SAN FRANCISCO — An appeal has been made to the Vatican by partisans of the St. Ignatius Institute, the embattled Great Books program at the University of San Francisco.
The university's new president, Jesuit Father Stephen Privett, fired the institute's top two administrators in January, and announced that the institute would be thoroughly reorganized to integrate the institute more fully into the university. Six of the institute's 17 faculty members resigned in protest, claiming that Father Privett's actions would dissolve the program, which serves about 150 of the school's 7,000 students.
Father Privett, of the Jesuits' California province, and the Jesuits' North American Assistant Father Frank Case unequivocally denied rumors that the Holy See has responded to an appeal by opponents of Father Privett's actions. Father Privett said, “Nobody has produced one solid document. [The Vatican doesn't] communicate through individuals running around waving documents from the Pope.”
The rumors were that the Vatican had made moves to reinstate the fired administrators and restore the old status of the institute.
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the institute's founder, confirmed that an appeal had been made: “The appeal is that [Father Privett] would work with the Jesuit General, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, to achieve a peaceful resolution, in which the university would allow true diversity and the institution could exist in its integrity. The Holy Father is aware of the situation and has taken an interest in it.”
Catholic News Service reported that Father Fessio also met with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about the matter.
On March 23, the university's board of trustees voted in favor of Father Privett's decisions concerning the institute.
On the Wednesday before the board meeting, Father Privett held the last in a series of “town hall meetings” designed to allow alumni, students and faculty to meet their new president. About 150 student protesters attended, waving signs and banners and chanting, “Academic freedom!” and the names of the two fired administrators, John Galten and John Hamlon.
In an unusual twist on the student protest scene, they even included a chant in Latin: “Privett, Privett, Privett, quod fecisti non ius est” (Privett, Privett, Privett, what you've done is not fair).
The institute, founded 25 years ago, offered what sophomore Justin West called “the integration of the academic, social and spiritual elements.” Students at the Institute have formed a close-knit community within the larger university. Many attend daily Mass at the Institute, volunteer together at local women's shelters, and thus naturally befriend others from the institute. West calls this “integration”; Father Privett has called it “isolationist.”
But West said emphatically that the institute was “what attracted me to the school.” He didn't think any other program at the university duplicated its “independent, orthodox voice.”
He said, “The St. Ignatius Institute tries to promote fidelity to the Church and the magisterium, whereas the theology department does not regard that as the priority that the [the institute] does.”
West worried that Paul Murphy, the program's new director, would be less independent because he does not have tenure.
Father Privett strongly contested West's view. “What's going on is an effort to improve a program, to integrate it into the university,” he said.
He said that he would ask the authors of the letter to the Vatican to “make a sincere effort to understand the situation before they make allegations. This program is, has been, and will remain loyal to the teachings of the Church.”
In the San Francisco Chronicle, Father Privett compared Father Fessio to Joe McCarthy and accused his opponents of “manipulat[ing] this story.”
Citing programs like the school's Institute on Catholic Educational Leadership, he defended the university's commitment to the Church, “I'd like to see one instance where we have not been loyal,” he said. “One piece of solid evidence.”
Kim Summerhays, one of the professors who resigned in protest, said that the institute had always had “a theological position that said the role of theology is to explain why the Church teaches what she teaches, as opposed to taking a position of what is sometimes called ‘loyal dissent.’”
He said that the Institute on Catholic Educational Leadership and similar programs have “roles to play as far as social services, but they haven't taken that theological position.”
As for Father Privett, Summerhays said, “He has nowhere indicated that the new institute would be aligned with that founding principle.”
Summerhays dismissed arguments that the change would help the university's finances. “The associate director had half of his salary paid for directly by donations solicited by the institute,” he said. Moreover, “There have been literally hundreds of letters from the alumni” protesting the change, he said. “If they're saving any money at all, it's more than wiped out in the loss of good will.”
Summerhays charged that the institute “frequently had to fend off attempts by liberal Jesuits in the theology department to try to insert themselves into the teaching staff of the program. They just wouldn't let it be.”
Nineteen prominent scholars have signed a newspaper ad opposing the changes to the institute. Stanley Kurtz, who spearheaded the ad campaign, said, that Father Privett's move demonstrated “liberal intolerance which doesn't really believe in a true intellectual diversity.”
He pointed out that students at the institute can still take courses in the rest of the university. He said that students at the institute frequently took courses in the university's theology department, and “put both sides on the hot seat.”
Kurtz, who is Jewish, noted that the institute “is quite liberal in that many of the teachers are not Catholic or not believers,” even though the program overall is grounded in and promotes the Catholic faith.
Kurtz called the changes to the institute “an attempt to homogenize” the university.
He responded to charges that the institute is “pushing a particular way to be Catholic” and calling it orthodoxy by saying, “You could say that the Pope is pushing a particular way to be Catholic. And they're saying, ‘We want that way.’ It's Privett who's pushing his views on everyone else.”