EWTN Catholic Q&A
What is going on?
Question from Tandy on 03-15-2002:

Have you heard of this?


What in the world is going on?

Firing Fessio The fight for Campion College is now the fight for the soul of higher education in America.

Mr. Kurtz is also a fellow at the Hudson Institute March 13, 2002 8:35 a.m. long-running battle over the fate of the Saint Ignatius Institute, a small but influential great-books program at the University of San Francisco, is rapidly turning into a test of the survivability of traditional Catholicism in America and of the admissibility of traditional religious belief to the academy. A year after I reported on the Saint Ignatius Institute controversy in several pieces for NRO (for those reports, click here, here, and here) the struggle has expanded to include the founding of a new college, heated legal jousting between that new college and the University of San Francisco, and the exile and muzzling of Father Joseph Fessio, one of the most eminent voices of conservative Catholicism in America today. More than anything else, the attack on the renowned Father Fessio by his own Jesuit order gives dramatic proof of the extent to which Catholic liberal education is endangered by political correctness from within the Church itself.

Just over a year ago, in a move that capped 25 years of tension between the liberal Jesuits who run the University of San Francisco and the traditional Catholics who taught in an award-winning great-books program called the Saint Ignatius Institute, Father Stephen Privett, the newly installed president of USF, summarily dismissed the directors of the Saint Ignatius Institute and moved to reorganize the program, effectively gutting it as an outpost of traditional Catholic teaching in an otherwise liberal university.

The response was vigorous and swift. The core faculty of the Saint Ignatius Institute declined to participate in the new program, while the extensive network of the Institute's alumni and friends many of them prominent Catholic journalists launched a public campaign to save the traditional program.

I am not a Catholic, but I am a defender of classic liberal education, and of the right of traditional religion to hold a place in such an education. The specter of an ostensibly Catholic university destroying the single small center of traditional Catholic learning remaining on its campus seemed to me to embody the death of fairness and true intellectual diversity in the contemporary academy. So in addition to writing several pieces on the controversy for NRO, I joined with a number of intellectuals, Catholic and otherwise, in a public statement of protest over the destruction of the Saint Ignatius Institute. That statement was signed by, among others, William Bennett, Robert George, Michael Novak, Jean Elshtain, George Weigel, Deal Hudson, Hadley Arkes, Richard John Neuhaus, and Ralph McInerny. Meanwhile, students of the Saint Ignatius institute staged that rarity of rarities a campus demonstration by conservatives (including protest chants in Latin), in defense of the traditional program.

Although the public protests seriously embarrassed Father Privett, his only response was to hire a slick public relations firm and persist in his plan to gut the Saint Ignatius Institute. As a result, defenders of the Institute took their protest to the Pope himself. That is where I left this story off, in March of last year. What has happened since?

That is a matter of considerable controversy. What we know is that, on January 25, the Congregation for Catholic Education (the Vatican equivalent of the Department of Education) issued a rather vague letter, susceptible to divergent interpretation by either side in the dispute. In a bow to the traditionalists, the letter clearly calls for doctrinal integrity, and insists that individuals whose lives and teachings are inconsistent with the explicit teachings of the Church should not be imported into the Saint Ignatius Institute. At the same time, the letter calls rather vaguely for "collaboration" between all parties involved in the tensions over the Saint Ignatius Institute.

President Privett quickly seized upon the letter's call for "collaboration" between "all the parties" to declare victory. According to President Privett, mutual collaboration apparently means, "everyone must agree with me." And what about the letter's insistence that the faculty of the Saint Ignatius Institute maintain the integrity of traditional Catholic doctrine? On that score, Father Privett seems not to be "collaborating" with the Vatican.

In a clear indication of the direction of the new Saint Ignatius Institute, Father Privett has personally hired Albert R. Jonsen as an instructor. Jonsen is an ex-Jesuit priest, a medical ethicist who has publicly spoken in defense of human cloning, euthanasia, and tissue banks using material derived from elective abortions. One wonders how Father President Privett, whose spokesmen have publicly taunted the traditionalists for defying the Vatican's order to "collaborate" with him, can square the continuing presence of Albert Jonsen at the Saint Ignatius Institute with his newfound discovery of the joys of obedience to Rome.

So while a very strong case can be made that the traditional Catholics at the Saint Ignatius Institute have stood ready for true collaboration and compromise with Father Privett, it is more than obvious that President Privett is bound and determined to wipe out any small remaining center of traditional Catholic teaching at his university and to do so in direct violation of admonitions from the Vatican itself.

The response of supporters of the Saint Ignatius Institute to President Privett's evident refusal to compromise or collaborate with them has been to form an entirely new college. The two-year institution is called Campion College, and has been founded through the efforts of Father Joseph Fessio, who founded the original Saint Ignatius Institute, and who currently directs Ignatius Press, and by John Galten, the former director of SII summarily dismissed by Father Privett. The Campion College curriculum will reproduce in substance the curriculum of the original Saint Ignatius Institute.

The founding of Campion College has been enthusiastically hailed by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, long a supporter of the Saint Ignatius Institute and a figure thoroughly conversant with the letter on the SII controversy produced by the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education. Surely if the founding of Campion College had been disallowed by that letter, Cardinal Schonborn would not have embraced this new institution with such enthusiasm.

Yet even this attempt to establish outside the confines of the University of San Francisco a great-books program dedicated to the spirit of classic Catholic humanism, has been subject to legal assault by President Privett. Despite his stated commitment to "diversity," President Privett apparently cannot tolerate the existence of an enclave of traditional Catholic teaching, either inside or outside of his university.

Donna Davis, general counsel of the University of San Francisco has issued a letter demanding that Campion College "cease and desist" from even mentioning on the Campion College website that Campion "arose" from the Saint Ignatius Institute. Yet Campion College and its curriculum are virtually identical to the curriculum of the original institute. Moreover, its faculty will include core faculty members of the old Saint Ignatius Institute. As a simple historical fact, it is obvious that Campion College did indeed "arise" from the Saint Ignatius Institute.

Legalities aside, what's striking here is the near-tyrannical determination of an allegedly tolerant liberal Jesuit like President Privett to wipe out any traditional Catholic program, however small, and whether inside or outside of his university. Campion College plans to admit an initial class of only 15 students. With the entire University of San Francisco as his theological playground, and now with even the small and formerly traditionalist Saint Ignatius Institute in the hands of the most blatantly unorthodox Catholic teachers available on the planet, will Father President Privett begrudge even fifteen bold souls the privilege of a traditional Catholic education?

But it's worse than that. The overwhelmingly liberal Jesuit order itself has now moved to attack Campion College and to block Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of the original Saint Ignatius Institute, now the founder of Campion College, and one of the most esteemed and influential voices of traditional Catholicism in the United States, from any association with Campion. On Monday, March 11, Father Tom Smolich, Father Fessio's Jesuit superior, ordered Fessio to break his public and private ties to Campion College, and went so far as to remove Father Fessio from San Francisco and effectively demote him to the post of chaplain at an obscure hospital in Southern California. Imposing a transfer like that on a man of Fessio's stature is something like sending a purged Communist leader to Siberia.

The irony is that Father Fessio and his fellow Catholic conservatives are berated by liberal Jesuits and their allies for invoking "Papal tyranny." Yet it is those determined to crush any small outpost of traditional Catholic education who are acting as the real oppressors here. The old Saint Ignatius Institute consisted of 150 souls in a university of 7,000 a mere two percent of the students at USF. The program was entirely voluntary, and students at SII could and did take courses on Catholic theology from the liberal Jesuits at the larger university. And now, a two-year college offering the same curriculum to a mere 15 students is under assault from the forces of "diversity."

But it is the muzzling and exile of Father Fessio that tells the ultimate truth about the death of traditional Catholic education. Those moves may have been formally initiated by Fessio's superior, but they were undertaken with the explicit approval of Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, the head of the Jesuit order itself. (This fact was confirmed by Father Fessio, who told me that his superior, Father Smolich, told him that the reassignment had been approved in advance by the "general" of the Jesuit order.) Calling the Jesuits "liberal," serves as a rough sort of shorthand for their ideological sympathies, but in truth, there is nothing liberal at all about what the Jesuits have done to Father Fessio.

Traditional American Catholics should look to the fiasco at the University of San Francisco with dismay. If Campion College is successfully strangled at birth by the liberal Jesuits who have already destroyed the Saint Ignatius Institute, it is obvious that traditional Catholic education in the United States is in desperate straits. No such program at any university will be able to withstand the attack of another President Privett. And be assured that more Father Privett's will arise.

For non-Catholics, the tale of the destruction of the Saint Ignatius Institute is part of the larger story of the death of authentic intellectual diversity under the regime of bogus "multicultural" diversity. True liberal education is about exposing students to the fundamental alternatives in life. Traditional Catholicism, taught in light of its place in the stream of great Western thought, is surely one among the fundamental possibilities for living a good life. How can education for anyone be true and secure if the possibility of teaching such an alternative is destroyed?

The fight for Campion College is now the fight for the soul of higher education in America. Traditional Catholics and all who care about liberal education need to act in support of Campion College, and to protest the attempt by the University of San Francisco and the Jesuit order itself to destroy it. Finally, to directly support Campion College, consult the following link.


Answer by Dr. Warren Carroll on 03-20-2002:

Thank you for your attention to and concern for this important matter. The suppression of the St. Ignatius Institute was a disgrace to Catholic education and should be protested by all educators of good will, like yourself. The hostility to doctrinal orthodoxy in the Catholic Church which these events show are the reason why I founded Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, which thanks to God's never-failing help has survived several attacks so far. These may be expected by any educational institution which stands up for the true Catholic Faith and for the Pope. - Dr. Carroll