in the programmatic document of his pontificate, the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG),[1] he noted that the service of theologians is “part of the Church’s saving mission. In doing so, however, they must always remember that the Church and theology exist to evangelize, and not be content with a desk-bound theology” (EG 133).

For this reason, the notion of mercy is central, since it is at the heart of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The pope wrote to the professors of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina: “I encourage you to study how in the various disciplines – dogma, morals, spirituality, law and so on – the centrality of mercy can be reflected.”[2]

Theology, wrote Francis, must be “the expression of a Church that is a ‘field hospital,’ which lives its mission of salvation and healing in the world. Mercy is not only a pastoral attitude, it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus … Without mercy, our theology, our law, our pastoral work run the risk of collapsing into bureaucratic pettiness or ideology, which by its very nature wants to tame the mystery. To understand theology is to understand God, who is Love.”[3] In the Gospels we see Jesus always attentive to fulfilling the meaning of the precepts of the divine law in a way that promotes the human, avoiding whatever wounds the dignity of the person: the controversies over the Sabbath and the priority of mercy over sacrifice are eloquent examples of this (cf. Matt 12:7).[4] Mercy understood in this way is not “a substitute for truth and justice, but is a condition for being able to find them.”[5]

Moreover, in order to be part of the evangelizing mission of the Church, theology must not separate itself from pastoral work or, even worse, oppose it.[6] To move in this direction, contact with the experiences in which the faithful are immersed in their daily existence is of fundamental importance. This brings with it two requirements: on the one hand, there is a need to know the concrete situations in which people spend their lives, especially those who are in various forms of the peripheries of life, and therefore in a situation of greater vulnerability; on the other hand, to acquire the ability to communicate in an understandable way with interlocutors of different cultures and in a variety of places and times.

These two requirements are characterized by several common features: going beyond the confines of the “study-desk” to reach out to the borders[7]; making use not only of indispensable personal experience, but also of the results of the sciences that systematically explore the social and economic dynamics in which our contemporaries are involved; forging new modes of expression that allow us to interact with different cultures.

Dimensions and meanings of dialogue

It is in this perspective that Francis’ insistence on dialogue is placed. To be possible, it requires above all the exercise of “a thought that is not grasping, but hospitable,” which does not yield “to the illusion of definitiveness and perfection, but recognizes itself as open, incomplete, restless.”[8] Therefore, a mental and relational attitude is required for which learning and formation are necessary: “While dialogue is not a magic formula, theology is certainly helped in its renewal when it takes dialogue seriously … Students of theology should be educated in dialogue.”[9]

This is a very demanding objective. It involves a review of ecclesiastical studies and the experiences of a “cultural laboratory”[10] to connect the different disciplines, encouraging mutual enrichment of both content and method. We can indicate three areas in which this dialogue is taking place.

The first concerns the knowledge that comes from the natural sciences and the human and social sciences. It is necessary to listen with courageous openness to the contributions that these sciences provide and to make a wise discernment so as to be able to make use of the resources that contemporary thought makes available to us. The Church has always proceeded in this way. There have been tensions and conflicts, which must be faced in an evangelical spirit, but it has always tried to avoid becoming fixated on “an anachronistic conceptual apparatus, incapable of adequately interacting with the transformations.”[11]

Today we particularly need to ask ourselves critically about the concepts of “nature and artifice, of conditioning and freedom, of means and ends, introduced by the new culture of acting, typical of the technological era. We are called to set ourselves firmly on the path taken by the Second Vatican Council, which calls for the renewal of theological disciplines and a critical reflection on the relationship between the Christian faith and moral action (cf. Optatam Totius, 16).”[12]

For the dialogue to be effectively trans-disciplinary, it is necessary to go beyond the simple juxtaposition of the cognitive contents of the individual disciplines, or the naive importation into theological discourse of terms that come from other branches of knowledge.[13] The meanings of the concepts used, in fact, depend on the conceptual equipment and the processes used for their elaboration. We need research that critically examines the relevant categories needed to address questions that require contributions from different theoretical horizons.

The other two aspects of the dialogue concern the encounter between cultures and religions. They are closely linked. It is only in the framework of an authentic “culture of encounter” (EG 220) that one can understand the choice to adopt “a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”[14] Dialogue is presented here not as an optional element, but as constitutive of every religious faith, in a framework of brotherhood. It requires that the content of knowledge and the way in which it is related be considered equally important.

This applies not only to those to whom the mission of the Church is addressed, but also to its internal life, as emerges from the concept of “missionary synodality.”[15] There is continuity between the Church’s way of proceeding in the quality of the relationships she promotes – even by structuring them institutionally – and the message she is called to proclaim. It is a call to continuous conversion so that the Church may become ever more welcoming and participatory in all her dimensions.

Moreover, we could say that Sacred Scripture itself was constituted according to a dialogical procedure. It is the result of a mutual exchange between different traditions that the Chosen People encountered not only in the surrounding cultures, but also within their own ranks, as the biblical texts clearly state.[16] The understanding of the experience develops in an incessant dynamic of recognition and critical reappraisal of the indications of good that is present in concrete historical situations, in which the encounter and the knowledge of God, who operates in the events, is also mediated. This movement is never one-way, but multidirectional and truly trans-cultural.

This involves a dynamic not unlike today’s: the interaction with contemporary thought – including its scientific-technological expressions – and with different cultures and religious traditions allows unexpected insights and new terms in theological language. It is an operation of the utmost importance to be able to deepen not only the understanding of faith, but also the interpretation of the world, of life and of the action of which faith itself is the leaven, encouraging communication with the men and women of our time.

Quoting Michel de Certeau, an author who is very dear to him, the pope reminds us that questions about faith must be answered taking into account the terms in which they are formulated, since they are those with which the men and women of that given society live and interpret the world.[17] We must not remain fixated on statements that are no longer able to correctly express the truth of God who reveals himself in the Gospel in Jesus Christ.[18] And, given the diversity of ways of being Christian in time and in geographical-cultural contexts, theology has the task of discerning carefully and reflecting on the meaning of believing in any particular situation, giving an account of the form of being Christian.[19]

This perspective is possible only if we admit that every single theological formulation is not able to exhaust the richness of the reality of the faith that it intends to enunciate and that the opening of every statement to possible enrichment and subsequent updates does not affect its validity.[20] Different formulations may indicate the same inexhaustible reality of faith in a plurality of versions. But it is necessary that each, in its diversity, be in dialogue with the others, avoiding monolithic fundamentalism, and being articulated as the different faces of a single polyhedron, which is the background of the well-known principle: “reality is superior to the idea.”[21]

The creation of the new John Paul II Theological Institute

It is precisely in this perspective that the path taken by the John Paul II Theological Institute is to be found.  It has recently been at the center of lively discussions, which were not always supported by an adequate information base as to the actual state of affairs. First of all, let us remember that with the “Motu proprio” Summa familiae cura (September 8, 2017) – which followed the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which reaped the fruits of two previous synodal assemblies (extraordinary in 2014 and ordinary in 2015) – Pope Francis created a new Institute, called the “Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for the Sciences of Marriage and the Family.” Therefore the previous Institute, established by the apostolic constitution Magnum matrimonii sacramentum (October 7, 1982), was suppressed.

The objective of this decision was to give a new impetus to the path taken so far. It was initiated almost 40 years ago on the basis of the valid intuition of Saint John Paul II: the centrality of the family in the construction of the social fabric and in formation for a human coexistence that is effectively respectful of the life and dignity of persons, in an evangelical perspective.

The depth of the changes that have taken place in recent decades has highlighted the need for a new beginning, broadening “the field of interest, both in terms of the new dimensions of the pastoral task and the ecclesial mission, and in reference to the developments of the human sciences and anthropological culture in a field so fundamental for the culture of life.”[22]

The “Motu proprio” also provided for the definition of new Statutes (art. 5). Approved by the Holy See with its corresponding Order of Studies, these came into force on July 18, 2019. The work of elaboration lasted for two years and involved the academic leadership – Grand Chancellor Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia and the Dean Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri – and the teaching staff, with the involvement also of the numerous international branches connected to the Central Institute. The preparation of the texts was carried out in collaboration with the competent bodies of the Holy See. In particular, the advice of the Congregation for Catholic Education was valuable for its specific competence in the academic field. But important synergies have also developed with the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life and with the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Division of studies: a ‘cultural laboratory’

The new order of studies is divided into two main areas: theological-pastoral and anthropological-cultural. The first includes “the deepening of the theology of the Christian form of faith, of the ecclesiology of the community and of the evangelical mission, of the anthropology of human and theological love, of the global theological ethics of life, of spirituality and of the transmission of faith in the secular city.”[23]

The second area responds more directly to the need for updating (aggiornamento) and dialogue with contemporary thought, and consistently introduces the perspective of the human sciences. Among these we find disciplines such as psychology, sociology, economics and comparative law. They can provide cognitive tools to analyze the political and technological transformations of the community and the role of familiar institutions in the formation of the person, taking into account the important function of intermediate social bodies in the equilibriums of human coexistence, on both affective and ethical levels.

The structure of the courses makes it possible to obtain the degrees of second cycle (license) and third cycle (doctorate). The training offered does not therefore include those lessons that were already carried out in the first cycle and that are presumed to already have been obtained. The fundamental subjects that were considered appropriate to maintain are ordered according to the thematic and academic specificity of the Institute.  Limiting ourselves to a few examples, we can cite Christian Ecclesiology and Family Community, Moral Theology of Love and Family, Theology of the Sacrament of Marriage.

Several complementary courses will be offered by invited specialists at the accredited universities, in particular the Pontifical Lateran University, with which there is a privileged link. The curricula have been reconfigured in order to obtain canonical recognition of the titles and to fully enter the Bologna Process, thus giving the Institute a more solid positioning on the international level.

The extension of the teaching staff will allow coverage of the main areas and also promote a more organic dialogue between the different disciplines and theological perspectives. The intention is to encourage the presence of voices that offer an overall reading of the Magisterium, including recent teaching.[24]

We know, in fact, that debates have been sparked on issues concerning the family and life, which have sometimes not helped believers to develop a balanced opinion on the magisterial positions, nor to grow in an experience of communion, not least because of the frequent and undue pressure of the media. In particular, it is a question of developing interpretations that show the synergy and complementarity of documents that are too frequently read as conflicting or even contradictory, without examining the premises that would make it possible to recognize their connections, convergences and mutual enrichment.[25]

Therefore, according to the logic of the already mentioned “cultural laboratory,” the integration of the teaching staff has been foreseen. This body, however, keeps most of its components unchanged. The new arrangements have led to positions that were previously present not being reassigned in a few cases. The criteria according to which this decision was taken are those mentioned above. But the canonical norms have always been fully respected. These norms correspond to the nature of the “ecclesiastical” academy of the new Institute, and the General Regulations of the Roman Curia to which it is subject, which already applied to the previous Institute.

The entire journey of the John Paul II Theological Institute therefore expresses the commitment to respond in the best possible way to the insistent request of Pope Francis “to have light and flexible structures that express the priority given to welcoming and dialogue, to inter- and trans-disciplinary work and networking. The statutes, the internal organization, the method of teaching, the program of studies should reflect the physiognomy of the Church which goes forth.”[26]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 11, art. 4, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1910.4

[1]. Cf. EG 25.

[2]. Francis, Letter to the Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical Universidad Católica Argentina on the 100th anniversary of the Faculty of Theology, March 3, 2015, in (where you can also find the other interventions of the pope mentioned below). This line has already been taken by previous popes, as can be seen from a quick glance at the titles of their magisterial interventions, starting with Pius XI, who issued Miserentissimus Redemptor (1928), and especially John XXIII, who urged the Church to give priority to “the medicine of mercy rather than severity” (Address at the solemn opening of the Council, October 11, 1962), to the encyclical Dives in misericordia by Saint John Paul II, up to those of Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est and Caritas in veritate.

[3]. “First of all, it is necessary to start from the Gospel of mercy, from the proclamation made by Jesus himself and from the original contexts of evangelization. Theology is born in the midst of specific human beings, who are met with the gaze and heart of God who seeks them with merciful love. Doing theology is also an act of mercy” (Francis, Address to the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, June 21, 2019).

[4]. Cf. G. Ferretti, Il criterio misericordia. Sfide per la teologia e la prassi della Chiesa, Brescia, Queriniana, 2017.

[5]. R. Cantalamessa, “Il valore politico della misericordia” in Oss. Rom. March 30, 2008, quoted in P. Coda, “La Chiesa è il Vangelo». Alle sorgenti della teologia di papa Francesco, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2017, 111.

[6]. Cf. Francis, Message to the International Congress of Theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, September 1, 2015.

[7]. “Your place of reflection should be the frontiers. And don’t fall into the temptation to paint over them, perfume them, fix them a bit and domesticate them. Even good theologians, like good shepherds, smell of people and of the street and, with their reflection, pour oil and wine on the wounds of the people” (Francis, Letter to the Grand Chancellor…, op. cit.).

[8]. P. Coda, “The Church is the Gospel”…, op. cit., 75ff.

[9]. Francis, Address to the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, op. cit.

[10]. Id., Veritatis Gaudium, No. 3.

[11]. Id., Address to the XXV General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, February 25, 2019.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Cf. Id., Veritatis Gaudium, No. 4c.

[14]. Document on human brotherhood for world peace and common living together (Abu Dhabi, February 4, 2019), signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb.

[15]. Francis, Christus Vivit, Nos. 206-207; cf. Synod of Bishops, Young people, faith and vocational discernment. Final document, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana 2018, Nos. 119-127.

[16]. Cf. Pontifical Biblical Commission. Radici bibliche dell’agire cristiano, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2008, in particular No. 4. On the ethical dimension of dialogue, cf. D. Abignente – S. Bastianel, Le vie del bene. Oggettività, storicità, intersoggettività, Trapani, Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2009, 51-95.

[17]. Cf. Francis, Message to the International Congress of Theology..., op. cit.

[18]. “Sometimes, listening to a completely orthodox language, what the faithful receive, because of the language they use and understand, is something that does not correspond to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. With the holy intention of communicating to them the truth about God and human beings, […] we give them a false god or a human ideal that is not truly Christian” (EG 41).

[19]. “One is not a Christian in the same way in today’s Argentina and in the Argentina of a hundred years ago. In India and Canada one is not a Christian in the same way as in Rome. Therefore, one of the main tasks of the theologian is to discern, to reflect: what does it mean to be Christians today? “In the here and now”; how does that river of origins manage to irrigate these lands today and to make itself visible and livable?” (Francis, Message to the International Congress of Theology..., op. cit.)

[20]. Cf. G. Lafont, Piccolo saggio sul tempo di papa Francesco, Bologna, EDB, 2017.

[21]. Cf. EG 231, where the pope also stresses the need to “avoid different forms of concealment of reality: false sense of angelic purity, totalitarianisms of the relative, declarationist nominalisms, projects more formal than real, anti-historical fundamentalisms, ethical  systems without goodness, intellectual systems without wisdom.”

[22]. Francis, Apostolic Letter Summa familiae cura, September 8, 2017.

[23]. P. Sequeri, “Tra fede e realtà” in Oss. Rom., July 19, 2019, 7.

[24]. Cf. Francis, Address to the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, op. cit., where the pope states: “The renewal of schools of theology comes about through the practice of discernment and through a dialogical way of proceeding capable of creating a corresponding spiritual environment and intellectual practice … A dialogue capable of integrating the living criterion of Jesus’ Paschal Mystery with that of analogy, which discovers connections, signs and theological references in reality, in creation and in history.”

[25]. Cf. C. Schönborn, “Préface” in A. Thomasset – J.-M. Garrigues, Une morale souple, mais non sans boussole. Répondre aux doutes des quatre cardinaux à propos d’Amoris laetitia, Paris, Cerf, 2017, 12. For a further look at some of the more controversial points, see ibid., 66-100.

[26]. Francis, Address to the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, op. cit.

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