Faith and Freedom

The synthesis of the responses of 110 presidents of Catholic colleges and universities to the proposed Vatican schema on such institutions covers a wide range of points. [See “Catholic College and University Presidents Respond to Proposed Vatican Schema,” Origins, April 10, 1986.] Abounding with references to “cultural pluralism,” “academic freedom,” “ecumenical realities,” and “Catholic character,” the synthesis fails to come to grips with two issues dwarfing any others: (1) the preservation and advancement, in the colleges, of the Catholic Faith, and (2) the protection of religion from state control.

The first point I must essentially leave to the Congregation For Catholic Education, to the 125 Catholic college presidents whose views were not represented in the synthesis, those numerous Catholic college graduates whose lifetime of religious faith was built in Catholic colleges of an earlier day, and those graduates of Catholic colleges who practice no faith at all. I can but say, on the point, that “the preservation and advancement of the Catholic Faith” is precisely what the synthesis never mentions. By clear implication any such insistence on that out-of-trend point would be greeted by the 110 as exhibiting a dismaying triumphalism or an appalling ignorance. Of course, at the core of the synthesis is the question of what “faith” one would be speaking of in discussing colleges of “the Catholic Faith.” The synthesis pretty clearly tells us that neither the Catholic bishops nor the Holy See really have power to say what is or what is not “Catholic.” The power to do that is apparently reserved to the Catholic college presidents — or at least to an elect of 110 of them, none of whom, according to the synthesis, need be Catholic.

The synthesis says that Catholic colleges may not today pursue a mission of preserving and advocating the Catholic Faith because, in order to exist, they must have government funding. To get government funding they must be nonsectarian — i.e., eschew such mission. The 110 presidents say that this restriction is not of their doing; blame, if any, is to be laid at the door of the Supreme Court. Notably, however, they lay no blame and evidence no dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. That is because the Supreme Court decisions are the linchpin of their position against the Vatican. As they view those decisions, the colleges (in order to be eligible for what they say is life-sustaining aid) must be independent of Church control and must not have, as their central purpose, the advancement of the Catholic religion. The synthesis does not trouble to inquire whether the magisterium believes that the life of the secularized, religiously independent college is of value to the Church or whether, indeed, the Church might consider such a college’s arrogating to itself the term “Catholic” a liability. With an almost appealing naïveté, the 110 take it as a given that their colleges are indispensable to the bishops.

In view of my second point, which is a concern for religious liberty, it is important to examine in more detail the Supreme Court decisions cited by the synthesis as the reason why, if religiously affiliated colleges are to be publicly aided, they dare not be “sectarian.” The Catholic Church in the eye of the law is, of course, a “sect” (a denomination, or religious body). The decisions in question hold that governmentally aided colleges may not, at the least, indoctrinate students in a religious faith, may not give preference in admission to students of that faith, may not impose worship as an integral part of the life of the college, may not function as faith communities, may not hire and fire faculty on the basis of fidelity to religious doctrine, and may not be subject to the religious disciplines of a church.

All of the foregoing prohibited activities, however, constitute a virtual definition of an educational institution which is religiously free in the constitutional sense. If Indiana, for example, were to enact a statute which would bar all colleges from pursuing such policies, that law, under present Supreme Court decisions, would be struck down as violative of the First Amendment. The synthesis, however, informs us that, in order to get government aid, the 110 colleges now voluntarily embrace rigid restrictions which, otherwise, would be deemed an appalling denial of religious liberty. This self-imposed loss has been the subject of too little focus, and the great trade-off of government money the subject of too much. Almost involuntarily “What doth it profit a man…?” comes to one’s lips. To weigh this:

(1) While absorbed with matters of money, we should at least afford a glance at patrimony. The American Catholic colleges were founded out of the gifts and sacrifices of Catholics of an earlier day whose supreme intention was promoting — yes, inculcating — the Catholic Faith. The religious traditions — yes, and religious discipline — of those institutions produced graduates who, not unsuccessfully — often as leaders — entered the affairs of American life and were and are often valued contributors to our society. It is scarcely for us, in 1987, to damn as halls of mediocrity the Catholic colleges of an earlier day since, in the academic mainstream of the present, into which so many Catholic college presidents have sought to plunge, mediocrity is abundant. The monotonous repetition, in the new brochures, of the term “excellence” does not confer academic excellence; and the spiritual and moral excellence pursued in an earlier day is anyhow not the product of academic excellence. That Catholic colleges today can survive without government aid is a presumption to be looked into. But what has now been traded off for government aid is what the old catalogues show to have been the raison d’être of the colleges. The synthesis seeks to take present advantage of that notable past, speaking of the Catholic colleges’ “long and enviable record of serving the church.” That pointedly misses the Vatican schema’s point which is, in sum, that the colleges’ mission to serve the Church now and henceforward appears dramatically abandoned.

(2) The synthesis is a declaration of the colleges’ insistent right to “independence” — by which they mean freedom from “ecclesiastical control” or from what the synthesis oddly calls a “incriminating” relationship with the Church. But the colleges’ second trade-off for government aid is actually loss of independence. I have spoken of this loss as embracing the religious character and activity which constitute a virtual definition of the religious liberty of an educational institution. Here are colleges holding themselves out as “Catholic” which dare not be evangelical. They will instead permit their religion but a cribbed and confined role, conditioned according to a stultifying secular formula. Much reference is made in the synthesis to the religious orders — as though their presence on the campuses provides significant religious influence there. Undoubtedly on some campuses that is still true. But the decline of most Catholic religious orders today in numbers, morale, and influence promises to be but accentuated on the nonsectarian “Catholic” campuses on which remnants of the orders function with steadily fading relevance.

Considering the heavy exaction made upon both faith and freedom by the colleges’ adherence to the Supreme Court formulation, the question must be posed: could a college opt to ignore the Supreme Court restrictions and still survive?

It appears not true that the real danger to its life would result from a religious college’s pursuing a course of independence which reflected its desire to be an evangelical instrument in advancing the Catholic Faith. The Tilton case, upon which the synthesis relies, involved solely one-time federal construction grants. Valuable to those colleges which have won such grants (or which have obtained construction financing under state bond-issuing authorities) such financial help does not remotely constitute a lifeline for any college. The Roemer case, upon which the synthesis also relies, involved a limited subsidy scheme for colleges by the State of Maryland. Few states have such subsidy statutes. Due to several factors, including restrictions in many state constitutions, as well as growing scarcity of state funds, few more are likely to adopt such statutes. Neither solely, nor combined with other governmental benefits, do these subsidies constitute a make-or-break factor for any higher education institution. Colleges of notable quality, such as Hillsdale and Grove City, exist without such government aid.

A third source of funding, claimed by the synthesis as necessary to the survival of Catholic colleges, is student aid. But, by and large, the programs of governmental aid to students are not subject to the Tilton/Roemer restrictions. Students may attend a completely sectarian college or university as ebulliently religious as Dr. Falwell’s Liberty University or Oral Roberts University or the several Seventh-Day Adventist colleges — without the slightest requirement that these colleges trim their full-blown evangelical sails.

We should pause here to consider, from another angle, the note of ready subservience in the synthesis to the Supreme Court’s supposed restrictions. Reflecting upon the utter distortion of the meaning of the establishment clause, upon which distortion the restrictions are based, the independence-loving 110 college presidents would have expressed (one would think), not dutiful acceptance of the restrictions, but, at the least, annoyance over these impositions.

As leading Catholic and other constitutional scholars have long pointed out, the “no aid to sectarian institutions” doctrine had its origin, not in 1787 but in 1947 when, in Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by former Klansman Justice Hugo Black, indulged an admixture of phony history and constitutional invention and amended the First Amendment. This and some succeeding opinions of the Court in the aid cases have reeked with imagery characterizing the fear-mongering of the old Nativism and the nail-biting “concern” of the contemporary secularism — fears of religion “seeping in” (to aided programs), fears of too much Catholic “political entanglement.” The synthesis, confirmatory of all of this, will prove highly useful to pressure groups in future litigations, who seek to expand the power of government over religion.

Good spirit is found on most Catholic college campuses, only partly because they are gathering places for the young. A frightening immorality, the pervasive heat of ugly competition, and a rude and censorious radicalism also mark campuses where the young meet. I think that the cheerful and kindly spirit one discovers on Catholic campuses is due to the still-present glow of traditional Catholic home life, often still showing the strength and virtues of its ethnic past. This same past is possibly responsible, too, for a democratic spirit often found among the students. But on the nonsectarian “Catholic” campus mere cultural Catholics — Catholics by virtue of origin or association, not doctrinal commitment or religious fidelity — are now becoming more prevalent. Indeed, those colleges are going the route of America’s once-Protestant colleges and promise, by the end of the century, to be religiously relevant secular educational plants with precisely the same reason (and no better reason) to exist than Brown or OSU. Having eschewed the functions of apostolate, they seem inevitably to gravitate to further chilling of Catholic religious ardor among their students by becoming centers wherein is fostered doctrinal dissent.

What, if anything, is to be done? It is doubtless of little use to tell the dissident college presidents that their argument about the legal necessity to secularize is a sham, or at least a shame. Theirs is evidently an intense desire to “belong,” to be in the mainstream, to be thought well of by those in the American power structure to whom the presidents’ predecessors of forty years ago, if noticed at all, were the objects of gelid scorn. Surely the Church — one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic — is not the wellspring of their passionate concern. Let me suggest a way out for all concerned. The Vatican has no recourse but to insist that there is an identifiable Catholic religion and that institutions which hold themselves out to the public as “Catholic” be institutions which have that identity. But the colleges spoken for by the synthesis will brook no intellectual control by bishops — even bishops who, these days, attend workshops where they are briefed by academicians not uncongenial to the 110. In any event, regardless of how far these colleges may stray from orthodoxy, the magisterium has no legal power to enjoin them. They promise to pursue their role as nonsectarian colleges, and on that path to religious meaninglessness will, for a while, turn a “Catholic” face toward the Catholic family market on which — more, in fact, than upon government aid — they in good part depend. This should cause little difficulty to the Church provided that the Church is willing to certify to the public the names of those institutions which the Church deems to be Catholic.

The synthesis expresses fears of Vatican surveillance. My suggestion would involve none which should be unacceptable. It would merely enable any institution which desired to meet Church criteria for orthodoxy to be accredited as a Catholic institution. The synthesis tells us that accreditation processes, by secular and government agencies, are completely acceptable — even though they involve a great deal of monitoring, surveillance, inspection, record- keeping and even, as the synthesis mentions, “whether the institution is meeting its stated objectives.”

A parallel, though far less cumbersome, accrediting process — open to all comers — could (and should) be adopted by the Church in order that the Church might be enabled to provide Catholics and the public in general a list, in each diocese, of Church-accredited colleges and universities. We would then all know who is who. If a student, or parents, desired higher education at a college of the faith, they would run no risk of being deceived. If a college desired to be all-out orthodox, it would not be subject to unfair competition by those who tell the government that they are nonsectarian and the Catholic market that they are Catholic. But what of the 110? Their problem with the Church would be over. They could label themselves anything they wished.

They could be Baumite-, Kuengite-, Bultmanite-, or Curranite-”catholic.” They could, in fine, do their own thing. But now everyone would know that that thing is not the real thing.

Those bishops, whose publicly expressed views on the issues arise either out of solidarity with the 110 or out of fear of “losing our Catholic colleges” would now be brought to a moment of truth and a time for a modicum of moral courage.

  • William Bentley Ball

    William Bentley Ball was one of the nation's foremost Catholic constitutional lawyers. He died in 2000.

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