Catholic Identity Series

WASHINGTON — What’s the state of Catholic identity at Catholic universities and colleges, as Pope Benedict XVI speaks in Washington to Catholic educators?

According to Church leaders in this area, substantial improvement has occurred since the 1990 publication of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. (The Register’s Catholic Identity Survey is available by clicking “Resources” at

But they also agree that much work remains to be done.

Recent high-profile examples of Catholic colleges acting against the wishes of their local bishops in such areas as inviting pro-abortion politicians to make campaign stops on their campuses and staging performances of the pornographic feminist play The Vagina Monologues demonstrate the identity question is not resolved completely.

Church leaders are well aware of this.

Speaking to the Register in February, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago noted “there are some very promising developments” in terms of strengthening Catholic identity.

“But the academic culture as such in our country is quite secular and it produces pressures on even Catholic universities to conform their internal policies to what regular academic institutions do, rather than be exceptional,” said Cardinal George, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Cardinal George said a major contributor to the problem is the way many Catholic academics have interpreted the principle of academic freedom from the 1960s onward.

“The sense of academic freedom that came in with the Land O’Lakes statement is just like the sense of academic freedom in the secular universities,” he said. “Namely, it’s a way to protect the independence and the autonomy of an individual professor, not as a way formally to protect the search for truth, as it is in the Catholic understanding of freedom: Freedom is for the purpose of discovering truth, not just to protect somebody’s privileged position.”

In advance of the Pope’s April 17 speech at The Catholic University of America to presidents of Catholic colleges and heads of diocesan education programs, some analysts had predicted he would censure American institutions for falling short on the issue of Catholic identity.

But according to Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, theologian-in-residence at Ave Maria University in Florida and Ave Maria’s former provost, the Vatican views America’s extensive Catholic higher education network as a Church asset, not a liability.

Father Fessio, a longtime friend of Pope Benedict, wrote an article about him for the April issue of Columbia magazine.

In an interview with the Register, Father Fessio identified several problem areas that have been apparent since the Second Vatican Council, including a decline in the overall percentage of Catholic faculty, a weakening of the Catholic practice and commitment of those who are Catholic, a decline in curriculum standards, many Catholic colleges that have followed the lead of secular universities in fragmenting their curricula requirements, and a “widespread departure” from adherence and fidelity to the magisterium.

Father Fessio regards revitalization of Catholic faculty as especially important to renewing Catholic identity. That viewpoint is shared by Holy Cross Father Wilson Miscamble, associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

In an article published Sept. 10, 2007 in America magazine, Father Miscamble said there was “a certain Potemkin village” quality to Catholic universities in the United States, due to the increasingly secular character of their faculties.

“Students emerge from Catholic schools rather unfamiliar with the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition and with their imaginations untouched by a religious sensibility,” he said.

To correct that problem, Father Miscamble said, universities like Notre Dame must hire a much higher percentage of committed Catholics as professors.

On the positive side of the ledger, Father Fessio pointed to the foundation of new Catholic universities that are deeply committed to the teachings and practices of the Church.

He also cited the rise of the Catholic home-schooling movement, which is delivering increasing numbers of well-formed and talented students to colleges.

And he said American seminaries have been another sign of hope. “I think by and large they’ve improved a lot in the last 20 years,” said Father Fessio.

Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly noted that all of the 10 new Catholic colleges and universities that have been founded in the last 35 years enthusiastically and publicly embrace the magisterium of the Church.

“The colleges that have been established are all models for the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” he said.

In an article published in the Fall 2007 issue of The New England Journal of Higher Education, Assumption College president Francesco Cesareo said “perhaps the greatest challenge” for Catholic institutions is to uphold the Church’s teachings on moral issues like abortion, homosexuality, contraception, premarital sex and embryonic stem-cell research.

“John Paul II made clear in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that Catholic institutions of higher education must have ‘the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society,’” Cesareo said.

According to Reilly, hope is evident in this area too. He said the U.S. bishops are becoming increasingly forceful in calling colleges and universities to account when they fall down in this area.

As a prominent example, Reilly pointed to remarks made last October by Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Mass., the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ committee on education, after it was disclosed that the College of the Holy Cross had granted permission for a campus facility to host an event featuring presentations by NARAL and Planned Parenthood.

“To deny Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice a forum in which to present their morally unacceptable positions is not an infringement of the exercise of academic freedom but a defensible attempt to make unambiguously clear the Catholic identity and mission of the College of the Holy Cross,” Bishop McManus said in a statement calling on Holy Cross to reverse its decision.

Said Reilly, “I think many Catholic families are grateful for the bishops’ willingness to publicly clarify what is appropriate or not at a Catholic institution.”

Tom McFeely is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.