The Politics of Higher Education

The unanimous vote by St. Thomas University’s Board of Trustees to sever ties with the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese is just the most recent attempt by a Catholic university to limit the influence of orthodox Catholic leaders on its campus. Voting to change the university’s bylaw that maintained the sitting archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis as the Vicar General and Priest President of the University, the board issued a statement claiming that they had changed the bylaws which had stipulated that the archbishop of the diocese serve ex officio as chairman of the Board, and instead, installed soon-to-be retired St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn as chairman for a five year term. The decision by the Board can only be viewed as an attempt to limit the authority of the incoming orthodox Archbishop John Nienstedt, who will succeed the more liberal Archbishop Flynn as head of the Archdiocese next year. Following the Board of Trustees vote, student protestors issued a statement alleging that “By removing the ex officio position of the Archbishop, the University purges itself of a continual, institutionalized connection with the Church.”

Indeed, this institutionalized connection between the Church and the more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities became strained following the liberalizing trends brought by Vatican II and became especially tenuous since 1990 with the release of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the papal document identifying the centrality of Catholic higher education to the Church. Literally translated as “from the heart of the Church,” Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde attempted to address the slide to secularism that has been occurring on most Catholic campuses by calling for Catholic colleges to be accountable to the local presiding bishop. A key component of this accountability led to a controversial requirement within the papal document that all theologians obtain a mandatum, or a certificate from the local bishop attesting that their teaching was in keeping with official Church teachings.

More than a decade later, Ex Corde continues to be resisted by most of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities because the faculty and administrators on these campuses claim that it’s a threat to their academic freedom and independent governance. When the document was issued, the faculty senate at Notre Dame voted unanimously for the guidelines of Ex Corde to be ignored. And, in a commentary in the Jesuit magazine, America, Notre Dame’s then-president Rev. Edward Malloy, and Rev. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, warned of “havoc” if Ex Corde were implemented ­and called the mandatum requirement “positively dangerous” to Catholic institutions in America. Today, the contentious battles that once surrounded the release of the apostolic constitution have ended as many of the bishops were reluctant to require it, and college presidents quietly refuse to implement it. Most seem to have abandoned the fight. Even University of Notre Dame Professor of Law, Gerry Bradley, a longtime proponent of the implementation of Ex Corde pronounced the document “dead.”

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Still, faithful Catholic supporters were encouraged when Father Malloy’s successor, Rev. John Jenkins, seemed to be willing to confront the anti-Catholic culture growing on the Notre Dame campus when he expressed uneasiness with the annual campus production of The Vagina Monologues and the celebration of the Notre Dame Queer Film Festival. In an address to the faculty, Father Jenkins cited concerns that these events stood apart from and in opposition to Catholic teachings. He invited dialogue from the Notre Dame community to help him make a final decision. But, hopes were dashed when after two months of consultation with faculty on campus he saw no reason to prohibit the performances. In fact, Father Jenkins became so concerned about the status of women on campus that he announced he would form and chair an ad hoc committee to address gender relations and roles.

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Students have paid the highest price for the secularization of Catholic campuses. While the once hallowed ground still remains, the sacred symbols — the saintly statues and crucifixes that continue to adorn many of these campuses — have become hollow reminders of what has passed. For Rev. Wilson Miscamble, professor of history at Notre Dame, most Catholic campuses now possess “a certain Potemkin Village quality . . . While their buildings are quite real, what goes on within them has increasingly lost its distinctive content . . . Students emerge from Catholic schools unfamiliar with the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition and with their imaginations untouched by a religious sensibility.” Like the fake Potemkin villages that had been built to create an impression of prosperity during Catherine the Great’s tours of Ukraine and the Crimea, the Catholic campuses of today create a false impression of fidelity to the Church (especially during campus tours for potential students and their parents). And, like the Potemkin villages, Professor Miscamble predicts that for most Catholic colleges and universities, “it will be increasingly difficult to maintain even a Catholic façade in the academic life of these institutions.”
On some campuses, as the faculty and administration attempt to distance themselves from the Church, the curriculum and the student culture has become so degraded that local bishops have actually declared the colleges “no longer Catholic” and have removed the names of these colleges from diocesan directories. Since Ex Corde Ecclesiae was issued in 1990, Marist College, Marymount Manhattan College, Nazareth College, and Saint John Fisher College have all been stripped of their designation as “Catholic colleges” by the bishops. Others will surely follow as Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, recently told a gathering at the University of Notre Dame that the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI would likely favor “evangelical pruning,” rather than maintaining ties to Catholic institutions that have become too secular. In his address to the faculty, Archbishop Miller said he challenged American academics to come up with ways to measure their Catholic identity and to think broadly about what it means to be a Catholic institution.

It is no coincidence that retired Notre Dame President Father Malloy now sits on the Board of Trustees of St. Thomas University. Like an increasing number of Catholic colleges and universities, St. Thomas lists several current and former Catholic college presidents on its board, including the current president of Gannon University, and the retired president of the University of Detroit Mercy. According to a recent Chronicle report, the percentage of current and former college presidents on Catholic college boards is much higher than at other private college boards because Catholic colleges have actively sought out such leaders for decades. This practice cannot help but have influence on the decisions made by these boards.

While Richard Ingram, President of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, claims that “there is a certain measure of comfort that comes from having someone on the board (to consult) on sticky issues involving the culture of the academy,” one must question whether the practice of including presidential peers on the board is a positive one for creating a truly independent board. Ingram’s choice of the word “comfort” is revealing as it suggests that the university president who helps stack the board with presidential colleagues will have comfortable and congenial allies who will function as “experts” to educate the rest of the board on the issues that are just “too complex” for non-academics to understand.

This is most likely what occurred at St. Thomas University when the Board voted to be led by the non-interventionist liberal bishop rather than one who is known to be a strong and pro-active supporter of Catholic moral teaching. It is difficult to predict what will happen next, ­but it’s clear that this is not the end of the story at St. Thomas University­.

  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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