WASHINGTON—The Vatican's apostolic nuncio to the United States has called on America's 235 Catholic colleges and universities to renew their identity as “authentically Catholic” institutions.
The exhortation came as the nation's bishops prepare, after nine years of discussion, to vote in November on guidelines to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education.
The nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, made the remarks as he addressed about 125 students, faculty, administrators and alumni of Catholic colleges and universities gathered for an Oct. 8-10 conference on Ex Corde sponsored by the Cardinal Newman Society.
“My presence here today, as the representative of the Holy Father, should convey the interest that the Holy Father has in your continued work for the renewal of Catholic higher education,” he said.
Titled “From Resistance to Faith: Renewing the Idea of the Catholic University,” the conference also presented such leading Catholic educators as Jesuit Father John J. Piderit, president of Loyola University of Chicago; Holy Cross Father James T. Burtchaell, former provost of the University of Notre Dame; and Daniel T. Robinson, research professor of psychology at Georgetown University.
Non-Catholics Voice Solidarity
The conference's most sustained and enthusiastic response was drawn by a non-Catholic, Ivy League professor who argued that a pluralistic society requires faith-based education if the society is to avoid sliding into bland homogeneity. Alan Charles Kors, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and coauthor of a controversial book, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, decried “Catholic-bashing” and a loss of true academic freedom at secular universities.
Kors said that, instead of being a threat to academic freedom, Catholic campuses are among the last places where the dignity of the individual is still respected. He described serious threats to academic freedom at secular schools, including speech codes, rampant anti-Catholicism and political correctness.
Another non-Catholic, Richard N. Williams of the Mormon-affiliated Brigham
Young University, explained that Catholic administrators' doubts about the legality and necessity of hiring and firing faculty to uphold a school's religious mission are unfounded.
“My university has had just such a policy in place for over 120 years, and everyone, including myself, is committed to it,” Williams said. “It seems to be working just fine.”
Williams described how Brigham Young University, which requires faculty to support the religious mission of the university while maintaining standards of academic excellence, has no significant problems receiving accreditation or public funding. He urged Catholic colleges and universities to develop clear standards of personal conduct, make support for the religious mission a criterion for employment, and to “have faith that you will achieve the highest levels of academic excellence not in spite of your religious mission, but precisely because of it.”
The need for such policies was made evident by Father James
Burtchaell, who chronicled the decline of religious identity at many colleges and universities originally sponsored by Christians, such as Harvard and Yale (Congregationalist), Princeton (evangelical Presbyterian), William and Mary (Anglican) and Brown (Baptist).
Catholic schools likewise lack sufficient mechanisms for ensuring their preservation as Catholic institutions, Father Burtchaell said. He referred to his 1998 book The Dying of the Light: Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, in which he warned educators to embrace and nourish religious identity, or witness the almost certain secularization of their colleges and universities.
People and Policies
Perhaps the most anticipated speaker was Father John Piderit, president of one of America's largest Catholic universities. Last June, Father Piderit stunned critics of Ex Corde by defending its most controversial provision, a requirement that teachers of Catholic theology receive prior recognition from their local bishop. Earlier this month, he again stood publicly in defense of the U.S. bishops' plans to implement Ex Corde, saying, “The time has come when we have to be more forthright about our commitment to our Catholic heritage.”
Father Piderit accepted his own challenge by presenting a vision for Catholic higher education and the policy and personnel changes that are necessary to achieve it. He echoed the bishops' call for greater numbers of faculty and administrators who are well-trained in “the Catholic way of doing things.”
“Hiring of new faculty and staff who are committed to the Catholic faith and mission is the greatest challenge for Catholic colleges and universities during the coming decades,” Father Piderit said, noting that non-Catholics could participate in this venture.
“But it is hard to imagine how non-Catholics could be eager to join in such a venture if Catholics are not,” he added. “So, it is important that the Catholic university of the future be able to attract capable Catholics, trained in their specialty fields, who wish to promote the Catholic faith and mission.”
Manuel A. Miranda, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, argued that the most important and easiest step in the direction of mission-centered personnel policies is to replace troublesome student-affairs staff who are responsible for “the problems of Catholic identity on our campuses and the scandals and harm to integrity they cause.”
“Personnel is policy, “ Miranda concluded, referring to problems such as excessive and underage drinking, sexual promiscuity and advocacy of activities not consistent with Catholic doctrine, such as abortion and homosexual activity.
‘Safe Sex’ Meetings
Such affronts to Catholic sensibilities were detailed by students and former students. They described Catholic campuses on which the norm was hostility toward traditional Catholic devotions, policies mandating acceptance of homosexual conduct, and a lack of appropriate Catholic retreat programs and liturgies.
Elizabeth Fiore, who graduated from Georgetown last May, recounted how, as a freshman, she had been instructed to attend a mandatory meeting on “safe sex.”
“At the conclusion of the session, the presenters snickered that they were not allowed to distribute condoms to us,” said Fiore. “Then they said they'd leave them on a table in the lounge” for attendees to help themselves.
Balancing out the accounts of the decline of Catholicism on Catholic campuses, a number of discussions pointed out positive developments afoot.
Georgetown's Robinson led a dialogue on ways to restore a core curriculum that is appropriate to the Catholic university. A panel of religious women and clergy spotlighted hopeful signs among Catholic youth and the desire for new vocations coming from Catholic education. And representatives from numerous Catholic and secular organizations offered resources and advice to those who are engaged in the renewal of Catholic identity at Catholic campuses.
University of Pennsylvania's Kors noted that no institution in all of human history has more singularly contributed to civilization than the Catholic Church, through its universities and internal and multicultural debates.
“Catholic universities must not lose their identity,” he pleaded. They must instead “serve again as ‘monasteries’ for the ravages of the current barbarians,” he said.