By Mitra Taj
(Reuters) - One of Peru's top universities says it thinks maneuvers by the conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei are behind the school's high-profile falling out with the Vatican.
In a dispute that could drag Peru and the Vatican into a diplomatic spat, the Catholic Church ordered the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) in a July letter to drop the words "pontifical" and "Catholic" from the official name it has been using for more than 60 years.
The university, which was founded in 1917 and is widely regarded as the country's most progressive institution of higher education, has refused to comply with the order. The Vatican says it will press its case with Peru's foreign ministry.
Vatican representatives say they have spent years trying to persuade the university to comply with Church laws and that a large financial donation the school received should be managed in accordance with those.
Efrain Gonzales, vice rector of the university, claims the archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Luis Cipriani, has tried to meddle in the university's affairs.
"Monsignor Cipriani ... is the most well-known cardinal of Opus Dei, and obviously everyone knows Opus Dei has a political agenda," Gonzales said. "We think this is part of the plan they have. So of course the archbishop uses all of his influence to take control of this very good university."
Cipriani, who holds the largely ceremonial post of grand chancellor of the university, is one of only a couple of Opus Dei priests who have been promoted to cardinal.
Opus Dei, or "God's Work" in Latin, is a conservative group made mostly of non-clerics whose guiding principle is that people can become saintly by pursuing their ordinary lives.
Critics say it has a conservative political agenda, which the group denies.
Natale Amprimo, Cipriani's lawyer, dismissed the notion that Opus Dei or Cipriani played a role in the Vatican's order.
"The idea that the cardinal (Cipriani) controls the Holy See's secretary of state, and controls the pope — they've created this whole fiction to try to justify what can't be justified," Amprimo told Reuters.
Opus Dei became a part of popular culture, with the novel and Hollywood movie "The Da Vinci Code" feeding conspiracy theories that the group has a hand in running the world.
The decree to modify the university's name is the latest chapter in Cipriani's decade-long struggle with the school, once a hotbed of the left-leaning "liberation theology."
Cipriani, in a recent interview on local radio RPP, addressed his critics: "I would ask them in all humility, 'Do you identify with the Church? No? Then what are you doing in this university?'"
DISCIPLINED POPULAR PRIEST
Cipriani is known for being outspoken. He defended now-jailed former President Alberto Fujimori's harsh crackdown on leftist rebels in the 1990s and recently disciplined a popular priest for expressing support for gay and clerical marriage.
The National Catholic Register reported that one of the Church's objections to the university was the granting of honorary degrees to a gay postmodern philosopher and to one of the founders of the Spanish constitution who was critical of the Church.
The university said it will not make decisions based on Church law and says its name is protected under Peruvian law. The Church says that is unacceptable.
"The Holy See will have to go to the Peruvian foreign ministry to inform them about this ex-Catholic University's rebellion," said Luis Gaspar, a member of the ecclesiastical tribunal in Peru.
President Ollanta Humala, who has a degree from the university, has kept quiet on the controversy in predominantly Catholic Peru. Taking sides with either popular Peruvian institution could put his administration in an awkward position.
Some young Peruvians have taken to social media sites to jokingly demand Pope Benedict XVI drop the title "papa" - the Spanish word for both "pope" and "potato" - "because potatoes are originally from Peru."
A few Church leaders here have voiced opposition to the Vatican's move. Luis Bambaren, the former president of Peru's bishops conference, said Cipriani and the Church should back off and stop pursuing its assets.
"All of that is property of the university, and it should be used to provide quality education," he said.
The Peruvian church has been divided since liberation theologists urged Catholic clergy to take an active role in improving the lot of the poor in the 1960s. Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the founder's of the movement, taught at the university for years and drew other Peruvian clergy to his philosophy over the decades.
Just as Cipriani took charge in Lima, Gutierrez joined the Dominican order - distancing himself from the conservative cardinal's direct authority.
Conservative leaders have won significant appointments in Peru in recent years. Eleven bishops in Peru's 48-member bishops conference belong to Opus Dei or a kindred group called the Sacerdotal Society of Santa Cruz, said Luis Enrique Cam, communications director for Opus Dei in Peru. He denied that Opus Dei has a political agenda.
Kevin Vega, one of the more than 17,000 students who attend the university, said students want the name left unchanged.
"The students want autonomy," he said.
(Additional reporting By Reuters TV; Editing by Terry Wade and Vicki Allen)