Names, Property, and Other Things Worth Arguing About

The school’s initials at the campus’s main entrance//Wikipedia

The New York Times today had a brief but interesting article, “Catholic Church and University in Peru Fight Over Name.” Long story short, the Vatican and Lima’s archbishop feel that Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú) is not sufficiently Catholic or Pontifical, and the administrators of Pontifical Catholic University of Peru feel that the Church should mind its own damn business.

Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, Archbishop of Lima//Wikipedia

The article is frustratingly vague on the substance of the claims (and they switch back and forth between making it about the name and the university’s property and hint at issues around administrative control), but it’s hard to read it and not think of Talal Asad, who famously argued that universal definitions of religion are impossible, and that we should instead see all religions not as abstract systems of symbols (à la Geertz), but as the product of negotiated power relations.

The argument in this case is clearly multifaceted; it’s about who has the right to control this Catholic university and who has the right to the money it makes:

“They’ve told us, ‘Hand over your money and obey,’ ” the university president, Marcial Rubio, told a gathering of students and faculty members.


The church says the school is under the jurisdiction of canon law, which gives church leaders the right to approve the appointment of the university president and oversee its finances. The church also says that the will of a major benefactor who died in 1944 gives it additional claim to the school’s holdings, which include a profitable shopping mall and other real estate.

Mac Gregor building on campus, used for administrative functions//Wikipedia

University officials say the school is independent. The university president is chosen by an assembly of school administrators, faculty members and students, as well as a small number of church leaders. University officials disagree with the church’s interpretation of the will, saying they alone control the school’s finances.

But the argument is also left-right Peruvian politics and who gets to decide what is “Catholic”. While the Times says, “The university is closely associated with liberation theology, a movement that mixes leftist politics with religion and views the Christian faith from the perspective of poor people,” it’s also clear that many, including the Archbishop of Lima and the Vatican Secretary of State feel the school is not being run in a way that is “compatible with the discipline and morals of the [C]hurch.”

“They are not currently adhering to Catholic values at that university,” Father Gaspar said. “They have shown rebelliousness to the ecclesiastical authorities, disobedience. This has caused a scandal among faithful Catholics.”

My favorite part is the bit at the end, where the article acknowledges that this is part of a broader debate in Peruvian society:

The university is often associated with what conservatives mockingly call “caviars,” a term roughly equivalent to “limousine liberals,” meant to evoke the image of well-off leftists who maintain a comfortable lifestyle while espousing politically correct notions of equality and class consciousness.

In turn, the caviars describe the cardinal and his allies as being part of what they call the “D.B.A.,” the initials in Spanish for what amounts to stupid and thuggish right wing.

With religion, controversies are rarely clear cut matters dealing with only a single, “purely theological” debate (I mean, hell, this week alone we have had religious controversies in America over healthcare and chicken restaurants).


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