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Betraying the Legacy of John Paul II

The most controversial document of this controversial pontificate, the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, is again at the center of a heated controversy at the Vatican. The matter at hand—which keeps popping up in different forms—is whether Pope Francis can eradicate the teaching legacy of Pope John Paul II, particularly on questions of human sexuality.

Oddly enough, this summer’s dispute involves a Vatican body named after the canonized former pontiff: the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences. Since its inception, the Institute (which was originally known by the slightly simpler name, the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family) had been an academic greenhouse nourishing the thought that St. John Paul had promoted: explaining the “culture of life” and the “theology of the body.” All those arguments have been notably less prominent in the public ministry of Pope Francis.

So when Francis announced in September 2017 that he had new plans and a new name for the Institute, faculty and students were understandably nervous. Technically the pope suppressed the old Institute and established a new one, explaining that a different focus was necessary to address “the new challenges concerning the value of life.” He said:

I refer to the various aspects concerning the care of the dignity of the human person in the various ages of existence, mutual respect between genders and generations, the defense of the dignity of every single human being, the promotion of quality of human life that integrates the material and spiritual values, in view of an authentic “human ecology,” which helps to restore the original balance of creation between the human person and the whole universe.

The new and improved Institute, the pope said, would expand its range of interests to include the social sciences—in particular, the implications of climate change. Conspicuously missing from his list of concerns were issues like divorce, same-sex marriage, abortion, and euthanasia, which had been regular fare for the Institute in the past.

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