A Canadian Texan Looks at Catholic Identity From Rome

Archbishop J. Michael Miller is the Pope's pointman on Catholic education.

As secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Canadian, who is former president of St. Thomas University in Houston, is in the center of the Catholic Identity debate. He spoke to Register staff writer Tim Drake. (Archbishop Miller on Europe's Seminaries, page 4.)

What's unique about the American Catholic higher education situation?

The enthusiasm and ability to think about the idea of new foundations is uniquely American. In many countries in Europe they have a difficult time imagining that they can launch institutions of higher learning. Americans are not held back by that. Different people come up with different takes on how they might do that. If they don't like what they can get, they found something new. The notion of subsidiarity is active in American Catholic life.

In the last 15 years there has been a renewed interest in Catholic identity. There are different takes on how to strengthen it, but you would be hard-pressed to find very many people who don't know what you're talking about. Fifteen years ago, the question might not have resonated. That's a big difference from the 1970s. That doesn't mean that there is a single response. The question is there. In the Catholic world, it's hard for someone to say that Catholic identity is not worth talking about. To cavalierly put it aside … not many people are doing that. I think the question is on the table with greater clarity than it was previously.

Jesuit Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach once said, “For some universities, it is probably too late to restore their Catholic character.” Would you agree with that assessment?

As we say in the South, it “might could be true” in some instances. I don't like it as a header line. When something like that starts to be applied, as opposed to a general theory of course, real caution is needed.

What efforts can be taken to “re-Catholicize” such institutions?

For institutions that have become flabby over the years, in general, one of the things that would be wonderful to see is an honest assessment that uses real markers … some general ones where people would do an assessment with the kind of attention that we give to accreditation. We could turn to those kinds of tools that we are familiar with and ask questions about Catholicity, not in a bean-counter kind of way, but in a sober kind of way. There could be an assessment with accountability to see where an institution is at and where it wants to go. Without a solid assessment, you're not going to do anything.

It's pretty unlikely that all of a university's stakeholders would want to move away from Catholicity. You might find areas where one group is interested and the other is, but where you would get a constellation of stars where all of the people would want to withdraw, or move away from Catholicity, would be in extremely extraordinary cases.

Is it worth the effort?

Of course it is. The tendency in the States is sometimes to decide that you want to start something new, but you're not abandoning, you're just directing your apostolic intensity in another form.

Have you seen anything like the assessment you describe?

There is nothing. I've seen some things in other countries, such as Australia, where they do have some measures. It would be helpful if there was some kind of relatively commonly-adopted assessment so that you could do some benchmarking. A lot of the Ex Corde discussion got centered on the theology department and the mandatum, but that's not the only thing that makes a university Catholic.

What might such an assessment measure?

Those are the things that are really found in Ex Corde. Explicitly, there should be an effort to look at your faculty, and primarily at your curriculum. What about curriculum outside of the theology department? What about concerns of social justice? What are you expecting of the students? How will anyone recognize when they graduate that they have been to a Catholic school in how they think about things. How are liturgical life and student life?

Do you think that the discussion focused on the mandatum because it could be used as a measuring stick?

The whole question is much wider than that. I think it should be more opened up. Some questions were never fully engaged. I don't know whether the mandatum puts the role of the theologian and the bishop in the highlight, so it's attractive to the media with good guys and bad guys. To talk about the Catholicity of a curriculum is much more complicated. In that discussion the good guys and bad guys are harder to define, but I think that's where we want to move the discussion.

Who would need to develop such an assessment?

It would only be effective if it came from the university or an accrediting agency. To come up with something would take a process of years. A lot of this is in the doing. Ex Corde might have taken as long as 20 years. While an institution could come up with its own guidelines, the more it is shared the more other institutions can help you.

There seem to be a whole crop of new schools that are embracing the Church and her teachings and promoting that fact. What do you make of this movement?

In terms of the numbers of students they attract, they are still small, but they are exciting and uniquely American. Elsewhere in the world, institutions are connected with the state and people aren't used to making the enormous financial commitment necessary to start something new. America is pretty singular in the world.

Such institutions are wonderful endeavors and are often found where there is a huge lack of Catholic education, especially in the Southern and Western spheres. They aren't found in Philadelphia where there are 10 institutions. They are found in places where the Catholic infrastructure is not yet built up, and there are people willing to do it.

I hear from parents on a weekly basis who are concerned about the options available for their sons and daughters. What advice would you give to them?

If they own a computer, they can find out anything they want. Just as people spend hours researching programs, now you can get everything on a website. What is the school's self-presentation like? What are the student events and activities like? The student newspapers? Are there opportunities for daily confession or Mass? You can find out a million things other than what the glossy literature targeted to special interest groups tells you.

I don't think people are deprived of information. You just have to know how to mine it, and most students can. By doing so, they can build up a composite.

What of parents who feel stonewalled on the mandatum question?

You can find out what you want to find out. The professor doesn't have an obligation to tell anyone, but how he fields the question should tell them what they want to know.

The fact of the mandatum doesn't mean that is the best theology professor. Parents can't reduce it all to a single question, but must build up a picture of a place. Most places have their own reputations, and sometimes the reputations are a little behind. What the parents know is not what the students know. There is a public way that these institutions exist and make that known over time. They are not secret societies. Parents can decide if this is a place where their son or daughter will flourish.

In your recent lecture at Notre Dame you said that Pope Benedict XVI might encourage “evangelical pruning.” Could you explain that?

It suggests a serious effort, on the one hand, that has to go into assessing the Catholicity of your institution. You have to be willing to pull away … maybe some institutions have wrapped themselves in a language without serious accountability. You have to see things as they really are. That's much harsher. We get very defensive about it. If we reveal our weaknesses, people will attack us, rather than seeing it as the first stage of change. Institutions are reluctant in some ways to do that. They have development and enrollment goals. In some ways, for them, the fruit is always on the tree.

Another thing is the idea that you might have to let go of some ideas about yourselves and about what it means to be Catholic. Maybe some haven't been strong enough and think about being Catholic with a small “c.” Some might have lost sight of the rich doctrinal tradition that can best be passed on. It really calls for a kind of sobriety … to be hard-nosed, which you can only do in a climate of trust. That's difficult because to reveal your weaknesses, people will take pot shots at you. We don't admit our faults as a way to correct them. It's saying this is where we are, but this is where we want to be, and showing where you want to move people. To say, “We're all more Catholic than anyone else,” I don't think that serves the good. I understand why we do it.

But, you don't see this as being imposed by the Vatican?

The Vatican's authority is primarily a moral authority. The Vatican is hardly in a position to impose; it exhorts. At places like Catholic University, we have a more direct role and responsibility.

So, is the question of whether an institution remains Catholic largely up to the university itself?

No, the bishop is the ultimate one. He can withdraw it. To get into the Kenedy Directory or to belong to certain associations, one must be Catholic. That is in the bishops’ hands.

In your lecture at Notre Dame you say there are those who recommend prudence and patience. What of those who are losing their faith at such institutions in the meantime?

That's raising it to a real high bar. If an institution is one over time that can be shown where people are losing their faith, you're in serious trouble. That's scandalous.

If you were to have data that showed that this were, in fact, the case, then you’d have to act faster, if that fact could be established.

Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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