The tall, dark wooden doors of the St. Ignatius Church are open every day from dusk ’til dawn, yet a relatively small fraction of the USF’s students are seen among the pews. Metal crosses decorate the front walls of many classrooms in the Lone Mountain building, though only a handful can be seen in any of the newer classrooms down the hill. The prevalence of the school’s religious identity appears to have slowly but surely weakened on campus over the years.
A majority of students are mainly attracted to USF because of its liberal and open-minded reputation. While the University is proud of its close connection to the progressive city of San Francisco, it also has a deep Jesuit Catholic identity. At times, it’s hard for some people, students especially, to reconcile these two aspects of USF.
As she cautiously sipped her freshly brewed latte in the cafeteria in the University Center, Consuelo Reyes, a sophomore communications major, explained her initial attraction to USF. Reyes said, “[I could] see honesty, progressiveness, sincerity, and integrity rooted in the values that this school had when it came to education.”
At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, USF President the Rev. Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. spoke at the annual faculty and staff meeting. During his talk, he proposed a conversation on the Jesuit university experience. In an email response to questions about his proposal, Fitzgerald wrote, “[I] asked deans and directors to have conversations with their team members about how well we are fulfilling the vision statement that we articulated back in 2008.” He explained that the first round of conversations would discuss USF’s Catholic and Jesuit tradition while the other “four essential features” of this tradition would be part of later conversations.
As director of USF’s University Ministry, Julia Dowd has been involved in these conversations at USF. She said that although Catholicism gets a bad rap in society these days, “It’s important to claim who we actually are because if we don’t, other people get to claim what ‘religious’ looks like.”
A year ago, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone sparked conflict with many local Catholics with his decision to require teachers at Catholic high schools to sign a morality clause that depicts sex outside of marriage and same sex relationships as “evil.”
In opposition to the archbishop’s edict, 100 prominent Roman Catholic donors and church members, including many Catholic educators, former Catholic Charities board members and executives, and the father of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady Jr., published a full-page open letter in the San Francisco Chronicle that asked Pope Francis to replace Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. The signers wrote, “Archbishop Cordileone has fostered an atmosphere of division and intolerance.”
Among the signers of the letter was Charles Geschke, whose family name is on USF’s Geschke Center and who served USF’s Board of Trustees for about 18 years.
Via a phone conversation, Geschke who went to a Jesuit high school, a Jesuit university, and taught at a Jesuit college for about five years, said he signed the letter because, “As a lifelong Catholic and very involved in Catholic causes, I didn’t feel he [Cordileone] represented my viewpoints on what it means to be a Christian in a pluralistic world.”
The archbishop’s action has made it more difficult for some students to associate with Catholicism because of his exclusivity. When asked about the significance of Cordileone’s stance, Reyes said, “It’s important to recognize and respect each individual student’s decision to either engage religiously throughout their academic career or not.”
In addition to the archbishop sending a bold and conservative message to the San Francisco Catholic community, last summer Fitzgerald faced a situation which seemed to represent the tension between Catholic principles and his own apparently more liberal views. Fitzgerald attended the San Francisco Pride Parade with others from USF in support of LGBTQ+ members. This happened the same week he removed a tweet an assistant in the university’s communications office sent out under USF’s Twitter account in support of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage the law of the land. When the tweet was criticized by conservative Catholic groups, Fitzgerald issued a statement that said the tweet did not reflect the views of USF. This caused some confusion and upset among USF students: if even their own president was having trouble expressing to his multi-layered identity, how were they supposed to have an easier time?
“It’s clearly a sensitive and relevant topic, I mean for students for faculty for staff, everyone, for Father Fitzgerald. Right?” said Conor Smith, a USF resident minister. “So I think it’s a great question to be asking like where does the university stand on some of these issues and is the university’s stance necessarily reflective of the student body and the staff and faculty who work here.”
The identity formation dilemma for students at USF is nuanced and multifaceted. Attempting to address all parts of a student’s identity and not compromise their progressive ideals (for those who have them) is not an easy task for a Jesuit university to accomplish, though it is critical to acknowledge the multiple layers of students identities — which seems to be the goal of these conversations. The root of the tension for USF lies in balancing students’ identities with modern times, all while maintaining the core Jesuit and Catholic education principles.
Interviews with various members of USF’s community revealed a range of reactions to this tension. Reyes explained her battle with this tension and her concerns about coming across as hypocritical. Although she is currently not practicing Catholicism as she has in the past, she is worried that if she were to return to practicing, her progressive values would conflict with Catholic rules.
Sophomore media studies major Jennifer Kang said she hasn’t experienced any sort of religious pressures at USF. “I never felt like an outsider as a non-religious person,” said Kang, who also observed, “USF is pretty conscious of change and current events and is willing to hold important conversations about it.”
Connor Smith, who worked for a USF volunteer program in the Philippines after he graduated from Boston College, said, ”Working with Jesuits and working and going to school at Jesuit establishments — that is the educational model and framework that includes things that have become really important to me.”
Smith took a moment to share his own complexities of having a Catholic identity and being a gay man, since he believes the church’s conservative approach to social issues will carry on. “You work for a university that can’t necessarily ‘come out’ so to speak and support gay issues or any other issues that the church is terrible at addressing,” said Smith. After a moment of reflection, Smith shrugged and sighed, saying, “To keep that identity as both progressive and a Catholic is hard.”
Photo courtesy of Racquel Gonzales/Foghorn