Jesuit University President Attacks George Weigel

Deal W. Hudson
March 29, 2008

The February 20 issue of the Denver Catholic Register published a column on the Jesuits titled “Some Questions for Father General” by George Weigel. In response, the president of the University of San Francisco, Rev. Stephen A. Privett, S.J., published “Attack on Jesuits Out of Place” in Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper.

Father Privett not only attacked what he termed the “mean-spirited assault” of Weigel, but he was also sharply critical of the Denver archdiocese for publishing it. Father writes,

The readership of Catholic diocesan newspapers deserves more civil, balanced, and professional fare than that served up and passed around by the Denver Catholic Register.

I don’t know of a single instance in the history of this country’s Catholic Church when one diocesan newspaper attacked another by name.

Weigel asked the new Jesuit Superior, Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, S.J., questions on four issues: Jesuit obedience, the Catholic identity of Jesuit educational institutions, the Jesuit attitude toward the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, and the order’s theological commitment to the “unique salvific role of Jesus Christ.”

Anyone even superficially familiar with the history of the Catholic Church since Vatican II would not be surprised by these questions. The issues of Jesuit obedience and Catholic identity were raised by the secular media in its coverage of the recent election of the new Father General. In addition, the Vatican pressure that led to the resignation of Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., from his editorship of America magazine got national attention.

Father Privett’s outrage suggests that he is unaware that Weigel is merely speaking aloud questions that are shared by Catholics around the world. He specifically charges Weigel with making unfounded allegations about two Jesuits in particular, Rev. James Keenan, S.J., and the late Rev. Robert Drinan, S.J. Wiegel puts both forward as examples of Jesuit attitudes toward basic Church teachings on abortion and marriage.

About Father Drinan, Weigel writes, “He did more than anyone else to convince Catholic legislators that the settled teaching of the Church on the grave immorality of abortion had no bearing on their legislative work.” Father Privett’s reply to Weigel: “His stunningly sweeping statement… lacks any supporting evidence.”

I’m sure that Weigel would be surprised to hear that he needed to document the career of Father Drinan, whom I call in my recent book the “Jesuit priest who invented the pro-abortion Catholic politician.” Perhaps Father Privett needs to be reminded that, after being elected to Congress in 1970, Father Drinan wrote in support of Roe v. Wade and Clinton’s veto of the ban against partial-birth abortion. After being forced by John Paul II to leave Congress in 1981, Father Drinan continued as a pro-abortion lobbyist both within the Democratic Party and as head of Americans for Democratic Action.

Father Privett also takes issue with Weigel’s description of Father Keenan’s highly publicized testimony before the Massachusetts legislature in support of homosexual marriage. Father Keenan’s argument, according to Weigel, was ” that the principles of Catholic social doctrine did not merely tolerate ‘gay marriage,’ they demanded it.” But again, Father Privett objects: “He did not do so. Father Keenan testified against unjust discrimination against gay couples. He did not testify in support of gay marriage or approve the homosexual activity.”

What Father Privett does not make clear is that Father Keenan, a moral theologian at Boston College, argued for gay marriage on the basis of homosexuals’ possessing a “right” to be married. Weigel is correct.

The most sensitive issue raised by Weigel is the attitude toward homosexuality among the Jesuits. He rightly calls it the “third-rail” issue, as anyone who raises it can expect some kind of thrashing.

What must have provoked Father Privett is one example Weigel supplies from the Jesuits’ California province:

[I]t was not that long ago, after all, that the Web site of the Jesuits’ California Province featured photos of “Pretty Boy” and “Jabba the Slut” in gay drag at a novices’ party.

Father Privett explains that these photos are not “gay drag”; rather, they were “taken at a Halloween party seven years ago at the novitiate” and were “mistakenly put on-line and immediately taken off for fear it would be malevolently misinterpreted by the likes of Mr. Weigel.”

Let me add to this discussion a story I heard and verified, on a recent trip to San Francisco. A graduate student at the University of San Francisco was rejected for a position in the resident halls because, as he put it, “Father said I do not have the right attitude toward homosexual conduct, as I disapprove of such conduct.” After being turned down for the position, it was suggested by a Jesuit that he read Gays and Grays: The Story of the Gay Community at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Parish, written by Rev. Donal Godfrey, S.J., a professor at USF.

On page 134 of Gays and Grays, Father Godfrey posits the question, “Is it less appropriate for gays to imagine Jesus as gay than for African Christians to picture him as black, Asian Christians as Asian?” This, shortly after acknowledging on page 132,”I will not feign academic objectivity: if such a thing really exists. I firmly believe in a new approach and a new vision for this area of ministry. In this, I do have an ‘agenda.’”

Not surprisingly, the graduate student has been hesitant to pursue “some questions” he has about the USF Jesuit community’s doctrinal approach to homosexuality, for fear that his questions might be wrongly construed as an “attack on the Jesuits.” It’s not difficult to see where he might have gotten that impression.

Local Catholics familiar with the situation at USF told me that this is not an isolated incident and that some Jesuits in the community are deeply concerned.

For one, the theologians at USF were offered the mandate, in accord with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but none responded to the offer. In fact, Sacred Heart Sr. Theresa Moser, associate dean at the University of San Francisco, urged USF theologians to adopt a stance of noncompliance: “‘The appropriate strategy is to do nothing’ by way of requesting a mandate, she said, or, if one is offered, to ‘very respectfully decline.’”

The questions asked by George Weigel about the future of the Jesuits shouldn’t have been so shocking to Father Privett; they have been asked publicly, in both secular and Catholic media, for decades. Weigel’s questions didn’t surprise the Catholic residents of San Francisco, but Father Privett’s outraged response did.

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