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Editorial: The Battle for Belmont Abbey College and the Soul of Catholic Higher Education

By Deacon Keith A. Fournier
February 16th, 2008
Catholic Online (

LOS ANGELES (Catholic Online) - Belmont Abbey College is nestled in beautiful Belmont, North Carolina, a picturesque campus not too far from Charlotte, North Carolina. The College was founded by Benedictine Monks in 1876 and stands as a sign of hope for Catholic Higher Education.

It is also currently engaged in a battle which has vital implications for the Catholic educational mission.

The specific details of this battle reveal the courage, faith and conviction of its dynamic lay President, Dr. William Thierfelder as well as that of Abbot Placid Solari, O.S.B., its Chancellor and the Abbott of the community of monks who serve the College. However, it uncovers something which has implications for the struggle for the soul of Catholic higher education.

The field upon which the ongoing recovery of Catholic Higher education is being played out is filled with players. There are the new catholic Colleges which are providing a fresh witness of dynamic Catholic orthodoxy. There are the older Universities, some of which are beginning to form new Programs and Institutes. Then there are the established Catholic Colleges and Universities, many of which are recovering not only their unique mission but the very core of their Catholic identity, their soul.

I am a product of the last two.

All three are a fruit of the call for a “New Evangelization” issued by the Servant of God John Paul II and now carried forth with a great depth of wisdom and pastoral leadership under the skilled and watchful care of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.

The recent news from the Vatican that he will address all Catholic College and University leaders when he visits Catholic University of America in April is one more in a series of efforts and writings which confirm that this marvelous theologian, scholar and former Professor understands how essential Catholic Higher education truly is.

Catholic scholar and historian Thomas E Woods wrote a compelling book entitled “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.” Many cultural observers, and I am numbered among them, believe that only the Catholic Church can now save it from its impending collapse.

To do that will require a multi- generational effort. What is most essential right now is to raise up the next generation of faith filled, dedicated, well formed and informed, truly educated Catholics who can become what the Apostle Peter rightly called the “living stones.” (See, 1 Peter 2:1-9)

I was an “early responder" to the miracle that is now the Franciscan University of Steubenville, both as a student when it was still called the “College of Steubenville” and then, as a worker in the rebuilding, serving as a Dean in the early days of the dynamic, courageous and very skilled leadership of my friend and a mentor, Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. Fr. Michael understands the battle for the soul of a Catholic College. As I watch the courageous leadership at Belmont Abbey College, I am reminded of those early days.

Now, many years later, after College, Law School, career, raising our children and now receiving the gift of grandchildren, ordination to the Diaconate, twelve years of diaconal service ...I am at it again. I believe that I must do all that I can to promote and support truly Catholic education. As I entered my fifties, I became accutely aware of the importance of training the next generation; and, in particular, training them in the Queen of the Sciences, Theology.I knew I had to do more.

So, in the nineties, I completed a Masters Degree at an excellent example of one of the new Institutes, the “John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family” launched by the Lateran University. Its American campus is now situated at the Catholic University of America.

I recently completed my coursework for the PhD in Moral Theology at a larger example of a Catholic University which has recovered its soul, the Catholic University of America. Under the leadership of its 14th President, the Very Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M, America’s Pontifical University is in good hands, and in the midst of a wonderful flourishing of truly Catholic scholarship within the Catholic vision of the Academy. Leadership truly matters.

So, I not only admire and understand what the President and Abbott of Belmont Abbey have undertaken, but I am committed to their continued success and victory; both for the sake of Belmont Abbey College as well as for the mission of the whole Catholic Church. We sons and daughters of the Catholic Church desperately need her Catholic Colleges to be, well, Catholic. Belmont Abbey College is just that. It is also a beacon of hope.

Thus, as is always the case, it is under attack from some quarters. This happened at Steubenville in the early days. With able, faithful and courageous leadership, and a lot of prayer, she weathered the storm. So will Belmont Abbey College.

President William Thierfelder began his leadership of the school by signaling where he was headed. He made a public profession of faith and took the oath of fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium in fidelity to the marvelous decree of the late Servant of God; John Paul II entitled “From the Heart of the Church” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990).

Every Professor of theology now has a Mandatum from their local bishop, which is the official church recognition that they intend to teach in full communion with the teaching office of the Catholic Church.

This pledge of fidelity and obedience should be obvious at every Catholic College or University. Sadly, this has not been the case.

The core curriculum of this College is rooted within the classical liberal tradition, with a sincere focus on academic excellence and personal and social virtue. In its classrooms and on its campus, an authentic understanding of Christianity as the true and full humanism is normative.

It is a welcome relief from the aberrations all too present in some circles which claim the name humanism but preface it with “secular”. The students not only study, they live their very real and fully human lives, including sports, recreation, arts, culture, celebration and worship, all within an integrative Catholic vision and culture flourishing on the campus.

Rooted in philosophy, theology, and the classical liberal arts, the College encourages and promotes the education of the whole person, providing a Catholic way of life for its students through this experience of Catholic culture on campus with Eucharistic worship at its core. The College seeks to remain true to the Catholic faith, within the lived witness of the Benedictine charism which is revealed in their motto, “That in all things God may be glorified”

The battle in which they are engaged has now broken out on a specific front.The “culture of death” has sought to find a vulnerable spot, through the provision of health care.

In the stories below, Dr Deal Hudson does an excellent job of identifying the specifics of the fray. The report from Lifesite news updates our readers on the current state of the struggle. The President and Abbott/Chancellor have stood strong. They should receive the prayers and the admiration of all Catholics, other Christians, other people of faith and all people of good will.

Belmont Abbey College is an example of what is good about Catholic higher education in America.It takes seriously the vision of the seminal document “From the Heart of the Church” (Ex Corde Ecclesia), several portions of which are set forth below:

“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.”

The development, articulation and sustenance of this kind of vision and mission is the primary responsibility of the Catholic College President. Thus, 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 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 participate in the saving mission of the Catholic Church. They must be properly formed and up to this kind of 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 vision and mission in word and deed and help the academic community placed in their care along the Catholic way.

This takes a President who understands that the leadership of a Catholic College is a sacred trust requiring both knowledge of - and fidelity to - the fullness of Catholic teaching. These kinds of leaders will teach, live and promote a virtue based educational philosophy and lead the entire Catholic educational community, faculty, staff and students, to the source of all Virtue and Excellence, Jesus Christ.

They will also be opposed.President Thierfelder is experiencing that kind of opposition.

Building a Catholic College for the twenty first century, stretching into the Third Millennium, requires a clear vision, mission and leadership. The President of a Catholic College must be able to articulate this mission and vision in a way that inspires the entire academic and parish community to join together in a singular educational missionary purpose.

Students at Catholic Colleges deserve a fully Catholic Education. They also deserve Presidents and Chancellors like Dr. William Thierfelder and Abbot Placid Solari, O.S.B

The future requires a new generation of Catholic men and women who understand the implications of their faith on the entirety of their lives and are motivated by their faith to take their place within every segment of society and build a better future.

These kinds of men and women do not appear on the scene through happenstance; they must be properly educated and then enlisted in the mission of the Church, for the world. This is the vital task of the Catholic College.

Belmont Abbey College has taken up this vital mission. The Battle for Belmont Abbey College and the Soul of Catholic Higher Education has been engaged.Let us support them in their battle and pray for the continued success of their vital mission.

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