The Vatican is locked in a bitter dispute with one of South America’s top universities in a row that has resurrected ideological differences within the Roman Catholic Church long thought to have been consigned to Cold War history.
At stake is the obscure issue of whether the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) in Lima can any longer describe itself as either Catholic or pontifical. The dispute has highlighted lingering antipathy between Roman Catholic conservatives and proponents of liberation theology, which in the 1970s and 1980s created a bridge in Latin America between radical priests and left-wing militants.
This summer, Pope Benedict XVI’s most senior official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, issued a decree stripping the university of the right to use either word in its title. The decree said the stance of the university was no longer “compatible with the discipline and morals of the church.”
Students and faculty have refused to accept the decision — and some claim there is more to the affair than misgivings over their university’s liberalism.
The university has been closely linked to liberation theology since Gustavo Gutierrez, the liberation movement’s Peruvian founder, taught there in the 1960s.
During the Cold War, while Latin America was undergoing enormous upheaval, doctrinal issues took on a political dimension. In Nicaragua, priests inspired by liberation theology took an active part in the 1979 Sandinista revolution. The philosophy also influenced leftist rebels in Mexico and Colombia. The Vatican never condemned Gutierrez or his writings. However, he was repeatedly called to Rome and in 1999 became a monk, apparently to escape the scrutiny of his diocesan superiors.
The rector of the PUCP, Marcial Rubio, said that, in a letter to the Peruvian bishops’ conference, Bertone expressed consternation at the teaching of Gutierrez’s works at the university.
Some at PUCP suspect the battle is not about liberation theology, but power and perhaps money. Juan Luis Cipriani, the archbishop of Lima and a member of the conservative Opus Dei fellowship, has been campaigning to put the PUCP under the control of his archbishopric.
Luis Bacigalupo, a philosophy professor at PUCP, believes the Vatican’s backing for Cipriani could be inspired by other concerns. The university’s real estate in Lima is worth about US$300m, he said, noting that the Vatican faces an economic crisis exacerbated by “multimillion-dollar payouts” in sex abuse lawsuits.
“There are certain conservative sectors in the Vatican who are very worried about the financial future of the church,” he added.
For Natale Amprimo, lawyer to the archbishop of Lima, the issue is simple.
“The professors must fall into line with the rules of the Holy See,” Amprimo said.