Friday, March 23, 2007

More on Father Fessio...

...From Father Neuhaus of First Things:

In response to inquiries, I can only say that I do not know the “inside story” of what happened leading to the abrupt dismissal of Fr. Joseph Fessio as provost of Ave Marie University (AMU) by Mr. Tom Monaghan, founder and chancellor. The curt statement issued by AMU, referring to “irreconcilable differences” and noting the contributions of Fr. Fesso to the university, reads like an agreement worked out by lawyers.

I have been supportive of AMU from its launching in 2003, albeit not without misgivings. And I am glad to count Fr. Fessio as a friend. As usual, Amy Welborn has some useful links on this latest development over on Open Book.

I had initially agreed to serve on the board of directors of Ave Maria, but after a time it became apparent that the rapidity and complexity of decisions necessarily involved in establishing such an ambitious project demanded much more time and attention than I could give. So it was very amicably agreed that I and several others would be moved from the board of directors to a board of regents, which is a more nominal association with the enterprise.

I continue to be very supportive of Ave Maria University. It is a very important part of the mix that is required for the revitalization of Catholic higher education in this country. AMU has attracted some very impressive faculty in its first three years, and hundreds of students have enrolled despite the fact that the school is not yet accredited. There are questions still unsettled, and they no doubt have a bearing on leadership disputes, including the dismissal of Fr. Fessio as provost.

One important question is framed this way: Should AMU be “Steubenville South” or “Notre Dame South,” or something quite different from both. Denigrating in no way the notable achievements of Steubenville, my view is that AMU should aspire to being Notre Dame South on the way to its likely becoming something quite different from both.

But such decisions will be made most importantly by Tom Monaghan. Without his inspiration, determination, and generous funding, there would be no AMU. This is also as good a place as any to make clear that my comments about Mr. Monaghan in a recent profile in the New Yorker were not intended to be critical, although I am told that some took them that way. On the contrary, to say that he is as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove is to say that he exemplifies Our Lord’s counsel to turn worldly means to apostolic ends.

As for Fr. Fessio, he is routinely described as “controversial.” Few people of great achievement are in their obituaries described as “uncontroversial.” And, please God, we are many years away from the writing of Fr. Fessio’s obituary. The Church in America and the world owe him an inestimable debt for his founding of Ignatius Press, of which he continues to be the editor. Almost singlehandedly, Ignatius has made available in English some of the most important Catholic thinkers of our era, most notably in publishing the works of Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

At the University of San Francisco, where he taught for years and established a pioneering Ignatius Institute, Fr. Fessio was treated shabbily by his fellow Jesuits, finally being exiled to a perfectly superfluous post as chaplain in a small nursing home that already had a chaplain. With notable constancy, he has been obedient to leaders in the Society of Jesus who hold him in obvious contempt. Despite all, I hope and expect that he will be making further and important contributions to the renewal of the Church in the years ahead.

There is no denying that these are unhappy days for Ave Maria University, for Tom Monaghan, and for Fr. Fessio. One prays that out of the clash of great visions and great talents all three will emerge the stronger in their manifest devotion to Christ and his Church.

(For the latest developments, in which it appears Fr. Fessio will continue teaching at AMU while having no administrative responsibilities, see here.)


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