Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Calling USF a Catholic School is Like Saying Hillary Clinton is a Carmelite Nun"

That's long been the judgment of USF Philosophy Professor Raymond Dennehy and plenty other observers of the San Francisco Jesuit University under the leadership of Father Stephen Privett. That's not news.

What is news is that his judgment and words are given space on the front page of Catholic San Francisco this week. CSF is the official paper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and distributed to every registered Catholic household in the archdiocese.

In an article titled, "USF honors dissenting South African bishop," CSF's Michael Vick reports on reaction to USF's presentation of an honorary degree to controversial South African Bishop Kevin Dowling at undergrad commencement exercises May 22.

The bishop supports condom use for the prevention of HIV in his apparently uncontrollably randy Diocese of Rustenburg. On a scale of 0 to 10 for controversy at USF that rates about a 0.5 - a yawner.

But the article takes the opportunity to rehash other controversies at USF and significantly gives the last word to a strong critic:
The university is no stranger to controversial speakers and events. San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, a vocal proponent of same-sex marriage, was its May 23 graduate commencement speaker. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic who favors abortion rights, addressed business school graduates in May 2007.

The school has also come under fire for continuing to show the play "The Vagina Monologues," which contains graphic descriptions of rape and homosexual acts.

"When we bring these speakers onto campus, we don't bring them as spokespersons for a position with which we disagree," Father Privett said, adding that critics do not consider the totality of student experiences when they accuse USF of not supporting Church teaching. "They only see the commencement speaker or ‘The Vagina Monologues.' They don't see the other 240 days. They're not at Sunday liturgies. They're not at student retreats. It's the tip and not the whole iceberg."

Others, including at least one USF professor, believe the school's Catholic character has eroded under Father Privett's leadership. Philosophy professor Raymond Dennehy said the dialogue Father Privett said he hopes to encourage is presented in a one-sided manner on campus, with most guest speakers dissenting against Church teaching.

"Dialogue is having speakers both pro and con," Dennehy said. "This is giving an award, and you can bet your bottom dollar that (USF) would not do that if (the speaker) were anti-gay marriage."

Dennehy said he agreed with Church teaching on condom usage.

"If people have condoms, they think they are impervious and are more inclined to engage in reckless behavior," Dennehy said.

Dennehy said the university has set out to form a Catholic identity separate from the Church's teaching on issues like abortion and homosexuality, citing examples like the invitation of Pelosi and the appointment to head of campus ministry of Jesuit Father Donal Godfrey, an outspoken proponent of gay-friendly theology.

"Calling USF a Catholic school is like saying Hillary Clinton is a Carmelite nun," Dennehy said. "USF has chosen to go its own way, and there is no one here to stop them. What is Catholic teaching? What is the so-called ‘institutional Church' if we don't have to pay attention to it?"

Disclosure - I used to edit CSF and Dennehy is a friend and former professor of mine. His criticism, stated as such, would not have appeared in CSF under the conditions in which I was editor at the paper. The archdiocese always pursued a constructive symbiosis with the university and avoided notice of controversy. But as the University has very publicly snubbed successive Archbishops of San Francisco, and Fr. Privett leads it descent into self-parody perhaps a more realistic assessment is emerging.

Go see San Francisco blogger Gibbons Cooney at A Shepherd's Voice for much more on this.