Progress seen in boosting Catholic identity on campuses

Catholic university presidents are cooperating more with their local bishops to strengthen the Catholic identity and mission of their academic institutions, according to a new report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Though significant work remains to be done, the relationship between the nation’s bishops and Catholic university and college presidents, on the whole, is better than what it was a decade ago. 

“A number of bishops have also said they feel more welcomed on campus and that more opportunities are being presented to them to celebrate the Eucharist and to give talks on campus,” said Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Catholic Education, who issued the new report. 

Bishop McFadden, head of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., told Our Sunday Visitor that many Catholic universities and colleges have created new administrative positions — often called mission officers — to examine their campuses’ activities and programs in light of the Catholic intellectual tradition. 

“I think what Ex Corde Ecclesiae asked us to do was to not just be critical but to work together to find solutions to problems,” Bishop McFadden said.

Reviewing education

Bishop McFadden’s report is a 10-year review of the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”) for the United States. Issued as an apostolic constitution by Pope Blessed John Paul II in 1990, Ex Corde Ecclesiae describes the identity and mission of Catholic colleges and universities, and provides General Norms to fulfill that vision. 

Fr. Holtschneider
Fr. Holtschneider

Ex Corde Ecclesiae instructs Catholic universities and colleges to respect norms established by local bishops, and reiterates a canon law requirement that theology teachers in Catholic higher education have a mandate — known as the mandatum — from the local bishop. 

In their 2001 document “The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States,” the bishops committed themselves to reviewing progress over the past 10 years, which began in January 2011. The bishops held conversations with university and college presidents, with those discussions being reported as overwhelmingly positive during the USCCB’s November 2011 General Assembly. 

“For almost 20 years now, the Catholic universities of America have been very seriously talking about how we can strengthen the Catholic nature of our institutions,” said Father Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of DePaul University in Chicago. 

Father Holtschneider, who was one of three Catholic university presidents who worked with the bishops to create the 2001 application document, said several significant changes have taken place in the last decade. Among those has been the development of Catholic studies programs that feature an interdisciplinary approach to studying subjects in light of the Catholic faith. 

Eighty percent of Catholic universities and colleges now have missions officers, said Father Holtschneider, adding that several university boards of trustees have created mission subcommittees. 

Catholic universities and colleges are also sending their faculty, staff and administrators to various national training programs that challenge them to think about how to better integrate the Catholic intellectual tradition into their courses, and to develop and share best practices across the country. 

“In addition to that, I would agree with Bishop McFadden that the working relationships between the college presidents and bishops is a whole lot better than what it was years ago,” said Father Holtschneider, who noted widespread fears that the bishops would make difficult demands on college presidents after Ex Corde Ecclesiae was released. 

“A lot of that mistrust has disappeared,” he said.

Continuing to improve

However, considerable work remains to be done, said Jamie Caridi, vice president for student development at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio. Caridi surveyed 110 Catholic university and college presidents in spring 2011 and found that some institutions were further along than others in their efforts. 

Caridi said his research found that about 75 percent of Catholic university theologians had received the mandatum. Issues also still remained with several universities not having a majority of their trustees and faculty members being Catholic, which was a requirement in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. 

“My own impression, not speaking of any particular institution, is that progress here has been very mixed, and varies a lot from place to place,” said John C. Cavadini, a theology professor and director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. He said he believes there is more of a feeling of alienation from the Church and its teachings in many campus cultures than there was 10 years ago, “and more ignorance of what, precisely, the Church teaches and why.” 

The Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog organization dedicated to renewing Catholic identity in Catholic higher education, highlighted Caridi’s study on its website. The Cardinal Newman Society also regularly points out problematic events on Catholic university campuses, such as Fordham University’s hosting a conference last November that featured Peter Singer, a philosopher known for favoring euthanasia and infanticide. 

“The state of Catholic higher education is not good, but it is better than what it was, so that’s something to celebrate,” said Patrick J. Reilly, founder and president of the Cardinal Newman Society. 

Caridi said his findings aligned with Bishop McFadden’s report, which also calls for the formation of a working group, consisting of bishops and university presidents, to continue their dialogue and examine areas where further progress can be made. Those areas include: developing an understanding of how a Catholic university can hire personnel to further its mission; the formation of faculty, staff and trustees regarding Catholic identity; and addressing the need for improved theological and catechetical knowledge of students through curricular and pastoral means. 

“The extent to which Catholic universities successfully recruit and employ a competent and courageous workforce who is passionate about our Catholic faith and the legitimate role and responsibility of the Catholic university to propagate our faith will largely determine whether or not the institution maintains its Catholic identity,” Caridi said. 

John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, agreed, saying that a faculty composed of faithful Catholics will ensure a university’s long-term Catholic identity. 

“I think who we hire is the whole ballgame,” said Garvey, who added that issues remain in figuring out how to increase more Catholic faculty hiring on the “academic side of the house.”  

Faculty hiring processes tend to be democratic, Garvey noted, and there are also professional standards that academic departments have to consider in their hiring decisions. Father Holtschneider added that it may not always be easy for a Catholic university, for example, to have a mathematics department composed entirely of devoted Catholic mathematicians.

The deeper part

Fostering a vibrant Catholic student life on campus and integrating the Catholic faith into all areas of the university are also important, said Father Terence Henry, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville. Father Henry said Catholic universities over the years became too compartmentalized, and struck a “discordant note” between education and student life. 

“I think Catholic universities are now realizing that the Church is serious and wants them to turn around and focus on the deeper part of their mission,” Father Henry said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.