The announcement that the Vatican has given the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru until April 8 to comply with Church norms or lose its status as both a pontifical and Catholic institution came as no surprise to Peruvians. 

Pontifical University of Peru
A view of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Newscom photo

In fact, the Vatican statement, made public Feb. 21 by the Vatican Press Office, is just the latest dramatic chapter in a saga that has pitted the authorities of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru — known as PUCP — against Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, archbishop of Lima. For years, the conflict has made news in the pages of the local press, the halls of academia and in the courtrooms. 

The Vatican statement reads: “Given the evident importance of safeguarding the Catholic identity of the university, the cardinal secretary of state [Tarcisio Bertone] requested that the competent academic authorities present the statutes for approval by Easter Sunday, April 8.” 

The new statutes must comply with the Church’s guidelines for Catholic universities laid out by the 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. 

Catholic identity and loss

The Pontifical Catholic University of Peru was founded in 1917 by a wealthy Peruvian Catholic intellectual, José de la Riva Agüero, who donated land and money to create a high-quality institution of higher education that could compete with the then-300-year-old San Marcos State University, which was dominated by agnostic, anti-Catholic faculty. 

In 1938, Riva Agüero stated in his will that the Archdiocese of Lima should always be represented on the PUCP board of directors. Furthermore, he specified that if the university ceased to be Catholic, its land and trust fund would go to the archdiocese. 

The university eventually became the alma mater of major Catholic intellectuals and politicians during a period of almost 50 years. But as with most Catholic institutions in the country, it did not remain unchanged during the hectic events of the 1968 Peruvian leftist revolution and its aftermath. 

During the 1970s and ’80s, the school grew dramatically in size and secular prestige. But it also departed from its core Catholic principles and promoted a growing independence from Church authorities. 

In 1994, Salomon Lerner Febres, then university president, changed the school’s statutes to remove it from the authority of Lima’s archbishop.  

Rising tensions

Cardinal Cipriani
Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, Archbishop of Lima, Peru.

In January 1999, Juan Luis Cipriani was appointed archbishop of Lima. 

As the university’s supreme chancellor, he asked the PUCP to “review and correct” practices affecting its Catholic identity, especially in its social sciences department, which publicly supported legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage. 

From that moment, the relationship between the university and the cardinal became tense, and at times openly hostile. 

In 2006, the cardinal asked then-PUCP president Luis Guzmán Barrón to report on the economic situation of the university. Guzmán Barrón rejected the request, arguing that the 1994 revision made the PUCP financially independent from the cardinal. 

Cardinal Cipriani said that the changes made in 1994 were illegal under civil and canon law, and claimed the right to participate in the governance of the university. 

In March 2007, the PUCP decided to sue the archdiocese, seeking recognition of its autonomy. That October, a judge dismissed the lawsuit. 

The tense relationship was further strained when the PUCP gave an honorary doctorate to Gianni Vattimo, an Italian philosopher noted for his proposal of relativism and his militant promotion of gay rights. The move was described by Catholic pundits as an affront to Pope Benedict XVI, whose pontificate has been branded by his constant rejection of what he calls “the dictatorship of relativism.” 

After losing further legal appeals, the university decided in May 2009 to bring its case to the country’s highest legal body, the Constitutional Court. 

In July 2010 the court declared that the university could not ignore the will of Riva Agüero, and was obliged to recognize the right of the archdiocese to participate in the administration of the university. 

That same year, the cardinal asked the Vatican to intervene. 

Apostolic visitation

Last September, the Vatican announced that Cardinal Peter Erdo, archbishop of Budapest, Hungary, would carry out an apostolic visitation of the university. He arrived in Lima on Dec. 5, and met with Cardinal Cipriani, current PUCP president Marcial Rubio, and several bishops and university officials. 

The conclusions of the visit were presented to Rubio by Cardinal Bertone during the Feb. 21 meeting at the Vatican. None of the parties made any comments in Rome. 

But in Lima, the communications director of the PUCP, Martín Paredes, issued a not-so-promising statement. “Cardinal Bertone’s letter makes no mention of the decision of the University Assembly, our highest level of government, to not approve the amendments to the university’s statutes because it would be in conflict with its autonomy,” the statement said. 

Positive response ‘unlikely’

Fernan Altuve, a Peruvian expert in civil and canon law, told Our Sunday Visitor that the most significant change the PUCP would need to make to comply with Ex Corde Ecclesiae would be to provide real decision-making power to the archbishop of Lima. 

“The university’s president is currently elected by delegates from the faculty, the students and the workers. In the future, they should elect a [short list of candidates] out of which the archbishop of Lima would pick the president,” Altuve said. 

“The university’s refusal to comply with the Vatican request would result in losing the right to use the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘pontifical’ in its name, and more importantly, it would mean that the land would revert back to the Archdiocese of Lima,” he said. 

Although neither the university nor the archdiocese are speaking publicly, a source at the university told OSV, on the condition of anonymity, that a positive response to the Vatican’s request “is very unlikely.” 

A source at the archdiocese said “we wish for the best, but are prepared for the worst.” 

“In the worst-case scenario, the archdiocese will probably not pursue the material goods involved. Unlike what the university leaders have been saying, this is not about money, it never was. This is all about a Catholic identity that has to be there, or the name has to go.” 

Alejandro Bermudez is editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency and ACI Prensa.