The University of San Diego’s decision to withdraw the appointment of feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether to an endowed chair drew praise and criticism this week. The appointment was reportedly withdrawn because Ruether, who supports abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and calling God “Gaia,” is on the board of directors of the pro-abortion group Catholics for Choice.
Reuther, who teaches part time at Claremont Graduate University in California and writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter, had been invited to hold the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology at the University of San Diego (USD) for the academic year 2009-2010, the California Catholic Daily reports.
Lance Nelson, chairman of the university’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the position involves coming to campus three days a week, teaching a course, giving a public lecture, and mentoring junior faculty.
Nelson said Ruether was recommended in a list of possible candidates recommended in a department vote and approved by the previous dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He said the department was unaware of Ruether’s involvement in Catholics for Choice but stated he didn’t know whether that knowledge would have changed the faculty’s recommendation.
“She's a widely respected scholar in the field,” Nelson said. “She's done seminal work on Christian feminism, social justice, and the relationship between religion and ecology.”
Nelson noted the withdrawal of the appointment does not rule out an invitation to Ruether for a different campus appointment or as a guest speaker.
The California Catholic Daily reports that Ruether has said she thinks God can be called “Gaia” after the Greek mother-earth goddess. A longtime supporter of women’s ordination, she has been on the board of the pro-abortion group Catholics for Choice since 1985.
She has also criticized Christianity for presenting an image of a “tribal war god” instead of “wisdom pervading the universe.”
After Ruether was offered the appointment, the USD web site described her as a “pioneering figure in Christian feminist theology,” according to the Union-Tribune.
USD spokeswoman Pamela Gray Payton defended the withdrawal of the appointment.
“Her public position and the symbol of this chair are in direct conflict,” Gray Payton explained. “This chair is a powerful, visible symbol of Roman Catholic theology, and in Roman Catholic theology abortion is disallowed.”
Gray Payton said the appointment should have gone to the provost for final approval, but that did not happen. She also reported that the university had received various complaints about the appointment, but not from the chair’s anonymous donor.
In mid-July, USD Vice President and Provost Julie Sullivan called Ruether to withdraw the offer, the Union-Tribune reports. Sullivan said the university has a responsibility to match the appointment to the donor’s vision for the endowed position.
“Chair holders are to be distinguished theologians who think from within the Roman Catholic tradition while exploring and expressing the tradition in contemporary contexts,” the USD web site explains.
LifeSiteNews.com editor John-Henry Westen attacked the initial appointment in an interview.
“This is a woman who is in favor of abortion, in favor of contraception, homosexuality and women priests,” he said. “I mean how much more anti-Catholic can you get?”
Ann Forsyth, spokeswoman at Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, California, supported the withdrawal of the appointment.
“As a Catholic institution for higher education, our understanding of ourselves is that we are to uphold the church's teachings on abortion and other subjects as the Holy Father calls for,” she said.
According to the California Catholic Daily, a petition titled “Support Rosemary Radford Ruether and Academic Freedom!” has attracted more than 2100 unconfirmed signatures on the site iPetitions.com. The petition was sponsored by the Women’s Ordination Conference, which describes itself as “a national organization that works for Catholic women to be priests and for a more inclusive Roman Catholic Church,” and by the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, "a feminist educational center.”
One petition signer is Frances Kissling, founder of the group Catholics for a Free Choice. The group, which is now called Catholics for Choice, was described by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as “an arm of the abortion lobby in the United States and throughout the world.”
The 71-year-old Ruether said she was concerned about the appointment decision’s implications for academic freedom, saying, “It appears to me that some right-wing group has put pressure on the university.”
She claimed that what people do in their personal life has nothing to do with what they are going to teach, adding that she had no plans to speak about abortion on campus, the Union-Tribune reports.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke on the mission of Catholic higher education during his visit to Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. in April, saying “Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission.”