Bonnie Morris, an adjunct assistant professor of women's studies at Georgetown University, said some Catholic colleges employ faculty supportive of causes at odds with the church, from gay rights to the use of contraceptives. “I'm openly gay, and I'm teaching at a Jesuit institution,” said Morris, who added that Georgetown is developing a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Center.
2,000 sign petition opposing decision
Rosemary Radford Ruether
USD is standing by its decision. “Her public position and the symbol of this chair are in direct conflict,” said USD spokeswoman Pamela Gray Payton. “This chair is a powerful, visible symbol of Roman Catholic theology, and in Roman Catholic theology abortion is disallowed.”The flap underscores a long-standing issue for American Catholic colleges: the debate over academic freedom versus fealty to Catholic doctrine. Many notable universities have come under fire for actions that clash with Catholic orthodoxy, including Notre Dame, Georgetown and St. Louis. Ruether, 71, is concerned about the decision's effect on academic freedom.
“It appears to me that some right-wing group has put pressure on the university,” she said. The position, the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology, involved coming to campus three days a week, teaching a course, giving a public lecture, and mentoring junior faculty during the fall 2009 semester, said Lance Nelson, chairman of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies.Nelson began negotiating with Ruether early this year after a list of possible candidates including Ruether was recommended in a department vote and approved by the previous dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “She's a widely respected scholar in the field,” Nelson said.
“She's done seminal work on Christian feminism, social justice, and the relationship between religion and ecology.” Ruether writes a regular column for National Catholic Reporter, has 13 honorary doctorates and has written more than 40 books. She teaches part time at Claremont Graduate University, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. After Ruether was offered the USD appointment, the university's Web site characterized her as a “pioneering figure in Christian feminist theology.” The problem is that the appointment should have gone to the provost for final approval, Gray Payton said. That did not happen. USD received various complaints about the appointment, though not from the chair's anonymous donor, Gray Payton said. LifeSiteNews.com, founded by a Canadian anti-abortion organization, wrote a scathing article after the appointment was made. “This is a woman who is in favor of abortion, in favor of contraception, homosexuality and women priests,” editor John-Henry Westen said in an interview. “I mean how much more anti-Catholic can you get?”Nelson said the Department of Theology and Religious Studies was unaware of Ruether's role with Catholics for Choice, but he doesn't know if that knowledge would have changed the faculty's recommendation. In mid-July, USD Vice President and Provost Julie Sullivan called Ruether to withdraw the offer. Fifty USD faculty members have signed the petition demanding that USD reverse course. The petition was sponsored by the Women's Ordination Conference, which advocates for female priests, deacons and bishops; and the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, a multireligious feminist educational center with Catholic co-founders. The petition asks for USD either to apologize and honor the offer or allow Ruether to deliver a campus lecture on academic freedom. “Rosemary Ruether is like the godmother of the feminist theologian movement,” said Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman and past president of Call to Action, a nonprofit Catholic organization that advocates on church reform issues and is endorsing the petition. “It's just criminal to disinvite her from the University of San Diego.” Many Catholic colleges have clashed with church leaders on issues such as abortion, stem cell research and sexuality. In January, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke called for disciplinary action when St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus publicly voiced his support for abortion rights. University of Notre Dame took heat for permitting a production of controversial play “The Vagina Monologues” on campus. Many schools have been rebuked for hosting politicians and speakers who support abortion rights. During a visit in April to Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Pope Benedict XVI advised Catholic college educators not to allow scholarly pursuits to depart from Catholic doctrine. “Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission,” he said.
Bonnie Morris, an adjunct assistant professor of women's studies at Georgetown University, said some Catholic colleges employ faculty supportive of causes at odds with the church, from gay rights to the use of contraceptives. “I'm openly gay, and I'm teaching at a Jesuit institution,” said Morris, who added that Georgetown is developing a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Center.But Anne Forsyth, spokeswoman at Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, said abortion-rights advocates would not be given a platform on campus. “As a Catholic institution for higher education, our understanding of ourselves is that we are to uphold the church's teachings on abortion and other subjects as the Holy Father calls for,” Forsyth said. USD's Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology was established in 2000 through a $2 million bequest. It was named after Monsignor Portman, who became the founding chair of the department in 1967. According to the university's Web site, “Chair holders are to be distinguished theologians who think from within the Roman Catholic tradition while exploring and expressing the tradition in contemporary contexts.” Sullivan said USD has a responsibility to see that any appointment matches a donor's vision for an endowed position, and in this case it did not. “We're not at all impugning Professor Ruether's scholarship,” she said. “She is a prolific and well-respected scholar.” Although Ruether was denied the Portman Chair, that does not rule out her being invited to USD in another campus appointment or as a guest speaker, Nelson said. Ruether doesn't see a conflict between her two roles. “First of all, what people are doing in their personal life has nothing to do with what you're going to teach,” said Ruether, adding that she had no plans to speak on campus about abortion.