Fall from Grace: Is Fordham Still Catholic?

The trend toward secularization at many Catholic colleges and universities mirrors similar trends at institutions of other faiths. Often the government is blamed; many charge that it violates the Constitution’s “free establishment” mandate by effectively creating biases against religious education through regulations that prohibit the assistance of religious institutions by the state.

Government biases, however, do not explain much of the secularization of the American Catholic university. A society with a free and active religious culture requires not only a limited government, but also the willful and zealous testimony of religious leaders both to their faith and to the dangers of secularization. Instead, it is religious educators themselves who now promote a uniform secularism.

As a recent student at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution in New York City, I witnessed creeping secularism at a university which for more than 150 years has been one of the most highly regarded private institutions in the Roman Catholic tradition. Fordham is not a victim of brutal external influences demanding a secular education, as was the case in Ukraine or Lithuania. Rather, Fordham is a victim of its own administration, those who are entrusted with the university’s mission and future status. I witnessed the effects of a university’s implicit, but very real, decision to abandon its religious distinction and wander down the road to conformity in a secular society—a society that, more than ever, needs the reaffirmation of “first principles” that private educators originally set out to provide.

The stage was set for secularism at Catholic colleges and universities over two decades ago. Some would trace the problems of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and other religious orders to their growing reluctance to remain obedient to the pope and the teachings of the Church, especially in the United States, but that is a difficult development to trace. I prefer to mark the Land O’Lakes Conference in 1967 as the watershed point at which many Catholic educators across the country effectively abandoned, or at least endorsed the abandonment, of private religious education.

The conference of 26 leaders in Catholic education—including three past, present, and future presidents of Fordham University—produced the Land O’Lakes Statement on “The Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University.” The Statement said that “institutional autonomy” and “academic freedom” are essential to the university and thereby implied that these had not been available in the past: “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Note that greater control was desired for the academic community; there is no recognition of the need for clerical or ecclesiastical authority to maintain the religious integrity of the institution. This rebellion against external authority of any form, and implicitly against Church authority even within the institution, opened the gates of private Catholic campuses to secularism and relativism, all in the name of “academic freedom.”

While independence from the ecclesiastical authority of the Church did occur at Fordham and several other Catholic institutions, an even greater dependence on government authority was openly accepted. When New York State began to provide public aid to private colleges and universities, Fordham realized that the Blaine Amendment to the New York State Constitution prohibited the receipt of such aid by religious organizations. Fordham’s solution was to take the money and, at least legally, to forego its institutional commitment to the Catholic faith. “Fordham University… elects to be considered as a nondenominational institution for the purposes of Section 313 of the Education Law,” the State Department of Education reported.

Father Joseph A. O’Hare, the president of Fordham University from 1984 to the present, defends the Land O’Lakes Statement and Fordham’s decision to be “non-sectarian,” but insists that Fordham nevertheless continues to be a Catholic institution. Yet he admitted in his 1987-88 President’s Report, that such a contradictory message could be confusing: “Critics charge, for example, that the Catholic identity of Fordham is aggressively proclaimed before certain audiences, namely parents and prospective students from Catholic schools, while before other audiences the Catholic identity of Fordham is muted and qualified to the point of disappearance…. And as a matter of fact, we recognize that while Fordham may not be Catholic enough to some, it appears to be all too Catholic for others.”

It is not possible to know whether O’Hare in 1988 already had a sense of what Fordham’s situation would be in 1992. Regardless, the situation he described in his report is entirely accurate today.

Sometime in the month of January 1990, during my junior year at Fordham University, rumors began to spread about a pro-abortion group that was forming to counter the highly active pro-life club, Fordham Students for Life. As the new editor of Fordham’s weekly newspaper, The Ram, I had already scheduled an informal meeting with O’Hare and was determined to seek out his opinion on the pro-abortion group and whether it would be permitted official support by the university. I was somewhat pessimistic about his reply because O’Hare, like most of the Jesuit priests at Fordham, had never been considered a zealous supporter of the pro-life cause.

Despite the fact that O’Hare claimed he had not known that a pro-abortion club was forming, he provided a clearly reasoned answer to my question that was in line with my own views. He acknowledged that no group, however unwelcome or incompatible with the university’s mission, could be prevented from organizing informally and practicing its First Amendment rights within reason. O’Hare insisted, however, that he could not conceive of such a group obtaining university recognition or funds at a Catholic university because Catholic teachings expressly forbid abortion.

In March 1990, Fordham Students for Choice was approved for status as a university club. The group, which announced its intentions to advocate abortion and contraception, asked Patricia Hennessey of Catholics for a Free Choice to lecture students on the failures of the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion. The club also distributed literature from Planned Parenthood, Inc. and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) to students in the campus center.

O’Hare, rather than maintaining the views he stated to me in January, defended the university’s decision to recognize Fordham Students for Choice. “Fordham does not compromise its commitment to Catholic moral teaching on abortion by allowing and even encouraging debate of public policy issues to be as wide-ranging as possible,” O’Hare stated in May 1990. “It is my understanding that the pro-choice group in question is concerned with these issues of public policy on abortion.” The club had already publicly stated, however, that it intended to “examine the social, political, philosophical, and ethical issues related to reproductive rights.” The group never indicated any intention of discussing only “public policy on abortion,” and its immediate affiliation with NARAL’s campus outreach program clearly identified the club as an advocacy group.

In November 1990, Fordham University also officially recognized Fordham Lesbians and Gays (FLAG), a student organization that had existed underground for 11 years. The club’s constitution stated that FLAG intended to “educate members of the club and the larger Fordham community about issues concerning sexuality.” John Plummer, a co-president of FLAG, also made it clear that, contrary to Catholic teachings, FLAG encouraged homosexual activity: “FLAG is saying that gay sex should be accepted…. Sex is good for a lot more than procreation…. Take my word for it” (The Ram, Nov. 1, 1990).

Once again, O’Hare defended the university’s recognition of the club, but this time his argument rested entirely on the issue of free speech: “Consistent with its Catholic tradition, Fordham University is committed to Catholic moral teaching on sexuality, which holds that heterosexual marriage is the norm for sexual activity…. Fordham does not believe that commitment to its Catholic tradition demands a repression of other competing views.”

During the month of November 1990, in fact, it was revealed that “competing views” were not the only challenge to Catholic teachings at Fordham University. A freshman participating in the university’s optional orientation course for new students, moderated by the dean of student services, published an article in The Ram praising “Fordham’s realistic new approach to sex on campus.” It was revealed that the “pill” and condoms were passed around to students in the classroom, and students were instructed on the method for inserting the diaphragm and “sponge” into a plastic model of the female reproductive system. When challenged, O’Hare simply insisted that the class is presented “in the context of Catholic teaching on sexual ethics,” despite the fact that the use of contraceptive devices and premarital intercourse are violations of the Catholic faith.

Also in November, I discovered that a university-funded and recognized club called Fordham Helpline offered abortion referrals for pregnant students. Rather than denying the practice, the officers of Helpline defended the practice in articles in two student publications, The Ram and The Paper. Because Helpline’s policy was to offer a variety of referrals to women, including but not limited to Planned Parenthood or other abortion clinics, they insisted that critics “ignore the distance between what we do and the moral choices and actions the free caller makes.”

Despite these confessions and conclusive evidence of Helpline’s practices, O’Hare has denied the charges as recently as December 1991. While the officers of Helpline initially denied that they had ever actually provided an abortion referral, they eventually acknowledged a file record of one referral when it was revealed that a tape recording of that referral had been made by a graduate student on May 1, 1990. The recording reveals that, although the caller said she was only “thinking about abortion,” the Helpline counselor referred her only to New York City’s maternity services office and to Planned Parenthood, along with the days and times when the woman could abort her child.

As if to make certain that students were aware of the direction in which Fordham was headed, O’Hare invited Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), to speak at the 1991 commencement and receive an honorary degree. Edelman and the CDF are active promoters of school-based sex clinics that offer contraceptives and abortion referrals to children. CDF is allied in its efforts with Planned Parenthood, the Center for Population Options, and the Support Center for School-Based Clinics. Despite considerable protest over the selection of Edelman as commencement speaker, she was praised for fulfilling Christ’s challenge to be “the salt of the earth, the light of the world.”

Private Catholic institutions abandoning their mission must, of course, cloak their actions in order to prevent considerable opposition from loyal alumni or faithful advocates of the institution’s religious foundations. It is common, for example, to hear the complaint from educators that the “nonsectarian” solution is necessary to obtain federal and state funding; research by K.D. Whitehead and others has demonstrated that this is essentially false, as most state funding and virtually all federal funding is available to sectarian colleges and universities. Fordham has chosen the more difficult option of insisting that, despite the apparent decline in its commitment to the Catholic faith, it remains a Catholic institution.

“Fordham University is non-sectarian in the sense that it is independent of ecclesiastical control and imposes no religious test on either faculty or students,” O’Hare told alumni. “Its juridical status in this regard is no different from the vast majority of Catholic colleges and universities that are governed by independent boards of trustees. Fordham’s eligibility for public funding played no role in the administration’s decision in these cases.”

This contradiction of identity and policy can only be maintained when those who are best able to see through it, especially alumni and Church authorities, remain ignorant of the actual practices and policies of the university. This has been the case at Fordham, where university publications for alumni have ignored the rising controversy over the university’s mission and have made no mention of the pro-abortion, homosexual, and contraceptive advocacy that occurs on campus.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that Molly Kelly, of Pennsylvanians for Human Life, warned college students at an American Collegians for Life conference in January that there are times “when the enemy comes in sheep’s clothing, perhaps a Roman collar…. If one calls their institution a Christian or Catholic college, then we have to expose them,” she said. “Sometimes the enemy looks like us.”

The simple but effective tactic of exposure may have caused a turnaround at Fordham University. With considerable help from concerned alumni and friends of Fordham, I mailed letters to over 2,000 of Fordham’s most prominent alumni and donors. The letter encouraged alumni to cease donating to Fordham and included a form letter to be signed and mailed to the Fordham administration. By simply notifying alumni of the situation at Fordham, the letter generated considerable support and enough funds to continue the mailings to even more alumni.

One month after the first letters were mailed, Fordham announced that university recognition of Fordham Students for Choice and Fordham Lesbians and Gays had been retracted. The excuse, keeping in line with the university’s denial of wrongdoing, was that neither club had held the required number of activities in the fall of 1991. Because the decision was based on a technicality, both clubs are officially eligible to reapply for recognition in the future. The pressure exerted by a small group of alumni certainly had an effect on the administration, especially when the university endowment was in question.

Alumni at Fordham continue to seek additional changes that will reflect a commitment to the university’s Catholic tradition. The effort can never truly end, however, since a continual desire must exist for creative ways to adapt to a changing culture without abandoning the mission of the university. This is the challenge all Catholic institutions face.

Many alumni think that an external solution to the problems at Fordham or other Catholic institutions is required, either through religious authorities or the state. Yet at Georgetown University (also a prominent Jesuit institution with an identity crisis) appeals to the local bishop have been unsuccessful. At the University of San Francisco (also Jesuit), the local bishop also rebuffed suggestions he try to compel the university to change its ways.

In Ex Corde Ecclesice, Pope John Paul II recently placed his trust in the Catholic laity for the preservation of Catholic education: “The future of Catholic universities depends to a great extent on the competent and dedicated service of lay Catholics,” he said. “The Church sees their developing presence in these institutions both as a sign of hope and as a confirmation of the irreplaceable lay vocation in the Church and in the world.”

Because the secular trend at Catholic colleges and universities is primarily a problem inside the institutions, new attitudes must be developed among administrators and faculty within these institutions. Attention must become focused on each institution’s commitment to its religious foundations, rather than on external influences that only make it easier for administrators to make the wrong decisions. A university’s religious foundations must be an object of pride, rather than an ambiguous concept spoken of only in front of alumni with deep pockets or prospective students who are enamored by century-old reputations.

A society that permits religious freedoms is not necessarily a society in which those freedoms are exercised. While religious leaders frequently decry the secularization of American society and warn of its influence on the faithful, they ignore the complacency among religious educators that fosters secularism in the young.


Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

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