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BC eyes divinity school merger

Brighton campus would be home

Boston College, moving to strengthen its Catholic identity and take advantage of its recently acquired real estate in Brighton, is exploring a merger with the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, a divinity school in Harvard Square that prepares Jesuit and Capuchin priests.

The consolidation would be unusual and reflects the increasing challenges facing Catholic seminaries because of the dwindling number of men seeking to become priests. Weston, which is one of two Jesuit theology schools in the United States, currently has about 240 students, of whom half are lay people.

The benefits to Boston College are primarily academic. Weston would become part of a new school of theology and ministry at Boston College and would bring to BC a number of prominent theologians who would shore up the university's Catholic studies offerings as Boston College, like other Catholic universities, is under scrutiny from bishops and others concerned about its Catholic identity. The merger would also add a number of Jesuit priests and seminarians to Boston College, which boasts of being home to the largest Jesuit community in the world.

For Weston, the move would provide financial security and access to the considerable support and resources of a large university. The school would also benefit from the national name recognition of Boston College.

In a joint interview yesterday, the presidents of Boston College and Weston characterized the merger talks as serious but preliminary. They said there are numerous details, including financial issues, to be worked out, and they expect to make a final decision by June. The merger would require the approval of the institutions' boards as well as of the superior general, the top official of the Society of Jesus, which is the formal name of the Jesuit order, in Rome.

"We would be stronger, more effective, more capable of serving the church, if we were one, rather than two," said the Rev. Robert Manning, president of Weston.

Manning said Weston would sell its valuable holdings in Cambridge, which include three buildings on about 12,000 square feet of land in Harvard Square. Weston also owns a student residence in Harvard Square. The main parcel is assessed at $1.1 million, according to the Cambridge assessor's office, but such properties are often undervalued because they have been owned by tax-exempt institutions.

"Every freestanding theological school is fragile, either from the point of view of finances or enrollment or church support, and even though we're in good financial shape now, that danger is always down the line, so consolidation really would guarantee our future," Manning said. "But we wouldn't be coming here as beggars. We'd be coming here with a good endowment and with an astonishingly good faculty."

The president of Boston College, the Rev. William P. Leahy, said that if the merger takes place, Weston could move into St. William's Hall, a Brighton building that BC purchased this summer from the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. The university's use of St. William's Hall, as well as several other buildings purchased from the archdiocese, must be approved by the city of Boston, but the proposal to use the building for academics would probably be more favorably received by neighbors than other possible uses, such as student housing. BC hopes to unveil a master plan for the entire 43-acre site next year.

Leahy said the earliest the move could take place would be September 2006. Along with Weston, the new school of theology and ministry would include BC's Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, which includes lay students as well as priests and members of religious orders, and the Church in the 21st Century project, which is examining the issues underlying the sexual abuse crisis.

"Their faculty coming over here will certainly enhance the theological offerings of BC," Leahy said. "We want to carry out our mission as Jesuits, and we'd like to be as efficient as possible in the way we use personnel, library, and space."

Boston College is a Catholic university with a large theology department and a student body that is estimated to be 70 percent Catholic. But the university operates independently of the church hierarchy, and there has been occasional tension between the academic freedom and free-wheeling debate that university officials zealously promote and the doctrinal orthodoxy that church leaders seek to defend. In the mid-1980s, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, then the archbishop of Boston, pointedly questioned Boston College's commitment to Catholicism, and in 1999 the Catholic bishops of the United States approved a plan, which has since been largely ignored, to require Catholic theologians at Catholic universities to seek approval of their teaching from local bishops. Most recently, Boston College launched its Church in the 21st Century project, which has encouraged discussion of topics such as the role of women in the church, the authority of bishops, and homosexuality, which are rarely discussed publicly by church officials.

Boston College and Weston have a shared history -- Weston was affiliated with Boston College from 1959 to 1974 -- and the two faculties collaborate in assessing the work of graduate theology students.

Officials of the two schools have discussed a merger off and on for the last 14 years, but formal talks began last week.

"This is very early in the process, but the [BC] board has very high regard for Weston, and we think that it would be very attractive to the future offerings of Boston College," said Jack Connors Jr., chairman of BC's board of trustees. "It builds a world-class theology capability and gives us great bench strength" in theology, he said.

Three Weston faculty members have been investigated by the Vatican in recent years for writings that raised questions in Rome. One of those faculty members, the Rev. Roger Haight, recently resigned; Haight had been barred from teaching for several years because of a still-unresolved Vatican investigation into his writings on the means of salvation for non-Christians. The two other faculty members, the Revs. James Keenan and Randy Sachs, were questioned about their writings on human sexuality, but each is now teaching without problem, Manning said.

"There will always be concerns over theologians -- that comes with the 21st Century world in which we live -- and just as we've had issues with our own department of theology members, there may be issues in the future with Weston faculty members who come to BC," Leahy said. "But we handle these things. It's not a concern."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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