As I was saying: WHAT'S
WITH THE CATHOLIC CHURCH - #2. GS
(Rapid Response for MONDAY and TUESDAY, MARCH 30 and 31, 2009.)
ZENIT, The world seen from Rome
A Question of Identity
Catholic Higher Education in a Secular World
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, MARCH 29, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The controversy over the invitation
President Barack Obama to the University of Notre Dame has placed at
forefront once more the debate over the identity of Catholic
Obama was invited by university president, Holy Cross Father John
give the May 17 address to graduates. He will also be awarded an
degree. Protests, which centered on Obama's anti-life measures taken in
first months of his administration, started immediately.
For those wanting to know more about what lies behind the conflict over
issue, Anne Hendershott analyzes the topic in a book published in
titled: "Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education,"
(Transaction Publishers). Hendershott is professor of urban affairs at
King's College, New York City.
Hendershott starts off by referring to an essay published more than 50
ago, in which Monsignor John Tracy Ellis questioned if the academic
Catholic campuses was mediocre due to the priority given to the moral
The echoes of this letter still resonate today, she commented, with
universities concluding that their Catholic identity is a liability in
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
theologians teaching in Catholic colleges obtain a mandatum, or
the local bishop, testifying to the fact that their teaching adhered to
This requirement, Hendershott observed, was resisted by many professors
Catholic institutions. Yet, at the same time she gave examples of where
eagerly complied with secular accrediting associations when they
greater diversity in terms of race and ethnicity.
As a result, according to Hendershott, there has been a progressive
Catholic identity on many Catholic campuses due to a tendency among the
and administrators to conform to the desire for status in the secular
There is, Hendershott argued, a culture war going on in Catholic higher
education. This conflict is a reflection of the greater culture war
those who assert that there are no truths, and those who believe that
have been revealed and require constant reading and application.
Hendershott went on to describe cases in various Catholic institutions
during the last few decades, have opted for deliberately walking away
strict Catholic identity to a more secular position. In many
Catholic ideals and teachings were seen as an unwanted interference in
academic work of the faculty, and Catholic intellectual traditions were
be given any privilege.
In practice, Hendershott noted, this meant that attempts to teach
doctrine soon came to be seen as inappropriate or intolerant. Thus, the
pluralism espoused by many faculty members did not mean a genuine
between Catholic teachings and other ideas, but rather, only respect
Catholic principles that the faculty already agreed with.
This change at the faculty level has been accompanied by a laicization
leadership of Catholic colleges, Hendershott added. Many of the
transferred their charters and property holdings to independent boards
trustees, composed of a majority of lay people, and in so doing
guaranteed independence from Church authority.
In part, Hendershott admitted, some of this trend to a secularization
institutions was due to legal issues related to the matter of being
government funding. As a result the Catholic colleges proclaimed their
identity to the parents of prospective students and to alumni, but
the public sphere their Catholic identity.
Hendershott even cited some examples of where some universities
different descriptions of themselves depending on the targeted
of them published one mission statement on their Web site, and a
in the self-description for secular surveys.
Hendershott also commented that, even to the extent that Catholic
proclaim their Catholic identity to prospective students, they do so in
selective manner. She found that in a review of more than 200 mission
statements of Catholic institutions, a substantial number downplayed
Some, for example, simply chose those parts of the Catholic identity
feel more comfortable with. This is combined with statements affirming
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
doing the aspect of having a Catholic tradition is often placed just as
among many other factors that are described as possible drawing cards
Hendershott also observed that many of the Catholic colleges have
revised their values and goals statements so as to downplay any
identity. So, while they may acknowledge some sort of foundation as a
institution, at the same time they take pains to stipulate that they
autonomous and are committed to a respect for all cultures.
She also cited a recent national survey of 124 senior administrators
Catholic colleges and universities. Many of them were ambivalent as to
the Catholic culture, or the culture of the religious institution that
college, should be predominant.
The survey itself commented that by focusing on the sponsoring
the university runs the danger of ignoring the Catholic Church itself.
There are, however, notable exceptions, and Hendershott referred to a
Catholic colleges that proudly proclaim their Catholic identity and
This acknowledgment of positive trends is a feature of the concluding
Hendershott's book. So, while many of the chapters do chronicle a
denial of Catholic identity in higher education, there are positive
In recent decades a number of new colleges have been founded, and some
ones have come back to a stronger adherence to the Church. Moreover,
some of the
strongly Catholic institutions have also obtained high rankings in
surveys in terms of their educational excellence.
While this new wave of firmly Catholic colleges does teach Church
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
to the Catholic Church, there are also growing numbers of students in
the other institutions that take their faith seriously.
Hendershott described a number of cases where this pressure from the
has led universities to take steps to proclaim a greater Catholic
even to include a wider variety of outside speakers on topics, instead
inviting dissenters from Church teaching.
A number of bishops are also taking more interest in what their
universities are teaching and are insisting more on the need to be
Hendershott concludes by adding that the secularization of many
colleges, while in part due to outside pressures and the cultural
also the result of people who knew exactly what they were doing.
It is possible to counteract this slide to secularization, Hendershott
but it will require decision makers to embrace the richness of the
tradition and to fight to preserve Catholic culture. A commitment whose
importance is highlighted by the current controversy.