Hemorrhaging followers to the evangelical movement across Latin America and with its credibility damaged by its condemnation of contraception, the Catholic Church cannot afford more spats.
Yet in its latest confrontation with otherwise faithful disciples, the Vatican has been bluntly told by Peru’s top university that it will not be allowed to meddle with academic freedom.
The warning, from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), is the most recent development in a bitter dispute with Lima’s ultra-conservative archbishop, Juan Luis Cipriani.
It comes after Rome ordered the school to drop “Pontifical” and “Catholic” from its name, over its alleged refusal to comply with ecclesiastical law. Breaches include barring Cipriani from controlling its assets and denying him a say in faculty appointments.
Many in the PUCP community fear that giving in to those two demands would see the archbishop – a member of the secretive group Opus Dei which advocates a strict, literal understanding of the bible – end the university’s reputation for tolerance and impartial scholarship.
In a statement, the Vatican accused the PUCP of “seriously prejudicing the interests of the Church.” And despite, ordering the name-change, it also insisted that the university “has a duty to continue to observe canonical legislation.”
The row comes as the Church’s authority faces unprecedented challenge across Latin America. From Argentina to Mexico, evangelicals are recruiting heavily from Catholic flocks. Meanwhile its teachings on social issues, particularly the prohibition on contraception, are widely flouted by otherwise devout Catholics.
The Vatican’s edict met with a defiant response from the PUCP, which says its right to the name is established under Peruvian law, including a clause in the national Constitution protecting the “right to identity.”
It has also warned that changing the name could lead to legal action from graduates and current students who believe they are entitled to a PUCP-branded degree.
Founded in 1917, the PUCP has grown into a successful, modern university with a diverse community of students and faculty. Along the way, it also became a cradle of the liberation theology movement, whose founder Gustavo Gutierrez taught there.
Liberation theology, which quickly spread across Latin America in the 1960s, holds that the Church must help free its followers from unjust social, economic and political conditions.
When he was a cardinal in the 1980s, Pope Benedict XVI criticized liberation theology as Christianized Marxism and for advocating “class struggle”, although he did not question its siding with the poor and oppressed.
Many priests following Gutierrez’s teachings have made a point of living in and working with some of the region’s most impoverished communities, and directly confronting the military dictatorships that once dominated many Latin American nations.
Cipriani could not come from a more different school of thought. Down the years, he has frequently been accused of abandoning the downtrodden by everyone from human rights campaigners to Nobel-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
Peru’s greatest living author accused Cipriani of failing to oppose the forced sterilizations of an estimated 300,000 poor women, which critics claim was state policy under the 1990s administration of President Alberto Fujimori, now serving a 25-year jail term for crimes against humanity.
In case that was not clear enough, Vargas Llosa went on to claim that Cipriani “represents the worst tradition of the Church” and compared him to Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.
Cipriani is also notorious in Peru for allegedly dismissing human rights as a “cojudez,” a popular piece of Peruvian slang whose nearest English equivalent is probably “bullshit.”
Although he has acknowledged in a blog using the term, the cleric insists he was referring specifically to a well-known Spanish nun and human rights campaigner. “Human rights are a fundamental part of the Christian message,” he added.
Given his political beliefs, it was probably inevitable that the archbishop would end up clashing with the PUCP. Although many students and faculty are proudly Catholic, they do not always agree with the Church’s teaching on social issues.
Equally, many non-Catholics also study or teach at the PUCP, including subjects such as sociology or gender studies which Cipriani has questioned. Nevertheless, the overwhelming sentiment among the university community is one of respect for and pride in its affiliation with the Church.
Reynaldo Ledgard, head of the PUCP’s architecture department, questioned the Vatican’s backing of Cipriani in the row.
“What this decision shows is that the supreme value of the Church establishment is obedience,” he told GlobalPost. “It shows that the Church is out of touch with contemporary reality and doesn’t allow different opinions.”
Following the Vatican’s announcement, Cipriani took to the airwaves to say that he did not regard it as a triumph. Yet, if it is a victory for either the archbishop or the Church, it appears to be highly pyrrhic.
“They are losing a prestigious university, where many members of the community regard themselves as faithful Catholics,” noted Ledgard.
Academic freedom, it seems, may now be one more item on the list of areas where the Vatican is alienating otherwise devout followers.