Those who remember the Laetare Medal controversy of 2009 might be feeling a little déjà vu as Notre Dame approaches this year’s commencement. That was when Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, was supposed to receive the honor. But she refused, citing the controversy over then-President Barack Obama’s attendance. The university didn’t issue the award, and that was also the last time a sitting U.S. president visited Notre Dame. Now, twelve years later, people are wondering: Will the university invite Joe Biden, just the second Catholic president in U.S. history?
That this is even a newsworthy issue shows how easily we can be distracted from the larger underlying concern—namely, the crisis in American Catholic higher education. It’s a bigger problem than the collapse of ecclesial credibility and the behavior of the bishops, and it can’t be blamed solely on politics. Student enrollment is trending down, for a variety of reasons—from perceptions about academic competitiveness and future employability to economic conditions related to the pandemic. Even Jesuit institutions, generally thought to be the strongest subgroup of Catholic universities, are feeling the pressure: John Carroll University, Marquette University, St. Louis University, and Wheeling University are dealing with deficits, cutting staff, or gutting programs.
But in seeking to address these challenges, many schools are putting their Catholic identity at risk—namely, by positioning and marketing themselves as part of the mainstream liberal-progressive realm of higher education. Of course, there are conservative Catholic institutions that are doubling down on Catholic identity, even if in ways that can be concerning. But these schools have a strong natural affinity with certain kinds of Catholics, as well as a supportive institutional partner in the clerical establishment. You could say that liberal-progressive Catholic higher education has no such “core strengths,” and that may be partly its own doing. It has embraced deconstruction of the neo-Scholastic hegemony since Vatican II so fully that it’s now suspicious of any Catholic institutionalism. It has been too accommodating of the identity politics that have taken root since the 1960s. It is perhaps still too closely linked to a vision of Catholic higher education laid out more than fifty years ago in the Land O’Lakes Statement, which is showing its age. And, in a sort of culminating gesture, it adopted a view of 1990’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (and also the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992) based on the belief that John Paul II and the Vatican were imposing an unacceptably unilateral understanding of Catholicism and Catholic education.