Founded in 1976 by Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., a rare conservative Jesuit, at the high point of progressive ascendancy in Catholic education, the institute had quietly established itself as a blue-chip example of what happens when a Catholic college takes the Catholic intellectual and humanistic tradition seriously. Imagine a general education curriculum including courses on the Early Church Fathers, Medieval Synthesis, and a yearlong course on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
USF’s decision to fire the institute’s longtime administrators and fundamentally alter its mission is a scornful rejection of the U.S. bishops’ recent call to implement Ex Corde Eccelsiae, the 1990 Vatican document that instructs Catholic universities to reassert their distinctively Catholic identity.
Father Privett’s stated reason for his decision is predictably bureaucratic: USF can save money by eliminating courses that duplicate its regular curriculum. That avoids the real issue: Fessio’s creation has always been a thorn in the side of most of the university’s other Jesuits, who have been biding their time waiting for an opportune moment to pull the plug on what they consider a reactionary operation – faculty members, for example, must have not have openly dissented to the ordinary teaching of the magisterium. (How shocking!)
Any chance for reconsideration of Father Privett’s decision lies in the hands of USF’s 40 trustees (who meet tomorrow), one-third of whom are Jesuits with little affection for Father Fessio. The other two-thirds are unlikely to be swayed by the negative press that his decision has received in the Wall Street Journal and a various Catholic media sources. Trustees of Catholic universities are typically poorly informed about the institutions they oversee, and they know little about what Ex Corde says about the mission of Catholic institutions of higher learning. University trustees often base their actions only on what dissembling administrators tell them. They believe what they hear in order to keep their sentimental memories of their own college days intact.
I have talked to many trustees of Catholic colleges who are frustrated by their institutions’ flagrant disregard for Catholic tradition and the Catholic magisterium. But they are reluctant to follow my suggestion that they protest with their checkbooks, arguing that they can have more influence by remaining at the board table. Continuing to financially support dissenting institutions only deepens the problem: The universities are then free to build their endowments regardless of criticism of their policies.
It will be a great pity if the St. Ignatius Institute does not receive a reprieve. Its curriculum makes one’s mouth water, the faculty is world class, and its graduates have distinguished themselves for decades, especially in the teaching profession. The institute’s existence has been a beacon of sanity and excellence for all who have fought for the recovery of true Catholic humanism.
In the early 1980s, just before I converted to Catholicism, I visited the institute for a weekend at the invitation of Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, one of several outstanding scholars who have devoted most of their adult lives to serving its mission. That weekend changed my life. I remember jogging with Father Fessio, giving a guest lecture in his theology class, and then sharing a sandwich on the waterside at Sausilito with none other than the great French theologian Louis Bouyer. Leiva-Merikakis arranged for me to visit the Carmelite monastery adjacent to the university campus, a visit that pushed this hesitant Baptist into the arms of Mother Church.
I have no doubt that students and visitors alike have been similarly exposed to the converting spirit of the institute during the 20 years since I made my pilgrimage there. Given the turbine-like power of the Catholic intelligence produced by its great books program, I suppose we should be surprised that the attack from the Catholic Left did not come sooner. It hates, and I use this word purposely, successful efforts to sustain Catholic tradition, which refute its assumptions about the irrelevance of Catholic tradition.
Two years ago Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan was criticized for putting his money into the creation of a new Catholic law school instead of, say, the Catholic University of America, which needed the funds. Monaghan defended his decision by saying that there were too many variables at a place like Catholic University that made him doubtful about the future of his investment. Although USF is a far cry from Catholic University, which has a solidly Catholic president, Father David O’Connell, Monaghan’s fearful scenario is being played out in the St. Ignatius Institute tragedy. Monaghan preferred to start from scratch rather than watch his work undone by entrenched interests.
Now we are witnessing the efforts of many good, talented, even heroic people at the St. Ignatius Institute overthrown by Father Privett after only a few months in office. It may be that he had intended to shut down the institute well before he got to USF. Whatever the facts may be, it is clear that the institute’s teaching staff and alumni never had a chance to make their case. Knowing how good a case this is, and how eloquently it could be delivered by the likes of Leiva Merikakis, Father Privett took the Machiavellian option: strike quickly and without apology. Those who had the privilege of studying at the institute will understand this strategy because unlike most students nowadays, they will have read Machiavelli.
(This article will be appearing in the April 2001 issue of CRISIS, America's fastest growing Catholic magazine.)
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