Crack in the Wall of Orthodoxy?

At University of Dallas, students and alumni express concerns about teaching at School of Ministry.

ATTENTIVE. Students from the University of Dallas Rome campus attend Pope Benedict XVI 's general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 1, 2010. The main campus of the Catholic school is in Irving, Texas.
ATTENTIVE. Students from the University of Dallas Rome campus attend Pope Benedict XVI 's general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 1, 2010. The main campus of the Catholic school is in Irving, Texas. (photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring)

IRVING, Texas — The University of Dallas has always prided itself on its faithfulness to the magisterium, but only quick action by the administration and local bishops fended off a sudden rebellion of undergrads, alumni and parents seeking to defend UD’s orthodoxy against perceived threats.

Triggering the insurrection was an open letter from a high-profile father of five UD grads objecting in advance to the imminent approval of a new undergrad program for parish lay ministers at UD’s School of Ministry, which some have called “doctrinally challenged.”

The letter went viral among campus bloggers, sparked dozens of incendiary emails to UD’s president, Thomas Keefe, and a petition with several hundred signatures (UD has more than 2,800 students). The university’s board of trustees nonetheless approved the new program on March 3.

“Heresy is not being taught at the University of Dallas. Blasphemy is not being taught at the University of Dallas,” Keefe told the Register. “Any faculty that do not comport with the teachings of the Church will not be teaching at this university.”

The parent who raised the alarm is Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. His letter began: “Depending on how the board of the University of Dallas votes tonight, I (proud father of five UD alumni children) may well be telling folks: ‘Don’t send your kids to UD. It used to be great but now is a danger to their faith.’”

This is no empty threat, notes UD history professor Susan Hanssen. The university’s alumni are extraordinarily loyal and influential among the Catholic home-schoolers and private Catholic academies loyal to the magisterium that feed UD. They form a “vibrant, participatory, morally and theologically informed core community” with faculty and students.

Hanssen, who is an expert on the secularization of America’s universities, says the University of Dallas was founded in the 1950s with the intention of resisting that trend and remaining faithfully Catholic. Over the years there have been several uproars at UD when previous administrations or the School of Ministry have appeared to diverge from that goal.

Hanssen herself has criticized the school for inviting Sister Barbara Reid to deliver last year’s prestigious Landregan lecture. Sister Barbara, a Dominican New Testament scholar, lumped the Church’s refusal to ordain women in with its alleged general oppression of women. Fagan too cited the Reid speech and opinions of School of Ministry faculty members that appear to question Church teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality.

‘The Board Seems Blind’

One of those who was activated by Fagan’s letter was senior Daniel Arevalo.

“I raised my voice because I’m concerned that the people who go to the School of Ministry for this program will return to their parishes to teach people how to lose their faith,” Arevalo said.

The School of Ministry was not, until now, seen as much of a threat, Arevalo explained, because it was a graduate school whose students did not follow the university’s theology-, philosophy- and history-heavy core curriculum. Now that its students would participate fully in undergrad life, however, it was seen as a Trojan horse.

As one irate UD grad, Barbara Stirling, who earned a Master of Arts degree in philosophical studies in 1993, said, “Many of us UD grads chose it for ourselves because of its liberal arts curriculum, political conservatism and theological orthodoxy, all accomplished in an atmosphere of civility and charity. Yet, the board seems blind to the things that we value.”

Arevalo also noted that the introduction of new undergraduate programs has usually taken many years. The new program in pastoral studies, however, has been approved in just two.

The push is coming from Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas and Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth, who told Keefe they needed much better trained lay ministers because of a shortage of priests. Bishop Farrell, in a
video response to the controversy mounted on YouTube noted that his diocese had just 104 priests to serve 1.2 million Catholics. Some parishes, he said, don’t have any priests of their own, while their lay ministers, “have great will but do not have the required preparation.”

On the same video, Bishop Farrell also bluntly took responsibility for the faithfulness of the School of Ministry.

“Let me remind the Catholic people of the diocese that this is my responsibility,” he said. “I am the one who has to stand before God. I do not take it lightly.”

Keefe responded to the furor by arranging a forum where he showed the Bishop Farrell video, read a letter of support from Bishop Vann, explained the process followed in developing and approving the program and, finally, fielded questions from the students present.

At the forum, Keefe described many of the emails he received as “very hurtful.” If people had made those remarks to his face, “I would have punched them out.” He urged the students to show “a little trust” in Bishop Farrell. “He is the magisterium, whether you like it or not.”

Abrupt Reversal

Keefe later told the Register he was disappointed with how ill-informed the critics were and especially how ill-judged were their criticisms of School of Ministry faculty. They failed to take into account that the two bishops had approved the new program, as had the faculty senate and a committee comprising professors from both the School of Ministry and the theology faculty. All of the latter theologians, he noted, take an oath of obedience to the magisterium. As for the School of Ministry’s faculty, the university and Bishop Farrell would review the teachers privately “and respectfully.”

For Keefe, it was a display of the same feisty accessibility he had already displayed in his first year in office, taking to the road to meet alumni and going to campus hangouts for informal one-on-one discussions with students.

The response from Keefe and the bishops had some effect. Fagan, reached in Washington, D.C., told the Register, “I have no more to say. Bishop Farrell has accepted responsibility.”

But he considers that “the jury is still out” on whether the bishop will sufficiently vet the School of Ministry to satisfy the UD community.

One who is decidedly not satisfied is Barbara Stirling. She called Bishop Farrell’s video “an attempt to shut down discourse.” Like some of those who signed the petition, she is watching her alma mater carefully and protectively.

But others are mollified by the assurances of Keefe and the two bishops. Randy Beeler, father of two UD grads and husband of a current student at the School of Ministry, at first used his The Catholic Comedy blog to broadcast and support Fagan’s letter. After communicating with President Keefe, he has reversed his position., urging his readers to “give our shepherds and those who are authoring and steering this program the chance to do what they are genuinely seeking to do.”

Reversing the Trojan horse metaphor, Beeler suggested that the new undergrad program would “hold SOM academically and magisterially accountable (in a way the School of Ministry heretofore has not been).”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.