I was in London last week and all the Catholic talk was of the impending closure of Heythrop College, the Jesuit school of philosophy and theology that has been a constituent component of the University of London since 1970 and that has existed in some form or other for exactly 400 years. Evidently this is a decision that the British Province of the Society of Jesus took only reluctantly and a significanbt blow to lay theological education in the United Kingdom. But why and how it came to this is, if not exactly shrouded in mystery, quite hard for an outsider to determine.
The venerable London Tablet had no doubt that the problem was caused by the Jesuits' unwillingness to part with more of their legendary cash. In what seemed like a foray into the worst kind of tabloid journalisn, The Tablet asked on its front page if the Jesuits were "bailing out" of Britain, listing several other Jersuit institutions that had been closed or transferred in recent years. The body of the article explained the failure of merger talks between Heythrop and St. Mary's University iin Twickenham, west of London, a less prestigious but more comprehensive institution, as Jesuit reluctance to part with even more of their wealth than they had already poured into keeping Heythrop afloat in recent years. Quoting a figure of about $800 million of investments and a campus in upscale Kensington worth at least $350 million, the implication was that the Jesuits were being incredibly ungenerous.
The disturbingly one-sided Tablet account needs to be questioned, though this is made more difficult by the tight-lipped silence on the Jesuit side. In the first place, the demise of Heythrop is a result of the failure of talks with St. Mary's, but there were two sides to these conversations. Both sides wanted a continuing Jesuit presence and probably the Heythrop name. But no one seems to be saying what it was that St Mary's wanted that Heythrop wouldn't or couldn't supply. Did St. Mary's have its eye on the valuable Kensington campus, which is owned by the Society and leased to Heythrop? That would surely raise the profile of St. Mary's, but to what purposes would it be put, and who would pay the rent? And what was the cash price that St. Mary's was asking in order to cement the agreement? The Tablet was quiet on all this, but the question remains: while it is clear that St. Mary's would benefit significantly from the deal, it is not all clear what the Jesuits stood to gain. The Tablet blamed the Jesuits. A more responsible article might have questioned whether St. Mary's didn't overreach itself, wasn't even being just a little bit greedy, and so contributed to what all must agree is a tragic loss to British theological education. It seems that the Jesuits intend to find a way to continue educating candidates for the priesthood, but no more laypeople. The responsibility for this deplorable development cannot be laid, as The Tablet seems to wish to do, entirely upon the Society of Jesus which, as far as I can tell, has no plans to abandon the United Kingdom.
[Full disclosure: I received a Licentiate in Philosophy from Heythrop Pontifical Athenaeum, the immediately previous incarnation of Heythrop College in London, and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Heythrop College of the University of London.]