Newman Society leader says 'faithful' Catholic colleges set pace in academia

A tree in full autumn colors is seen Nov. 17, 2016, in front of Theological College of The Catholic University of America in Washington. (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Arlington, Va. — After 24 years of heaping criticism on Catholic colleges and universities for their alleged secularization, the Cardinal Newman Society now envisions "a new generation of faithful Catholic colleges" forging a new path of fidelity to church teaching.

At a day-long forum on "Crisis: Catholic Higher Education and the Next Generation" that drew an audience of about 200 people in the basement of Arlington's Cathedral of St. Thomas More Jan. 28, Society founder Patrick Reilly claimed to see the secular trend reversing.

The event was co-sponsored by the Newman Society, based in Manassas, Va., which had a $2.17 million budget in 2015, and the Institute of Catholic Culture, located in nearby McLean, Va., which reported $510,574 in income the same year.

Reilly renewed his long-standing criticism of a statement issued 50 years ago by Catholic university leaders at a University of Notre Dame conference center in Land O'Lakes, Wis. "It's hard to imagine a simple document could have such a devastating impact on Catholic higher education," he said. But in its wake, "most Catholic colleges and universities greatly secularized and generally lost their moorings. That's the crisis that we refer to in this conference today."

Twenty-seven years after publication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae by Pope John Paul II — in his words, "the Vatican's repudiation of what was wrong with the Land O'Lakes statement" — Reilly argued that "still there are many Catholic colleges today that do not make a very serious effort to implement" the papal vision of what a Catholic college should be.

Nevertheless, he described a future more orthodox than "the sad legacy of the Land O'Lakes statement." Every new Catholic college founded in the last 50 years is "vibrantly and faithfully Catholic and they are setting an example for all of Catholic higher education," he said.

The society recommends 20 institutions that he considers "really the future of Catholic higher education in the United States" because they "have not only rejected the Land O'Lakes mentality" but their graduates "are the ones who will truly lead this nation back to God," he said. Yet together they have yet to make a mark; seven of the 20 with the Newman imprimatur have fewer than 500 students. The largest is Catholic University of America with 3,480 undergraduate students.

Asked to comment on Reilly's criticism, Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said, "Catholic colleges and universities in the United States are fully committed to both their higher education mission and their Catholic identity, as they have been since their founding."

He cited two recent studies to argue that their graduates prove his assertion. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in 2012 "found that while only 6 percent of American Catholics attend a Catholic higher education institution, Catholic college alumni disproportionately give back to their parishes. They represent 40 percent of lay leadership in parishes, 45 percent of weekly Mass goers, 44 percent of ordinands, and fully 75 percent of parish registrants and contributors."

Another study found that 55 percent of Catholic college alumni say they benefited very much from the emphasis on personal values and ethics taught at their alma maters. In comparison, only 9 percent of public university alumni say the same.

"Clearly, Catholic higher education today is making a positive difference in the world," said Galligan-Stierle. In addition, he said, a 10-year review of the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States found the relationship between U.S. bishops and Catholic colleges had grown significantly closer.

Fr. Hezekias Carnazzo, a Melkite Rite priest of Los Gatos, Calif., and the founder of the Institute of Catholic Culture, praised Reilly for helping "turn the tide [to] a resurgence of authentic Catholic education."

After acknowledging Reilly for "calling the Catholic higher education establishment to account," Catholic University of America President John Garvey described a vision of a great Catholic university that did not track along with the Newman Society's perspective.

CUA has "a different constitutional structure than other Catholic colleges and universities," he pointed out. Chartered by Pope Leo XIII in 1887, it has a board of about 50 trustees with equal numbers of bishops and laypeople. "Over time that has kept us faithful to our mission, but in the '60s we wandered a bit," he said, relating the explosive controversy over the denial of tenure to theologian Charles Curran.

Contemporary discussion about the relationship between the church and academia "tends to focus on things like who the commencement speaker is or whether the teachers in the theology discipline have a mandatum from the local bishop," he said. "We tend to hear two different voices, one the people who emphasize the importance of absolute autonomy for a Catholic university to be truly a university, and on the other side there are people who emphasize that the institution must be faithful to Catholic teaching and therefore accountable to church authority if they are to be Catholic. But neither side really gets what a Catholic university is and how to build one."

To Garvey, "the formula for building a great university is like building a baseball team: hire great players" — a faculty with great scholars and teachers will make a great university. The "punch line" in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, he said, is that a majority of the faculty at a Catholic college will be Catholic. (CUA's is 58 percent Catholic, according to The Newman Guide for Choosing a Catholic College.)

"The encyclical does not undertake to regulate, Soviet style, the teaching of theology, or physics, or literature," he asserted, drawing heavily on an essay he wrote for the Feb. 10 issue of Commonweal. "It does not prefer or condemn particular theories or schools of thought. It does not say that an undergraduate curriculum must include twelve hours each of philosophy and theology. It says instead that the responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the university rests primarily with the university itself."

"Ex Corde Ecclesiae includes a stout defense of academic freedom alongside its insistence on hiring a predominantly Catholic faculty," Garvey said. Its recognition of "the academic freedom of scholars in each discipline in accordance with its own principles and proper methods … is not mere lip service to an ideal the secular academy prizes. The church really means it."

Fr. Sean Sheridan, president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, said that "somebody needs to be the referee" for academic freedom. "That's where the magisterium comes in. Academic freedom is always found in the search for truth. Ultimately, the Holy See has to have oversight." Sheridan quoted former CUA President Bishop David O'Connell as saying, "I would argue there is more academic freedom at a Catholic university than at a secular university."

Reilly paid tribute to Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina for being the first college to file suit against the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act which, he said, "hopefully will go away with the new administration." Belmont "has stood very strong," he said.

Belmont Abbey President William Thierfelder told the conference that the role of a Catholic institution should be the "intentional formation of students in mind, body and spirit." He regretted that today "the primary purpose of a college education is to get a job, and preferably a high paying one." Unlike secular colleges, "which only see part of the whole person, the Catholic college seeks the whole truth of nature, man and God."

[James C. Webster, a charter subscriber to NCR, is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.]

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