Catholic in Name Only

Anne Hendershott

Editor’s Note: Our Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest feature is at present being written by guest authors. The perspectives and opinions presented are those of the authors and will of necessity vary from issue to issue.

In a statement that might have been more appropriately released by a Catholic bishop, a federal agency recently issued a ruling that the “public representations of Manhattan College clearly demonstrate that it is not providing a ‘religious educational environment.’”1 The ruling was issued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at the conclusion of a hearing over whether adjunct professors at Manhattan College have the right to unionize. While Manhattan College claimed that it is exempt from the NLRB’s jurisdiction because it is a church-operated institution, the federal labor board judged that the college had distanced itself so far from the authority and teaching of the Catholic Church that it no longer merited government recognition as an institution that is church-operated.

The findings by the labor board should not surprise those of us who have spent our careers in Catholic higher education. Catholic colleges and universities have been moving steadily away from the Catholic identity since 1967, when a group of Catholic college leaders met in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, and issued a crucial statement on the nature of Catholic higher education.2 The opening paragraph of the fifteen-hundred-word statement began: “To perform its teaching and research function effectively 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.”3 In Contending with Modernity (1995), historian Philip Gleason described this statement as a “symbolic manifesto” that marked a new era in Catholic higher education.4

Some historians believe that it is likely that the potential for new revenue streams offered by affluent lay trustees with business and government ties played a more important role in the move to laicization than simply a desire for academic freedom. In The Academic Revolution (1968), Christopher Jencks and David Riesman point out that “business leaders who joined the boards were expected to make greater efforts to raise money from their friends.”5

It is also likely that in some cases, the desire for foundation and federal grants and contracts have hastened the secularization of Catholic higher education. When it benefits them, some Catholic colleges and universities will readily abandon their identity to garner additional funds. In a 2009 case heard before the Missouri Supreme Court that is the polar opposite of the Manhattan College case, St. Louis University (SLU) found itself forced to reaffirm publicly that “it is not controlled by the Catholic Church or by its Catholic beliefs.”6 A lawsuit filed against SLU by the Masonic Temple Association argued that the $8 million in tax increment financing SLU received for its new sports arena violated state and federal constitutions. The Missouri constitution prohibits public funding to support any college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church, or sectarian denomination.

In response to the lawsuit, SLU assured the court that “with 42 trustees, it would take 22 of them to conduct the university’s business. With 22 trustees assembled, it would take at least 12 votes to approve a corporate act of the board. Thus, the nine Jesuit trustees on the board do not have the numerical authority to take any action on behalf of the university.”7 SLU also pointed out to the court that despite its Jesuit tradition, “the school does not require employees or students to aspire to Jesuit ideals.”8 In a friend of the court brief filed on behalf of the Masonic Temple Association, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote that “it is surprising that the University would sell its heritage for $8 million.”9

Still, when Catholic college professors want to use the Catholic identity to make political points, they are more than happy to dust off selective Church teachings to criticize a conservative. On the occasion of House Speaker John A. Boehner’s recent commencement address at the Catholic University of America, seventy-eight faculty members from Catholic colleges and universities signed an open letter criticizing him. Ignoring his strong pro-life voting record, the professors claimed that his voting record is at variance with the Church’s “most ancient moral teachings to preference the needs of the poor,” and alleged that Boehner’s support for legislation to address the needs of the poor is “among the worst in Congress.”10

Yet several of those signing the letter to Speaker Boehner have publicly campaigned for pro-choice Catholic politicians—all Democrats—who not only promised to support a woman’s right to choose, but have consistently voted to expand abortion rights. Stephen F. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America and spokesman and organizer of the Boehner letter campaign, was one of twenty-six Catholic scholars who in 2009 signed “Catholics for Sebelius,” the statement supporting President Obama’s selection of Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

As governor of Kansas, Sebelius vetoed pro-life legislation on four separate occasions. A serial signer of these kinds of open statements, Schneck was also one of twenty-four signatories on a May 2009 full-page advertisement published in the South Bend Tribune titled “Catholic Leaders and Theologians Welcome President Obama to Notre Dame.” Sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a George Soros-funded organization, the ad was intended to quell the controversy over Notre Dame’s awarding of an honorary degree to the president.11

While some of these colleges and universities continue proudly to proclaim their Catholic identity when it is convenient—or benefits them when recruiting Catholic students or raising funds from Catholic donors, or serves as a ploy to block collective bargaining on their campuses—many of these same schools deny that identity when state or federal funding is available and secularization makes them more attractive recipients.

A number of books have been written decrying this duplicity. Although it is more than a decade old, the most comprehensive account of secularization is described in The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (1998), by Rev. James Turnsted Burtchaell. Drawing from an in-depth assessment of prominent Catholic colleges as well as colleges from the Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, and Evangelical denominations, Burtchaell narrates how “each school’s religious identity eventually became first uncomfortable and then expendable.”12 Few of us would identify Dartmouth as a Congregationalist college or Wake Forest as a Baptist university or Lafayette as a Presbyterian college, yet each was founded under the auspices of these religious denominations.

More recently, Melanie Morey, a research consultant to Catholic colleges and universities, and Fr. John Piderit, president of the Catholic Education Institute, published Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (Oxford, 2006). Pointing to the reluctance to embrace a strong declaration of their Catholic identity even in their mission statements reveals a kind of ambivalence, as many Catholic schools now describe themselves as independent colleges “in the Catholic tradition” or heritage. In their research, Morey and Piderit found that many senior administrators disclosed their ambivalence about which cultural emphasis should dominate at their institutions—the Catholic culture or the culture of the sponsoring religious congregation.

Rather than describing themselves unambiguously as Catholic institutions, some will say that they are “inspired” by their founders. In their mission and values statements, many of these colleges choose to highlight their “Benedictine tradition” of hospitality,” for example, or, in the case of Manhattan College, the “LaSallian character” of its founders—in honor of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, a Catholic teaching order established by St. John Baptist de La Salle.

Most administrators surveyed believe that the focus on the religious order is “more inclusive.” What is left unsaid by the senior administrators in this study is that the emphasis on the sponsoring religious order and its culture helps the university ignore the Catholic Church itself. In fact, in the Manhattan College case, even the NLRB noted that the college had decoupled its LaSallian heritage from the Catholic Church.

This distancing from the Catholic Church is also reflected in many of the books on Catholic higher education published during the past decade. Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame, begins The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University (1994) by echoing the need for true autonomy from the Church in order to be great: “A great Catholic university must begin by being a great university that is also Catholic.”13 He later says that the greatest universities throughout history were those that distanced themselves from the Church.

One of the ways Catholic colleges and universities have done this has been through attacking the legitimacy of authority within the Church—and in many cases denying the existence of truth. In The Idea of a Catholic University, George Dennis O’Brien, former president of secular Bucknell University, dismisses the idea that Catholic colleges were created to discover and to teach the truth, and rejects the possibility that there even exists what he calls a “single truth.” Maintaining that “there are different kinds of truth…each with its own proper warrant and method,”14 O’Brien echoes the contention promoted in David O’Brien’s From the Heart of the American Church: Catholic Higher Education and American Culture. A longtime Holy Cross College historian who now teaches at the University of Dayton, O’Brien suggests that what is needed is a theological method anchored in the experience of Christians who “necessarily must be consulted in moral formulations” rather than in the Magisterium (or the teaching authority) of the Church.15

In an attempt to confront these problems, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which translates as “From the Heart of the Church,” his 1992 papal document on Catholic higher education. In the document, the Pope calls on Catholic colleges to be accountable to the authority of the local bishops. A key component of this accountability requires that all theologians obtain a mandatum, or certification from the local bishop attesting that their teaching is in communion with official Church teachings. Yet, more than a decade later, Ex Corde continues to be resisted by most of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities.

Ex Corde is opposed because many faculty and administration claim to view it as a threat to their academic freedom and independent governance. In a commentary in the Jesuit magazine America, Notre Dame’s then-president Fr. Edward Malloy, along with Fr. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, warned of “havoc” if it were adopted and called the mandatum requirement “positively dangerous” to Catholic colleges in America.16 The faculty senate at Notre Dame voted unanimously for the guidelines of Ex Corde to be ignored.

At the same time faculty and administrators have resisted the tenets of Ex Corde, Catholic colleges and universities have been eager to comply with whatever terms are suggested by the secular accrediting associations—including demands for attention to “social justice” or diversity. As a result, Ex Corde has been a failure on Catholic campuses, because most Catholic college presidents have refused to implement it and the bishops have been reluctant to enforce it.

It is clear that Pope Benedict has continued his predecessor’s commitment to revitalizing Catholic higher education, yet the subtleties of his speech to Catholic college presidents at Catholic University a few years ago seem to have been lost on many in attendance. Misinterpreting the speech’s gracious opening passage that drew from Romans 10:15–17 (“How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring the good news”) as validation of a job well done, the congratulatory headline from the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “Pope Benedict Thanks Educators and Addresses Academic Freedom in Talk at Catholic U.”

Daniel Carey, president of Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, told the Chronicle reporter that he was grateful for the speech, because “I can go back to our campus with the papal affirmation of gratitude for their work.” Mary Lyons, president of the University of San Diego, called the Pope’s speech “affirming and generous” and pronounced the controversies surrounding Ex Corde in the past as “so 90s.”17 But in the midst of the accolades they awarded to themselves, none of the Catholic college leaders interviewed following the papal address mentioned that when Pope Benedict affirmed academic freedom he quickly added that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church betray the university’s identity and mission.

On January 20, 2011, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry of Los Angeles, chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the ten-year review of The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States, stating, “This review will help us appreciate the positive developments and remaining challenges in the collaborative efforts of bishops and presidents to ensure the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”18 This may create a problem for the many theologians on Catholic campuses whose teaching is in direct opposition to authentic Church teachings.

On September 15, 2010, the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a criticism of The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (2008), by Creighton University theology professors Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler, stating that the book’s methodology and conclusions are “clearly in contradiction to the authentic teaching of the Church, cannot provide a norm for moral action, and in fact are harmful to one’s moral and spiritual life.”19 And this March the USCCB issued a criticism of Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (2007), by Sr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theology professor at Fordham, claiming that her book contains “misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium.”20

Although the Committee on Doctrine has issued their concerns about these theologians’ teachings, there has been little reaction from their home universities. In a statement responding to the criticism, Creighton claimed that while they acknowledge the authority of the USCCB,

As a comprehensive university, Creighton is nonetheless mindful of its obligation to honor the academic freedom of individual faculty members.…Indeed, in his April 2008 address to Catholic educators, Pope Benedict XVI “reaffirm(ed) the great value of academic freedom.”21

Prof. Salzman continues to chair the theology department at Creighton.

It is clear that changing the culture and curriculum on Catholic campuses will be much more difficult than the bishops may have anticipated. It will be interesting to see whether they have the will or the courage to do so.

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