WASHINGTON — Once a flashpoint of theological dissent in the tumultuous years after the Second Vatican Council, The Catholic University of America now stirs controversy by opening single-sex dorms and defending the free exercise of Catholic institutions.

Long the bellwether of Catholicism in the United States, during periods of institutional consolidation and of fragmentation, CUA is enjoying record undergraduate enrollment and a renewed sense of clarity regarding its unique role among Church-affiliated universities.

In the fall of 1992, total undergraduate enrollment was 2,561; this year it is 3,633. Meanwhile, work on eight significant building projects have transformed the campus over the past two decades.

As The Catholic University of America celebrates its 125th anniversary, its emerging profile offers a timely reminder of the power of institutional reform and courageous leadership for those Catholic universities that have delayed an overhaul of their own conflicted religious identity and practices.

At the April 10 Mass marking the milestone, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, the university’s chancellor, noted that true reform requires total commitment to a faith that calls on believers to teach the truth with missionary zeal.

In his homily at the anniversary Mass, Cardinal Wuerl referenced the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles 1:8, “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth,” and offered a historical narrative that began with the first Easter Sunday and stretched to the establishment of the Catholic Church in the New World and the founding of CUA in the late 1800s.

“How that witnessing has been carried out is the story of the growth, experiences, challenges, joys, sorrows and triumphs of the Church. As successive generations of believers tried to live up to the command, ‘You will be my witnesses,’ the shape, breadth and charisms of the Church emerged,” he told the congregation at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the site where the faculty and students of the fledging CUA graduate program gathered for religious services more than a century ago.

“From those first days, when the university was formally inaugurated in the presence of President Benjamin Harrison, with 10 faculty and 46 students, to our own, The Catholic University of America has taken its place among the chorus of voices speaking out of multitudes of institutions, but this time with the special mission of shedding the light of Christ on the human condition with the awareness that it is a witness — a witness to the risen Lord,” said the cardinal.

The Catholic University of America was established in 1887 — On April 10, 1887, Pope Leo XIII gave approval for the founding of CUA as the national university of the Church in the United States — marking the U.S. bishops’ desire to found a uniquely American graduate theological program that also would allow native-born seminarians and priests to study closer to home.

Spearheaded by John Lancaster Spalding, a nephew of Bishop Martin John Spalding of Baltimore, plans for the institution were developed during an era of anti-Catholic bigotry; Catholic leaders hoped the new school would serve as a beacon for Catholic intellectual life.

“The U.S. bishops were concerned about ‘Americanizing’ Catholicism. They wanted to train immigrant priests who would be serving American Catholics, and they wanted to help individuals to adapt to American society,” said Maria Mazzenga, an educational archivist and CUA alumna who received a doctorate in history at the university.

The cornerstone of the school was laid by heiress Mary Gwendoline Caldwell, and the inaugural class of students arrived in 1889. While it began as a divinity school, a philosophy school was quickly established.

In 1904, the university began admitting undergraduates, and, in 1912, women religious arrived. They were trained to staff schools and later hospitals, after the nursing school was opened in 1932.

Today, CUA includes roughly equal numbers of undergraduate and graduate students and encompasses 12 schools, including theology, philosophy, social studies, nursing, architecture, civil law, engineering and music.

In his homily during the 125th anniversary liturgy, Cardinal Wuerl suggested that the university’s religious legacy still provides an essential framework for the life of the mind on the Washington campus.

“The light that illumines the path in the search for truth in all of those areas is the light that shone in that Easter garden that formed the heart of Mary’s announcement to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’” stated the cardinal.

These days, CUA’s profile in the media is tied to its new president, John Garvey, the former dean of Boston College Law School who has strengthened the university’s role as an unapologetically Catholic university.

Shortly after Garvey arrived on campus in 2010, he initiated a series of talks that explored the relationship between the development of virtue and the fostering of students’ intellectual life.

The father of five children, Garvey has echoed widespread parental concerns regarding the toxic state of college social life. He has introduced a controversial plan to reinstitute single-sex dorms throughout the campus and led meetings that worked out a strategic plan for the university.

During an interview this week, Garvey said he was inspired by CUA’s unique role in the history of American Catholicism and “saw the possibilities inherent in an institution I loved then and now.”

A strategic plan has been developed to guide CUA’s future progress, and he is impressed with how faculty, students, administrators and alumni engaged in the planning process “really are serious about being a Catholic institution that lives a serious intellectual life and integrates that with our faith.”

Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a member of the CUA Board of Trustees, told the Register that he was very “encouraged by the twofold determination of the past and current administration to take a leadership role in grounding the university in an authentic Catholic identity while strengthening professional and academic standards.”

Anderson has helped pave the way for the establishment of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family on campus. Though the institute remains independent, collaboration with CUA faculty and student initiatives will grow, he said.

The institute is known for its faculty's passionate commitment to the transmission of the late Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and related philosophical and moral teachings that have helped to drive the New Evangelization among young people who received little formation in an era of weakened social institutions.

Indeed, elements of the strategic plan reflect Garvey’s desire to “pay more attention to what undergraduate student life is like. We are interested in educating them in a life of virtue as well as an intellectual life.”

This initiative, he said, goes “hand in hand with a more deliberate effort to increase the number of priests and religious living with the students to set an example of Catholic vocation.”

The concrete steps to strengthen Catholic culture and Christian virtue on campus provide a foundation for “a really serious and very high-quality university with a century-old Ph.D. program located in the nation’s capital on a campus twice the size of Georgetown University,” he said.

Garvey’s visibility has been fueled by his leading role in the First Amendment fight provoked by the new federal contraception mandate, approved on Jan. 20 by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services.

A lawyer and constitutional scholar, Garvey now serves as a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. He has defended the free exercise of Catholic institutions in congressional hearings and in the opinion pages of U.S. newspapers.

This semester, there have been campus panel discussions that frame the issues at stake for Church-affiliated institutions like CUA and draw students into discussions about Catholic teaching on contraception.

These developments have brought the campus full circle from the Father Charles Curran years, when the dissident theologian at CUA led public attacks on Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) that ultimately led to his belated removal as a professor of Catholic moral theology in 1986.

“The major controversy was in 1968 with Humanae Vitae. The dissent was broadcast from Catholic University, but it was not limited to this university. The faculty was divided on this,” recalled Father Robert Sokolowski, a philosophy professor at CUA for 49 years.

When Father Sokolowski arrived on campus almost a half century ago, his students wore clerics and religious habits to class, while now many are lay Catholics and even non-Catholics.

The passage of time has not only introduced a more diverse student body — it has yielded a fresh assessment of Humanae Vitae, arising from the fulfillment of Pope Paul VI’s predictions about the negative consequences of the widespread use of contraception.

In other words, contemporary culture has forced CUA faculty and students, like their peers across the nation, to grapple with urgent realities — from an alienating ethos of radical individualism to an aggressive secularism intolerant of religious witness and natural-law principles.

The university “seems more clear about its own mission. At the same time, controversial Catholic teachings have been tested over the years and shown to be reasonable,” said Father Sokolowski.

“Good things have been put in place here to show the Church has a specific mission and that the faculty and students are part of that.”

“Over the years, the argument behind Humanae Vitae has more credibility,” suggested Father Sokolowski, who noted that divisions within the faculty continue, but in less pronounced ways.

Does CUA offer a template for the reform of Catholics universities that have pulled back from the abyss and effectively embraced true reform, which means a return to their origins? Father Sokolowski, in his measured way, suggests as much.

Said the philosopher, “One could say that the way CUA now deals with its Catholic identity could contribute very much to the way the Church herself expresses her involvement with truth in our contemporary world.”

Joan Frawley Desmonfd is the Register's senior editor.