Educated Flock

In a sharp comment-and-answer session 20 Septembers ago, Pope John Paul II summed up the potential of Catholic universities in America. When the U.S. bishops met with the Holy Father during his 1987 papal visit, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland put together an impressive presentation.

The Archbishop told the Pope that “the Church in the United States of America can boast of having the largest number of educated faithful in the world.” The archbishop added that “it can be assumed [the laity] will continue to take a prominent role in U. S. society and culture in the future.”

In his answering remarks, Pope John Paul II quoted Archbishop Weakland and agreed with him. Educated American laypeople were indeed changing America, he said.

“But how is the American culture evolving today?” he asked. “Is this evolution being influenced by the Gospel? Does it clearly reflect Christian inspiration? Your music, your poetry and art, your drama, your painting and sculpture, the literature that you are producing — are all those things, which reflect the soul of a nation, being influenced by the spirit of Christ for the perfection of humanity?”

Excellent questions. As Pope Benedict XVI summed it up a couple of years ago, they are the key questions in the debate about Catholic universities, because they directly address the students and the culture.

As he phrased it: “How do they leave? What culture did they find, assimilate, develop?”

Universities are seedbeds in which the culture is planted. A famous anecdote quotes a European Marxist saying to forget arms and activism. “Give me 10 universities and I’ll change the face of Europe,” he said, and he was right — by putting Marxist ideas into the universities, a continent became socialist, quickly.

Universities affect every aspect of our culture. The influence of top schools spreads throughout academia, as schools cross-pollinate. That’s how the secular ethos of modern academia has formed the key leaders in our communities — from TV anchors to health center directors to teachers.

Catholics in higher education, faced with this secular ethos, have to ask themselves key questions. Is the Catholic faith an answer to this world’s questions, or not? Is the Catholic faith intellectually up to the challenge of facing the world’s best and brightest, or isn’t it? Is it supremely relevant, or mostly irrelevant? Even: Is it our greatest pride or our greatest embarrassment?

It can be difficult for Catholics in higher education to pull away from the militantly secular attitudes of modern academia. It is easy for them to take an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude.

In 1967, the nation’s top Catholic university leaders signed the “Land o’ Lakes Statement.” In it, they turned away from the hierarchical structure of the Church. “The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself,” it said.

In practice, this has meant that on too many Catholic campuses the world’s wisdom — not the Church’s — has been given pride of place.

Thus it was that, 20 years later, an archbishop could point out that America was home to the “largest number of educated faithful in the world” — and a Pope could respond by pointing out that these well-educated Catholics have been influencing the culture all right, but not for the faith.

Pope John Paul II already knew what he wanted to do about the problem. Canon law had been changed in 1983 to require that theologians at Catholic institutions of higher education to receive a mandatum allowing them to teach Catholic theology.

In 1987, he reiterated that it is “the duty and right of bishops to be present in an effective way in Catholic colleges and universities and institutes of higher studies in order to safeguard and promote their Catholic character, especially in what affects the transmission of Catholic doctrine.”

When his directive wasn’t heeded, he made the case in the 1990 apostolic constitution for higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The university was born from the heart of the Church, and the Church should be at the heart of a Catholic university.

It would still be 10 years before universities in America would implement the mandatum. And even now, 24 years after the original canon-law requirement of the madatum, it’s uncertain how many universities comply. When the Register launched an investigative series to find out, in June 2003, fewer than a dozen Catholic colleges and universities were willing to reveal whether theologians had received the canon-law mandatum. Today, that number has increased significantly. More and more bishops are demanding that universities honor the public nature of the mandatum. “The mandatum is a public reality,” Cardinal George told the Register in 2003. “It’s a personal act, but personal acts are sometimes public — like receiving the sacraments.”

In this year’s College Guide, we have now found 26 schools — more than 10% of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities — who want to go on record as complying with canon law as regards theology. This — and the astonishing seven new Catholic universities that have been founded that are part of that number — suggests a movement toward fidelity.

We hope it is. Imagine what the future of America will be like if, 20 years from now, we have the largest educated Catholic population in the world — and they have been educated to appreciate the riches of the faith, and apply the Church’s transformational answers to the problems of the world.