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College presidents and professors discuss the challenges facing Catholic higher education: economic and maintaining Catholic identity.
BY JEFF ZIEGLER
Catholic colleges and universities seem to be
facing two challenges these days: one financial, the other spiritual.
The Association of Catholic Colleges
and Universities held its annual meeting in Washington amid growing concerns
about the nation’s economic crisis. Georgetown University’s endowment fund plunged
22% between July and November, according to the university’s president, John
Catholic higher education leaders
interviewed by the Register repeatedly cited economic woes.
But they also spoke of the challenge
of maintaining the Catholic identity of their institutions.
The recession is a double-edged
sword because there are “great and growing financial pressures on all families,
especially those with at-risk students,” as well as “great and growing
financial pressures on Catholic colleges and universities,” the association’s
president, Richard Yanikoski, told the Register.
Arthur Kirk Jr., president of Saint
Leo University in Florida, cited the need to “reduce our expenditures and
respond to our students’ increasing need for financial assistance and attempt
to protect all of our employees from financial collapse.”
As serious as the economic crisis
is, many Catholic college presidents are even more concerned about the
maintenance and strengthening of Catholic identity in the midst of a
greatest challenge as well as opportunity facing a Catholic college and
university today is being faithful to its mission,” said Oblates of St. Francis
de Sales Father Thomas Curran, president of Rockhurst University in Kansas
That issue was in the news recently,
after Boston College began replacing long-absent crosses and crucifixes in its
As part of a program that has been
promoting Christian art on campus, the move to restore the crucifixes took place
over the Christmas break. College officials spoke of the importance of
emphasizing the institution’s Catholic tradition.
“As a Jesuit, Catholic university,
the effort to promote Christian art reflects our pride in and our commitment to
our religious heritage and the role it plays in fostering the Catholic
intellectual tradition that we celebrate as a university,” said BC spokesman
Jack Dunn, quoted in the college’s unofficial campus newspaper, The
Some faculty members, however, were
not as enthusiastic about the project. Paul Davidovits, a professor in the
chemistry department, told The Heights that the
placing of the crucifixes in classrooms “undermines” the college’s efforts in
recent years to create an inclusive environment.
But Patrick Reilly, president of the
Cardinal Newman Society, congratulated the college. “For Catholics, outward
signs, symbols and practices of our faith are an important part of relating to
God in a material world,” he said.
The Newman Society recently released
a study that speaks to the two concerns of financial health and Catholic
identity. The independent report on college costs reveals that some of the most
faithful Catholic colleges and universities in the United States also offer
students significant cost savings.
The Register has a Catholic Identity
College Guide, available at NCRegister.com, under “Resources.”
Thomas Dillon, president of Thomas
Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., said that “the greatest challenge for
Catholic colleges and universities today is to be faithful to the teachings of
the Church, even in the midst of a declining culture — to
be a sign of contradiction in a society that with each passing year grows more
and more decadent.”
This secularized culture affects
Catholic students well before they enter college. “Large numbers of Catholic
students entering college are poorly informed about the Catholic faith — and
often weak in their faith commitment,” said Yanikoski.
Bill Thierfelder, president of
Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, explained that one of the greatest
challenges facing Catholic colleges and universities today is the breakdown of
traditional Catholic family values and the lack of catechesis.
“We are approaching the tipping
point where many poorly formed parents, and now their children, lack sufficient
knowledge and experience of Catholicism, the fullness of truth and the grace
that fills a life lived in prayer, love and union with God,” Thierfelder said.
In response to these challenges,
several college presidents emphasize that forming students in the faith is more
important than preparing them for the workforce. Father Robert Cook, president
of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyo., said that students and parents
need to know “that a wraparound environment of Catholic faith, permeating all
of the curriculum and underpinning the whole of campus life, is essential and
more valuable than simply learning to be a worker. We need to recover a sense
of personhood that our faith makes possible and turn away from an
economics-based view that sees education as limited to getting a job.”
Stephen Minnis, president of
Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., added that a “key challenge for this
generation is fighting the tide of individualism and consumerism that makes a
college education a commodity rather than an integrated period of formation.”
Land O’ Lakes Effect
Discussions of Catholic identity have taken
place in the shadow of the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement, in which 26 influential
Catholic educators called for independence from the Church’s teaching
In 1990, Pope John Paul issued the
apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae,
which called upon Catholic colleges and universities to strengthen their
Catholic identity and offered an alternative vision of academic freedom and
Pope Benedict issued a similar
challenge when he spoke to the nation’s Catholic college presidents last April.
“Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions
that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church,” he said, “would
obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the
heart of the Church’s munus docendi [office
of teaching] and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”
Christ is not a concept, a symbol, an idea,” commented Father Matthew Lamb,
chairman of Ave Maria University’s graduate theology program. “Jesus Christ is
the living Son of God and Son of Mary who has redeemed the whole of his
creation by his passion, death and resurrection. Every human being is destined
for eternal bliss in the Kingdom of God or eternal hatred and pain in hell.
These true realities of our Catholic faith do not blind our reason but heal and
In the midst of these challenges,
Pope Benedict said last April, “First and foremost, every Catholic educational
institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals
his transforming love and truth.”
Colleges that are bringing Pope John
Paul’s and Pope Benedict’s vision of Catholic higher education to life need
help to weather the economic crisis, said Wyoming Catholic College’s Father
Catholics need to support such colleges and universities with their finances in
order to assure that these few institutions can stand and even flourish as the
witnesses for a faith-based education.”
Ziegler writes from
Ellenboro, North Carolina.