By Peter McDermott
Should Catholic colleges and universities have closer formal ties to the church? Should they be "more Catholic?" Heather McKeon, a 20-year-old criminal justice major at St. John’s University in Queens, says no.
"As it is, we have to take three theology and four philosophy courses. That’s too many," she said.
McKeon, who attends Mass every Sunday, believes that St. John’s more than adequately reflects the ethos of her faith.
An accounting student, Anthony Spaventa, 21, said he doesn’t think St. John’s should be less Catholic. "But more would be overkill," he said. And, it seems, many presidents of America’s Catholic colleges and universities believe that’s what the perception will be if they have to abide by new proposals designed to strengthen links with the hierarchy. Two prominent Catholic educators have argued in a joint article that the proposals, contained in a draft document to be voted on in November by American bishops, would cause havoc in the Catholic university system if implemented.
The draft document is an application of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesi’, meaning "from the heart of the church." Ex Corde Ecclesi’, first published in 1990, was itself the product of a decade of consultation and discussion.
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In November 1996, an earlier draft document was approved by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops by 224 votes to 6 and was welcomed by university leaders. "The bishops thought they had completed their work of implementing Ex Corde Ecclesi’ and were pleased with the results," according to a recent editorial in the Jesuit magazine America.
However, Vatican officials returned it with "observations." In particular, they wanted strong "juridical" norms to link higher education to the church.
In response to the Vatican critique, a subcommittee produced the current draft. The America editorial argued, however, that "the draft demonstrates no appreciation of the academic and civic world in which Catholic colleges and universities in the United States pursue their mission."
"Ex Corde Ecclesi’ itself is something that we approve of. We think it’s excellent," said Jeffrey von Arx, the dean of Fordham University Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. "Its application in this draft, however, is not in keeping with the way colleges and universities have evolved and developed over the past 30 years.
"It is perceived to threaten the principle of academic freedom and to threaten the idea of institutional autonomy. Most presidents of Catholic universities say it’s unworkable."
Three areas in particular have caused controversy. First, it is recommended that a majority of the board of trustees should be faithful Catholics, and that the college should recruit and appoint faithful Catholics with a view to their constituting a majority of the faculty. Second, Catholics who teach the theology are required to have a mandate granted by a "competent ecclesiastical authority." Third, presidents should make a profession of faith and take an oath of loyalty to the church.
"All of these norms are simply safeguards on behalf of the church," said Fr. James Conn, dean and professor of Canon Law at St. Mary’s College and Seminary in Baltimore. They are merely reaffirming what is the universal law of the church. The provision causing the most difficulty, the mandate for theologians, is contained in Canon 812 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
"It’s not a question of whether it’s to be observed, but how it’s to be observed," Conn said. "Canon 812 is not an optional norm." He pointed out that "mandate" in this instance is merely an "acknowledgment" that a theologian is teaching in full communion with the church. The provision is qualified in the document.
For instance, it says: "The mandate should not be construed as an appointment, authorization, delegation or appropriation of one’s teaching by Church authorities."
Conn believes that the document’s opponents should concentrate on trying to find acceptable ways of implementing this draft rather than reaffirming their preference for the earlier one.
He stressed that his area of expertise is canon law and that, as the dean of a seminary, he was not prepared to comment on the implications for Catholic higher education in general.
His position, though, is supported by Fr. David O’Connell, the president of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "I do believe that the church should clearly be involved in the institutions that exist under its sponsorship," O’Connell told the New York Times.
But many are worried about the mandate. "The whole notion of having someone outside the university making a determination about who may teach Catholic theology is very difficult," von Arx said.
"It’s very troubling for me," Fr. William Leahy, the president of Boston College, said on the issue.
"It seems to bring us back to the era of bishops know best," said Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, the editor of Commonweal, a lay Catholic magazine. But she believes, in common with Leahy, that bishops don’t want this power to interfere.
Fr. J. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, and Fr. Edward A. Malloy, president of the University of Notre Dame, argued in an article in America that the document’s authors "cannot conceal the fact that it [the mandate] is an instrument, however ineffective, to control what is taught and written."
Monan and Malloy argue that it is not the ideals contained in Ex Corde Ecclesi’ that are the problem but the revised Code of Canon Law, particularly as it applies to individuals Catholics. It is here that the real difficulty could be created.
"It is unfortunate that the route chosen in this document to fulfill the Vatican desire for a ‘juridical instrument’ containing ‘juridical elements’ was to try to breathe life into canons that, with the full knowledge of the U.S. hierarchy, and with good reason, had been lifeless for 25 years," Monan and Malloy wrote.
Monan and Malloy subscribe to the view, held by many canonist-scholars, that canon law does not apply to American Catholic institutions of higher learning.
Critics of the document say that it goes against an important principle enshrined in Ex Corde Ecclesi’, namely, to take account of the distinctive statutes of the universities and the civil law of a particular country. Ex Corde Ecclesi’ says that "the Catholic University is to be in close communion with the local Church and in particular with the bishops . . . " It also says that the university is to be "linked with the church either by a formal, constitutive and statutory bond or by reason of an institutional commitment made by those responsible for it."
None of this requires in American conditions, critics say, the sort of bonds being advocated in the document.
The Vatican insistence on these juridical norms is not necessarily the a result of a right-wing conspiracy, O’Brien Steinfels said. "I think it’s more to do with a bureaucratic mentality. They just think about the practical consequences. Also they don’t trust Americans," she said. "And they don’t trust lay people. And maybe, after 2,000 years, they’re right," she added, laughing.
The debate has shown the tensions once again between the orthodox, represented in this issue by Conn and O’Connell, and those who are more sensitive to and informed by American cultural norms. Fr. Joseph O’Hare, the president of Fordham University, is arguably in the latter group. He told the New York Times that he found "very distasteful" the idea of inquiring into people’s personal lives to determine who was a faithful Catholic. "And in today’s culture, we would not want to do that," he said.
"Clearly, there are two divergent views," Boston College’s Leahy said. But there are practical considerations that have nothing to do with philosophy. "There is the issue of eligibility for funds. We don’t want to do anything to undermine that. Some states are pretty restrictive on aid to sectarian schools," he said.
As a college president, Leahy has a broader responsibility, he said, to benefactors, parents and prospective students. "If we become narrow and exclusive, people could raise questions about whether they want to support us," he said.
Religious ideals, academic goals
In his role, Leahy must also balance religious ideals and academic goals. As a scholar he has argued that this has always been a difficult task..
His 1991 book, "Adapting to America," showed that even when Catholics sought relative isolation, a tendency reinforced by growing anti-Catholicism in the 1920s, the educational institutions they created were shaped by market demands. The more Catholic immigrants and their children saw the opportunities available to them in American society, the more they demanded quality education. A Jesuit professor wrote in 1929: "Year by year many of our most desirable students are compelled to enter godless universities because we are not yet able to meet their needs in certain higher courses."
Leahy writes: "If Catholic schools were to retain the allegiance of their clientele, they had to meet their growing desires for quality training in science, business, and the professions."
Academic respectability became a major concern by the early 1930s. "The accrediting movement reflected trends in American academic culture toward a more rational, disciplined, and professional approach to education, one in harmony with spreading middle-class values of merit and competence."
The Jesuits in particular fought hard for Catholic schools and are largely known in this country for their role in higher education. They railed against the notion that Newman clubs could cater for the needs of the faithful at secular colleges and universities.
Great progress had been made by the eve of World War II. Almost 200,000 students were enrolled in Catholic schools. Historian Philip Gleason writes: "Despite an awareness of weaknesses at the graduate level and in scholarship generally, the morale of Catholic educators was high." Their outlook was, he says, "self-consciously counter-cultural."
But several factors would bring Catholics out of the ghetto. First, the shared experience of war, which lessened the perceived differences between Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Secondly, with the advent of the Cold War, Catholicism became identified with superpatriotism. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has remarked: "In the era of security clearances, to be an Irish Catholic became prima facie evidence of loyalty. Harvard men were to be checked; Fordham men would do the checking." Thirdly, the Catholic colleges and universities ended their isolation by accepting their share of the government financing that facilitated the expansion of higher education in the post-war era. In one typical year, 1967, Catholic higher education received $125 million in grants and contracts, in addition to repayable loans. Leahy argues in "Adapting to America" that "because of expansion, more Catholics obtained academic instruction in a Catholic context, enriching many of them religiously and personally and, as a result, contributing to the vitality of Catholic life in American." A fourth factor was Vatican II and the upheavals of the 1960s generally.
Through all the changes, there has been one constant: the Catholic universities have had to compete with their secular rivals for the loyalty of Catholic students. For religiously observant students such as Heather McKeon and Anthony Spaventa, a Catholic college was not an automatic choice. St. John’s University in their native Queens was chosen as much for its location and its overall reputation.
Both have mixed feelings about a Catholic-based education in a competitive, secular and multicultural world. "We’re supposed to be here for our careers, yet almost a year of a four-year course is devoted to philosophy and theology," McKeon said. She is also conscious of the fact that majority of her friends, though raised Catholics, are not religiously observant.
"The student population is heavily Catholic, but there are people from other religions — Hindus for example," Spazenta said. "I think it would a bad thing for St. John’s to be more Catholic. It would go against the basic idea of a university."
However both McKeon and Spaventa also cite St. John’s range of programs and extracurricular activities and its accessible academic staff among its great strengths. For his part, accounting student Spaventa likes the emphasis philosophy and theology. "It gives you a broader view. You’re educated morally and ethically," he said.
William Leahy outlined what he saw as the principle values of a Catholic college: "intellectual excellence, religious commitment, service of others." He sees graduates as a "leaven" for good in society.
"The atmosphere in a Catholic college is different." Leahy said. Many things, from the Gothic architecture to notices for retreats, contribute to the effect. "There are reminders of the transcendent, reminders of faith everywhere," he said.
Some have complained that the press has downplayed these aspects of the Catholic colleges’ social philosophy and ambiance. In an article on the current debate, a New York Times writer said that the colleges were "secular institutions that made only a passing nod to Catholic tradition," citing, among other examples, the lack of crucifixes in Fordham classrooms. Fr. Joseph O’Hare replied in the Fordham News that the Times had a "very authoritarian model" in mind and said that the University Church is at the center of Fordham’s life.
O’Brien Steinfels agrees: "The New York Times has a fetish about crucifixes in the classroom," she said.
Indeed, neither side of the argument believes that the colleges have lost their identity.
"Is there a decline in the religious nature of the Catholic colleges? In some respects religious aspects have been lost, in other ways not. Many things are alive and well," Fr. James Conn said.
With 230 colleges and universities catering to more than 600,000 students, American Catholic higher education is an interesting phenomenon. In most Western countries, the religious sector is tiny or non-existent.
The debate is about the future.
"There are legitimate concerns. Over time identity can erode. How are we going to keep the colleges and universities Catholic?" Leahy said.
"The Vatican didn’t discover this was a problem. In fact, it could do a great deal to hamper these efforts," Margaret O’Brien Steinfels said. She said that national norms were not the solution.
St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., O’Brien Steinfels noted, has raised $10 million to be used for a new programs. "They’ve gone about it in a rather comprehensive way," she said. The only strategy some Catholic educators had, she said, was to "outwait the present pope." That wasn’t enough.
"What it gets down to, will they say no to the Vatican and devise a strategy that will preserve the Catholic identity of the schools?" she said.