The Incarnate Word Convent building. Photo by Scott Ball.
In 2001, the University of the Incarnate Word settled a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Without even knowing the circumstances, anyone who has ever served for any length of time as a layperson on the board of any Catholic institution would have easily recognized from the first press release weeks ago that Lou Agnese was a “dead man walking,” from this telling statement: “Our prayers and thoughts are with Dr. Agnese, his family, and the entire university community during this difficult situation.”

When a Catholic priest, nun, or professed religious person tells you to your face that she or he is praying for you, that’s a very, very good thing.

When any of them refer to a third party in a case like this, the person being “prayed for” is finished and has been written off, consigned to the mercy of the Deity – nothing more can be done for the miserable soul who caused them problems. What immediately comes to my mind are the expressions of prayer for someone as portrayed by the character of the venal Archbishop Gilday in the The Godfather: Part III.

Such an expression of praying for any central figure in a Catholic controversy carries just about the same level of care, compassion, and concern as a Southern matriarch saying, “Well, bless his heart.”

Having served on numerous Catholic boards, hospitals, foundations, and other entities, I am confident that the recent incidents were only catalysts and had little connection to the root cause of the downfall of Lou Agnese. Behind the scenes, in the sponsoring religious congregations of UIW, there have probably been several years of conversations regarding, “What are we going to do about Lou?”

Robert Rivard, whose journalism and integrity I trust, nailed several well-founded reasons that could have justified ending Agnese’s reign, and which would have done so in secular entities, but were in no way the cause of Agnese’s presidential termination Monday.

The Cameron Redus shooting? The UIW board and nuns had already closed ranks on that for Agnese.

Agnese had an autocratic leadership approach? Agnese’s failure here was not the exercise of autocracy but the public display of it. Autocratic governance has never been a failing in any Catholic entity. All Catholic religious organizations have that in their structural DNA. It’s the lack of autocratic subtlety that is the political mortal sin in the arenas of Catholic power.

Hiring relatives, cronies, and incompetents? Surrounding one’s self with those who cannot or will not challenge? Not a problem in Catholic church organizations where, obedience, institutional self-protection, selected relationships, and trusted networks are the currency of the realm.

Rivard accurately nailed, but glossed over, the most likely cause of Agnese’s downfall in his article where he described Agnese as “… even taking on the sisters whose order founded the university and are the nominal proprietors.”

I grew up in a Southern culture where there was a despicable racist term for a person who worked as a servant in a plantation house. The contemptible expression was used to put people who attempted to overstep their assigned status in Southern society in their place. It was a reminder that while you may be allowed to work in the owner’s house, and possibly even eat in the house, don’t remotely think for even a moment that you are somehow part of the family. If you do, you’re gone. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But you’re done.

Nowhere is this more true than for a layperson in a Catholic entity.

Most likely, Agnese committed the unpardonable sin in a canonically-sponsored, Catholic organization. He forgot that he was a layman, believing he was something other than temporary hired help in a system that plans in decades and thinks in centuries. He may have thought that he owned the house. Fatal.

Agnese first became identified with the university, but that transitioned to the university being identified with him. UIW is often referred to as “Lou U.” He may have actually believed that he could, as noted by Rivard, take on the sisters. Fatal.

In any heavily Catholic city such as San Antonio or Boston, there exists what is affectionately known as a “Catholic mafia.” These are loose, mutually profitable alliances of ordained hierarchy, professed religious leaders, lay employees and leaders of Catholic organizations, along with Catholic business leaders who commerce with Catholic organizations through preferential, protected relationships. Religious congregations are experts at coalescing that power to their advantage and probably did so to kick Agnese to the curb.

The deed is done. There will be sorrowful sighs, expressions of regret, calls for the ritual healing of damages done and more expressions of prayer for “poor Lou.” The UIW faculty senate will converse in thoughtful, whispered murmurs about how their role was necessary, scarcely understanding that they were pawns in a power game with rules they cannot fathom. They were useful to the real, subtle power, but inconsequential.

Lou, I am not going to join the others in false, pabulum prayers. I simply say: “Vaya con Dios.”

Top image: The Incarnate Word Convent building.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

Mixed Reactions on Campus to UIW President Agnese’s Removal

UIW Board Votes to Remove President Agnese

Rivard: UIW Board Faces A Moment of Truth

Branch: On UIW President Lou Agnese Jr.

Agnese’s Leaked Racial Remarks Lead UIW Board to Break Silence

UIW Showdown Between President and Chair Imminent

UIW President on Medical Leave after ‘Uncharacteristic Behavior’

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Edward Speed

Edward Speed holds a Master of Arts in Systematic Theology from St. Mary's University. He reports on religion and spirituality for the Rivard Report.