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Institute defenders reach pope

NCR Staff

Attempts to trigger a papal intervention on behalf of the Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco, where in January a new president of the Jesuit-run university fired the conservative institute’s two directors, apparently went much farther than previously realized.

NCR has learned that in mid-March Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, carried a document regarding the Ignatius Institute into a meeting with Pope John Paul II. The pope’s daily calendar indicates that Ratzinger was received on March 16.

Though the document’s precise contents remain unclear, its thrust was to grant the Ignatius Institute a degree of autonomy. It would have reversed the decision by the new president of the University of San Francisco, Jesuit Fr. Stephen Privett, to fire the institute’s directors by authorizing the institute to name its own leadership.

The institute follows a “Great Books” program and fosters a traditional Catholic spirituality.

At the time of the firings, Privett said they had been motivated principally by the fact that the institute’s two directors were not faculty members at the university. He acknowledged, however, being concerned by suggestions from the institute’s leaders and supporters that the University of San Francisco was not sufficiently “orthodox” in comparison with the Ignatius Institute.

The document Ratzinger brought to the pope, according to sources in Rome, had been prepared by Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, the founder of the Ignatius Institute, in consultation with Ratzinger and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria.

Schönborn acknowledged in response to an NCR query that he had been consulted on the document.

Fessio and Schönborn studied together under Ratzinger at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria in the early 1970s. Fessio has long enjoyed a good rapport with Ratzinger. Fessio’s Ignatius Press, for example, holds English-language rights to most of Ratzinger’s books.

During the mid-March audience, according to sources, the pope gave approval to the document, though it is not clear whether this approval took the form of a signature or was simply an oral affirmation.

The document then went to the Secretariat of State and eventually to the Congregation for Catholic Education, where it has, in effect, been blocked. It has neither been published, nor communicated in an official way to the Jesuit order or to the University of San Francisco.

Defenders of the institute argue that despite the block, the pope has signaled his wishes, and university officials should respond. Jesuit officials and Privett’s supporters, however, say that no papal intervention is ever official until it moves through the proper channels.

According to Fr. Jose de Vera, spokesperson for the Jesuits in Rome, the order’s understanding is that the dispute over the institute is a matter to be discussed between Privett and William Levada, the archbishop of San Francisco. The Jesuits, de Vera told NCR, are not currently expecting Vatican action.

Rumors of a document were first reported in the press in March, but were hotly denied by Privett, who accused Fessio of “McCarthyite” tactics, according to the March 28 San Francisco Chronicle, and predicted, “He’ll produce no document.”

Neither Fessio nor Privett would comment for this article. Likewise Ratzinger and the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, declined to be interviewed.

Schönborn, however, told NCR he believes the fate of the institute is “absolutely of importance” to the universal church. Schönborn, a Dominican, once taught at the Swiss University of Fribourg, and he said his best students came from the Ignatius Insitute.

He said his last doctoral candidate, Margaret Turek, now a professor at the University of Dallas, came from the institute. “She wrote a beautiful thesis about Hans Urs von Balthasar,” he said.

“I perceive the Ignatius Institute as one of the most promising academic institutions with a strong spiritual profile,” Schönborn said. “I would regret it very much if the Ignatius Institute should succumb to the mainstream. In the cultural situation of the West Coast, alternatives to the mainstream should have their right of existence.

“It would be a deep loss to the church and to the academic community if an institution like the Ignatius Institute should be forced into line,” Schönborn said.

Schönborn, 56, was the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church before becoming a cardinal. He is widely considered a leading papabile, or candidate to become pope.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001