Cardinal accused of undermining academic freedom

The barring of Jorge Costadoat from teaching theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, the country’s largest and most prestigious private university, has sparked a debate about how free academics are to express their views.

Late last month, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati removed Professor Costadoat from the Catholic University’s faculty of theology. In a letter dated 24 March to the university’s Superior Council, he justified his decision by stating that Costadoat’s academic path “included unwise affirmations that blurred the magisterial teaching of the Church…”

As the university’s Grand Chancellor, Ezzati is in charge of the faculty of theology and is empowered to decide on appointments on the grounds that some students later become priests, as is the case in all theology faculties of Catholic universities.

Costadoat, a Jesuit like the Pope who had taught theology at the university for over 20 years, said in a letter to leading newspaper El Mercurio on 30 March “that he did not know what he was being accused of”.

The Cardinal’s failure to provide precise arguments on Costadoat’s poor academic performance led to speculations that his ousting was related to the Jesuit’s progressive views on interreligious dialogue, the social mission of the Catholic Church and his call for freedom of thought in Catholic universities and for the relaxation of the church’s views on sexual morality.

Costadoat had also been under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for nearly a decade due to his writings on liberation theology, which emphasises action for social justice and against poverty but is characterised by critics as a blend of Marxism and Christianity.

Academic freedom undermined?

That Ezzati’s action had undermined academic freedom was the main argument levelled by political leaders, commentators, academics and Catholic University students whose writings flooded the press and social media.

Costadoat joined the chorus in support of academic freedom when he wrote in his blog that “the decision hurts me and the university. I do not believe that a university can teach without freedom.”

In a letter to El Mercurio on 31 March he added that his supporters at the Catholic University “believe a precedent of censure has been established, which is bad for the university”.

“I know teachers who feel under surveillance for their way of life or their beliefs… They are in fear,” he wrote.

According to Carlos Peña, director of Universidad Diego Portales, one of Chile’s largest private universities, Ezzati was empowered to dismiss Costadoat but had no good reason for doing so.

“Academic freedom is a right [for university members]… to reason critically, investigate and teach, without sanctions to their research or teaching… Therefore, the opinion held by academics can never be the reason for excluding them from the university.”


A public declaration by some 200 university teachers and opinion leaders went the same way: “This measure [Costadoat’s dismissal] raises doubts over the university mission of the Catholic University and undermines freedom.”

“The Pope asked during the Synod on the Family, held recently, ‘to speak freely, to listen with humility’. The Cardinal does not allow this in the faculty of theology.”

Ezzati attempted to quell the uproar in a letter to El Mercurio on 3 April, stating that Costadoat, who taught Christology, had not followed the programme of study and had failed to cover essential contents of the course. Therefore, to expect him to do so was not “to disregard his academic freedom but to demand from him a minimum of rigour”.

Several student bodies at the Catholic University are collecting signatures to demand Costadoat’s reinstatement and have organised protests.

“I fail to understand Ezzati’s decision,” said Ignacio Oliva, who studies engineering and for the academic certificate in theology. “It is just in these times that we need teachers who invite students to raise fundamental problems.”

Costadoat’s dismissal from the faculty of theology has left Ignacio Sánchez, rector of the Catholic University, in an uncomfortable position. Though insiders say he knew that Ezzati had qualms about Costadoat, he was not told by the Cardinal that he was taking action.

Neither did the Cardinal talk the matter over with the members of the faculty of theology.

Sánchez’s leadership has been undermined at a sensitive moment. He has just been appointed as rector for a second term and the long-awaited higher education reform bill is going to parliament in the second semester of this year.

Sánchez has been championing the view that the government must fund non-state universities that have a ‘public mission’, such as his own.

“But now it can be asked: why finance a university that says it is public but with this type of decision shows it isn’t?” commented a rector from another university to an evening paper, La Segunda, on 2 April.