The Holy See and the Catholic University of Peru reach an agreement

While many issues of governance at the Peruvian university seem to have been resolved, there are still unanswered questions about management of property.

Four years ago, the conflict between the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) and the Catholic Church reached a high point, when then-Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone decreed that the university could no longer call itself pontifical or Catholic. However, after the election of Pope Francis, a new attempt to reach a solution was made. An agreement regarding one of the university’s problems with the Church was recently announced, and this has led to reforms of the PUCP’s statutes so that they will conform to the Holy See’s requirements.

The problem of the statute

The Catholic University of Peru was founded in 1917 by the French priest Jorge Dintilhac, SS.CC. and a group of laymen, with the approval of the archbishop of Lima and complying with canon law requirements. Its mission was to spread the light of the faith in times when positivist thought and atheism had become dominant in the country’s oldest institution of higher education, the University of San Marcos. “Under the protection of St. Rose of Lima, the Catholic University will start this year 1917, its work of moral and religious regeneration,” said Father Dintilhac.

Almost a hundred years later, the university has been involved in a series of controversies with the Catholic Church. One of them was about whether its statutes were appropriate for a Catholic institution. It must be said that the university has not had statutes approved by the Holy See since 1969, when Peru’s governing dictatorship passed a law with new regulations for universities. The new statutes, drafted by an internal assembly, received no approval from the Vatican. Since then, modifications have been made (mostly to comply with Peruvian law) and none received approval from the Church.

The main problem identified by the Holy See referred to the university’s government and the way rectors are elected—by an assembly and without involvement from the Church, contrary to what happens at other pontifical and Catholic universities. PUCP’s Grand Chancellor and archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, was in charge of one of the last requests from Church for the reform of the statutes. In 2012, the university’s assembly rejected a proposal (inspired in an old statute) which would have put an end to the problem. They did not want to grant the Grand Chancellor (who is responsible for the institution’s pastoral guidance) the authority to choose the rector among three candidates nominated by the assembly itself, arguing it would violate the university’s autonomy.

It was after the rejection of this proposal that the Vatican’s Secretary of State issued the decree prohibiting the university from calling itself either pontifical or Catholic. At the time, PUCP’s authorities said they would not comply with the decree. The conflict seemed to have entered into a deadlock when Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly resigned in 2013.

Francis weighs in

Months after his election, Pope Francis sent a letter to PUCP’s authorities stating that he was willing to find a definitive and consensual solution to the problem of the university’s statutes. For that purpose, he appointed a special group to study the case, formed by Cardinals Peter Erdö (who Benedict had already sent as apostolic visitor in 2011), Ricardo Ezzati, and Gérald Lacroix. After their visit to Lima, a group of Vatican-appointed canon lawyers, presided over by Cardinal Erdö, discussed possible solutions with the university’s authorities.

On September 10, 2016, PUCP officially announced it had reached an agreement with the Holy See regarding the statutes. A consensual reform proposal would be presented to the university’s assembly for its approval. Basically, it established that the rector continue to be elected by the university’s assembly, as long as it required that he be a faithful Catholic and that his election be confirmed by the Holy See. The proposal also included giving the Peruvian bishops a position on the university’s budget and electoral committees. After making the agreement public, the current rector said he had requested some things of the Vatican’s appointees. These were:

1.                   the recognition of the university as both pontifical and Catholic;

2.                   the authorization to offer theology curses, which had not been renewed by the Grand Chancellor since 2013 due to the conflict;

3.                   the attendance of the five Peruvian bishops who are members of the university’s assembly at its meetings, a practice which stopped in 2009;

4.                   the designation of a head of relations with the Church, a position that has not been filled for years;

5.                   the end of all ongoing lawsuits regarding the management of the assets inherited by the university from a prominent benefactor;

6.                   the appointment of a new Grand Chancellor.

Rome first granted the return of the bishops to the assembly’s meetings and, after Pope Francis personally asked Cardinal Cipriani if he was willing to step aside, it also agreed to a new Grand Chancellor. The latter was included in the reform proposal. If approved by the assembly, the statute would be recognized by the Holy See. Thus, the university would once again be both pontifical and Catholic, while the Grand Chancellor would no longer be the archbishop of Lima, but the president of the Peruvian Episcopal Conference. The new Grand Chancellor would authorize the teaching of theology courses by PUCP’s teachers and designate a head of relations with the Church as soon as possible.


On September 22, PUCP received the visit of Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. The cardinal presented the consensus proposal to the assembly and it received the support of the required majority on October 14. With the adequacy of the statute, one of the problems between the Catholic Church and PUCP has come to an end.

It is clear that the Holy See preferred to change its approach with regard to PUCP. Church officials will not have authority to choose the rector nor control the institution’s expenses. The bishops who will take part of the university’s government will not have the last word on such matters, but will now have the chance to speak up and persuade. This will be important, since some of PUCP’s authorities have suggested that the agreement will have few practical consequences. Whether similar approaches will be applied to other rebel universities under Francis’ papacy remains to be seen.

The success of the solution reached will depend on the faithfulness and creativity of Catholics involved in PUCP’s daily activities. According to Cardinal Versaldi, if this is done correctly, “then you see the ice melt, the walls come down.”

The lawsuits

Of the requests handed by PUCP’s authorities to the Holy See, one was not granted. This was the end of ongoing lawsuits between the university and the archbishop of Lima. The issue at hand is whether PUCP follows the will of its main benefactor, historian José de la Riva-Agüero y Osma, regarding the way in which the assets it inherited from him (including the property where its campus is located) are managed.

José de la Riva-Agüero was a prominent Peruvian intellectual and convert from atheism who died in 1944. He served as Peru’s Cabinet Chief and resigned his office due to the government’s support of non-fault divorce. He could have chosen to leave his assets to his alma mater, the then more than three-century-old University of San Marcos, but he chose Father Dintilhac’s new university. He preferred an institution inspired by the faith which, as he said the day he announced his conversion, made him reconquer harmony and peace.

Dr. Riva-Agüero’s testament says that the inherited assets must be managed through a special committee (which is named in his testament as a “perpetual administrative board”). This was initially formed by people known by him. Once they passed away, the members of the board had to be replaced by two persons, one named by the university and the other by the archbishop of Lima, leaving the casting vote to the archbishop. PUCP claims that the board’s duty ended 20 years after the historian’s death. The archbishop’s office claims that Riva-Agüero’s will was that the committee be perpetual. PUCP’s authorities say the Church violates the university’s property rights and autonomy; the archbishop argues it is his duty to comply with the will of Riva-Agüero, a man who trusted the Church to supervise the appropriate use of his assets, for the benefit of faithful Catholic education.

PUCP’s new Vatican-approved statutes explicitly say that the management of assets inherited by the university will follow “the provisions and conditions […] stipulated by the donors.” However, it has been announced that the problem will remain unsolved, since the university insists on its interpretation of the testament. To some extent, it is reasonable that the issue remains open, not because Cardinal Cipriani is some sort of greedy anti-Francis—as some PUCP authorities sadly (and erroneously) have continued to portray him—but because it would make little sense negotiate Riva-Agüero’s last will.

May the Catholic University of Peru, by intercession of its patron saint, Rose of Lima, reconquer harmony and peace through the light of the faith, thus being true to its founding mission.

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About Daniel Masnjak 0 Articles
Daniel Masnjak studies law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and is a regular contributor at the Peruvian news site