A protest letter, dated 21 March, and signed by 155 prominent Catholics, among them academics, editors, authors and clergy from around the world, expressed "serious concern at the disciplinary action taken by the Society of Jesus against Father Joseph Fessio" and declared that "thousands of faithful Catholics are shocked and dismayed by the action against Father Fessio, who has forthrightly and consistently defended the Catholic faith."
The letter was sent to top Vatican officials, including Cardinal Ratzinger, to Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco, Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the world leader of the Jesuits, and Fr Thomas Smolich SJ, provincial of the California Province of the Society of Jesus.
It said: "This disciplinary action was apparently triggered by Father Fessio's effort to start a small college that would be explicitly faithful to Catholic teaching. The determination to undermine his initiative can only strengthen the conviction that the highest Jesuit authorities tolerate open dissent and opposition to the Church within their own academic institutions."
The letter called for Father Fessio's reinstatement.
Earlier, two weeks after the announcement by Ignatius Press (San Francisco) of the creation of Campion College, Father Fessio was informed by his provincial, Father Smolich, that he was barred from having any role with the college and would be reassigned as an assistant chaplain to a 40-bed hospital nearly 400 miles away.
Campion College was set to become the latest success story for the Jesuit priest who had founded Ignatius Press, the St Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco, Catholic World Report, Catholic Dossier and the Adoremus Society. Before Campion College even opened its doors, three universities had agreed to accept its credits, Cardinal Christoph Schšnborn, editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, had praised it and the new college was attracting students and donors.
Father Fessio's abrupt transfer followed a controversy that had begun at the University of San Francisco's Great Books program - the St Ignatius Institute - just over a year ago. Father Stephen Privett SJ ended his first 2001 semester as the University of San Francisco's new President by firing longtime St Ignatius Institute Director John Galten and assistant director John Hamlon. In protest, all six core faculty members of the Institute resigned and an appeal was made to the Vatican about their concerns.
In January 2002, the Congregation for Catholic Education sent a letter to the university listing conditions under which the Institute should proceed. Father Privett claimed that the letter was "Vatican approval" of his actions.
But less than a month after the Vatican letter, Father Fessio and Ignatius Press announced that Campion College would open a half-block away from the University of San Francisco.
Next, in a letter dated 11 March, the California Jesuit provincial, Father Smolich, notified Father Fessio that "Campion College was not and is not part of your assignment from the Society of Jesus, as determined by me as your provincial. You are to have no role, public or private, in Campion College, just as Campion has no relationship with the Society of Jesus."
Fr Smolich then informed Fr Fessio he was to be transferred to Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte, California, effective from 1 May.
Father Fessio was permitted to remain director of Ignatius Press for the time being, but Fr Smolich warned, "if your work as director of Ignatius Press cannot be kept separate from the affairs of Campion College I likely will not permit you to continue with Ignatius Press."
Father Fessio responded: "I am at peace ... I am a Jesuit. I will obey. I will strive to fulfill both the letter and the spirit of this new mission."
He later commented: "I have a chance to do something that I didn't want to do. I'm looking forward to doing what I have been asked to do as a Jesuit. That will make me a better Jesuit and will be pleasing to God."
Commentators outside the Jesuit Order, and even the Catholic Church, were less philosophical. Stanley Kurtz of National Review declared: "More than anything else, the attack on the renowned Father Fessio by his own Jesuit order gives dramatic proof of the extent to which Catholic liberal education is endangered by political correctness from within the Church itself.
"I am not a Catholic," he added, "but I am a defender of classic liberal education, and of the right of traditional religion to hold a place in such an education. The spectre of an ostensibly Catholic university destroying the single small centre of traditional Catholic learning remaining on its campus seemed to me to embody the death of fairness and true intellectual diversity in the contemporary academy."
Jonathan Kirsch, reviewing a recent book on the Jesuits in the Los Angeles Times, noted that the order in the United States was in demographic free fall, with former Jesuits now outnumbering active Jesuits, while the more orthodox Jesuits who stay and seek to recover the order's original spark find themselves in exile.
It was ironic, he said, that the dissenters in the order, who rose to power through disobedience to papal authority, are now using their power to repress orthodox Jesuits like Father Fessio, lest their revolution inside the Catholic Church in the US "grind to a halt".