So read the Register's March 18–24 headline announcing Dr. John DeGioia's selection as president of the Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was quoted in the article saying: “While many of us were hoping that a Jesuit priest might be found for the leadership of this important institution, I welcome Dr. John DiGioia.”

Reading these quotes, it could seem that both were begrudging the fact that Georgetown appears to have “fallen” into lay hands. Dr. DiGioia's “welcome” seemed tainted with a feeling of settling for second-best. As a Catholic layman and educator, I have to say that I believe such an attitude is unfortunate.

I have been around Catholic higher education a long time. I earned an undergraduate degree at St. Mary's, a Catholic college in Michigan founded by a diocesan priest. My graduate degrees came from a Jesuit university, Fordham. I was an assistant professor of theology at St. John's, the largest Catholic university in America, run by Vincentians. I was a visiting fellow at Poland's Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski, where Pope John Paul II was a faculty member. And I was the first layman to be associate dean of Immaculate Conception Seminary, the graduate School of Theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Archbishop McCarrick's former seminary.

My experiences have shown me that there are many loyal, devoted and orthodox Catholic lay scholars out there. They are dedicated academics who are committed to the importance of Catholic education. Many make considerable sacrifices to work in Catholic higher education, where salaries are often lower than in secular academia. Those scholars are there because they believe in what Catholic colleges and universities stand for: a place where faith and reason go together.

One reason some people might lament the absence of a priest at the helm of a Catholic university is concern about the institutional identity of Catholic higher education. They ask, and sometimes rightly, are Catholic schools really Catholic?

That's a legitimate question. But the presence of a priest at the head of a Catholic school is no guarantee of a university's Catholicity — just as having a layman at the top is not necessarily a sign that such identity is lacking.

Consider Catholic moral theology. I still encounter some raised eyebrows when I tell people I am a moral theologian. Some people still assume theology is, or should be, a clerical preserve. Well, in my field of sexual ethics, who better exemplifies Catholic teaching than William May, Germain Grisez, Janet Smith and John Haas? All are laypersons, and all are outspoken in their faithfulness to Catholic teaching. I don't think I need to remind Register readers that the same cannot be said for a number of high-profile priest-professors who openly dissent from Church teaching in their instruction of this subject.

Clearly, the quality of a theologian is not a function of Holy Orders.

There are also practical implications to this prejudice. Academics, like almost all professions, has certain natural career paths. We do not encourage our best and brightest to aspire to excellence or dedicate themselves to Catholic higher education if we treat academic leadership not as a role meritoriously acquired, but as one assigned on the basis of characteristics that are extrinsic to that role. The presidency of a Catholic university should be awarded on the basis of merit and qualifications, not titular concession to traditional customs whose significance in maintaining certain values is often more symbolic than real.

And it cuts both ways. Eight Vatican congregations in 1997 issued a document insisting that roles proper to the clergy should not be assigned to lay people. Neither, however, should roles proper and appropriate to lay people become traditional set-asides for the clergy. The other side of the coin is affirming the right of laypersons to occupy appropriate roles for the laity, even at the head of a Catholic university.

As for the “set-aside” question, let's admit a nasty little secret. Some Catholic universities still operate two-tier compensation systems: Lay faculty receive salaries; clergy and religious receive stipends. Such two-track systems are doubly unjust. “Contributed services” by clergy and religious can attest to a personal generosity of spirit when voluntarily given. But when institutionalized, it can be a euphemism for cheap labor that excludes lay faculty. Nor are clergy adequately motivated to excel when they see a lay person carrying a similar teaching and research load earning three times their salary. One can idealistically declare that clergy should not consider pecuniary interests, but priests have to buy gasoline, too, and diocesan clergy do not take vows of poverty.

Let me share one final observation. I have worked for Catholic universities and would only work for Catholic universities. That's because I'm Catholic and because I believe that a Catholic university is the only university in the fullest sense of that word. An institution is a university — universal in the sense of the range and totality of its concerns — when it recognizes that it exists for one reason: to bring the light of faith and reason to the human person made in the Image of God and redeemed in Jesus Christ.

A university is universal only when it allows itself to be caught up in the whole truth about man. That's what makes an institution of higher learning Catholic and a university. That's where its Catholic identity comes from, not from the sacramental status of its chief executive officer.

John M. Grondelski writes from London.