At a Catholic university, conservatives complain they are silenced

Posted: Friday, March 30, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Just blocks from Haight-Ashbury, where antiwar demonstrations raged 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.

Since its founding 25 years ago, the institute has been a voice for Catholic tradition, its faculty and students backing Vatican doctrine even as important elements of mainstream American Catholicism distanced themselves from Rome.

But the institute -- which offers its alternative curriculum 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 last week voted 30-2 to affirm the president's decisions.

''In my judgment, neither person had the academic credentials to run an academic program,'' Privett said 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 -- not, as Privett says, a one-size-fits-all approach.

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 Latin phrase is the title of a decree issued by Pope John Paul II 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.

Under Ex Corde, the Vatican this year will begin requiring university theologians to get a mandate from the local bishop in order to teach. This gives bishops, and ultimately the pope, more leverage to stem dissent and divergence from church policy.

Most U.S. Catholic university administrators have objected, calling the mandate a threat to academic freedom.

Faculty at the St. Ignatius Institute, however, signed it 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.''

Galten is among those who believe Privett was making a statement to Rome by reorganizing the institute. But others doubt it.

''Certainly it doesn't represent any rejection of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,'' 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 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 Masses and retreats.

Joe Marti, a student at USF who has completed the St. Ignatius program, said classmates feel 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. That, he said, may be more difficult under the junior faculty member Privett installed as director.

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

Privett's decision, opponents say, 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 dropped his plans 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 the institute's Masses, celebrated off-campus only by institute priests and not other clergy from the university, ''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.

''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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