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Selective Diversity 

by James Hitchcock
March 20, 2002

One version of "renewal" urges that the Church become as open as civil society. While the Church has official teachings, according to this view, it should tolerate a variety of positions, allowing its members the same freedom they enjoy as citizens. Those who are today considered dissenters, the argument goes, may be closer to the truth than those considered orthodox, and they may herald the official teachings of the future. A multiplicity of voices insures that every good idea gets a hearing.

The trouble with this claim is that no one really believes it, least of all some of those who most strongly advocate it.

The St. Ignatius Institute of the University of San Francisco was a special program centered on the historical Catholic tradition. It was started some years ago by Father Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit on the USF staff. SII was a great success. But last Fall the president of USF summarily removed the head of the program (not Father Fessio), and some of the faculty resigned. Clearly it was the president's intention to change the nature of the program, which was considered by its critics to be "too conservative".

No one in SII ever taught things beyond the limits of Catholic doctrine. Their "conservatism" consisted of their adhering closely to official teaching on controversial subjects. But let us accept the epithet "conservative". So what? The liberal rhetoric which talks ceaselessly about "openness", "dialogue", "pluralism", and "tolerance" should make liberals welcome institutions like SII, precisely because they are different.

But for some liberals the very existence of such institutions is offensive. Critics carped at SII because its programs were an implied judgment about "mainstream" Catholic institutions, and after decades of such criticism the axe fell.

After that Father Fessio announced the founding of a new small Catholic college, Campion, also in San Francisco. Immediately USF announced that it would not accept any transfer credits from Campion, a remarkable display of prejudice (literally, to "judge in advance") toward an institution that does not yet exist.

Now the process has gone a step farther, as Father Fessio's superiors have transferred him to the chaplaincy of a hospital several hundred miles from San Francisco and forbidden him to have any connection with Campion. This is hardball.

Exactly what threat is Campion to USF? It might attract a hundred students, and one would suppose that pluralists would welcome another jewel in our bright crown of diverse institutions.

Few words now pack more power than "diversity", but it turns out that it does not mean that an institution should strive to embody as wide a variety of viewpoints as possible. Instead it often means silencing those considered not "diverse" enough. The cry for tolerance becomes the instrument of intolerance, the demand for freedom a weapon to suppress freedom.

Traditionally, religious superiors were supposed to express God's will. But in the post-Vatican II Church, we are told, there is no room for this kind of obedience. Yet it is invoked against Father Fessio. The Holy See's document on education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, is denounced as a violation of academic freedom. Yet the freedom of both SII and Campion is openly violated.

Is this a mere perversion of the liberal spirit? On paper it is. But all modern "progressive" movements, beginning with the French Revolution, have practiced suppression.

I know at least a dozen Catholic scholars whose careers have suffered because they are considered "too conservative", including several priests who have been silenced by their superiors, not because they undermine Church teaching but because they defend it too vigorously.

In a just world we would see a public statement by prominent liberals saying, "We disagree with much of what Father Fessio stands for. But the spirit of Vatican II demands that we defend his freedom. Liberals should not use the same repressive measures we condemn in others." I don't think newspaper editors ought to keep their pages open waiting for the statement to arrive.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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