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 DeGioia.
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 secularized culture.
“The 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 City, Mo.
That issue was in the news recently, after Boston College began replacing long-absent crosses and crucifixes in its classrooms.
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 Heights.
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 authority.
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 institutional autonomy.
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.”
“Jesus 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 enlighten reason.”
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 Cook.
“Faithful 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.”
Jeff Ziegler writes from
Ellenboro, North Carolina.