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The Identity of a Catholic University

Interview With Notre Dame's Father John Coughlin

NEW YORK, JUNE 13, 2006 (Zenit) - Questions about the nature of Church-related universities resurfaced after a commencement speaker at a Catholic institution was booed when defending Church teaching on premarital sex and contraception.

For insight into the identity of Catholic colleges in general, we turned to Franciscan Father John Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame.

He shared with us the essential characteristics of a Catholic university as laid out in canon law and the 1990 apostolic constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesia," and the need for a commitment to the priority of Catholic truth over all other claims.

Q: What does it mean that a university is Catholic? What are the ways Catholic identity should manifest itself on a practical level?

Father Coughlin: A Catholic university is a community of scholars and students who are united by the love for truth and the desire to integrate faith and reason. The university is not simply a collection of individuals but a community grounded in Catholic faith.

From an academic perspective, a Catholic university requires a critical mass of committed Catholic scholars who are dedicated to the search for truth. It should be a place of lively and open intellectual discussion, and the discussion ought to be guided by the rules for rigorous intellectual investigation.

It engages the wider culture but always in accord with the truth of Catholic faith. It should not in any way be closed in on itself but should participate in a dialogue with the wider culture.

In particular, it contributes to the dialogue by explaining the great wisdom of the Church's tradition about the value of human life and the need for social justice.

From a liturgical perspective, it also offers ample opportunities for its faculty, staff and students to nourish their spiritual lives through the celebration of the sacraments.

From the perspective of Church's social justice teaching, the Catholic university not only sponsors academic discussion and research but should also afford opportunities for practical implementation of Gospel-centered service, truth and love.

From the perspective of canon law, a Catholic university must exhibit at least seven essential characteristics.

First, according to Canon 807, the Catholic university "promotes the deeper culture and full development of the human person in accord with the Church's teaching office."

Second, the majority of the faculty members consist of practicing Catholics, as explained in "Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

Third, Canon 810 states that the president and other officers of a Catholic university have the responsibility to ensure that faculty members are appointed who are "outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and uprightness of life."

Fourth, the president of the Catholic university must make the profession of faith at the start of his or her term of office, according to Canon 833.

Fifth, the bishops' conference and the diocesan bishop have the duty and right of ensuring that the principles of Catholic doctrine are faithfully observed.

Sixth, in line with Canon 812, theology teachers in a Catholic university must have a mandate from the local ordinary.

Finally, the use of the title "Catholic" is only with the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority, as outlined in Canon 808.

Q: A recent Wall Street Journal article described the growing trend within Christian universities to "hire according to mission," generally meaning that schools will focus on hiring faculty within their faith tradition. What are the benefits and shortcomings of such a method?

Father Coughlin: As mentioned above, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" requires that at least a simple majority of the members of a Catholic university be practicing Catholics. This juridic requirement reflects the understanding of a Catholic university as a community of persons who are committed to Catholic faith.

Catholic belief is necessarily normative within the Catholic intellectual community. Catholicism is not just another "good idea" sometimes at issue and to be batted around in the ongoing intellectual debate at the Catholic university.

Without the recognition of the primacy of Catholic truth claims, the university's own internal dialogue will fail to ensure integration of faith and reason; and in its dialogue with wider culture, the Catholic university will be a weak partner with little of its own to offer.

The phrase "hiring in accord with mission" means that there can be no fruitful internal or external dialogue unless the majority of the faculty members are committed Catholics and that others on the faculty at least show a genuine respect for the integration of faith and ...

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