Being Catholic

A College President Speaks

Editor's note: Frank Macchiarola, who served as president of St. Francis College in Brooklyn from 1996-2008 and as New York City public schools chancellor from 1978-83, died on December 18, 2012. Commonweal's Margaret O'Brien Steinfels spoke with him in 1997. The interview appears below.



What are Catholic colleges doing about their Catholic identity? How will they react to the Vatican’s insistence on a juridical relationship between school and local bishop? Commonweal asked Frank Macchiarola, lawyer, professor, civic figure, and president of Saint Francis College, Brooklyn (and a 1962 graduate). Macchiarola became president in 1996 after thirty years in academic posts at City University of New York, Columbia University, and the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. He also served as chancellor of the New York public school system from 1978–83. Lively, articulate, and candid, Macchiarola launched immediately into answers to these questions during an interview on September 5 in his campus office in downtown Brooklyn.

Frank Macchiarola: When I came back to Saint Francis a year ago a couple of things struck me. One was that the Catholic nature of the institution had an overlay of civil law that defined it: Legally speaking, we are not Catholic. Even so, I found everybody here thought of us as being Catholic, though they may have defined what that meant differently from one another. For a long period of time, there had been no effort to give attention to that definition. Because I really believe this is an institution of the church, I began to look at my role. How could I find ways to define our mission that made sense to the people here?

When I looked at external forces that intruded into the college, I saw the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules that examined high school English courses taken by some of our foreign students. I looked at the number of athletic scholarships we could award within the city of New York because of the NCAA regulations on the residence of students receiving scholarship. The State Education Department certifies the credentials of our faculty: If we want a course or a major, what degrees are required, in what field, what sub-field? What does a chairman of a Department of Aviation Management need for a Ph.D. when there is no Ph.D. in the field? All these regulations are given to us by the NCAA, the State of New York, and the Middle States Association, our accreditation body.

In all of this, I never received a single word from the church, from the bishop, that wasn’t positive. There was a desire to help us in our liturgy, help us with events that we were having. We needed a church for the opening Mass. Whatever you want, Frank, no problem, no charge. That was the attitude of the bishop. The desire to help us is the only thing I’ve heard from the church.

Then I see this juridical discussion around Ex corde ecclesiae. From my standpoint, it’s a distraction. If I spent my time trying to figure out what that meant, I would spend less time figuring out what it means to be a Catholic college. For example, can we have crosses up in the classrooms? Well, my answer to that is, yes. We put up the Franciscan cross of San Damiano. This is a Franciscan college. We should have reference to the namesake of the college.

How should we shape our financial-aid package? How should we look at students who can’t pay their bills? We’re letting a lot of students who couldn’t make payment come to class on the basis that they will make those payments at some point in time. We’re not a grocery store. That’s what a Franciscan college should be about: to serve the poor.

The juridical stuff gets in the way of all of that. I respect the bishop; the bishop and I get along. He doesn’t want to hurt this college. He wants this college to grow. If there’s one thing that’s missing in this world, it’s a sense of faith.

And if we’re going to have to pass the definition of faith through a distillate that’s legalistic and juridical, we’re going to miss the faith. I don’t want to be distracted by that.


Margaret O’Brien Steinfels: If a juridical requirement becomes part of the norms, do you think Americans would feel duty-bound to observe it?


Macchiarola: If the church were to impose certain rules, which incidentally I think it can’t, it wouldn’t work. American Catholics are not inclined to carry out the rules any longer. There is no inclination on the part of religious people to see religious belief in the organizational way that a bureaucracy would like to see it.

What do I say to people when they face these questions: Make believe you’re getting this message not by fax, but by courier. Make believe it takes a while. Let conscience be part of what you do. And with Ex corde ecclesiae, let conscience play a role. Let time have its effect on the people who are here now. They are not the people who will be here ten years from now.


Steinfels: What, in fact, if the norms finally require a juridical relationship with the bishop? What would you recommend to your own board?


Macchiarola: Well, one of the good things about being Saint Francis College is you know you’re not the first!


Steinfels: You may be among the first in Brooklyn.


Macchiarola: Our board of trustees is juridically independent. That’s the starting point. So the question would be: What would someone want us to do in order to qualify to be defined by them as Catholic? The discourse starts on the other side. Somebody has to come to me and say, in order to get the following—be accredited as a Catholic college....


Steinfels: It might be pretty simple. They’ll just say if you want to call yourself a Catholic college, you incorporate these norms into your bylaws.  


Macchiarola: What number of Catholic colleges that now identify themselves as Catholic would say yes to that? I venture to say it would be a small number. There has been a long period of time in which that juridical authority hasn’t been exercised. So you’re starting with an effort that will not necessarily lead to success. For us, it doesn’t even raise a problem in terms of academic freedom. We don’t have a theology department here. Why would anyone insist that we...  


Steinfels: But you have a religious studies department.


Macchiarola: Yes, but the woman who chairs that department isn’t Catholic. We do teach a course in Catholic theology. Our philosophy department is traditional. We think of ourselves as being part of the Catholic tradition. In fact, our mission statement talks about both our Catholic and Franciscan traditions. We do feel committed to the church. But the institution itself hasn’t been formally connected in many years.


Steinfels: Is it then voluntary? Is this what the situation has evolved into? Schools once felt connected directly to the church through the religious communities that organized them—the Franciscans, the Jesuits—that was the "juridical" relationship.


Macchiarola: The Franciscans are here by their own choice. They don’t own the school. There are a number of Franciscan trustees and a number on our faculty. I am trying to grow that number. What was important was to support the work, the mission of the the Franciscans: working with the poor. If you want to work in the Franciscan tradition come and work with youngsters who need your support. That’s the part that’s making the college more Catholic. We also have a number of professors here who are not Catholic and if I felt that we had to impose on them, or to feel that they had to be "baptized," it wouldn’t work. They are with us in spirit. We need their presence in our community.


Steinfels: So you believe Catholic identity is not going to work unless it works from within.  


Macchiarola: It will never work if it is mandated. Most kids have not defined their connection to the church or to God in the traditional way that we did. I don’t want to block any message of what the faith is by imposing on them regulations that haven’t been part of their upbringing. I don’t want their indifference to Sunday Mass attendance, for example, to be looked at as anti-Catholic or non-Catholic. It’s something we’ve got to develop and nurture. You get the campus minister to get them involved and see what being Catholic means. The first step is not necessarily getting them to church. The first step is doing good works and seeing what the meaning of those good works is, and then at a certain point saying we need something to keep us going. What is it? We need liturgy, we need the Mass. We need the presence of the Holy Spirit.


Steinfels: What does the school do about liturgy?


Macchiarola: One of the new initiatives was Ash Wednesday. We put ashes on everybody. The fullest meaning of Ash Wednesday became clear. In the past it was ritual observed only by people who knew. Now all of sudden it’s something for someone who had never experienced it. The brother in campus ministry prepared a whole presentation on what ashes meant. When we hung the San Damiano Cross in each and every classroom and in all of the public rooms, we had a number of public events, lectures about what the cross meant. When I was inaugurated, we had the opening Mass at the Cathedral of Saint James. The coaches brought the kids. The church was packed. We did the closing Mass at Our Lady of Lebanon, which is Maronite Rite. We had a Mass for deceased alumni. Our sports dinner opened with a Mass. We present the opportunity for religion on campus. It is the presence of liturgy and the fact that liturgy means something to us.


Steinfels: Sounds great.


Macchiarola: I love it. When I was at Yeshiva, I always felt I was doing what I was supposed to do as a Catholic in a Jewish environment that supported religion. It was a wonderful preparation for coming back to Saint Francis College because I very much felt I was being who I was.

In life you’re either a policeman or a social worker. I am a social worker. I keep telling people we can’t stop doing good because there are people who take advantage of us. We do good because we are required to do good. That is our obligation. We’re not being nice. We’re not being liberal. We’re not being tolerant. We’re being who we are. Who we are requires us to do that. It’s a two-step process. First decide who you are and then you have to act in consistency with that. As an institution we have to internalize that. We have to promote that.

Published in the 1997-09-26 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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