Ecumenical Milestone

Roman Catholic nun settles in as dean at San Anselmo seminary

Brent Ainsworth
Posted: 09/04/2009 11:22:34 PM PDT
Marin Independent Journal

Elizabeth Liebert, a Roman Catholic nun, has been named dean of San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo. (IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel)

Elizabeth Liebert is modest about her low-key fame since becoming the first Roman Catholic sister to serve as a dean of a Presbyterian seminary.

"It's a very pedestrian appointment, sorry to say," said Liebert, one day after greeting new students during a reception at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo.

Liebert, who replaced Jana Childers in the role on June 30, will serve a three-year term as the [. . .] dean at the graduate school in San Anselmo as well as vice president for academic affairs. She will be officially installed as dean Oct. 4 in a private dinner and reception.

She is not new to campus. She is a professor of spiritual life and a member of the doctoral faculty at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley [. . .]. She is described as a pastoral theologian with a special interest in Christian spirituality.
"We are particularly pleased to be attaining an historic ecumenical milestone," seminary President Phil Butin said. "Dr. Liebert's deanship is a sterling example of SFTS's thoroughgoing commitment to ecumenical theological education."

Father Joe Eagan of nearby St. Anselm Catholic Church said Liebert has given several lectures at the church that were well received.

"I'm very pleased to hear this. She is a most capable person," Eagan said. "I would guess the Archbishop (George Niederauer) is pleased. He is a very ecumenical-minded person himself."

Liebert became the first Roman Catholic to hold a tenured faculty position at the seminary in 1987 when she became director of the program in Christian spirituality. She helped found the seminary's master of divinity concentration in Christian spirituality, the diplomas in the art of spiritual direction and spiritual formation studies, and the special emphasis in Christian spirituality in the doctor of ministry.

Liebert is a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, a congregation dedicated to educational and pastoral ministries. The order was founded in Quebec in 1843 and operates several schools, including Holy Names [University] in Oakland. Many of the [1600]-plus sisters and associates are social advocates in the field of human rights.

A turning point for the Catholic church came in the mid-1960s with the Documents of the II Vatican Council. Liebert said the documents shifted the culture of the church and invited communities of sisters to "revitalize and refresh" their ministries. That set into motion more ecumenical practices and representatives of the Catholic church working with other denominations within the Christian faith.

"When I applied for my position here in 1987, it was relatively uncontroversial for a Catholic sister to be employed by an institution that wasn't Catholic," Liebert said, "but it took 20 years to get to that point. I would say this would've been unthinkable before Vatican II, but in the U.S. now this probably wouldn't raise many eyebrows.

"It's such a complex picture when you talk about different parts of the world. The winds are changing and ecumenical conversations are taking different turns. This wouldn't happen in Northern Ireland."

As dean, Liebert will scale back her teaching duties and become more involved in the fiscal challenges faced by the seminary. On May 6, it announced it was reducing staff by 22 percent and selling some of its off-campus property to help cover the loss of endowment assets. The moves were planned to raise about $1.6 million.

"I'm confident that as a smaller institution we can deliver a very fine educational product," Liebert said, "but we have to rethink how we're doing it."

Religion is becoming "differently important" for people today, Liebert said. Large-scale atheism is a modern phenomenon at the same time that there is a rise in fundamentalism, she said.

"It's interesting when you're talking about the education of the future leaders of the church," she said. "We talk about this a lot. Culturally we are in a large shift about what is the role of any institution in our lives, whether you're talking about religious practice and participating in churches or other organizations. As a phenomenon of culture, religion is being re-examined in our communities, and that happens periodically. You usually see an increase in spirituality that is sometimes kind of rootless, but if you follow it for a while they sometimes settle down somewhere. Religion is not dying out."