Alumni of the early years of the Washington, D.C. “session” of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family say it gave them a strong formation for the New Evangelization.
“What struck me as I read about the institute and its goal: it was to go deeper into understanding the teachings of the Church,” said Dr. John Brehany, director of institutional relations for the National Catholic Bioethics Center and an alumnus of the institute’s D.C. campus. The institute aimed to see Church teaching “as life-giving,” he told CNA, and “to understand it, not to apologize for it, and to bring it to more effective dialogue.”
After the 1980 Synod on the Family, the publication of Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio “on the role of the Christian family in the modern world,” and the series of weekly audiences he gave on the human person, marriage, and the family — now known as “Theology of the Body” — the Pope established the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Pope St. John Paul II planned to announce the formation of the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family on May 13, 1981, but he was shot in St. Peter’s Square on that day and the announcement was delayed for over a year. The Washington, D.C. campus of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family was started in 1988, offering a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (S.T.L.). Today, the campus offers degrees of a Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.), Doctorates of Sacred Theology (S.T.D.), and specializations in Marriage and Family and Person, Marriage, and Family (Ph.D.).
The original mission of the institute, as some of the early alumni saw it, was to bring the rich teachings of the Church on marriage, the family, and the human person into an engagement with the modern world, but never from an uncharitable or apologetic standpoint.
Pope St. John Paul II “would often say the future of the world and of the Church passes through the family,” said Fr. John Riccardo, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and popular Catholic speaker, who attended the D.C. campus from 1999-2001. “And so the mission of the institute was to respond to what John Paul II called the crisis of modernity, actually, which was the degradation and the polarization of the dignity of the human person,” he told CNA. "This crisis was occurring both in Communist Russia but also in the West with “rampant materialism.”
Pope St. John Paul II’s establishment of the Rome institute came after “a rolling wave, it seemed, of dissent” from Church teaching in the 1960s, especially in the wake of Bl. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, Brehany said. In that period of time before the institute was founded, there had been much apology for and regret over Church teaching, he said. The institute“ was a confident, very constructive approach to understanding and sharing the teachings of the Church on marriage and the family.”
Dr. Mark Latkovic, a professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, was in the original graduating class of the D.C. campus. As the campus was founded in 1988, only several years after the founding of the Pontifical Institute in Rome, it attracted world-class theologians — something that did not go unnoticed by prospective students. Some of the early faculty and lecturers included renowned scholars like William May, a moral theologian who had renounced his original dissent from Humanae Vitae; Scripture scholar Fr. Francis Martin; philosophy professor Ralph McInerny; then-president of the Rome Institute and future-Cardinal Carlo Caffara; and theologian Fr. Benedict Ashley, OP.
“The faculty who were there in those first years were top-notch,” Brehany recalled, adding that the rigorous curriculum gave him a solid foundation for when he later pursued his Ph.D. in health care ethics at St. Louis University. “I think it was the highest-quality education I received anywhere,” he said.
In 1988, Latkovic had just received his Master’s degree at Catholic University and was preparing to study for his Ph.D. there when he received mail from the new John Paul II Institute, which was about to begin enrolling students. “The faculty they had assembled was probably the best faculty you could ever have in one place in the world. There’s no way I could have gotten this faculty if I went to Oxford, or I went to Notre Dame,” he said.
Latkovic felt called to attend the institute and took a “leap of faith,” joining the first graduating class. He studied under Fr. Ashley for two years as a graduate assistant, earning his S.T.L. in 1990. The Knights of Columbus covered his tuition. “I never met a man like him before,” Latkovic said of his teacher, the late Fr. Ashley, “conversing with modern science inside-out. And so we were constantly in the classroom engaging current theories in science, sociology. He was literally an encyclopedia, an encyclopedia of knowledge.”
Brehany agreed that Fr. Ashley was a transformative teacher. “He did a lot of work in essentially understanding what was going on in modern science, acknowledging a lot of the data, but interpreting that data in light of a sound philosophy and faith,” he said.
When Fr. Riccardo attended the institute several years later, May and Fr. Martin were still on the faculty, along with Dr. Kenneth Schmitz, Jill Atkinson, and David Schindler, Sr. They were “people that really transformed my mind,” he said. “They really solidified everything in my life that I understood in a way that I think I’d never understood before, why God’s plan for happiness, for the human person, just makes sense.”
Although the faculty were all faithful to Church teaching and to the mission of the institute, there was a positive diversity of opinions among them, the alumni said, which contributed to rich discussions and debates. “We were exposed to so many different viewpoints,” Latkovic said, of Dominicans and Jesuits, of New Natural Law theorists and traditional Thomists. “There was just great dialogue and conversations across different disciplines.”
The original curriculum of the institute was quite theology-heavy, alumni said, and yet from the standpoint of Catholic theology and anthropology, they engaged with many current theories and arguments in the sciences. “The institute was always very theological, and always very scientific in its approach to these disciplines,” Latkovic said. “There was very much a broad spirit, an openness to so many currents of thought,” he said, “and I don’t see how the institute could have been anything less, because John Paul II himself was a Thomist and a phenomenologist.” “There were a number of disciplines that surrounded the topic of marriage and family, but it was all oriented to engaging the world,” Brehany said.
Fr. Riccardo said that in his time at the institute, the curriculum dealt with the practical issues that prepared him for a life of ministry. “The Scripture is never abstract. And moral theology, quite frankly, is not abstract,” he said. “I would not describe what we got there, by any stretch of the imagination, as abstract. It was one of those things where I couldn’t wait to first apply this to my own life, and then to run to tell others.”
Fr. Ashley in particular led his students to engage with many different scientific texts. “We were reading sociology,” Latkovic said, “we were reading modern scientists, we were reading different people, Christian, non-Christian, Protestant,” but always “through the lens of the Catholic tradition, St. John Paul II’s theology, and so on.”
That experience helped Latkovic develop a course on technology while teaching at seminary, something he probably would not have done without his prior education from Fr. Ashley, he said. “He had a deep interest in science, and a variety of fields in science,” Brehany said. “He was very much rooted in the world of many practical issues.” It was all in the spirit of “engaging modernity, engaging the culture,” Latkovic said, which he has carried with him into his teaching at Sacred Heart seminary today, “trying to see the good fruits, the good things that are out there.”
The institute prepared its first students to evangelize the society they lived in, yet many of the social problems in the years after Familiaris Consortio and the foundation of the institute are still present today. “I think that the John Paul II Institute founded, it seems to me that the vision and goals are even more relevant today than when they came into being,” Brehany said.
The original mission of the institute is still needed, he said, “a confidence that the teachings of the Church are true and well-founded, a constructive approach to appreciating them more, and taking that understanding out, taking that faith out in a very constructive manner, and doing it with excellence.” “The whole legacy of the program is giving us the tools, the way of thinking properly” to face current-day problems, Latkovic said. “I don’t see John Paul II’s thought being limited to one particular era.” “We’ve had troubled families, we’ve had to administer pastoral care to families for centuries. Not much has changed there. But I see John Paul II’s thought as part of the perennial philosophy,” he said.
Alumni of the institute now teaching bioethics and moral theology, or ministering to married couples or living in religious life, have counted the deep theological curriculum, the professors, and their engagement with contemporary issues as formation for their respective vocations.
“I did feel prepared intellectually to engage with anybody,” Brehany said, but “the spirit was to do it constructively” without apologizing for the Church’s teachings.
Fr. Riccardo draws upon his time at the Institute in his priestly ministry. “I can still remember a day really studying and praying with John Paul’s words,” he recalled. “I literally felt like my spine got strong, as I was just praying with truth, and understanding what it is the Scriptures are revealing and what God’s plan is,” he said. “I just felt like the Lord started to heal me in all sorts of areas of my life” That has carried over into his ministry to others. “I’ve just seen example after example after example of marriages that have been healed, simply because of what I got there [at the institute] and what I’ve been able to pass on.”
Mother M. Maximilia Um, F.S.G.M., provincial superior of the Franciscans of the Martyr St. George, earned a Masters in Theological Studies (M.T.S.) at the institute from 2003-05. The institute taught her about the human person and relationships, which she says helps her in her vocation as a mother superior. It also helped her foster a contemplative outlook on life, she said. She recalled the words of her professor David L. Schindler as he spoke to the new class on why they were at the institute. They were there to “become more fully and radically human,” she said.