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University of San Francisco Cuts Theology Program, Is Catholic Identity in Decline?

By Deacon Keith Fournier
May 6th, 2009
Catholic Online (

We call upon the University to rescind the decision to end the Graduate Theology program and rededicate itself to being a Catholic University in the heart of the Church.

SAN FRANCISCO (Catholic Online) - The University of San Francisco is a Jesuit School which proclaims its mission as “educating minds and hearts to change the world”. When a visitor enters the campus they are greeted by a banner with a Cross emblazoned upon it bearing these words “faith and values since 1855.” Questions beg to be asked when one considers both claims. What kind of education is being provided to students to truly “change hearts and minds to change the world”? Which “faith” and whose “values” are informing the education provided in 2009 at the University of San Francisco?

The Catholic identity of Catholic Colleges and universities is a growing concern. The decision by the President of the University of Notre Dame to bestow an honorary Doctor of Law on the US President, knowing that he does not recognize the preeminent Right to Life, has galvanized a new Catholic action. As Colleges and Universities throughout the Nation prepare for their commencements one only has to examine the choice of speakers at Catholic Colleges and Universities to determine the state of Catholic identity on each campus.

Catholic Colleges are an extension of the teaching mission of the Catholic Church. At the forefront of this mission is preparing the next generation of Catholic men and women for a new missionary age. It is Christ the Teacher who teaches His children in the Catholic College. As the late Servant of God John Paul II said in an address to educators in 1979 "Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others."

In his instruction on Catholic Colleges and Universities “Ex Corde Ecclesia” (From the Heart of the Church) he reminded us: “Theology plays a particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well as in the dialogue between faith and reason. It serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies.... Because of its specific importance among the academic disciplines, every Catholic University should have a faculty, or at least a chair, of theology.” All of this brings us to the University of San Francisco. We received a letter from a graduate student which I share with our readers:

To Whom it May Concern: “I am a graduate student in the master’s theology program at the University of San Francisco. Unfortunately, we have been notified by the program director that the program is scheduled to be terminated. Fr. Daniel Kendall, who has been at the University since 1979, was notified of the decision to terminate the program via email. The President and Dean of the University did not have the professional courtesy to meet Fr. Kendall in person to give him the news of the decision”.

The letter encouraged displaced theology students to apply at “two other Jesuit institutions offering graduate programs in the Bay Area”. Our letter writer pointed out that such an option was out of the reach of most of the affected students. He asked two questions: “Why is a “Catholic” school, which claims to have as its core mission, “promote learning in the Jesuit Catholic tradition” cutting the program that is most in keeping with the mission statement of the University as well as the Society of Jesus? Why is the University adding three new master’s programs while cutting this most necessary one?”

Given our coverage of the renewal of truly Catholic higher education he asked if we would address the current situation at the University of San Francisco hoping that “… with a public outcry against this ill advised decision, the Board of Trustees will assert the mission of the University of San Francisco over the whims of the President.”. We shall see. There are signs that the University of San Francisco has lost sight of its essential Catholic identity. Its faculty union representative only recently threatened to file an unfair labor practice charge against the University if it removed abortion from its health insurance plan. It has invited an anti-marriage Prosecutor to its commencement exercises.

The letter brought to mind an experience I had as a young man. I followed Fr Michael Scanlan to the then College of Steubenville in Ohio as a transfer student.I knew he was capable, with the help of the Holy Spirit, of effecting true renewal on that campus. When Fr. Michael said “yes” to the invitation of the Board of Trustees to take over the Presidency of that troubled school he did so with a condition attached; He insisted that it rededicate itself to Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life within the heart of the Catholic Church.

One of the decisions the Board made before Fr. Michaels arrival was to discontinue the theology major. They made the same arguments of “efficiency” and “economy”. Fr. Michael quickly restored the program. I was the first graduate of that restored program with a double major in Philosophy and Theology. It proved to be a wonderful background for Law School. The hunger for truth planted by those studies led to my later life pursuit of a Masters Degree and my current PhD work in Moral Theology. I believe it also led to the discerning of my two vocations, Christian marriage and Diaconate in Christ. Fr. Michael knew that Theology is not some optional extra at a Catholic University.

So in response to Paul Wollner, MA Class of 2011, who wrote the letter which prompted this article, we call upon the leadership of the University of San Francisco to rescind this decision to end the Graduate Theology program. We encourage USF to rededicate itself to being a Catholic University in the heart of the Church. Catholic identity must become the beating heart of a Catholic College. The way to ensure that happens is not by ending the teaching of Theology at the Graduate level.

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