Theologian Uninvited to Hold Chair

July 21, 2008

Activist groups that try to pressure Roman Catholic universities to adhere to certain measures of fealty are praising the University of San Diego for telling a prominent theology professor that the invitation for her to teach there next year was being rescinded and that she would not hold a visiting endowed chair.

The professor is Rosemary Radford Ruether, who currently teaches at the Claremont Graduate University and has also taught at the Pacific School of Religion and Holy Names University, and written a column for many years for the National Catholic Reporter. Ruether's numerous books about theology have strong pro-feminist positions (she advocates the ordination of women, for example) and she identifies herself as a "progressive Catholic," but very much as a Catholic thinker.

This fall, the New Press will publish her latest book, Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican: A Vision for Progressive Catholicism, in which she challenges Vatican teachings on a range of issues. In the forward to the book, Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, writes: "In a truly just world, Rosemary Radford Ruether would be pope."

While Ruether has no expectations of becoming pope, she did think she had an endowed chair. San Diego announced in June that Ruether would be named as the next Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology, a position that involves a one year appointment, teaching, and a major lecture on campus. The announcement -- since removed from the university's Web site -- set off alarms among critics of Ruether's views, who published articles on Web sites calling her a "radical non-Christian" and charging, among other things, that she calls God "Gaia." (For the record, she said that she calls God "God," and did so in a conversation with this reporter.)

In an interview, Ruether said that she was strongly recruited by the university for the position. She said that she has more invitations than she can handle, but that she agreed to the visiting chair after faculty members attended a lecture she gave, and spoke about how much they wanted her to teach. Terms were negotiated and the announcement was made, she said. Subsequently, she said, Provost Julie Sullivan called her and explained that the theology department "had not consulted with the donor and the donor had a different vision" of the chair, so the offer to Ruether was being rescinded. (The donor is anonymous, according to a university Web site.)

"This is obviously a case where the faculty were not able to ask the person they wanted to ask because of ideological bias," Ruether said. She added that her academic freedom would not be affected because she would continue to write what she believes, but she said that the academic freedom of San Diego faculty members had been hurt by having her appointment blocked. She said that "it's their academic freedom being denied," when the faculty have appointments vetoed just for being controversial.

Lance Nelson, chair of the theology department and the person who recruited Ruether, declined to talk about the situation and said that only the provost could talk about the matter. The provost did not respond to e-mail messages. Pamela Gray Payton, a spokeswoman for the university, confirmed via e-mail that upon "review of the specific purpose of the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology, the University of San Diego is no longer considering the appointment of Dr. Rosemary Radford Ruether as the 2009-2010 chair holder." Payton added that Ruether was "never officially appointed" to the position.

LifeSiteNews.com, which had previously urged Catholics to call the university to oppose Ruether, is praising the university's latest action and urging readers to write the university to express support.

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