New Government Scrutiny for ‘Catholic’ Colleges

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.



Adam Wilson


Adam Wilson is Communications Director for The Cardinal Newman Society and author of the report, Visitation Policies at U.S. Catholic Colleges.

  • My first impression is that this is a good thing. It would not be the first time God seemed to use pagan nations to shame the people of God into greater faith. Maybe this will be a wake up call…..

    • mykidscatholicmom

      I think that might be the hope and the prayer: that God would use this for good and wake up not only the institutions, but the parents who send their kids to these schools thinking that they can trust these schools because they are Catholic in name only. I don’t like to make it a habit of agreeing with labor boards, but in actuality they are saying what we have been saying. They aren’t really Catholic institutions.

  • Just to clarify. I did not mean that the gov’t scrutiny in principle was good, but rather that this could have a positive impact on catholic identity which seems to be suffering at many schools.

  • Kathryn

    Another question: the Church is very much very pro-union. At least it seems so to me. So why deny the profs or other faculty the right to unionize? If anything, the Church and those organizations to that claim to be Catholic should welcome unions in with open arms.

    Or does the increased cost associated with unions have anything to do with it? Na, couldn’t be a money issue could it…?

  • TomD

    One of the ironies of this issue is that these predominately liberal Catholic colleges and universities will be directly challenged in their religious status by the very governmental entities empowered by people who they elected to political office. Finally, “pretending” to be affiliated with the Church, when it is obvious from practice that you are not, will not longer be accepted as protection from secular laws and regulations. Politics does, indeed, make strange bedfellows.

  • TomD

    Having thought about it a bit more, it dawned on me that Notre Dame and Georgetown, for example, probably do not have to worry much in the short run. They are well connected politically to the Obama Administration and one phone call to the executive branch will “divert” any immediate action by the NLRB against these prominent, well-connected universities. Notre Dame is way down the list, they won’t have to appear in federal court. Makes conferring an honorary degree somewhat useful, wouldn’t you say?

    It is the “little guys,” the small Catholic colleges in states like New York, New Jersey, California, and in New England, that should worry right now. The political officials in these states will be driven by union pressure to take action against religious colleges that are not as politically well connected. When it comes down to political pressure from unions versus protecting smaller colleges that are otherwise political allies, the unions will win.

    I hate to be so cynical, but this is probably true.

  • The NLRB is flagrantly violating a Supreme Court decision from the early 70’s. However, since this is the Obama Administration doing this, any ruling unfavorable to them will be defied.

  • Jason

    I’m as disappointed with dissident and disobedient “Catholic” colleges as the next Catholic. But unleashing federally supported union thuggery on them from the NLRB isn’t the solution.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Chickens coming home to roost is the first thought in my mind.
    These are the colleges that indignantly refused the mandatum for their professors of theology. For example, Notre Dame has longed ignored when it did not repulse its bishop. Within a diocese the bishop’s is the overriding authority, not the college president or his board of trustees. A Catholic institution which does not acknowledge the authority of the bishop of the diocese cannot honestly claim to be Catholic.

  • Napoleon

    My impression is that this might be good thing. Has lukewarmness has become so unpalatable that even Mammon casts it out of his mouth?

  • Michael DePietro

    I actually think Geogetown ( Where I spent 3 years of pst graduate medical residency training) is so reliably “non Catholic” that it should have its CAtholic identity formally stripped. Good grief it has a pro-choice student group. Given that John Paul II in Evangelium Vitate descibed abortion as “murder” from a Catholic viewpoint this is a “pro-murder” student group. If you are a serious Catholic the best possible outcome would be for Georgetown to be closed since it is obviously a serious threat to the immortal souls of its students. Attendance their might lead some poorly catechized 18 year old kid to conclude a lot of things that are in fact mortal sins are ok. I have 3 children and
    would send none to GU.

    Ditto for Norte Dame, which just appointed to its board of trustees Roxanne Martino, who is major contibutor to “Emily’s list”, the pro-abortion pac.

    There are a handful of truly Catholic Colleges left in the US, it seems that by closely alligning themselves with the Church, including a more explicit relationship with the local Bishop they may protect themselves from the idea of being called non religous institutions. To the rest of the institutions in the “Catholic tradition” who are not CAtholic at all, ( pick any Jesuit college…) and who aspire to the same nihlistic, secular philosophy as the Harvards and the Yales. well then let them be subject to the same federal micromanagement they love so much in every other policy arena.

  • TeaPot562

    We, the Catholic laity, should NOT be sending any contributions to subsidize the formerly catholic colleges that deny (or refuse to promote) ideals and positions consistent with Christianity. If we limit our $ contributions to colleges that DO teach Christian/Catholic ideals, we are doing what we can, along this line, to save civilization. Absent support of the family and ideals to educate children, civilization cannot endure.

  • NYa

    The odd think about this is that Manhattan College is not crazy liberal, certainly not as out-there as their neighbor down the road, Fordham. I have a son there now; the stuff he was taught in religion class was not heterodox. And there are still LaSallian Christian Brothers who live and teach there (look close; those aren’t just black suits they’re wearing):

    What can/does Dolan say about this?

    • TomD

      NYa, not knowing the specifics about the school, maybe the fact that they are more orthodox is why their status was challenged, as a politically safe, early example for the Obama Administration under the new policy.

  • Kathryn

    I wonder if part of the problem is that the schools don’t stress conversion for non-believers in the faith? I know a lady whose education back ground was mostly at Catholic schools, and yet never did she convert.

  • Cord Hamrick


    Hmm. That’s a bit difficult. In a school, the student is subject to the authority of the administrators and instructors. There’s a one-sided power structure in that relationship.

    Most schools have policies discouraging student-teacher romantic relationships for that reason. But surely evangelism is one practice in which we never want to argue from a position of power? For love and power, in a fallen world, are antithetical. I’d worry about a student feeling “pressured.” You might get accusations of compelled conversions, discriminatory treatment, that kind of thing.

    But perhaps I’m reading too much into your phrase “stress conversion?” Perhaps you meant something more like “encourage Catholics not only to orthodoxy and personal holiness, but to evangelize their peers through meaningful relationships?”

  • Therese

    Sadly, it’s true that most “Catholic” universities have degraded into bastions of secular humanism. While continuing to portray themselves as Catholic, they have embraced the ways of the world, specifically liberalism, instead of traditional Catholic teachings.

    Parents are being duped by these un-Catholic universities into believing they’re paying for their children to receive a Catholic education. Thankfully, the Cardinal Newman Society provides a guide to the few remaining true Catholic universities.

  • Kathryn


    Hmm. The last time I checked, none of these Catholic institutions are compulsory. In fact, a person usually has to fork over the big bucks to go to them. If anything, the students (or who pays the tuition bill) has much of the power.

    And if they don’t want to be proselytized, maybe they ought to go to a State school? There are a number of “Cow Colleges” out there that are top notch, even if very, very large.

    But what I propose is a bit more modest. In its FAQ, our homeschool program notes that it is open to all, but is “designed to produce a Catholic character” in the students. Is it too much to ask for the Catholic Colleges (or even diocesan schools) to have a similar explicit policy?

    It seems reasonable to require an “introduction to Catholicism” sometime during the first two years, then perhaps a course on the more advanced study in the Church’s major points of contention in either junior or senior year –say on contraception, abortion, marriage, etc. (These would be semester courses). When I went to a private Reformed college, I had to take both a basic Christian Thought and then some kind of upper level Christian class (can’t remember what it was). And try as I might, could not be out of philosophy. That hardly seems unreasonable to me.

    The Truth speaks for itself. And if Church teachings are taught intelligently, I think people would convert. Maybe not immediately, but it would be laying ground work.

    Ideally, Rosary groups, or First Fridays, Adoration, etc, would be promoted as well.

  • Brett

    While I was a student at Catholic University in Washington, DC, a group of students staged a protest demanding that the crosses displayed in the classrooms be taken down. Why? Because they were offensive claimed the protesting students. Father O’Connell, the then President of CUA, gave a short statement on this issue to the student body. In so many words, and I can’t quote him verbatim, he said “This is a Catholic institution. The crosses will remain in the classrooms. If you find the crosses offensive, you certainly have the option of attending another university.” Georgetown University removed the crosses from their classrooms years ago.

  • mike flynn

    too bad for manhattan coll. i was at an open house there in the past 3 years. the catholic message was prominent. the bigger ones like georgetown and ND have more likely left the reservation. i still remember pope john paul ii imploring and demanding USA cath colleges to get back in the fold and submit to the local bishop. but, as is usual with those of us blessed with higher learning, they deemed themselves above god. certainly above the church.

  • Michael DePietro

    I think the central issue which is at the root of the problem needs to be confronted.

    The institutions no longer are run or staffed by people who believe Catholicism is true. This should be obvious by thier actions. Let us simply look at the gravity of what Norte Dame has done. We first need to recall in all its clarity what Blessed John Paul II, while Pope, the Vicar of Christ, said in Evangelium Vitae about abortion, “Among all the crimes which can be committed against life, procured abortion has characteristics making it particularly serious and deplorable. The Second Vatican Council defines abortion, together with infanticide, as an “unspeakable crime”. Is it possible that if anyone at Norte Dame believed the Church is what it claims to be, they would place on thier board of trustees Roxanne Martino, a woman who gave tens of thousands of dollars to a PAC expressely devoted to the protection of this “unspeakable crime” as a right? ( Martino is a supporter of the proabortion PAC Emily’s List)

    This collapse of the System goes beyond college. I am very intimately familar with a Catholic high school, whose religious department chair, gave students extra credit to attend a talk by a gay teacher. The gay teacher made the point of stating that the Church had “no right to tell him or anyone else how to live ones life.” Now it is very well to believe such a thing, but it is self evident that if this is how you think you no longer believe the Church is the bride of Christ, of which Christ said “he who hears you hears me.” The fact that the Chair of the religion department is still running the show at this instituion demonstrates it is no longer Catholic either.

    It would be tedious to go on piling example after example of this sort of thing. We are all familar with it.
    I would like to make a more startling point. I think we are in the midst of something like the Arian Heresy, when most of the Bishops had lost thier way. I think we now have a situation where most of the Bishops do not believe the Church is what it once claimed to be. That is they do not believe that being at least an implicit member of the Church, and following its teaching is needed to avoid hell. In fact most Catholics do not believe this.

    For most of its existence the Church taught something like this:
    We are all sinners, because of our fallen nature, and because of this we are undeserving of eternal life. Rather than see us damned Christ came to atone for our sins, gave us the sacrements as channels of grace. To attain salvation we must cooperate with this by avoiding mortal sin (which we can do by following the teachings of the Church) and using the sacraments to help strengthen ourselves. Other religions while they may have some elements of truth are at some level false because they deny or lack some element of divine revelation. They are less pleasing to God, and worship given him in this way is also less pleasing to God. Now of course someone in such a “false” religion through no fault of their own, can still be saved , if they are seeking God. They in reality are implicit Catholics, but this road is a harder more perilous journey, then those of us who find ourselves within the Church which is the Arc of salvation.

    Now if that is your understanding, it is pretty clear why Kathryn’s suggestions make sense. It is important to your salvation that you find your way to the Church. Indeed Christs’s great commission to make disciples of all the nations makes sense. Once in the Church one formed your conscience by learning its teachings which of course were divinely inspired.

    But it has been a very long time since anyone said things like that. In the modern era the sense is that all religions are nearly equally good paths to God, mortal sin if it exists very rare. In fact what is or is not sinful is determined by ones own subjective views, conscience not as formed in union with the teachings of the Church necessarily, but as ones own innermost judgement. But fear not for God madly loves all of us, “where we are” regardless. If you are given to the thought of Hans Urs Von Balthasaar with any luck everyone ( including one imagines murders, gestapo agents, Islamic terrorists) may be saved. Surely then the regular people with thier less spectacular sins, or rather “brokeness” , (sin is a bit old school) is saved. Now if that is what you believe, well than the urgency to preach the faith is much less. Certainly there is no clear “benefit” to being a Catholic or even a Christian, that I can see. Perhaps it serves as a kind of emotional balm.

    Now I ask you which set of beliefs above is a better description of what most “Catholic” including most Priests and Bishops believe today? Answer that and the reason for the crisis, including the near complete collapse of the Catholic University system is obvious.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Just desserts for trendy, culturally-correct schools.

  • Anne

    I’m having a problem believing any of what the author is talking about would be Constitutional, but one “problem” he hypothesizes — that Notre Dame might not be able to defend itself as Catholic because it gave an honorary degree to a US President, a non-Catholic who is pro-choice (!) — doesn’t pass the commonsense test. Come on. Since when has any US government agency penalized a religious organization for honoring the President of the United States? Or taken it upon itself to decide whether or not a religious organization has applied its own moral code correctly in any given situation? I don’t know what happened at St. Xavier, but I’m pretty sure the NLRB isn’t planning to become arbiter of Catholic orthodoxy.

  • Anne

    To be clear: What the NLRB is talking about — of founding religious orders no longer making up a majority on a college’s governing board; of academic requirements that no longer list religious studies, etc. — is a far cry from a demand for religious orthodoxy. I can see the NLRB’s point. Any college could claim religious status if there weren’t standards. But the standards have to be something measurable outside the organization itself. That’s what isn’t made clear in this article. The government can’t become a religious police force…but it may get tough about enforcing religious exemption status, especially when revenues run low. Keeping Catholic colleges “Catholic” in this sense is a whole other issue from what’s presented here.

  • michael depietro

    Anne says “The government can’t become a religious police force…but it may get tough about enforcing religious exemption status, especially when revenues run low. Keeping Catholic colleges “Catholic” in this sense is a whole other issue from what’s presented here.

    It is true that from a purely legal point of view the “Catholic” colleges have a good chance of prevailing in court since the test for religious affiliation that is current is pretty lax. ( see the following link:
    It is also true they can not directly assess the “orthodoxy” of the school.

    Nonetheless its too bad… It would serve these schools right if the NLRB found them to be non Catholic even if though they would not be grounding the decision on the schools “orthodoxy” . The Effect of declaring these schools which have so assiduously fled the authority of the Church to be “non Church related” would be a fine outcome on any grounds