What’s at Stake in the Purge at the John Paul II Institute

Essence of Battle is Ideological

In the past few weeks, a long-brewing skirmish over the identity and mission of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome erupted into open warfare. Things boiled over after the new administration of the Institute abruptly terminated two long-standing and key chairs of moral theology and suspended the entirety of the remaining faculty pending review. At the same time, the new leadership also introduced new statutes, and announced radical restructuring of the programs and course offerings. In effect, the new statutes mean that the original John Paul II Institute has been suppressed, and a new one erected in place of the old.

In response, hundreds of current and former students at the institute have signed an open letter expressing their alarm that the mission of the Institute is being irreparably undermined. The students list several specific concerns. Surely the most astonishing, however, is that “in the new ordinance of studies there is no mention of the theology of the body; there is no course dedicated to this topic nor to any of the teachings of John Paul II.” If true, this is – to put it mildly – a counter-intuitive direction to take an institution specifically founded to promulgate and develop John Paul II’s theological thinking.

Pope Saint John Paul II

Some of the dismissed faculty and administrators have also publicly aired their discontent. “It seems to me that the identity of the Institute is seriously threatened,” Fr. Jose Granados, the Vice-President of the Institute, told Catholic News Agency. Others have used even stronger language. One highly respected theologian accused the new administration of using “Stalinist methods.” The verb “purge” is being employed by more than a few commentators, including at least one cardinal.

Catholic laymen watching this dispute from afar may wonder why they should care. All this internal institutional wrangling and finger-pointing can be extremely difficult to sort through, not to mention distasteful to witness.

Distasteful it may well be. However, I also think it would be difficult to overstate the importance of the battle that is currently underway over the soul of this venerable Institute. In order to grasp that importance, I think we need to understand two things: firstly, the history, nature, and historical importance of the John Paul II Institute; and secondly, how this battle over the JPII Institute both represents, and is a critical event within, a much broader battle between two ideologically irreconcilable views of morality, truth, and the nature of the Church Herself.

The Need for the JPII Institute

In the history of the JPII Institute one extraordinary fact stands out. As Fr. Raymond De Souza reports, St. John Paul II was originally set to publicly announce the formation of this institute on May 13, 1981. Informed Catholics will recognize the date as the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. Even more informed Catholics will recognize the date as the one on which St. John Paul II was shot in a failed assassination attempt. The pope was gunned down before he could make the official announcement. Was the attack on the pope in part a plot by the devil to thwart the foundation of this planned school of theology? It would be impossible to say so with any certainty. But so important has the Institute proved to be in the great 20th century battle over the Church’s teachings on life, marriage, and family, that I would not dismiss this as coincidence.

As we know, St. John Paul II did not die that day. Undaunted, he deferred the announcement of the formation of the new Institute until October of the following year. In the apostolic constitution that established the institute, the Holy Father entrusted it to Our Lady of Fatima, to whom John Paul II attributed his miraculous survival from the shooting.

John Paul II’s decision to found the Institute came in response to a call for such a school by the world’s bishops after the 1980 Synod on the Family. At the time, the Church was feeling the full impact of the moral atomic bomb that was the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s. The widespread confusion about sexuality and the nature and purpose of the family had penetrated deeply into Holy Mother Church Herself. Pope Paul VI had attempted to erect a bulwark against the worst of this confusion, reaffirming the perennial Christian teachings about marriage, sexuality, and the intrinsic immorality of contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

In response to this encyclical, many priests, bishops, and theologians openly opposed the pope, promulgating a radically different understanding not just about human sexuality, but also the nature of morality itself. Clever theologians developed elaborate, but ultimately vacuous and spiritually dangerous moral systems based upon consequentialist or situationist principles: no longer (they argued) could we say that there were any intrinsically immoral acts (i.e. artificial contraception, homosexual acts). Instead, the morality or immorality of various acts depended upon circumstances and intention; and thus, a couple could “discern” for themselves that their use of contraception was morally acceptable, regardless of what the Pope in Rome might say. In many of the old institutions of Catholic learning, this sort of theological dissent became the norm. We are all intimately familiar with the results: catastrophic catechetical failure, the widespread abandonment of Catholic teaching, and the explosion of divorce, contraception, abortion, and fornication even among Catholics in the pews.

I experience this sad circumstance and its dire consequences firsthand as I travel around the world on mission. There is a plague, a cancer that has overtaken some dioceses, parishes, Catholic institutions of higher learning, and seminaries. Many are crippled by the confusion and lack of clarity in teaching, hesitancy to boldly teach and uphold the moral treasury of the Church, and blatant rejection of Church teaching without correction from their local ordinaries or from the Vatican.

The Lynchpin 

As George Weigel notes in an excellent and impassioned recent article, John Paul II was fully aware that many of the mainstream Catholic theological institutes were profoundly poisoned by dangerous and heterodox theologians and ideas. However, rather than opening a full-frontal war, John Paul II opted instead to do an end-run around the dissident institutions and academic publications. As Weigel writes: “[H]is strategy was to encourage newer and dynamically orthodox foundations like the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (now, arguably, the most intellectually interesting of the Roman schools), and to create new institutes of higher learning in existing universities.”

The John Paul II Institute was, writes Weigel, the “linchpin” of this strategy. He adds:

[O]ver its first decades of work, the John Paul II Institute did exactly what its papal founder wanted it to do: it helped foster a renaissance in Catholic moral theology, recovering and developing the tradition of virtue ethics, exploring with care and compassion the often-tangled issues of living chaste love in various vocations, and creating a cadre of moral theologians around the world who wanted their intellectual work to help convert the late-modern and post-modern worlds, rather than pandering to late-modernity and post-modernity as they careened into decadence and incoherence.

Central to the John Paul II Institute were the teaching and defense of the principles outlined in Humanae Vitae, as well as John Paul II’s revolutionary Theology of the Body, and his seminal encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which – contrary to the predominant intellectual strain of the time – reaffirmed the truth that there exist intrinsically immoral acts. The purpose of the Institute was stated succinctly in the founding Constitution, with a quote from Veritatis Splendor: to “state to everyone the plan of God for marriage and the family in order to safeguard its full vigour and advancement both in a human and a Christian sense” (Familiaris Consortio §3). As Weigel notes, in comparison with the intellectual and moral seriousness of John Paul II’s thinking, many of the outwardly glitzy ideas of the dissidents pale by comparison.

Suffice it to say, John Paul II’s strategy worked. Young Catholic intellectuals hungry for serious and faithful theological training flocked to the institute in Rome. The demand was so great, that the Institute opened numerous satellite schools in the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, India, Australia, and elsewhere. Thousands of scholars have graduated from these schools, steeped in the thinking of John Paul II, and the traditional teachings of the Church. Some of these are now teaching in the growing crop of small Catholic liberal arts colleges committed to faithfully passing on the riches of the Church’s theological and philosophical heritage. Thanks in large part to this Institute, there now exists a vibrant community of Catholic intellectuals who are both zealously committed to Truth, and fully equipped to beat the dissidents at their own game.

Is it any wonder, then, that the John Paul II Institute is being targeted for radical “reform”. However, Weigel and Fr. De Souza are agreed on one thing: any efforts to undermine the Institute’s mission and influence are doomed to long-term failure. As both suggest, the strong-arm tactics being employed by critics of John Paul II’s theological vision to remake the Institute in their own image belie the fundamental weakness of their ideas. As Fr. De Souza writes: “an orthodoxy that has to be enforced from above, that depends upon power rather than persuasion, will not endure. Bureaucratic maneuvering can cost professors their jobs, but it cannot establish the truth.” Weigel says much the same, writing: “This is not the way people behave who believe they are firmly in control and likely to remain that way. … Because, as John Paul II knew, truth will always win out, however long it takes, because error is lifeless and stultifying.”

Nevertheless, there is cause for concern. All across the Catholic world, we are experiencing a direct and violent assault on faith, marriage, life, and the family. The tsunami of evil can only be overcome with Truth – the primary role of Catholic education (on every level). Future generations are in grave danger if we do not confront this cancer. We can imagine the great harm that will be done if (as seems to be happening) thinkers who believe that contraception and “certain” homosexual acts are legitimate are appointed to the John Paul II Institute. This is not Catholic teaching. And it certainly is not the teaching of St. John Paul II.

I support the efforts of those who are raising crucial questions about the radical restructuring of the John Paul II Institute. This Institute has been a light to the world, preserving and promulgating an intellectually serious, pastorally sensitive, dynamic, and utterly faithful theology of sexuality and family – a theology of which our Church and the wider culture are in desperate need. Please pray for the John Paul II institute, in particular that this current controversy will result in a strengthening of its identity and mission.

About Fr. Shenan J. Boquet

Fr. Shenan J. Boquet has served as president of Human Life International since 2011. He was ordained in 1993 as a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana. As HLI’s president, Fr. Boquet collaborates with fellow laborers in the pro-life and family movement in over 80 countries, offering the Sacraments, giving seminars and trainings, appearing on numerous media outlets, and encouraging people of all walks of life to live as faithful advocates for a Culture of Life and Love. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing hli@hli.org.


  1. James Camden on August 12, 2019 at 1:45 PM

    Blessings in Christ
    St Pope John Paul II is even now combating the forces of the Devil. This time as he always has St JP2 is marshaling the Heavenly Host.

  2. Evangeline on August 12, 2019 at 1:51 PM

    The days of living side by side with the destroyers needs to come to an end. While it was possible to co-exist in a parallel type of Catholic universe, this is not going to be the case from here on in. The destroyers have taken over. Feeling the power of the mighty offices they do hold, they have grown bolder and bolder over these last few years. Many in the laity understand this to be reality, our church has been infiltrated by Modernists who have not only a benign interest in redoing the church in their image, they are men full of zeal to that end. They have made great inroads, no one can say they have not been successful! They have, and they plan on continuing apace. In fact, the need for subtleties and ambiguity is just about completely past.
    When a pope states Catholics need to learn from pagans who practice cannibalism, sexual relations with children, suicide and child abandonment, it is time for people to take stock.
    Are there any bishops or Cardinals who will defend the faith from the destroyers?
    Are there any men left who will forget themselves and say publicly and with courage what needs to be said…and include the word anathema.
    One thing is certain, the days of co-existing are over. We shall see what happens once the reality of that sinks in. Maybe then men will find their voice.

  3. Evangeline on August 12, 2019 at 1:53 PM

    And I call them Modernists to be polite. They are not just Modernists.

  4. Michele McCoy on August 12, 2019 at 4:22 PM

    While I am disgusted by the gestapo techniques employed to refashion the JPII Institute, I am not surprised. Tragically, far too many in the hierarchy of the Church, to the very top, have lost their faith and serve another — and overtly so. They seem not to be content with the loss of their own souls; no, they have to inspire falsity and actively lead other souls into error, as well. While they will one day answer for their defection before the throne of God, in the instant, many suffer in their evil wake. The Bride of Christ remains, regardless, but her suffering is acute. Forgive us, Lord, and strengthen us in this storm.

  5. Alain on August 12, 2019 at 4:36 PM

    We offer our prayers to Jesus as this spiritual battle unfolds and make reparations to His Sacred Heart.

  6. Arlene Hamm on August 12, 2019 at 5:39 PM

    Never before have we been in as much need for clear, consistent moral teaching as we are today. God does not tolerate rampant immorality for very long. Those entrusted with the authority to teach moral truths will ultimately be held accountable.

  7. Andrew Bergman on August 12, 2019 at 5:42 PM

    I’m truly dismayed that there is no Theology of the Body being presented; on of the most important teachings from Saint John Paul II. His TOB teaching are being directed to our most vulnerable children; children that are being bombarded with Progressive Sex Education throughout the public school systems. Without a vibrant program, the love of Christ and the beauty of the complementary of male & female will be lost.

  8. William Lorenzo on August 12, 2019 at 6:25 PM

    With the massacre at the JP2 Institute, Cardinals Burke and Brandmuller now have their long awaited reply to the dubia they forwarded to the Vatican.

  9. Pat Kelly on August 12, 2019 at 6:44 PM

    The way to make abortion illegal again in the US is to have a prospective father who does not want his child in the mother’s womb from being aborted is to take her to a court of equity and obtain an injunction ordering her not to have an abortion until the matter can be fully settled in a hearing on the issue of whether the unborn child is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from the moment of its conception?

    Roe v Wade would be overturned with relevant evidence on the irrefutable, ineluctable conclusion there is life in the womb from the moment of conception,

  10. Larry J. Boland on August 12, 2019 at 7:36 PM

    I read so often about the inner-attacks on the Catholic Church and how the devil with the help of so many is trying to destroy our Church from with-in. Those who are trying to protect our Church provide stories/facts on what is happening but when and from where, will come the faith and strength to organize the Catholic men and women to rebel against the leadership in Our Church, the Church of Jesus Christ, and create a movement to return the Catholic Church to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Through organized prayer? Through organized letters/petitions! By demanding that our Bishops work together to preserve our Faith and our Church? When will the time come for someone to step up and save our Catholic Faith? Today we read articles like this. Get greatly disturbed and then forget about it and say to ourselves, “Something has to be done about this” and pick up our cell phones and never think about what is happening until another article shakes us up.

  11. Michel Thibodeau on August 12, 2019 at 9:12 PM

    St John-Paul II pray for us so that we can really understand.
    Strange that the times that saw your canonization also produced these efforts to destroy your teachings.

  12. James A. Sagerholm on August 13, 2019 at 5:10 AM

    Who specifically master-minded and authorized the take-over, and what is their connection, if any, with the Holy Father?

  13. Julio A, Gonzalo on August 13, 2019 at 5:20 AM

    Christ said according to the Gospels that “only truth will make you free”. St. Peter said that “the devil is a roaring lion loking for who to devour…! (1 St. Peter 5, 6-11) and St. Paul did seem to agree strongly in some of his Letters,
    If the advisors and counselors of Pope Francis do not agree with common sense, the Gospels, the New Testament and the Encyclicals “Veritatis Splendor” and “Evangelium Vitae” of St. John Paul II they should say so openly and directly.
    I think the General Superiors of religious orders, Benedictines, Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans … and the main leaders of Catholic Lay Movements in Europe, America, and Asia, including The Philippines and South Korea, who surrounded massively Pope Wojtila in his traveling all over the world defending life from conception to natural death, should speak out openly and directly.
    They all should condemn the purgue of JPII Institute.
    According to the Goospels all men, while sinners, are called to follow Christ towrds the Father, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, with the help of Mary and all of the saints. They are not called therefore to be political intriguers.

  14. Julio A, Gonzalo on August 14, 2019 at 7:36 AM

    The teachings of Pope JPII in “Veritatis Splendor ” and “Evangelium Vitae” will prevail over those of the present counselors and moral advisors of the the Holy See.

    Let us pray to our Lady of Fatima so that it will take place soon: Christ said (only) “truth will make you free”

  15. Maria S. Hamm on August 15, 2019 at 9:35 AM

    Let us storm heaven, remembering that some devils are only got rid of by prayer and fasting!

  16. HLI Staff on August 20, 2019 at 1:52 PM

    Thanks for chiming in, Pat!

  17. Barbara Melanson on October 1, 2019 at 2:10 AM

    What is happening to JPII Institute will be the Catholic Church if the Amazon Synod takes the direction that those in the know believe it will……..pray, fast, and more prayer.

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