Increasingly, Catholic colleges and universities are struggling to find sure footing when it comes to the rocky terrain of proving their Catholic identity. For many of these institutions, the days of being able to shrug off outside scrutiny may be gone.
On May 26, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that one Catholic college lacks substantial religious character and hence cannot stop adjunct faculty from unionizing. They ruled that St. Xavier University in Chicago “is not a church-operated institution” and is therefore subject to federal labor law.
That was the second such ruling in a few months. The NLRB declared in January that Catholic Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York, is not recognizably Catholic.
What’s going on? Since 1986, the NLRB has recognized First Amendment exemptions from federal labor law only from “church-controlled” institutions that are substantially religious. Noting that most Catholic colleges and universities are legally independent of the Church and do not require faculty to conform to religious principles, the NLRB has asserted authority over any institution it deems less than substantially religious.
This is wrong. Any government authority’s attempt to judge the religious character of an institution violates the U.S. Constitution’s religious protections, according to several federal court and Supreme Court rulings. Nevertheless, some Catholic colleges today must face the surreal twist of fate that a federal agency would hold them accountable for a weak religious identity, which the Catholic Church has been warning against for two decades.
When the ruling against Manhattan College landed in January, the media and Catholic leaders rightly focused on the violation of religious freedom. But the matter of Catholic identity is strongly entwined. The Cardinal Newman Society issued recommendations for Catholic college administrators to protect their religious freedoms by — surprise, surprise — preserving and demonstrating a strong Catholic identity. The ten strategies for Catholic colleges to defend against attacks on their religious liberty are available here.
Now that another shocking case has brought the issue back into the limelight, the question arises once more: How can Catholic colleges and universities effectively defend their religious liberties if they continue to compromise their religious identity?
What would Notre Dame tell a federal court, for instance, if, while arguing for religious exemption from a federal law or regulation, university officials were asked why they ignored the opposition of some 83 Catholic bishops when honoring a pro-abortion U.S. president with an honorary law degree? Or why, in March 2011, the Faculty Senate rejected a resolution affirming the university’s commitment to the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life?
What would Georgetown officials say if they were pressed on the question of how they reconcile Catholic moral teaching with the 2009 “Sex Positive Week,” which includes talks seeming to promote extramarital sex and pornography? And what about the video about the work of Jesuits at the university, which opens with Georgetown’s associate dean and director of Catholic studies saying, “Our job as educators and as priests is not to bring God to people, or even to bring people to God”?
If forced to defend its religious identity, what would the College of Mount Saint Vincent have to say about the fact that it employs a sexuality professor who has been a regular blogger for the website of pro-abortion RH Reality Check?
These are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Those Catholic colleges that choose the status quo may soon find the NLRB or another federal agency knocking at their door.
And there’s still the more important reason for renewal: the souls of young Catholic men and women. The abuse of Catholic identity at many colleges in the United States harms not only the character of these universities but also of their students. The Catholic educators who have contributed to today’s crisis of faith may have more to worry about than a federal judge.