How one Catholic university has deepened its Catholic identity

Sr. Amata Miller

WASHINGTON -- Deepening the faculty, staff and student sense of the Catholic identity of St. Catherine University in St. Paul and Minneapolis has been hard work but also rewarding, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Amata Miller told a national gathering of U.S. Catholic college and university presidents Jan. 30.

Maintaining and deepening Catholic identity in Catholic higher education has to be an "infusion" process that depends heavily on regular organized events that promote meaningful conversation on the issue – especially in small-group dialogues – among the faculty and leadership, but also among students and other staff, she said.

The nature of higher education and those attracted to engage in it makes dialogue or "meaningful conversation" a critical tool for transforming the culture of the college or university to reclaim or strengthen its Catholic identity, she said: "It is simple, meaningful conversations among people who care about some issue that will begin the process of change."

Read Jerry Filteau's earlier story: Kicanas to college heads: 'Catholic identity top priority'

Miller – an economics professor noted for her expertise in relating economics to Catholic social teaching and issues of domestic and global justice – is director of St. Catherine's five-year-old Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity. She spoke at a plenary session of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) during its Jan. 28-31 meeting in Washington.

Strengthening the Catholic identity of Catholic higher education institutions was the main theme of the ACCU meeting, which marked the recent beatification of 19th-century English Cardinal John Henry Newman, noted for his writings on Catholic higher education, and the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's August 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church").

The core purpose of Ex Corde Ecclesiae was to reaffirm and strengthen the identity of Catholic institutions of higher learning and the ACCU meeting in Washington reflected 20 years of progress in that project – a road often known more for its pitfalls in the 1990s, but more recently marked by collaborative efforts of bishops and Catholic colleges and universities to assure the Catholic identity of the U.S. institutions of higher learning established under Catholic auspices, usually by religious orders.

St. Catherine's – known affectionately to faculty, students and alumnae as St. Kate's – is currently the largest women's university in the country, with about 5,300 students, about 30 percent of them graduate students and more than a quarter of the student body majoring in nursing. It is sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Miller said that when she was asked to lead the university's Catholic identity initiative, she approached it from her background as a social scientist, asking questions about how social or institutional change takes place and what models of change best apply in an academic culture.

Looking at St. Kate's, which in this context modeled every U.S. Catholic institute of higher learning, she said, "It was the passion for new ideas, for remarkable people and for meaningful work that drew us to the academy to collaborate with other similarly committed people. Tapping into the power of that passion, that desire for deep integration of meaning with what we do every day is what the infusion approach is all about."

She described in detail how the university has created a number of annual programs on Catholic identity – a lecture series, faculty seminars, summer workshops and other programs – to focus on how St. Kate's Catholic identity should infuse every dimension of its curriculum and co-curricular activities.

The focus of the program is to achieve a "shared vision" throughout the faculty, administration and other university staff that will convey a thorough sense of Catholic identity to all students attending St. Catherine's, she said.

"Our mission identifies the aspects of Catholic identity that are relevant to our Catholic educational community to be: the Catholic habits of intellectual inquiry and the church's social teaching," she said.

As an economics professor she also warned that serious institutional commitment to a renewal of Catholic identity will require Catholic colleges and universities to devote years of budgetary resources or to establish an endowment for that purpose, such as the one obtained by St. Catherine's.

"Develop a secure funding base," she said.

"Since infusion [of Catholic identity throughout an institution] is a multi-year project, it requires the ability to plan for events and outcomes in the future. So a multi-year budgetary commitment or an endowment which assures funding and longer-term planning for key developmental events is essential," she said.

Jesuit Fr. Joseph McShane, president of Fordham University in New York and respondent to Miller's talk, said the infusion model Miller presented for approaching Catholic identity in Catholic higher education is "admirably inclusive" and "wonderfully practical."

"Its genius lies, I believe, in the discovery that conversation and participation lead to a sense of general ownership, and that this sense of ownership leads, in turn, to a greater sense of responsibility for the maintenance of Catholic identity," he said.

"Catholic identity cannot be assumed on Catholic campuses," he said. "Rather, it is something that must be retrieved, affirmed and made operational year after year."

"Catholic identity is not an end in itself," he added.

He said that the goal of any Catholic college or university is not just to declare its catholicity but to help "our students to emerge from their time with us – or on our campuses – with an understanding that the entire world is the arena of grace, a strong sense of wonder, an informed appreciation of the mystery of human life and a deep commitment to justice and human rights, all of which are part of our heritage, a heritage that is derived from the Gospel and from Christian humanism."

Earlier in the meeting Miller was given the Monika Hellwig award for her lifetime contributions to Catholic academic life. Hellwig, an internationally renowned theologian, headed the ACCU from 1996 until shortly before her death in 2005 and was a key figure in the U.S. implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

[Jerry Filteau is NCR Washington correspondent.]

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