Paglia: Pope not backing down on pro-life cause, he's doubling down

Paglia: Pope not backing down on pro-life cause, he’s doubling down

A recent decision by Pope Francis to re-found the Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family may have some pro-lifers nervous, but Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia and Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri say there's no need to be: This isn't the pope subtracting anything from the institute, they say, but doubling its importance.

ROME – All leaders naturally run into certain constituencies that can’t help but view them with a degree of skepticism sometimes. From the beginning, one such group in the Church Francis has struggled to bring around has been the most outspoken, and most deeply committed, pro-life thinkers and activists in Catholicism.

Thus when the Vatican announced recently that the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, founded by John Paul in 1981 and long seen as a bulwark of the pro-life cause, was being fundamentally re-organized by Pope Francis, the news was greeted with apprehension in some quarters, perhaps especially among American pro-lifers.

To all those who may be nervous about whether the changes represent a white flag in today’s pro-life battles, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia and Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri, respectively now the Grand Chancellor and President of the new institute, have a simple message: “Relax.”

“Remember that you’re also speaking to the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life,” Paglia said in a Crux interview on Thursday. “I won’t allow anyone to be more ‘pro-life’ than me.”

Sequeri was equally insistent.

“It would never occur to me to present some sort of alternative to being ‘pro-life’,” he said, during a conversation at the Vatican headquarters of both the Pontifical Academy for Life and the rechristened St. John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family.

Still, Paglia insisted that the notion of what it means to be pro-life has to be adapted to changing circumstances.

“Precisely because I’m pro-life, I can’t accept, for example, the death penalty,” Paglia said. “Because I’m pro-life, I can’t accept that immigrants die on the streets. Because I’m pro-life, I can’t accept that in the United States, in these first six months [of 2017], there have been 6,500 deaths involving firearms, meaning more than double the number from the Twin Towers.”

“In this sense, according to me, and I told the American bishops this in February, I believe that the time has arrived in which the Church must take up the defense of life in a global sense, including the ecological question,” he said.

Both Paglia and Sequeri said that all the personnel and projects of the institute will remain, and that the re-boot doesn’t meaning subtracting anything but growing new capacities.

“Believe me, we don’t have any vision for saying, ‘I’m going to change this, I’m going to send these people away and find others’,” Sequeri said. “I’ve committed to working with this structure, and with these people.”

In fact, Paglia said, far from a retreat on defense of the family and the Church’s pro-life message, the re-foundation actually represents a doubling-down on it by Pope Francis.

“Pope Francis has maintained the talent that was there, and that’s still here, in the institute as envisioned by John Paul II, but he felt the responsibility to double it, not to put it underground,” he said. “He’s making an even bigger bet [on the institute] than John Paul II.”

“We’re obligated at this point to expand everything, including all the related institutes,” Paglia said, referring to the 11 affiliated John Paul II institutes around the world, including one in Washington, D.C.

“The pope wants us not just to be running simple schools, but everything becomes the standard of excellence in the field,” Paglia said.

Paglia also said that just as Pope John Paul II’s 1981 document on the family Familiaris Consortio provided the vision for the original institute, the “Magna Carta” for the new one will be Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia. Far from representing a course change, however, he argued that Francis is actually the “best interpreter” of Familiaris Consortio.

“I can give you a clear example, which is the divorced and remarried,” he said.

“The real revolution there happened under John Paul II, not Francis, which hasn’t really yet been understood. You have to remember that before [Familiaris Consortio], it wasn’t that the divorced and remarried just couldn’t get Communion, it was they were practically excommunicated and expelled. They were outsiders. After John Paul, everybody was inside the house,” Paglia said.

The following are excerpts from Crux’s Sept. 21 conversation with Paglia and Sequeri, which took place in Italian.

Crux: This isn’t simply an updating or revising of the institute but a complete re-foundation, which could seem a fairly drastic move. Why was it necessary?

Paglia: Let’s begin with a premise: The pope is not the custodian of a museum, but a living body. If this living body grows into an adult, it can’t be treated or thought about like when it was five or ten years old. Facing the changes we’ve seen, both in the awareness of the Church and also the social, cultural and anthropological conditions of the world, this institute couldn’t just stay like it was. It had to go beyond the intuitions of Pope John Paul II [in 1981], so it could give fresh indications in light of those conditions about how the family can live its missionary vocation.

Today, there’s a general disorientation of the family. Pope Francis has intuited this. He’s maintained the talent that was already there, and that’s still here, from the institute as envisioned by John Paul II, but he felt the responsibility to double it, not to put it underground.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, former president of the Pontifical Council for Families, speaks to reporters during a press conference, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini.)

Crux: So this isn’t a question of subtraction, but of addition?

Paglia: It’s about growth, absolutely about growth.

In this sense, I think there’s a clear mandate from Pope Francis to cultivate the inheritance [of the institute] and to make it flower again, so it can offer the fruits that people need today. What I want to avoid is what happened to those who were following Jesus when they were hungry and they want to a fig tree full of leaves, but when they went to collect the fruit, it wasn’t there. The tree had dried up.

Sequeri: Listen, this is still a good car, it still runs. It was an ingenious invention. Now, it needs to develop a new capacity that’s adequate for the situation we face today. We don’t just have anymore a ‘crisis of the Christian family,’ or ‘religious families,’ we’ve got a crisis of the family in general. Everybody’s caught up in it, and this is something new. Back then, the argument was that marriage didn’t have to be Catholic, or religious. Today, it’s about whether it’s necessary at all. We have to understand that.

Therefore, it’s clear that this invention, which was specialized based on John Paul II’s vision – which was also the vision of the council, which made an enormous contribution – saying there need to be strategic meeting points between the Church and the world, and this subject of the family no longer can be treated on its own, it has to be part of the whole. John Paul II said, ‘The Church should have its own institution for lighting a fire under the subject, also in terms of studies, culture, reflection, not only pastoral practices.’ Again, it was a great idea, and the car still runs well.

Now, this car has to develop a new gear. Many have said over the last thirty years, ‘The car of 30 years ago was born under a different pope, in different times than ours. Can it really develop a new gear?’ What you sometimes heard was suspicion about whether that’s even possible, since out there on the road today there are plenty of newer, faster, stronger cars.

Pope Francis’s move here is really interesting. Basically, he’s said, ‘This is still the best car we’ve got.’ Right now, if we didn’t have it, we’d have to invent it. But, it’s already there, and it’s got a great patrimony of experience. The trick is to develop other capacities, and the first thing is to neutralize the prejudice that says it can’t be done because it was born in another time.

That’s the key move of this pope, to choose a re-foundation. He could have just said, ‘Listen, Paglia and Sequeri, this is yours now, do what you can and see what changes you want to recommend.’ That would have been to change drivers, but not the car. Instead, the pope said, ‘I’m putting my own signature on this, and I’m doing a re-launch.’ The interesting thing is that it’s a high-profile re-launch, a complete re-foundation. He didn’t just limit himself to encouragements.

Also interesting is that he said this is going to be a completely new institution, absorbing the old one, but let’s call it by the same name. He’s saying, ‘I’m putting my own signature on this new car, but I’m going to let the people who are already there drive it. I believe they’ll be able to keep it in the right conditions to develop its new gear.’ You see what he’s doing? With one blow, he neutralized the prejudice that the old car couldn’t be saved, he put his own signature on saying it can, so no one can say any more, ‘You’re the product of a different time, this just doesn’t work anymore.’ He’s also telling the people already there [at the institute] he has faith in them, saying, ‘Okay, here’s your new car, now use it to develop the capacities we need.’

You both keep referring to Pope Francis. To what extent was he personally involved in the design for this new car?

Paglia: I was President of the Pontifical Council for the Family. When the pope reorganized the dicasteries from a pastoral perspective [creating the new Dicastery for Family, Laity and Life, headed by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell], he felt the urgency of doing the same thing for other institutions that work on the same issues on the cultural level. He asked me to guide, at the same time, both of these entities, the Academy for Life and the John Paul II Institute, which before were totally separate. Now in some ways they’ve been united, also in a legal sense. The pope didn’t just offer a sort of generic exhortation.

Remember that the institute created by John Paul II came out of a synod [on the family], and a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. Now, there have been two other synods and another apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. In that sense, the direction that the new institute will take is strictly connected to Amoris, which becomes its Magna Carta.

Sequeri: When I was asked if I wanted to help drive this car, I said, ‘Yes, because it’s still good.’ Write that down! Now, we just have to able to honor this new objective.

Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri. (Credit: Stock image.)

You’ve both talked about the need to develop new capacities for this still-sound car, able to respond to new situations. What exactly are those capacities?

Sequeri: Briefly, I think the essence of this new capacity is to ask, what’s the novelty that presents itself today in the area of the Church, the family and the world? It’s that today, the question of the father, the feminine question, the question of the generations, aren’t anymore simply chapters of moral theology that come with a box of behavioral rules. They’ve become global questions that decide the very structure of society. They drive politics, and they’re heavily conditioned by the economy and by the emergence of new technologies.

We need a pontifical institute of studies that can say, ‘Let’s not be frightened by this, but these challenges have to be faced.’ Our new capacity has to be to put ourselves, and eventually working with collaborators, in a position to develop courses of study, seminars, cultural dialogues with other institutions. We also have to broaden our horizons, looking at politics, the economy, and not just philosophy. We have to bring intelligence to this new situation.

The second novelty is that this pope has said, ‘Everything you’ve done up to this point has been great, all the updates you’ve brought to the Christian tradition and so on. However, even in the strictly ecclesiastical area, we need a new capacity.’ The Church, regarding all these things it needs to reflect on, must also show itself capable to live these challenges, to get in the middle of them, to live them from the inside.

For a long time, because most the reflection was being carried on by priests – even though, of course, we all have our own families we come from – but we didn’t live these challenges deeply from the inside. The Church needs to live inside this difficult situation, and an institute like ours needs to be able to preserve the treasure of the experience of the work the Church has already done in this area, but now to offer instruments for formation, for priests and for families, so we can truly live this new situation.

If we’re just scared by everything and try to pull ourselves out of what’s happening, you can have all the doctrine you want, but it doesn’t accomplish anything.

Paglia: To that end, the pope decided clearly to make the John Paul II institute not an appendix of a faculty or a dependent of some bureaucratic structure, but to make it autonomous, so much so that it’s got a Grand Chancellor. That shows how much he’s concerned about it.

To give you a comparison, basically what the pope’s done is to make the John Paul II Institute the same thing with regard to studies on the family that the Pontifical Biblical Institute is for the Bible, at the universal level.

Sequeri: The bottom line, he wants the Church to be driving an excellent car, whether it’s in terms of philology, the cultural level, etc.

Paglia: He’s making an even bigger bet [on the institute] than John Paul II.

You’re saying that this is a second historic papal wager on the Church’s ability to do something creative about the family?

Paglia: Absolutely!

Sequeri: Absolutely, yes …

Paglia: In fact, from this point of view, we’re also obligated at this point to expand everything, including all the related institutes. The pope wants us not just to be running simple schools, but everything becomes the standard of excellence in the field.

Sequeri: Especially when it comes to research …

Paglia: What I think is that Pope Francis has interpreted, more deeply than others, the significance of Familiaris Consortio. I’m beyond convinced of that. I’ll tell you why: Pope Francis has carried forward, lifted up, certain intuitions present in Familiaris Consortio that weren’t really made explicit in a terribly high-profile way.

I can give you a clear example, which is the divorced and remarried. The real revolution there happened under John Paul II, not Francis, which hasn’t really yet been understood. You have to remember that before [Familiaris Consortio], it wasn’t that the divorced and remarried just couldn’t get Communion, it was they were practically excommunicated and expelled. They were outsiders. After John Paul, everybody was inside the house … I can’t just send them out on the terrace!

In that sense, I want to insist that the best interpreter of John Paul II is Pope Francis.

Sequeri: It means that the Church has to live with these people, because they’re our people.

Paglia: There’s something else to add, which is that as of right now, the institute has two important instruments. The first is the realization of a new chair of studies, which we wanted to be called Gaudium et Spes [for the Vatican II document on the Church in the world], for reflection on themes such as anthropology and society.

Secondly, the other decision we’ve made is that it’s obvious everything we do has to be scientific in nature, and therefore we need scientific instruments of the highest level. Therefore, for instance, we want the institute’s library to become an excellent international center for research.

You both know that in the United States, many Catholics have long seen the John Paul II Institute for the Family as a bulwark for the pro-life movement, and some are concerned this re-foundation might mean it won’t play that role anymore. Is that true?

Paglia: First of all, remember that you’re also speaking to the President of the Pontifical Academy for Life. I won’t allow anyone to be more ‘pro-life’ than me. I want to be pro-life from the beginning, all the way to the end, and just that. I also want to be pro-life in all the conditions and situations of life.

Precisely because I’m pro-life, I can’t accept, for example, the death penalty. Because I’m pro-life, I can’t accept that immigrants die on the streets. Because I’m pro-life, I can’t accept that in the United States, in these first six months [of 2017], there have been 6,500 deaths involving firearms, meaning more than double the number from the Twin Towers.

In this sense, according to me, and I told the American bishops this in February, I believe that the time has arrived in which the Church must take up the defense of life in a global sense, including the ecological question.

Sequeri: We have to re-launch ourselves, not just defend ourselves. First of all, it would never occur to me to present some sort of alternative to being ‘pro-life.’ I’d just add this, that what we need is insight. In today’s world, being ‘pro-life’ without insight risks making us nothing more than people who get our backs up. Our pro-life conviction is an intelligent conviction, not just political.

When the Church fights a pro-life battle, it has to do it in an intelligent way, so that no one can say, ‘Ah, you’ve just got a political line, but you don’t understand anything about science, or sociology, etc.’ No, we’re the ones who understand, and the Church’s dignity is there. This is a battle we’re fighting in the name of the faith, but also in the name of intelligence, because that’s the Catholic tradition. Catholicism is the only religion in the world that has never believed in an opposition between faith and intelligence, right? That’s the work we do here.

What I ask is that you look at the work I’m doing sympathetically, and not try to set me up as somehow opposed to the exercise of intelligence. What I can offer, I’ll do happily, and my desire is to give these battles the dignity of intelligence that they deserve.

Remember, this is an institute of theology, that’s what we do.

Paglia: We’re working with culture and the sciences, which requires us, more than the new dicastery under Cardinal Farrell, also to deepen the reflection on Catholic doctrine, and the reflection on the relationship between faith and science. The living body of the Church can’t be blocked in its growth. That’s why it’s indispensable that a faculty, an institute of theological science, can’t just remain at the level of the catechism. An institute of excellence has to help the Church reflect on its treasures, so that they can be communicated in an understandable language to others.

Sequeri: By the way, our role isn’t just to respond to questions, which of course is important. We’re also here to ask questions. It’s not just that someone asks us, ‘What’s Catholic doctrine say about this?’ and we answer. I always say, well, let me ask you some questions. I’m not just here to give out responses. If you’re asking me about a problem and I can tell from your questions you haven’t really understood it yet, okay, then let me ask some things …

Paglia: For instance, I’d like to ask Europe today, or Italy, are you crazy for not having two kids? Who knows what the situation will be twenty years down the line? [Note: Paglia was referring to the fact that in many European nations, the birth rate is now below an average of two children per woman during her lifetime, and therefore below the average considered necessary to keep a population stable.]

Sequeri: Of course, that doesn’t just make us poorer but stupider, because a generation is a human thing, and this has enormous spiritual impact too.

Your point is that the Church has to engage these questions, talking to the world and not just to itself?

Paglia: There’s a beautiful expression in the encyclical Lumen Fidei, which Pope Francis developed from a draft prepared by Pope Benedict. In one passage, Benedict, together with Francis, basically defeat the ‘Benedict option.’ They insist that Catholic thought must enter into dialogue with all the other cultural perspectives, both for convincing them as much as possible, and also for seeing what truth they might contain.

Sequeri: I believe that very strongly. Intelligence is intelligence, and it’s a good meant for all. It needs to be expressed well …

Finally, a logistical question. What happens to the people who are currently working for the institute, the projects that are in the pipeline, the contracts you presently have, and so on? Will all those things remain as they are?

Paglia: Everyone stays. Absolutely everyone and everything remains as it is …

Sequeri: Everyone still has the same appointments, the students stay, etc.

Paglia: The idea is growth …

You’re not looking to subtract anyone, but to add?

Sequeri: Right, to add something doesn’t mean taking away anything of what was there before. I’ve committed to working with this car, and with these people. I’ve said that, it’s a guarantee. I’m working with these people.

Paglia: All that, of course, on the understanding that this isn’t a museum. It has to be lived in, and it has to be cultivated. Just like a diocese or a bishops’ conference, if, inside the institute, something isn’t working anymore, if something has become lazy or useless, then it has to be changed, but that’s true of any institution in the world.

Sequeri: Right, if something isn’t serving the aims of the institute then changes have to be made, but that’s not a matter of changing strategy, it’s just normal life. Believe me, we don’t have any vision for saying, ‘I’m going to change this, I’m going to send these people away and find others.’

Paglia: This new institution is also strongly supported by the Congregation for Catholic Education, because there’s a general reorganization going on of which this is probably the first example. In this sense, all the affiliated institutions on the different continents will have to adjust themselves to the new requested standards.

Sequeri: But we can also reassure everyone, because the Congregation also said to us, if you guarantee something, that’s enough, and we can do it, such as appointments of professors and approval of courses. That’s important to make sure that everyone who works for us has the proper recognition to do it. We also want anyone who gets certification from us to know it’s a real one, and we’ll handle that in a brief amount of time

The John Paul II Institute in Washington remains more or less as it is?

Sequeri: I spoke to them yesterday, and they told me they’d seen what’s happened, they’re happy with it, and they’ll keep moving ahead. I told them to keep going …

Paglia: Remember, the organization of the central institute is exactly that, a reorganization of the central institute. It’s not an overhaul of all the affiliated institutes. The good news is that now, the central institute has been strongly solidified.

Is the message for affiliates that with this re-organization, they’re actually in a stronger position because you’re stronger?

Paglia: Absolutely, but at the same time, we’re also going to be tougher, because we have higher expectations.

Sequeri: All that will be worked out together. But the important thing is that by putting his own signature on this, Francis is saying [to the people of the John Paul II Institute], ‘It’s not that you’re somebody else’s children, tolerated but sort of on the outside of the family. No, this is now mine.’ I think that should be interpreted as an authoritative vote of confidence. He’s given us an ambitious objective, but fine, we’ll do it, but now there’s a Grand Chancellor, a President, and a Pope who signed off on it, and we’ll meet the objective with the team we’ve got. I don’t believe there’s room for speculating about anything else.

Is the basic assumption that, facing a new cultural situation than the one that existed in 1981, there’s a new set of challenges – for instance, efforts to rethink the whole nature of marriage – and if the Church doesn’t take them on, then who will?

Sequeri: That’s exactly the expression I use. We have to develop this ramped-up car, understood in a key that’s not just defensive, and I think even secular intellectuals are beginning to see this… if the Church doesn’t take the initiative, with intelligence, with insight, not just with force, to explain that we’re about to lose something vital – for all people, not just for religion or politics – I don’t know who else could do it. That’s the real battle today.

That might open up the possibility of new alliances for the Church too, yes?

Sequeri: Certainly. I mean look around in Italy today – the most active voices against ‘renting wombs’ [meaning treating a woman’s womb as a commodity] are the feminists. It’s a battle of intelligence, and today it can be shared with many different forces, as opposed to 30 years ago. It’s more difficult, maybe, but I think there are also more opportunities.

Also, it’s important that we help the world think more deeply about the family, but also areas such as the economy and politics. For instance, take the relationship between men and women. What would the world look like if men and women together guided the economy and politics? Right now, both are run based on the measure of the single individual. We tend to think of the male-female relationship entirely in terms of marriage, but it’s not so. I’m a priest, but it’s important for me too. Marriage, no, but the alliance between men and women effects my life too. It does us all good, and we need to help convince people of that.

Anthropologically speaking, it’s a shared battle, and if the Church doesn’t lead it, no one else will. I hope we’re up to it!

What about funding? Where’s the money for all this coming from?

Paglia: Resources obviously are critically important. You have to remember that the John Paul II Institute doesn’t depend on the Roman Curia, even if in some ways economically it’s tied to it. Therefore, we’ve obviously got work to do, so that we can develop resources from other sectors.

Bottom line, you’ll need to do some fundraising?

Paglia: Exactly, yes. Remember: A marriage without a patrimony has big problems!

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