At Catholic university, conservatives feel silenced

The Associated Press
Sunday March 25, 2001


SAN FRANCISCO — Just blocks from Haight-Ashbury, where free love and anti-war demonstrations reigned in the 1960s, students and faculty are protesting again, saying their voices are being silenced by the “brutal” actions of a university president. 

At stake is the future of the St. Ignatius Institute, a conservative Catholic “great books” program within the comparatively liberal Jesuit-run University of San Francisco whose faculty and students have always identified more with Vatican doctrine than university policies. 

Since its founding 25 years ago, the institute has been a significant voice for conservative Catholics nationally, even as important elements of mainstream American Catholicism tried to distance themselves from Rome. 

But the institute – which offers an alternative curriculum emphasizing “traditional Catholic theology” for about 150 of USF’s 7,000 students – also has been considered “separatist” by university administrators. 

USF’s new president, the Rev. Stephen Privett, abruptly fired its directors in January, saying that the institute must be integrated into the rest of USF and that consolidating its separate admissions and study-abroad programs would save money. 

Six of the 17 faculty members quickly resigned from the institute in protest (although they still teach at the university), and weeks of demonstrations followed, along with a letter-writing campaign and newspaper ads. 

They urged USF’s board of trustees to overrule Privett and rehire institute director John Galten and assistant director John Hamlon. 

But Privett still enjoys the support of the board, which on Friday voted 30-2 to affirm the president’s decisions. 

Privett, in a lengthy statement to the USF community, dismissed his critics as “self-appointed guardians ... of authentic Catholicism.” 

“The main reason was that in my judgment neither person had the academic credentials to run an academic program,” Privett added in an interview. “By disposition, these are not the people who are going to take the program in the direction I want it to go.” 

USF, founded in 1855, has a picturesque hilltop campus with vistas of the San Francisco Bay. Like many U.S. Jesuit universities, it prides itself on diversity and theological freedom. According to Privett, a “one size fits all” approach to theology is contrary to the Catholic tradition. 

Galten, a co-founder of the institute who has taught at USF for 24 years, said Privett’s real motivation was to squelch a prominent conservative Catholic voice at a time when Catholic universities are debating how to comply with new requirements from the Vatican. 

“What it’s really about is this battle of the church trying to restore its presence and its leadership in education. It’s about Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” said Galten. 

The Ex Corde is a decree issued by Pope John Paul more than a decade ago that laid out general principles for Catholic higher education. U.S. bishops and administrators at America’s 235 Roman Catholic colleges and universities have struggled with it ever since. 

In an effort to force compliance with the Ex Corde, the Vatican this year will begin requiring university theologians to get a mandate from the local bishop in order to teach, giving bishops, and ultimately the pope, more leverage to stem dissent against church policy. 

Most U.S. university administrators have objected, saying the “mandate” is a threat to academic freedom. 

Faculty at the Saint Ignatius Institute, however, signed the “mandatum” gladly, according to Kim Summerhays, a chemistry and computer science professor who resigned in protest. 

“We pledge allegiance, so to speak, to this magisterium of the church,” Summerhays said. 

“Our feeling is that the church has always had good reasons for the positions it’s taken on social issues, and faith and morality. Our goal is to elucidate those ... but never to publicly dissent from the church’s teaching.” 

Other prominent Jesuits reject Galten and others’ claims that Privett was making a statement to Rome by reorganizing the institute. 

“Certainly it doesn’t represent any rejection of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. I don’t think there’s any basis for that,” said the Rev. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C. 

Like the church whose twin steeples tower over the 55-acre campus, the St. Ignatius Institute is named after the saint who founded the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. 

Supporters say the “great books” program has high academic standards, following a centuries-old Jesuit curriculum. Students can take classes such as “Catholic Tradition I” and “Vocation to Marriage and Family” to fulfill general education requirements. Activities include spiritual retreats, masses and apostolic activities. 

Joe Marti, a student at USF who has completed the St. Ignatius program, said his classmates feel like they’ve been cheated. 

“The institute wants to do its own thing. It just has always enjoyed its freedom to have its own curriculum, to have its own spirituality,” Marti said. 

What worries them most is that the new director Privett installed is a junior faculty member who lacks tenure. 

“How is a non-tenured leader going to make decisions that may not be popular with the university?” Marti asked. 

Planned changes include joint activities with other Catholic Studies students at USF, eliminating exclusive Natural Science courses, adding a literature course, and a speaker series. 

Opponents of Privett’s decision say it will mean the loss of future St. Ignatius students. 

“The only reason I really wanted to go there was the St. Ignatius institute,” said Nick Campbell of El Segundo, who had planned to attend USF in the fall. “They changed all the fundamental things, so I decided I just couldn’t go there.” 

If you ask the institute students themselves, they say they’re close knit because of a philosophical agreement. “We approach faith in a similar way,” said Michael Murphy. 

That isolation was a factor in the dismissals. Privett said when the institute held masses, “they would go off campus and would not allow any official to preside, which created the perception that they were separatists.” 

Galten, who says he has battled with the university over theological differences since the institute was founded, thinks the conflict runs deeper than a problem of social cliques. 

“I just think we look too Catholic in a school that has lost much of its Catholic nature,” Galten said. “I think we look like an embarrassment.” 


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