Bishops take stock of colleges
Patrick Reilly: 21 years later, some Catholic colleges have not embraced Church teaching . . .
by Patrick J. Reilly
We usually think of anniversaries as a time for celebration, but they can also remind us of things otherwise forgotten. Last year’s 20th anniversary of the apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex corde Ecclesiae, was both.
As the American bishops this fall complete their review of the constitution’s implementation in the United States, they face both widespread disregard for the Vatican’s guidelines and a growing distinction between seriously Catholic colleges and the mainstream.
The bishops’ review — consisting primarily of closed-door meetings with Catholic college presidents and trustees — comes following a decade of increasing awareness and alarm about the secularization of Catholic colleges. Most especially, the University of Notre Dame’s insult to the Church by honoring President Barack Obama in 2009 awakened many to the crisis in Catholic higher education.
That growing awareness is a form of progress, accompanied by very real improvements that have strengthened institutions like Belmont Abbey College, Benedictine College, Mount St. Mary’s University and others. Once a seedbed of dissent, the Catholic University of America recently set an important standard with its return to single-sex dorms. But for too many professors and college leaders, Ex corde Ecclesiae seems to be largely ignored. Whereas the 1990s were marked by professors’ outspoken rebellion against the document, the outcry has since subsided. Theologians in particular were mollified when the U.S. bishops agreed to keep secret the names of those who have a bishop’s “mandate” to teach theology — sort of a Catholic version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Many Catholic colleges still fail to conform to the Ex corde “general norms” for trustees, faculty and campus policies, which were repeated in the U.S. bishops’ “particular norms” approved in 1999. There are the thorny issues of commencement speakers and authentic theology. But even on the simplest matters — ensuring that at least half a college’s professors and trustees are Catholic, or incorporating Ex corde into a college’s governing documents — many institutions flout the Church’s minimal expectations.
When the National Labor Relations Board this year found no “substantial religious character” at Manhattan College and St. Xavier University, it was the unconstitutional intrusion into religious matters — and not the NLRB’s conclusions — which sparked a public outcry. But the NLRB action increases the pressure on Catholic colleges to be what they claim. After most colleges diluted their Catholic identity since the 1960s, it’s ironic that the federal government is now weary of their perceived hypocrisy.
The result is a loss of respect for the Catholic label and an erosion of religious liberty. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is trying to force Belmont Abbey College to cover contraceptives in its employee health plan, probably aware that many Catholic colleges already voluntarily provide such coverage. A law professor from secular George Washington University — which allows students of any gender to share a dorm room — is suing the Catholic University to block its move to single-sex residences. If chastity and sobriety are so important to Catholic identity, he asks, why did CUA experiment for 30 years with co-ed dorms?
Attorneys for religious liberty firms like the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) advise colleges that maintaining a consistent Catholic identity is the best way to protect a college’s religious liberty. Where the identity is compromised, asserting First Amendment rights is difficult. So we come full circle. Catholic colleges have a moral imperative to abide by the Church’s standards for Catholic higher education, and their legal right to behave as uniquely Catholic institutions may depend on their ability to prove compliance with Ex corde.
Ultimately, no bishops’ review is going to ensure compliance with Ex corde. It’s the college leaders, not the bishops, who will renew Catholic higher education. And more than one reformer has thrown his hands up in defeat, doubtful that most college leaders have the faith and commitment to undertake serious renewal.
Our secular age urgently requires young, bright leaders who can reason and communicate, whose ethics are sound, and whose vision for the future rests on a foundation of Christianity. Meanwhile, the sort of education that Catholics need is less likely to be found in state universities and other private colleges that increasingly embrace secularist biases and illicit behaviors which can be toxic to the young adult Catholic.
The work of renewal begins with opposing the scandals. It means sometimes painfully withholding support for certain colleges and directing funds to renewal efforts and model institutions or programs, especially those that identify and replicate what the best Catholic colleges already do well.
Although last year’s anniversary of Ex corde Ecclesiae came and went, the serious work of renewing Catholic identity in U.S. colleges and universities continues more earnestly than ever. For 18 years with The Cardinal Newman Society, I have seen the Holy Spirit at work changing hearts and minds. Renewal of Catholic higher education will succeed because it has to — and because of your prayers and support for the Church.
Patrick J. Reilly is president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, a national organization to help renew and strengthen Catholic higher education.