Striving for Catholic Solidarity

Bishops and college presidents discuss ways to deal with issues of academic freedom and religious faith.
January 31, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Bishops and presidents of Roman Catholic colleges on Sunday morning reassured one another that it is indeed possible to preserve academic freedom while staying true to their religious identities -- even as they acknowledged tensions over these issues.

Recent conflicts surrounding the collaboration served as a backdrop here to the plenary session of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities' annual meeting. The Most Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, bishop of Tucson, delivered a message that was particularly poignant, after two weeks of reflection on the Arizona tragedy that left six people dead and far more questioning why it happened. Though Bishop Kicanas made it a point to steer clear of that topic today, his speech addressed related issues of collaboration and civility.

Earlier this month the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced plans to review the impact of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Vatican document that called on colleges to fulfill their religious role through "fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church." As Bishop Kicanas noted, today's students are coming to grips with their religious identities while dealing with issues like abortion, immigration and global unrest. While college faculty and staff can and should engage in academic debate, they must also "place Catholic identity first" among their concerns, he said. "Catholic is not just an adjective accidental to who you are. Catholic is core to your identity, the center of what you are about."

In her formal response to Bishop Kicanas's remarks, Sister Andrea Lee, president of St. Catherine University, in Minnesota, concurred that college presidents and bishops should be among the most trusted collaborators. And while acknowledging the "amazing pluralism" of faculty members nationwide who are "enormously proud" to be Catholic, she also reminded the bishop that times have changed and the church must update its expectations of colleges to reflect 21st-century landscapes of technology, social issues and demographics. "In the end," Lee said, "it all boils down to trust."

Several Roman Catholic universities have faced highly public disputes in the past two years that have left some academics worried about church-academic relations. In May 2010, for instance, Marquette University rescinded a deanship offer to a lesbian who studied sexuality and gender. The year before that, the University of Notre Dame faced criticism for allowing President Obama, who is pro-choice, to speak at its commencement ceremony.

The purpose of Ex Corde is not to grant the church permission to meddle or create conflict within academe, Bishop Kicanas said. Rather, it's to reinforce the encouragement and trust between the two entities that's at the core of the document. It challenges institutions to be both "bold and faithful," and not just one or the other, at risk of becoming adrift from the church or hopelessly irrelevant in society.

"Clearly there needs to be room in an academic community for disagreement, debate and a clash of ideas even in theology. Such debate and engagement can clarify and advance our understanding," the bishop said. "In discussions with local bishops, faculty need to be able to disagree and question with mutual respect. However, the bishop is the authentic teacher of the faith and, in union with the Pope and bishops, responsible to interpret the faith."

Although Bishop Kicanas said many institutions are proud of their religious identity and house students, faculty and staff with "true and fervent" desires to be Catholic, he still sees room for improvement. More theologians should seek mandatum, the church's formal acknowledgment that theology is taught "within the full communion of the Catholic Church." He also encouraged campus ministry programs to stop neglecting students who are baptized but non-practicing Catholics. Finally, he said, colleges should build stronger bonds with bishops and the church, and make Catholic identity central to all their efforts.

Some in the audience responded with concerns about whether their bishops and colleges could work together when they have different interests; one said his bishop was more focused on governance than engagement, and they struggled to find a middle ground. Bishop Kicanas responded by saying all bishops are different, and college officials can help the former find their role at the institution -- and then respect it. "We are a polarized family, and this is a deep concern for all of us," he said. "And yet we are one faith; we are one church."

College officials echoed that sentiment -- with a twist -- in a later session on student affairs assessment "through a Catholic lens." In a discussion on how institutions can welcome students of all religious backgrounds while also adhering to the church's message, administrators from several institutions expressed their frustration with trying to find a middle ground.

The impetus for the conversation was Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities, a document designed to spark enthusiasm about the aforementioned discussion and provide a framework for implementation. While the document contains eight good practices, attendees were mainly interested in two: Principle One, which "Welcomes all students into a vibrant campus community that celebrates God's love for all," and Principle Two, which "Grounds policies, practices and decisions in the teachings and living tradition of the Church [and] builds and prepares the student affairs staff to make informed contributions to the Catholic mission of the institution."

The inherent tension between the first two principles -- and even within individual principles -- is being felt by various colleges. One official described a situation playing out at home: the institution granted Muslim students a prayer room, but they're now looking to organize outdoor calls to prayer, which officials fear would alienate non-Islam students. Yet colleges must embrace and guide all their students, said Sandra M. Estanek, executive director of the Association for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities. "We have a responsibility to all of them," she said, when asked to what extent colleges should help non-Catholic students develop their faith. "Is there an obligation? At least in this vision there is."


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