The Theology Drain in Catholic College Presidencies

FRONT ROYAL, Va. — Dr. Timothy O'Donnell is an anomaly in the world of Catholic academia today.

Like most of his counterparts at other American Catholic colleges and universities, the president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., is a layman.

Unlike most, he holds a doctorate in sacred theology.

As recently as 35 years ago, a Catholic college president with such a degree or comparable religious training might have been the norm, not the exception. But a new study on lay Catholic college presidents confirms what many have suspected for a long time: that most of the people leading Catholic colleges and universities today are lay men and women who lack a thorough education in the faith.

The study by Father Dennis Holtschneider and Melanie Morey — titled “Leadership and the Age of the Laity: Emerging Patterns in Catholic Higher Education” and released at a lay leadership conference at Fairfield University in Connecticut in late June — found that only 4% of lay presidents have terminal degrees in theology. Forty-three percent, by contrast, have graduate education degrees. Fifty-five percent of the lay presidents have no religious training past high school and nearly a third lack any kind of formal religious education, although more than a fourth have had some type of religious formation in seminaries or religious congregations.

Interestingly, even though most of those surveyed agreed that inadequate spiritual and theological lay preparation was a problem for the future of Catholic higher education, only 9% said they personally felt ill-equipped to lead the religious mission of their institutions.

The survey, to which 55% of the nation's Catholic college presidents responded, also found the number of women presidents in decline. And many of the presidents who participated in the survey said they considered faculty an obstacle to effective leadership in Catholic character, mission and identity.

Dr. Monika Hellwig, president and executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said the study gives statistical support to a trend she has been observing for some time. She added that the association has commissioned its own survey to identify resources that might help address the problem, including workshops for college trustees and institutes for new administrators.

“We needed to know this,” she said. “We need to know it in order to plan.”

Father Holtschneider, the executive vice president of Niagara University in Lewiston, N.Y., said although the trend toward lay leadership already has been seen in elementary and secondary schools, Catholic hospitals and Church social-service agencies, it is even more important that those who lead universities be fluent and knowledgeable about the tradition they are charged with preserving because universities are intellectual enterprises.

Here to Stay

Of the 222 Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States, 116 are led by lay presidents and 106 by presidents who are priests or religious. This likely means, Father Holtschneider said, that lay presidents are here to stay.

A Vincentian priest who holds master of divinity and theology degrees and a doctorate in higher education, Father Holtschneider said among those who responded to the study at the conference, most didn't think a president necessarily needed a theology degree. Several college presidents and others interviewed by the Register concurred, with most citing qualities such as vision, will and a commitment to give a university a palpable Catholic identity as more important than formal theological training.

Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that seeks to restore Catholic identity in Catholic colleges and universities, said he considers the president's theological background to be less important than whether the person understands the role of authentic Catholic theology in Catholic higher education and the need to relate all other disciplines to it.

“The real problem is Catholic universities are no longer centered [on] a real Catholic theology,” he said. “The president needs to make that a priority regardless of what his background is.”

Christendom's O'Donnell believes his own preparation — which includes a licentiate in theology — was ideal in some ways but would not be necessary if a president had a solid formation in the faith and recognized that the fundamental purpose of a Catholic university is to educate under the guiding light of the faith, as Pope John Paul II made clear in his 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae(From the Heart of the Church).

Rather than require college presidents to follow a specific program of study, O'Donnell said the boards of trustees who choose them might be better off with someone who has a sound theological formation, is deeply familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and is faithful to the magisterium.

“The president is probably the most significant in setting the tone for a college or university,” O'Donnell said. “Formation is important, but even more important than formation is a deep faith commitment. That's not something you go to school for.”

Dr. Daniel Curran, the first lay president of Ohio's University of Dayton, a Marianist institution, said although he brings little formal theological training to his job, his 23 years at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia as a faculty member and administrator taught him about the needs of Catholic institutions and provided opportunities for spiritual formation with the Jesuits.

“When the Marianists were looking for a [president],” he said, “they were looking for an individual who had gone through a process of spiritual formation. They clearly were looking for a practicing Catholic, but very important to them was that I could articulate my personal position on my faith.”

Father Thomas Berg, who has helped develop plans for the Legionaries of Christ's University of Sacramento in California, said a theology degree in and of itself has little bearing on the ability of a lay president to effectively pursue and foster the Catholic mission and identity of an institution.

What is needed, he said, is a person who can generate or embrace a vision and then carry and promote it along with the school's identity and mission.

“That has to be incarnate in that person,” he said.

“What is necessary,” he added, “is that this individual has a genuine appreciation for the history of Catholic higher education, sees no conflict between the pursuit of genuine academic freedom and fidelity to the magisterium and is ready to work with administration and faculty to articulate … and communicate the elements of that institution's Catholic identity and mission within the parameters of fidelity to the Catholic magisterium.”

Speaking from the perspective of a faculty member, Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at the Jesuits’ St. Louis University, said he thinks the will of a Catholic college president is a bigger factor than professional training or intellectual ability.

“Do you want a Catholic college and if so, are you willing to make the decisions that bring that about, some of which will be unpopular?” he asked.

But Dr. Janet Smith, chair of life issues at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary and a former faculty member at several Catholic schools, including the University of Notre Dame and the University of Dallas, said she thinks Catholic colleges need to look more carefully not just at presidents but at the trustees who choose them.

“Many received their education 40 years ago and have not a clue about what things are like on Catholic campuses today,” she said. “Some don't even know there are huge divisions in the Church and how careful you must be about hiring people.”

Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.