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Editorial: Well Done! Fr. David O'Connell Retires as President of the Catholic University of America

Catholic identity at a Catholic College requires that the academic community understand its ecclesial nature

The Catholic College President is at the service of the Catholic Church. He or she should understand the implications of the Catholic faith on the entirety of the educational mission. They participate in the saving mission of the Catholic Church. They must be properly formed in the faith and up to this task. Father David O'Connell is such a President.

The Catholic University of America

The Catholic University of America


WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - In an interview with one of my favorite religion reporters, Julia Duinn of the Washington Times, one of my favorite Catholic College Presidents, Fr. David O'Connell, showed his mettle - and the reason he was able to turn the Catholic University of America  around during his tenure as President. The article appeared in the Thursday May 20th edition of the Washington Times and was entitled "Vatican urged to guide Catholic schools." 

Father O'Connell displayed the candor needed in this desperate hour in this interview. The mission of the Church requires a new generation of properly formed Catholic men and women to engage what Pope Benedict XVI rightly called the "Dictatorship of Relativism." They need to offer a different way; the new and true humanism offered by the Christian vision of the human person, the family and society. They need to articulate truth claims and shine the light of truth in an age of shadows. It is those truth claims which have informed Western civilization. Those truth claims alone can rescue it from the abyss.They are being well prepared at Catholic University of America - and this Catholic College President has made sure of it.

Father O'Connell is a young man at 55 and has many years of service left. I do not know him personally. However, I have been a recipient of his authentically Catholic leadership. I just completed my PhD coursework and exams in Moral Theology at Catholic University. I am working on a dissertation. This program, in disarray several years before the arrival of Father O'Connell, is faithful to the Magisterium, academically excellent, and populated with outstanding professors who have changed my life, and the lives of many others. I know his leadership had much to do with that turnaround.

At the end of the article, Julia Duin referred to the past problems in the Moral Theology Department at the Catholic University of America. It was only one of the challenges the President faced when, out of a field of 100 candidates he was chosen, at 42 years old, to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). The Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities was promulgated in 1990. It is filled with clear teaching on Catholic identity such as:

"The primary mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel in such a way that a relationship between faith and life is established in each individual and in the socio-cultural context in which individuals live and act and communicate with one another. Evangelization means "bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new.... By its very nature, each Catholic university makes an important contribution to the Church's work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism, or where Christ and his message are still virtually unknown.

"Moreover, all the basic academic activities of a Catholic university are connected with and in harmony with the evangelizing mission of the Church: research carried out in the light of the Christian message which puts new human discoveries at the service of individuals and society; education offered in a faith-context that forms men and women capable of rational and critical judgment and conscious of the transcendent dignity of the human person; professional training that incorporates ethical values and a sense of service to individuals and to society; the dialogue with culture that makes the faith better understood, and the theological research that translates the faith into contemporary language.Precisely because it is more and more conscious of its salvific mission in this world, the Church wants to have these centers closely connected with it; it wants to have them present and operative in spreading the authentic message of Christ." (Ex Corde Ecclesia, Par. #48, 49)

Father O'Connell mentioned the debacle at the University of Notre Dame and asked the correct question: "Obama goes to Notre Dame and everyone gets their pants in a twist; 80 bishops pile on saying Notre Dame shouldn't have done that; the president comes and gives a speech; [the university] still turns away 1,000 students; they still get a million dollars in contributions; they honor the [papal] nuncio. ... They're back in the good graces of the church - what happened as a result of this?" 

He is writing a book on Catholic Identity at Catholic Colleges. It is truly needed. He will continue his effort to see Ex Corde Ecclesiae implemented in every Catholic College and University. The rumor mill is heating up over his possible call to episcopal service. He would be a great Bishop! He told the Washington Times that 20 years after it was promulgated too many Catholic Colleges  are not following it, "I'd like the Holy See to say 'Ex Corde' is normative,not Land O'Lakes. To appeal to Land O'Lakes as a source of vibrancy in Catholic education is mistaken." To which I add a hearty "Amen".

He referred to the July 1967 statement of 1500 words issued by twenty-six Catholic men who gathered in Land O' Lakes, Wisconsin. Their ruminations on the nature of "academic freedom" have led to dissent and the loss of Catholic identity and integrity on too many Campuses. For example, "To perform its teaching and research functions 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. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities." The real problem is, what does all that mean?

Catholic identity at a Catholic College requires that the academic community understand its ecclesial nature. In an institution, just as in persons, it begins from the inside and works its way throughout like leaven or yeast in a loaf. Catholic identity must become the beating heart of a Catholic College and provide the infrastructure for its entire educational mission. When it does, the building of a Catholic culture on campus becomes a fruit. This kind of Catholic culture helps to ensure the integration of the faith in every aspect of the academy, through both word and witness. It flourishes when all who are involved in this educational mission, from the Catholic College President to the Professor in the classroom, first view themselves as disciples, lifelong learners, followers of the Teacher, Jesus Christ.

In "Ex Corde Ecclesia" (At the Heart of the Church) we read, "Since the objective of a Catholic University is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture, every Catholic University, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics: 1. a Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such; 2. a continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research; 3. fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church; 4. an institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life..

"In the light of these four characteristics, it is evident that besides the teaching, research and services common to all Universities, a Catholic University, by institutional commitment, brings to its task the inspiration and light of the Christian message. In a Catholic University, therefore, Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities in accordance with the proper nature and autonomy of these activities. In a word, being both a University and Catholic, it must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge, and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative"

The Catholic College is not a private College with a church affiliation. It is a Catholic College. In his masterful letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul calls all Christians to a "renewal of their minds". (Romans 12:2) This renewal of the mind is the essence of Catholic education. There is a constitutive connection between truth, freedom, education and the ability to form an authentically human and just culture. This commitment to truth characterizes the entire Catholic educational mission. 

Catholic Colleges are an extension of the teaching work of the Catholic Church. The living Christ still teaches and directs His Church. Through that Church he continues to influence all of human culture. The faithful of the Church are called to inculcate and live the truth as articulated under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the teaching office of the Church. Catholic Colleges should stretch students academically, promoting excellence and not minimalism, and form them in truth, calling them to fidelity to the Church which is the pillar and bulwark of truth.( 1 Tim. 3:15) 

In an authentically Catholic educational philosophy there is no dichotomy between "faith and reason" or faith and intellectual excellence. In one of the great encyclical letters of the Venerable John Paul II Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) he expressed this unity so clearly: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth-in a word, to know himself-so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."

The development, articulation and implementation of this kind of vision are the primary responsibility of the Catholic College President. Such a President must understand his/her task as pedagogical, pastoral, catechetical and developmental. All leadership within the Catholic College is a part of the Catholic ecclesial community and participates in the leadership of the Church. Catholic College Presidents need to understand the uniqueness of Catholic leadership, believe it, and live it. Catholic identity should be the first criterion considered in choosing Presidents. It should motivate their service, and inform everything that they do in discharging their office.

The Catholic College President is at the service of the Catholic Church and then through her called to prepare leaders for the world. He or she should understand the implications of the catholic faith on the entirety of the educational mission. They are not simply secular professionals offering their skills in a Catholic College. As with leadership of any Catholic institution, they now participate in the saving mission of the Catholic Church. They must be properly formed in the faith and up to this task.

The students entrusted to their care are "living stones being built into a spiritual household" (I Peter 2:5) who have been called to build the future. Their call as Catholic College Presidents leaders is to articulate a compelling and profoundly Catholic vision and mission in word and deed and help the academic community placed in their care along the Catholic way of life and service to the Church and the world into which she is sent to carry on the redemptive mission of the Lord.

Father David O'Connell is such a President. For that he is to be commended. "Well done good and faithful servant." We encourage our global readers to pray for him as he continues to serve the Church in her mission to an age  desperately in need of her liberating message. We also ask our readers to pray for his successor. He or she needs to continue the momentum begun by this good priest and exemplary Catholic College President.

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Pope Francis calls for your 'Prayer and Action'


© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for March 2014
Respect for Women:
That all cultures may respect the rights and dignity of women.
Vocations: That many young people may accept the Lordís invitation to consecrate their lives to proclaiming the Gospel.

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1 - 3 of 3 Comments

  1. Magdaleno J Villegas
    3 years ago

    @claudia Sometimes we have a tendency to over-analyze simple situations that can be solved with a little common sense. You cannot give what you do not have especially when it comes to protecting a Catholic Identity.

    More importantly it really matters little if someone is "Catholic" or not if they are not line with all the teachings of the Church as evidenced by fallen away administrations of many "Catholic" Universities like Notre Dame, Georgetown and Boston College to name some of the most glaring examples.

    Speaking of the good work that Father O'Connell has done at CUA, the bishops unfortunately may nullify his legacy by their selection of John Garvey who has invited and ardently defended the honoring of Massachusetts pro abort politician Ed Markey to Boston College, defends the "Personally I am against abortion..." but votes otherwise argument of Mario Cuomo and has contributed to the presidential campaign of pro-abort John Kerry. Additionally his essay "The Pope's Submarine" leads one to question some of the teaching authority of the Magisterium.

    The most disillusioning aspect of this appointment is the fact the the board of CUA comprised of some good bishops selected him and had to get approval from the Vatican.

    Honestly sometime I think that the Church's worst enemy is themselves.

  2. claudia leone
    3 years ago

    Recently our board of trustees was engaged in a discussion as to whether a Catholic college needed to have a Catholic President. My view is, "yes" because only a Catholic can understand the nuances of our faith. But they haven't come to this conclusion yet. What is the opinion of others reading the above article?

  3. Andre Budianto
    3 years ago

    We should feel proud to be Catholic. I wish it still could be a model in our lifetime of God's grace and a witness as long as we live. I believe in a fruitful life in Jesus, our Lord.

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