On the face of it, the closure of Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute does not seem especially earth-shaking news. True, the institution has a high international reputation for the quality of its teaching and its academic research on bioethics and the family. But it has only existed since 2001, and it is not unique, globally speaking – there are 10 or so other campuses around the world also affiliated with the John Paul II Institute in Rome.
Nevertheless, when Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne announced last week that the institute will close, it provoked an extraordinary reaction. The website of Australia’s Catholic Weekly, which broke the story, crashed for the first time ever because so many people were following the story. A Facebook campaign, “Save the John Paul II Institute”, quickly acquired 1,200 members. Current and former students came forward to say how much the institute meant to them, and to ask whether there was any way to save it.
Archbishop Hart’s statement said there was an “increasing financial burden placed on the Archdiocese of Melbourne”. But sceptics say that can’t be the only reason. Melbourne is reputedly one of the wealthiest dioceses in the world. In 2011, it moved its operations to a grand 1860s building in central Melbourne, which it bought for A$36 million (£23 million) – enough money to keep the JPII Institute going for decades.
The archbishop also cited low student numbers (there are about 130 active students). But these have been growing since 2010. And since the institute has recently launched new courses – approved this summer by Australia’s national accreditation committee – numbers would probably have continued to rise.
Dioceses do have to make tough choices about spending. Some people will always be disappointed. Yet the closure of the institute needs a bigger explanation. And there is an elephant in the room: the John Paul II Institute has many enemies in Australia.
Its mission – to deepen understanding of the Catholic vision of the family – is a distinctive one. According to one former student, the institute’s supporters viewed it as “a shining light of Catholic orthodoxy amidst a swamp of modernism in so much of the Catholic educational structure”. That attachment to orthodoxy made it unpopular.
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