Letter to the University of San Diego Supporting Academic Freedom and Rosemary Radford Ruether

Mary E. Lyons, Ph.D., President

Julie Sullivan, Ph.D., Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

University of San Diego, 5998 Alcalá Park, San Diego, CA 92110 


Dear President Lyons and Vice President Sullivan,

We, the undersigned scholars and activists invited by the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) and the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), write to express our deep distress over your rescinding of an invitation accepted by Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ph.D., to be the holder of the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology for 2009-2010.

As we understand the case, Dr. Lance Nelson, Chair of the University of San Diego (USD) Department of Theology and Religious Studies, offered an initial, informal invitation to Professor Ruether to occupy the Portman Chair in a letter dated January 21, 2008. Negotiations were undertaken and a formal invitation was officially extended in a letter from Nicholas M. Healy, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, on April 30, 2008 requesting that Ruether indicate her acceptance, which she did. According to the Department’s Web page, it was "pleased to announce that Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether, leading Church historian and pioneering figure in Christian feminist theology, has accepted appointment to the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology for 2009-2010."

In mid-July, Professor Ruether received a call from Vice President Sullivan canceling the agreement allegedly because the donor of the chair had a "certain vision" that Ruether presumably did not share. Assistant Vice President for Public Affairs Pamela Gray Payton, speaking for USD, stated: "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."

We are deeply concerned by this turn of events both because it is insulting to Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether and because of what it portends for academic freedom in a Catholic institution. According to the official announcement of the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology, "The Portman Endowment allows the department to bring an eminent theologian to the University of San Diego for one or two semesters. As envisioned by the donor and Msgr. Portman, chairholders are to be distinguished theologians who think from within the Roman Catholic tradition while exploring and expressing the tradition in contemporary contexts."

Professor Ruether clearly satisfies this description as a Catholic scholar in good standing. While scholars might engage in critical dialogue with Ruether’s position on a variety of theological points—conduct that is wholly appropriate in an academic context—in fact, the Catholic tradition is broad and expansive, filled with theological differences and disagreements, but rich in its diversity. Academic freedom in Catholic institutions involves acceptance of and respect for such diversity.

We are dismayed that a decision made by the faculty, an offer officially extended by the dean and accepted by a professor, and publicized by the department would be overturned by university administrators for reasons that are unclear but seemingly ideological. We consider it unacceptable that any scholar, much less one of Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether’s world class status, would be treated in such a cavalier and disrespectful way by an institution. Of primary importance, we feel the chilling effect of the erosion of academic freedom that this case raises in a Catholic institution. We note that during his recent visit to the United States Pope Benedict XVI stated, "In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you."

We urge that you, on behalf of the University of San Diego, embrace one of the following remedies to this violation of the spirit of academic freedom:

1. The University of San Diego honor the offer made by Dean Healy to Professor Ruether to be the 2009-2010 holder of the Monsignor John R. Portman Chair in Roman Catholic Theology with an appropriate apology for this incident.

2. USD engage Professor Ruether to deliver the Portman Lecture on the matter of academic freedom in Catholic higher education. As a part of the commitment, she would remain on campus for a week of substantive discussion with faculty, students, administrators, and interested colleagues about what this means in the twenty-first century and how to operationalize it at USD.

            In either case, we urge USD to compensate Professor Ruether with the full payment originally negotiated and set forth in the formal invitation.  

            Thank you for your consideration of our concerns and proposed remedies. We look forward to a timely resolution lest not only the reputation of the University of San Diego but of all Catholic institutions that respect academic freedom suffer greatly.



Mary E. Hunt, Co-director, Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER)

Aisha Taylor, Executive Director, Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC)


USD Faculty Members:

Brian R. Clack

Kim Eherenman

Angelo R. Orona Alvarez

Maria Pilar Aquino

Harriet Baber

Susie Paulik Babka

Dwight Bean

Eren Branch

Michelle M. Camacho

Cynthia Caywood

Ellen Colangelo

J.A. Colombo

Jack Crumley

David Devine

Del Dickson

Mary Doak

Orlando Espin

Jane Friedman

Russell Fuller

John Halaka

Jerome Hall

Lawrence Gardepie

Michael Gonzalez

Michelle Grier

Kenneth Keith

Evelyn Kirkley

Patricia Kowalski

Eugene Labovitz

Gertrud Jaron Lewis

Luby Liao

Judith Liu

Sue Lowery

Gary Macy

Mitch Malachowski

Dan Moriarty

Noelle Norton

Rodney Peffer

Gail Perez

Linda Peterson

Ann Pirruccello

Patricia A. Plovanich

Jack W. Pope

Fred Miller Robinson

Daniel P. Sheehan

Lynne Small

Abraham Stoll

Karen Teel

Barton Thurber

Patricia S. Traylor

John Valois

Betsy Winters

Michele Magnin

James Weyant

Larry A. Williamson

Donald B. Peterson


Catholic Organizational Signers:

8th Day Center for Justice Women in Church and Society Committee – USA

A Critical Mass: Women Celebrating Eucharist – USA

Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church – USA

Boulder Women Eucharist – USA

Call to Action – USA

Catholic Diocese of One Spirit – USA

Catholics for a Changing Church – USA

Catholics for Choice – Canada

Catholics for Choice – USA

Catholic Women’s Ordination – United Kingdom

Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir – Brasil

Chicago Women-Church – USA

Coordinadora Nacional de Documentación y Publicaciones Red Universitaria Venezolana de Estudios de las Mujeres – Venezuela

CORPUS, National Association for an Inclusive Ministry – USA

Dignity USA

Droits et Libertés dans les Eglises/Femmes et Hommes en Eglise – France

Federation of Christian Ministries/Roman Catholic Faith Community Council – USA

Greater Cincinnati Women-Church – USA

Housetop/womenpriests.org – International

Kerk Hardop – Netherlands

Le Réseau Culture et foi, Québec – Canada

Miriam’s Circle – South Africa

National Coalition of American Nuns – USA

New Ways Ministry – USA

New Wine – United Kingdom

Noi Siamo Chiesa – Italy

Pax Christi Maine – USA

Roman Catholic Womenpriests – Canada

Roman Catholic Womenpriests – EuropeWest

Roman Catholic Womenpriests – USA

San Francisco Bay Area Women-Church – USA

Sisters Against Sexism Women-Church Community – USA

Sisters of Providence Congregation for Peace with Justice – USA

Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference – USA

Voice of the Faithful/New Jersey – USA

We Are Church – Austria

We Are Church – Denmark

We Are Church – Spain

We Are Church – United Kingdom

Women Word Spirit – The Voice of Catholic Women’s Network – USA

Women-Church Baltimore – USA


Prominent Scholars, Activists and USD Alumni:

Katie G. Cannon

Shannon Clarkson

Edwina Gateley

Ivone Gebara

Dieter T. Hessel

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz

Diann Neu

Anthony Padovano

Nancy Pineda-Madrid

Judith Plaskow

Jeanette Rodriguez

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Elsa Tamez

Emilie M. Townes

Traci C. West

Barbara Blain

Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune

Jeannine Gramick, SL

Frances Kissling

Donna Quinn, OP

Rev. Mary Ramerman

Beth Rindler, SFP

Sr. Christine Schenk, CSJ

Beverly O’Connor Bennett

Joanne Bray, WOC Board of Directors

Rachel Bundang

Barbra Calantas

Michael Sepidoza Campos

Cyra Akila Choudhury

Elizabeth J. Clarke

Dr. Mary Condren Th.D

Carol Coston, OP

Jane Dempsey Douglass

Sandra Duarte de Souza

Virginia Fabella, MM

Rev. Dr. Della Fahenstock

Marcia Falk

Mary McClintock Fulkerson

Mary Grey

Christine E. Gudorf

David Hay

Margaret Hebblethwaite

Rev. Dr. José R. Irizarry

Matthew Juelsgaard

Catherine Keller

Christine Ledesma

Sr. Mary John Mananzan, OSB

Joanna Manning

Margaret R. Miles

Alexina Murphy

Marysa Navarro, PhD

Maria José Fontelas Rosado Nunes

Dr. Kathryn Ott

Bertha Popeney

Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers

Dr. Marjorie Procter-Smith

Judy Rauner

Jane Carol Redmont

Mayra Rivera

Victoria Rue, Ph.D., WOC Board of Directors

Dr. Jennifer Rycenga

Barbara A. Peddie, PhD

Amanda Quantz

Amy Scanlon, WOC Board of Directors

Laura Singer, President of WOC Board of Directors

The Rev. Jeanette Stokes

David Sullivan

Dr. Margarita Suarez

Margaret Susan Thompson

Barbara B. Troxell

Lois Uttley

Dr. Jane Via

Dr. Val Webb

Theresa Yugar, WOC Board of Directors


More than 1800 individual signers

To view all signatures, click here