The Holy See’s denial of a top Peruvian university’s right to call itself “Pontifical” and “Catholic” is the latest battle  — but unlikely the last — in a long conflict over what it means to be a Catholic university.

“The Holy See, with decree of His Eminence, the Secretary of State [Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone], under a specific pontifical mandate, has decided to remove from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru the right to use in its name the titles ‘Pontifical’ and ‘Catholic,’ in accordance with canon law,” the Vatican announced July 21.

The decision followed months of discussions between the university’s rector, Marcial Rubio, and Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The Holy See asked Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo to investigate the university in an apostolic visitation conducted last December.

The university’s recent conflict with the Vatican follows another unrelated dispute between Church and university officials that broke out three years ago. The school decided unilaterally to remove the archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, from its board of directors. The university’s effort was blocked by Peru’s Supreme Court following a two-year legal battle.

But tensions between the university and Church authorities date back to the early 1970s, when the Peruvian Church — including the Peruvian hierarchy — was sharply divided over the growing influence of “liberation theology.”

The irony is that the Pontifical Catholic University was founded by the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts as an authentically Catholic alternative to the Universidad de San Marcos. San Marcos, founded as a theological school by the Dominicans in 1551, had become by the turn of the century the hot spot for intellectual anti-Catholicism in Peru. 

Founded in 1917 and granted pontifical status in 1942, the pontifical university made a strong contribution to the renewal of Catholic social thought in the 1940s and 1950s, fostering a new generation of Catholic intellectuals.

But this trend changed dramatically in the late 1960s, in the midst of rising social unrest throughout Latin America. By 1974, the university had become the epicenter of the Marxist-influenced theology of liberation, and one of the movement’s chief theorists, Father Gustavo Gutierrez, was named head of the university’s theology department.

In 1976, the university, acting on its own, adopted a new legal model that dramatically reduced the role of Church authorities in its day-by-day activities.

“The then-archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Juan Landázuri, tried to bring the university back to the fold, but any bold move was almost impossible, considering the situation at that time,” Father Luis Gaspar, canonical advisor to the Archdiocese of Lima, told the Register.

“His successor, Cardinal (Augusto) Vargas also started negotiations to undo some of the strange structural changes introduced by academic authorities, but he did not succeed,” Father Gaspar also explained.

Natale Amprimo, the archdiocese’s attorney, said that by 1994 the university had “completely abandoned a Catholic identity” and had withdrawn the archdiocese’s legal right to serve on the school’s board.

Amprimo told the Register that Cardinal Cipriani, the current archbishop, only discovered this recently — in the course of his efforts to intervene in “a shady financial operation” by the university “that was giving the Church a black eye.”

“Cardinal Cipriani was informed by the current university authorities that he had no right to intervene in the financial decisions, something he obviously contested,” Amprimo explained.

When the archdiocese tried to exercise its legal rights, the university decided to sue.

In June, Peru’s Constitutional Court ruled that the archdiocese maintains the right to remain on the university’s board of directors.


Vatican Inquiry

In the meantime, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education launched its own investigation into the school’s refusal to comply with Church guidelines for Catholic universities.

These guidelines were set out in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), a 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities issued by Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Rubio, the university rector, was summoned to Rome several times in the last two years. He repeatedly declined to offer details of his meetings with Church officials, only saying that “conversations” regarding the university’s Catholic identity are under way.

Cardinal Erdo’s investigation on behalf of the Vatican concluded that the university is in conflict with Church law in several significant areas — including conferring honorary doctorates to personalities out of step with Catholic teaching, such as Italian “postmodern” homosexual activist Gianni Vattimo and the anti-Catholic Spanish intellectual Gregorio Peces-Barba.

In February, Cardinal Bertone had given the university until Easter, April 8, to comply with the Church’s requirements for Catholic institutes of higher education. This request marked the first time the Holy See had set a deadline for a university to reform.


Collision Course

Eventually, the university missed both the April deadline and an extension that was granted by the Vatican at the university’s request.

In a personal letter to Cardinal Bertone, which was then made public May 10 in Peru’s La Republica newspaper, the university’s rector offered to amend the school’s constitution, but demanded in return that the archbishop of Lima relinquish his role as the interlocutor between the Church and university.

In a letter to Rubio that accompanied the Vatican’s decree stripping the university of the titles “Pontifical” and “Catholic,” Cardinal Bertone strongly criticized the rector for the outcome.

“After so many years of dialogue and attempts to restore the legitimate autonomy of a Catholic university, the Holy See is forced to take the necessary measures regarding that university,” Cardinal Bertone wrote.

“You, Mr. Rector, bear a specific responsibility in the current situation, since you, by your position, have the mission to make the university compliant to Church laws and regulations.”

Also, in a separate letter sent to all the Peruvian bishops, Cardinal Bertone specifically requested that the bishops “support both the position of the Holy See as well as the Archdiocese of Lima and vigorously disavow any stand” that would undermine the Church’s unity.

In response, Archbishop Salvador Piñeiro, president of the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference, issued a statement in late July expressing its support of the Vatican decree and demanding that the university drop the use of both “Pontifical” and “Catholic.”

The university has remained defiant. In a July 22 statement on the university’s website and in interviews with media, the school has said it has no intention of changing its name, arguing that it has the legal right to the name under Peruvian law and has no duty to follow Church law. 

The university rector continues to blame Cardinal Cipriani for the tensions with Church authorities.

Rubio told CNN en Español that “the whole issue is nothing more than an attempt of the Archdiocese of Lima to take control of the financial resources of the university.”

He described the Vatican decree as “a favor from one cardinal to another that hasn’t even been signed by the Pope.”

Gonzalo Flores, an expert on canon and civil law and advisor to the Peruvian bishops, told the Register that the university’s defiance will only continue a long and losing battle.

“The university has no escape, according to Peruvian legislation,” Flores said.  “The concordat between Peru and the Vatican, which recognizes the autonomy of the Catholic Church to decide on all things Catholic, trumps any copyright claim.”

“Paradoxically, the only way that the university can liberate itself from canon law is by resigning to be Catholic by name,” he explained. “And considering how afar is the institution from Catholicism, that would be the honest thing to do.”