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Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne, president of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome. / Arnaldo Casali.

Rome, Italy, Oct 11, 2021 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne, the new president of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences in Rome, officially took office on Sept. 22.

The 61-year-old French theologian’s appointment was made public on March 19 by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the institute’s grand chancellor, at the launch of the Amoris Laetitia Family Year.

Bordeyne, who specializes in moral theology, ecumenism, and the theological hermeneutics of Vatican II, succeeded Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri, who led the institute since 2016.

Bordeyne had served as rector of the Institut Catholique de Paris (ICP) since 2011.

He is taking up his new post at a tumultuous time in the institute’s history.

Pope John Paul II founded the Pontifical Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family in 1982 with the apostolic constitution Magnum Matrimonii Sacramentum.

Explaining why he was taking the initiative, he wrote that it was now “necessary to found a primary institute of studies whose special concern it will be to promote the basic theological and pastoral study of marriage and the family for the good of the whole Church.”

The new institute was based at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

In 2017, Pope Francis refounded the institute with the apostolic letter Summa familiae cura, issued motu proprio (“on his own impulse”).

He decreed that the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family would now be known as the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.

He explained that he was “broadening [the institute’s] field of interest, both in relation to the new dimensions of the pastoral task and of the ecclesial mission, and with reference to developments in the human sciences and in anthropological culture in a field so fundamental for the culture of life.”

He added that it was “essential that the original inspiration that gave life to the former institute […] continue to bear fruit in the broader field of activity of the new theological institute, effectively contributing to making it correspond fully to the current demands of the pastoral mission of the Church.”

In 2019, Francis approved the institute’s new statutes, which were criticized in a letter signed by more than 150 students and alumni. Amid the departure of senior staff, the group said it was concerned about “the loss of the formational approach, and therefore, of the identity” of the institute.

When Paglia unveiled Bordeyne as the new president, he said that the French monsignor’s mission would be to make the institute “even more universal.”

Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that the institute’s refounding was meant to create a synthesis between the visions of John Paul II and Pope Francis.

“I agreed to leave the ICP a year before the end of my mandate with a spirit of service, to respond to the call of Archbishop Paglia,” Bordeyne told CNA via email, expressing his enthusiasm about the discovery of a “diverse teaching staff, old and new, who agrees with me in recognizing the formidable potential of this teaching and research institution.”

He continued: “I am looking forward to meeting with students from some 30 countries, as well as the vice-presidents of the seven international sections who will participate in our next council in Rome, Oct. 21.”

“I want to be able to develop with them the institute’s resources in terms of research and doctoral education.”

When the seasoned theologian’s appointment was announced, it was criticized in some quarters.

Thibaud Collin, a professor of philosophy at the Collège Stanislas de Paris, argued that Bordeyne’s nomination signaled a decisive abandonment of St. John Paul II’s legacy.

“In short,” he wrote, “the appointment as manager of a figure like Philippe Bordeyne confirms that the John Paul II Institute, in full hemorrhage of students, should for the sake of intellectual honesty change its name. It could be called, for example, the ‘Amoris Laetitia’ Institute.”

Critics pointed to Bordeyne’s writings. For example, in a reflection published by the French Catholic newspaper La Croix in 2015, he said that, although the encyclical Humanae vitae (on which the Institute’s curriculum is based), only recommends natural methods of fertility control, “it must be recognized, that the distance between the practice of the faithful and the magisterial teaching has widened.”

Questioned about this controversy, Bordeyne told CNA that his thought was misunderstood.

“Do not judge a theologian by taking a sentence out of context. You have to read him,” he said. “Contrary to those who ignored the 50th anniversary [in 2018] of the encyclical Humanae vitae, I devoted two articles to it.”

In 2017, the theologian also dedicated a book — Divorcés remariés: ce qui change avec François — to the sensitive question of the place of remarried divorcees within the Church. He was writing following the highly publicized family synods, in which he participated as an expert in 2015, and the subsequent apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia.

Bordeyne said that his goal was to “show that Pope Francis’ pastoral approach is based on a moral tradition that is perfectly attested in the Catholic tradition, which is not uniform.”

“John Paul II already had the same courage and theological insight when he provoked the Church to open up a question that had seemed forbidden until then, by affirming in [the 1981 apostolic exhortation] Familiaris consortio that pastors are obliged to make distinctions between the moral situations of divorcees or remarried persons.”

John Paul II’s pontificate, according to Bordeyne, was particularly striking “for the breadth and coherence of his teaching.”

“Starting with Christ, the Redeemer of man — which is the name of his first encyclical — the holy pope has shed the light of the Gospel and of living tradition on all human realities,” he said.

Bordeyne praised the Polish pope for grasping the significance for evangelization of the passage to the third millennium by “canonizing a great number of lay people, on all continents, to support the proclamation of the Christian faith in all cultures.”

“I also remember his audacity in the way he approached conjugal love very directly, even in its corporal dimension,” he reflected.

“The institute that bears his name must study marriage and the family with this same breadth of vision, because the family is at the interface of all the human realities that Christ came to welcome, elevate and save.”

The theologian has long grappled with how to bring the Church into dialogue with the reality of families today.

In 2014, he published the book Répondre à l’inquiétude de la famille humaine (“Responding to the Concern of the Human Family”) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Presenting the document in the light of contemporary issues, he said that “in the face of economic and cultural changes, the Church must accompany people more in their successive apprenticeships, especially in family life.”

In his view, the present crisis of marriage and family life has less to do with a loss of belief in the sacredness of marriage and more to do with diminished support from society.

“In any case, trust in God’s grace must help us to look with courage at all these situations and to discern how the Word of God comes to illuminate them with a new light,” he said.

“Theologians must allow themselves to be surprised by the Holy Spirit, who precedes them in the hearts of men and in cultural transformations.”