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No news from Rome on Fessio’s appeal

NCR Staff

The Jesuit president of the University of San Francisco, Fr. Stephen Privett, responding to recent news reports of Vatican intervention at the university, said he had received no word from Vatican officials regarding his controversial decision to reorganize the conservative St. Ignatius Institute. His Jesuit superiors in Rome also said they had received no word.

Press reports in late March said Vatican officials had signaled opposition to Privett’s recent decision to reorganize the institute and planned to intervene.

The institute’s founder and supporter Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio said he recently met in Rome with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, director of the Vatican doctrinal office, who assured him his concerns would be passed on to the pope. Fessio was in Rome for a meeting of the board of Casa Balthasar, a house of formation.

Fessio said, “We have gone through proper channels, and the Holy Father is aware of what has happened.”

According to a San Francisco Chronicle story that appeared March 28, Raymond Dennehy, a professor at the university who had taught in the institute, had said, “It’s my understanding that the pope has signed a letter saying he wants the institute restored to its pristine state.”

Privett accused Fessio and other institute lobbyists of “McCarthy-like” tactics. “Joe Fessio is the source of these rumors,” said Privett, “but he’ll produce no document. Fessio, a la Joe McCarthy, is claiming to have a draft of a document approved by the pope, but we have seen nothing.”

In January, Privett, who became president last summer, dismissed the two directors of the institute, John Galten and John Hamlon, and replaced them with a new director, Paul Murphy, a history professor at the university. Shortly after, six faculty members who taught in the institute refused to teach their institute classes in protest (NCR, Feb 16).

Privett said he was trying to integrate the institute into the life of the university. Since its founding 25 years ago, the institute has operated as a separate school, hiring some of its own faculty -- including conservative theologians -- and offering a traditional core curriculum under the umbrella of a Great Books program.

Fessio told NCR that he had spoken with the university’s board chairman, Dominic Tarantino, and told him in confidence about his conversation with Ratzinger when he was in Rome. He said he never mentioned a letter from the pope, that he still has no knowledge of such a letter.

“We have made an appeal, and the Holy Father may or may not follow up on it,” Fessio said.

Jesuit officials in Rome said there is no indication, as of March 29, that the Vatican will be involved. Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior general, is satisfied that the university’s efforts to reorganize the institute will not alter its “unique character,” said Fr. Frank Case, an assistant to the superior.

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001