Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ditching USF?

American Papist has a post today about students and faculty at the University of San Francisco protesting President Stephen Privett's planned closure of the University's Masters in Theology program.

There is an online petition to support the program and some are claiming its eradication diminishes the Catholic character of the school.

Actually, the San Francisco Chronicle reports more precisely that (critics in the Theology department) "say the closure is the culmination of a series of actions eroding the institution's Catholic identity."

There are two bits of irony here.

One, since at least the late 1970s, it has been the Department of Theology which has been the locus for erosion of the institution's Catholic identity. They had increasingly divorced themselves from any necessary reliance on the Magisterium for their own legitimacy and now the University has decided its own legitimacy doesn't require them.

Second, the Theology department had always agitated against the University's highly regarded and orthodox St. Ignatius Institute and they were pleased as punch when Fr. Privett fired the Institute's staff and gutted the program as one of his first major actions as President. Ironically, they lost what could have been a powerful ally in asserting the centrality of Theological study at a Catholic university.

Speaking in defense of closing the Masters program, Fr. Privett tells the Chronicle, "It would be simplistic to reduce the Catholic character to any single program," but the Chronicle reports it's about more than one program:
The university requires that undergraduates take only one course in religious studies. That means that a single course about Buddhism, for example, might be the full exposure a student may get at USF, San Francisco's premier Catholic educational institution. Department supporters say this means USF has the weakest religious studies requirement of any of the 28 Jesuit universities and colleges in the nation.

"If we require only one course at the undergraduate level, and we're canceling the M.A. program, what does that say about our Catholic identity?" asked the Rev. Dan Kendall, a professor in the department for 30 years.

In his defense, Fr. Privett points to his creation of the Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought as evidence of USF's continuing Catholicity. "We have ample opportunity for students to pursue theology in depth," he said.

Sounds fine to anyone ignorant of what the Lane Center is. To those who know, it's a laugh line. Here's a summary from Gibbons Cooney at A Shepherd's Voice of some of the Center's programs:
March 9, 2009: The Lane Center hosted ex-priest (and, according to the Cardinal Newman Society, same-sex "married) Professor James Nickoloff: “'Intrinsically Disordered': The Role of the Despised in Establishing the Holiness of the Church. A community conversation exploring gay marriage and Catholic identity in light of Proposition 8. Sponsored with the USF LGBTQ Caucus.”

June 15, 2008: The Lane Center (in conjunction with "Voice of the Faithful Northern California) hosted ex-priest Paul Lakeland at a seminar entitled "How the Laity Can save the Church? Lakeland is best known for his support of Connecticut's recent attempt to have lay persons take over the governance of the Catholic Church.

June 13, 2008: The Lane Center hosts Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, depite Archbishop George Niederauer's orders that he not speak at Catholic institutions in the Archdiocese.

October 30, 2008: On October 30, USF's Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought hosted professor and abortion advocate Sylvia Marcos. Marcos believes in working to make abortion legal in countries where it is illegal.

March 10, 2008: The Lane Center sponsors a screening of "For the Bible Tells Me So"--film challenging church teaching on homosexuality.

October 20, 2007: Julia Dowd, Associate Director of the Lane Center (and other USF Faculty) attends "OutThere" conference at De Paul University

May 23, 2007: The Lane Center hosts "Religion and Sexuality: What's the Connection" activists planning session. Guest speakers included the Rev. Ignacio Castuera, President of the Clergy Network of Planned Parenthood and the Rev. Lisa Sargeant, Chaplain of Planned Parenthood Golden Gate.

March 29, 2006: The Lane Center sponsors the "Alienated Catholics: Establishing the Groundwork for Dialog" seminar at S. Agnes parish.

February 12, 2006: The Lane Center sponsors the "Is it Ethical to Be Catholic? Queer Perspectives." seminar at Most Holy Redeemer parish.

Pure speculation on my part - The decision to close the Masters program was closely timed to the announcement of the merger of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley with the Bay Area's other Jesuit U., Santa Clara University (Even though USF is much closer to the JSTB). A number of professors and Jesuits themselves over the years have observed, off the record, that the Society of Jesus (given its numbers and resources) seemed to be concentrating their efforts in building up Santa Clara as the Jesuit university in NorCal. A commenter at the Chronicle smells a conspiracy:
Santa Clara's plan to destroy USF by dumping Fr. Privett on the schoo; has worked like a charm!! Under Privett the school's academic rating has steadily fallen, Catholics shun it to go to better schools, he hired an athletic director who Santa Clara wouldn't hire. She destroyed what little was left of USF's athletic program and is reviled by the alumni.

A little over the top, but there is plenty of evidence to wonder legitimately whether the Jesuits are ditching USF.

UPDATE: USF's student newspaper, The Foghorn, reports the university is looking at selling off assets including its rare book collection.

(Photo, AP - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, is presented with a large gavel by University of San Francisco President Stephen Privett during commencement exercises at the University of San Francisco, Saturday, May 19, 2007, in San Francisco. Pelosi delivered the commencement address at the exercises.)