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Catholic Universities: A Question of Identity

By Father John Flynn, LC
March 31st, 2009
Zenit News Agency (www.zenit.org)

There is a culture war going on in Catholic higher education and a new book addresses the roots of it.

ROME (Zenit) - The controversy over the invitation of President Barack Obama to the University of Notre Dame has placed at the forefront once more the debate over the identity of Catholic universities. Obama was invited by university president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, to give the May 17 address to graduates. He will also be awarded an honorary degree. Protests, which centered on Obama's anti-life measures taken in the first months of his administration, started immediately.

For those wanting to know more about what lies behind the conflict over this issue, Anne Hendershott analyzes the topic in a book published in January titled: "Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education," (Transaction Publishers). Hendershott is professor of urban affairs at The King's College, New York City.Hendershott starts off by referring to an essay published more than 50 years ago, in which Monsignor John Tracy Ellis questioned if the academic level on Catholic campuses was mediocre due to the priority given to the moral formation of students.

The echoes of this letter still resonate today, she commented, with some universities concluding that their Catholic identity is a liability in reaching the top echelon of tertiary institutions.A further milestone in the debate was the 1990 document by the Vatican, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," that emphasized the need for a Catholic identity in higher education. A key component of this document was to require that theologians teaching in Catholic colleges obtain a mandatum, or certificate from the local bishop, testifying to the fact that their teaching adhered to Church doctrine.This requirement, Hendershott observed, was resisted by many professors in Catholic institutions. Yet, at the same time she gave examples of where colleges eagerly complied with secular accrediting associations when they recommended greater diversity in terms of race and ethnicity.

Status

As a result, according to Hendershott, there has been a progressive loss of Catholic identity on many Catholic campuses due to a tendency among the faculty and administrators to conform to the desire for status in the secular world. There is, Hendershott argued, a culture war going on in Catholic higher education. This conflict is a reflection of the greater culture war between those who assert that there are no truths, and those who believe that the truths have been revealed and require constant reading and application.

Hendershott went on to describe cases in various Catholic institutions that, during the last few decades, have opted for deliberately walking away from a strict Catholic identity to a more secular position. In many institutions, Catholic ideals and teachings were seen as an unwanted interference in the academic work of the faculty, and Catholic intellectual traditions were not to be given any privilege.In practice, Hendershott noted, this meant that attempts to teach Catholic doctrine soon came to be seen as inappropriate or intolerant. Thus, the pluralism espoused by many faculty members did not mean a genuine dialogue between Catholic teachings and other ideas, but rather, only respect for those Catholic principles that the faculty already agreed with.

This change at the faculty level has been accompanied by a laicization of the leadership of Catholic colleges, Hendershott added. Many of the institutions transferred their charters and property holdings to independent boards of trustees, composed of a majority of lay people, and in so doing obtained legally guaranteed independence from Church authority.In part, Hendershott admitted, some of this trend to a secularization of the institutions was due to legal issues related to the matter of being eligible for government funding. As a result the Catholic colleges proclaimed their religious identity to the parents of prospective students and to alumni, but renounced in the public sphere their Catholic identity.

Selective

Hendershott even cited some examples of where some universities published different descriptions of themselves depending on the targeted audience. Several of them published one mission statement on their Web site, and a different one in the self-description for secular surveys.Hendershott also commented that, even to the extent that Catholic colleges do proclaim their Catholic identity to prospective students, they do so in a selective manner. She found that in a review of more than 200 mission and values statements of Catholic institutions, a substantial number downplayed their ties to Catholicism.

Some, for example, simply chose those parts of the Catholic identity that they feel more comfortable with. This is combined with statements affirming the diversity and plurality of the Church. Often reference is made to a sort of vaguely defined "Catholic heritage" or tradition rather than to any active Catholic identity. In so doing the aspect of having a Catholic tradition is often placed just as one among many other factors that are described as possible drawing cards for students.

Hendershott also observed that many of the Catholic colleges have gradually revised their values and goals statements so as to downplay any Catholic identity. So, while they may acknowledge some sort of foundation as a Catholic institution, at the same time they take pains to stipulate that they are autonomous and are committed to a respect for all cultures.She also cited a recent national survey of 124 senior administrators from 33 Catholic colleges and universities. Many of them were ambivalent as to whether the Catholic culture, or the culture of the religious institution that runs the college, should be predominant.

The survey itself commented that by focusing on the sponsoring religious order the university runs the danger of ignoring the Catholic Church itself.There are, however, notable exceptions, and Hendershott referred to a number of Catholic colleges that proudly proclaim their Catholic identity and adherence to Church teaching.

Starting afresh

This acknowledgment of positive trends is a feature of the concluding part of Hendershott's book. So, while many of the chapters do chronicle a dismaying denial of Catholic identity in higher education, there are positive elements as well.In recent decades a number of new colleges have been founded, and some existing ones have come back to a stronger adherence to the Church. Moreover, some of the strongly Catholic institutions have also obtained high rankings in secular surveys in terms of their educational excellence. While this new wave of firmly Catholic colleges does teach Church doctrine without apologies, they also present to students contrasting ideas, and encourage them to enter into debate with contemporary culture and ideas.

In addition to a number of flourishing colleges that maintain a strong adhesion to the Catholic Church, there are also growing numbers of students in many of the other institutions that take their faith seriously.Hendershott described a number of cases where this pressure from the students has led universities to take steps to proclaim a greater Catholic identity and even to include a wider variety of outside speakers on topics, instead of merely inviting dissenters from Church teaching.

A number of bishops are also taking more interest in what their Catholic universities are teaching and are insisting more on the need to be faithful to the Church.Hendershott concludes by adding that the secularization of many Catholic colleges, while in part due to outside pressures and the cultural context, was also the result of people who knew exactly what they were doing.It is possible to counteract this slide to secularization, Hendershott said, but it will require decision makers to embrace the richness of the Catholic tradition and to fight to preserve Catholic culture. A commitment whose importance is highlighted by the current controversy.

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