Pope Francis has overhauled the Vatican institute most closely associated with the conservative sexual morals promoted by St. John Paul II, saying it was necessary to adapt and expand its mission to address the reality of today's Catholics.
Officials said Tuesday the revamped John Paul II Theological Institute for the Marriage and Family Sciences will offer degrees in the social sciences — such as sociology, anthropology, psychology — as well as biology and other sciences, reflecting a vision of the family that goes well beyond strict Catholic theology.
The new mission takes its inspirational cues from the vision of marriage and family life contained in Francis' controversial 2016 document "The Joy of Love."
That document called for the church to accompany even those Catholics living in "imperfect" family situations such as divorce and cohabitation, confirming Francis' vision of the church as more of a "field hospital" for wounded souls than a privileged home for the perfect.
As a result, speculation had mounted about the fate of the John Paul II institute. Its founding 1982 mission statement said it was needed to "illustrate to the faithful the most perfect image of marriage and family." The institute is affiliated with the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, but has branches around the world, including in the United States and Australia.
Its new mission statement says the church, while remaining faithful to Christ's teaching, must look "with the understanding of love and wise realism, to the reality of families today in all their complexities, in their light and shadows."
The inclusion of biological sciences in the curriculum, and a mission statement that cites a focus on human "regeneration" and care for the planet, suggests that the revamped institute will address human sexuality, the environment and the church's position on artificial contraception.
Already, Francis has authorized a historical study of the 1968 document "Humanae Vitae," which articulated the church's opposition to artificial contraception at a time when the church was under attack by population control activists.
The institute's leadership insisted that Francis' reboot was evidence of his firm dedication to the institute and not a break from its past.
"It's a strong gesture that means the institute isn't just tolerated but is relaunched," said the president, Monsignor Pierangelo Sequeri.
It wasn't clear how the changes would affect the institute's international branches, some of which have already started the 2017-2018 academic year and offer graduate degrees in theological-focused disciplines that will apparently longer exist.