Moral Leadership of Presidents and Their Colleges

Leaders of Catholic institutions discuss the importance of speaking out publicly -- and not just on the usual issues.
February 5, 2008

Roman Catholic colleges have an institutional responsibility to speak out and engage the wider world on social issues important in Catholic teachings, the Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, said Monday in an address at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting in the nation's capital. Not only should Catholic teachings be manifested in the classrooms and in expectations for student behavior, Archbishop Wuerl said, but, in addition, “A Catholic university should be an institutional voice for the very values, the very moral and ethical values, that the faith holds up." He cited, for instance, the church’s positions on abortion, marriage and social justice.

But the leadership responsibilities of the institution -- and the responsibilities of the institution’s leaders -- can take many different forms, as an earlier session Monday on the "Moral Voice of a President” made clear. In his remarks, Wuerl stressed recent pro-life rallies and events held at D.C. colleges as one example of an area where Catholic colleges can use their common “intellectual heritage” to engage the broader community.

Yet, beyond issues like opposition to abortion that are classically associated with the Catholic church, college presidents spoke of providing leadership on a wide variety of subjects -- from expressing opposition to the war in Iraq, to providing shelter off-campus to an ex-priest accused of sexual molestation, to extending domestic partnership benefits to a Catholic college’s faculty and staff. “For those of us who have the privilege of being presidents,” said Anthony J. Cernera, president of Sacred Heart University, in Connecticut, “our moral voice is very, very important.”

Reflecting an increasingly important goal of solidarity among Catholic colleges internationally, presidents -- including Cernera, now also head of the International Federation of Catholic Universities -- discussed getting more involved in global issues. The Rev. Stephen A. Privett, president of the University of San Francisco, focused on poverty in particular, which he described as the most “glaring moral issue” in the world.

Father Privett also described engaging global issues locally, such as when he wrote an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002 opposing the Iraq war. (In response to a question about getting the board to accept presidential openness on such issues, Father Privett responded that he’d involved his board chair, who he described as a pro-war Republican, in the process. Also in response to that question, Mary Jane England, a child psychiatrist long involved with health care issues and now president of Regis College, in Massachusetts, described discussing her ability to openly speak out about issues relative to her expertise as part of initial contract negotiations).

In his remarks, San Francisco’s Father Privett also described extending partnership benefits to “legally domiciled adults,” in line with the church’s teachings against discrimination (which of course stand in tension with its disapproval of homosexual activity). Such a move could obviously be controversial within the church itself and certainly in the public domain -- as was Cernera’s decision to let a then-homeless ex-priest accused of sexual misconduct stay at his second, privately owned home for a period of time.

The Sacred Heart president said he was able to predict the local newspaper headline before it appeared back in 2006 -- “Defrocked Priest Housed by SHU President” -- but that to him it was a no-brainer to extend a place to stay to a homeless friend. What was a private decision became a very public one, but of the 900 or so letters he said he received, nearly all praised the action as courageous (a description he dismisses as overblown given what he describes as the simplicity of the act of letting someone use an unused second home). “If there’s a lesson to be learned from it, it is important that a person in a public role never lose their fundamental convictions,” Cernera said in an interview. “Public people, they need to live how other people do, to live authentically.”

In Archbishop Wuerl’s talk, the archbishop faced a few tough questions from college leaders seeking better guidance from the church on other matters important to Catholics aside from abortion and marriage -- again reflecting the wide variety of issues in which college leaders, and Catholic college leaders in particular, are engaged. Jacqueline Powers Doud, the president of Mount St. Mary’s College, a women’s college in Los Angeles, asked the archbishop about "vibrant" examples of potential leadership roles for women in the church. (The archbishop answered by describing the influence women can yield outside of ordination, citing the Catholic health care infrastructure primarily built by women as one example).

Another administrator pointed out that while colleges feel they have support from bishops when speaking out on views regarding the right to life, they don’t feel the same support when it comes to confronting other social justice issues -- like the death penalty, living wage issues, or the war in Iraq. To which the archbishop acknowledged that other issues are less clear-cut, but said that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop's recent document on "Faithful Citizenship" is one guide.


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