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BY Michael Wamble
CHICAGO — “Too secular.” “Too dependent on government regulations.” Or “too religious.”
The seven Chicago-area universities and one college invited to participate in the inaugural Convocation of Faculty, held Sept. 22 at Loyola University, have at different times felt the sting of such critiques.
The also have two other things in common: their origins with Catholic men's and women's religious communities, and their uncertainty whether to enter the new millennium as “Catholic” or “catholic” institutions.
“There was a perception, at least a sense, that the bishops are a little divorced from the Catholic universities [in their diocese,]” said David Struckhoff, an instructor in the criminal justice department at Loyola University.
The convocation at Loyola, which included an address from Francis Cardinal George and remarks from Joliet Bishop Joseph L. Imesch, was a first of its kind attempt to shatter that perception and challenge universities to remain true to their Catholic roots.
“We [bishops] are not guests [at Catholic universities,]” Cardinal George told the Loyola group. “Catholic universities are part of the household of faith, so we are at home. So the question of relationships should be reversed. It shouldn't be how am I in the university, but how are you in the church,” he said.
The question is not a new one for the cardinal.
During a talk last October at Georgetown University, the cardinal said discussions about the place of a Catholic university in the church needed more voices than those of bishops and university administrators. Such conversations, he said then, “have left untouched relations between bishops and faculty.”
Loyola University's president, Jesuit Father John J. Piderit, said the cardinal's message at Georgetown inspired him to offer Loyola as the first in a rotation of sites to explore the relationship between the bishops of the Chicago Archdiocese, the Joliet Diocese and the Catholic institutions within their boundaries.
Invited were presidents, administrators, and faculty members of Benedictine University, Lisle; DePaul University, Chicago; Dominican University, River Forest; Lewis University, Romeoville; St. Francis University, Joliet; Xavier University, Chicago; and Barat College, Lake Forest.
Bishop Imesch said that while he understood that Catholic universities shared the common dilemma of being labeled “too secular” by church officials, yet “too religious” by those outside the university community, many institutions attempt to maximize their appeal to both groups.
“I am aware of our diverse populations at universities, but do we need to delete our Catholic identity or be apologetic about it to survive?” said the bishop, who raised the absence of the word Catholic in the radio ads of certain universities and the scheduling of university athletic activities on Good Friday as examples when Catholic institution have made secular concessions.
Cardinal George and Bishop Imesch agreed that while professors at Catholic universities do not necessarily have to be Catholic, they need to be consistent in articulating the mission of the Catholic Church.
Representatives from each institution also provided their take on the ideas presented by the cardinal and bishop.
DePaul University law professor Bruce Ottley said that the presence of diversity among Catholic universities is good. “By being a small ‘c’ catholic university, we are best at being a big 'C Catholic university,” said Ottley.
Citing the history of DePaul's law school, Ottley reminded participants of the period in the 1930s and 1940s when DePaul admitted Jewish students when other religious and state schools enforced quotas.
“Catholic universities also have assimilated people of different backgrounds into the mainstream. I hope this opportunity will continue in the future.” said Ottley.
Cardinal George responded by asking Ottley if the DePaul that welcomed Jewish students was the same that exists today. The cardinal said, “In order to be small ‘c’ Catholic at times, there must be a big 'C perspective.”
Piderit also championed the big “C” approach. “I think the fact that we can speak a big ‘C’ for the big conversation that we've engaged in today,” he said.