Students walking on the Milwaukee campus of Marquette University (CNS photo/courtesy Marquette University).

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.

There is a liberal inability to understand the shift occurring at the magisterial level in the Catholic Church.

That is why locutions like “in the Catholic tradition” or “in the Catholic heritage” entered the mission-statement language of so many Catholic universities in the last few years. “Hiring for mission” has replaced “hiring Catholic,” with mixed results. If “hiring Catholics does not in itself guarantee that the Catholic mission of these universities will be preserved and nurtured,” as Peter Steinfels wrote here all the way back in 2007, the same can also be said of hiring for mission. One of the problems with hiring for mission is that the fear of ecclesiastical tyranny is still much stronger than the fear of being put completely in the hands of technocrats. The capitalist culture of today’s university model puts the business school in a central place and outsources moral responsibility to business-ethics programs. But even liberal-progressive Catholic institutions tend to make Catholic identity a matter of marketing and public relations. What is often forgotten is that since there is no constitutionally established church in the United States (as there is, for example, in Germany), the Catholic educational and cultural structure still relies on an essentially ecclesial institutional system that benefits only marginally from the support of public institutions.

We know about Catholic conservatives’ rejection of Pope Francis. But there is a liberal inability to understand the shift occurring at the magisterial level in the Catholic Church, where the discourse is moving away from “pelvic issues” and toward the crises brought on by globalization and corporatization. This shift has only tangentially affected the Catholic theological academia in the Western Hemisphere. Discussions about confronting racism, exclusion, and sexual violence are squarely within the mission of a Catholic university. But much less attention is devoted to the corporatization of the Catholic university and the way that administrators and faculty members alike have embraced it. My Villanova colleague Gerald Beyer, in his recently published book, Just Universities, writes that “like their secular counterparts, Catholic universities vary in the degree in which they have succumbed to corporatization and market fundamentalism.” He makes the argument, following Henry Giroux’s critique of “gated intellectuals,” that all those who work at a Catholic college or university (as well as all Catholics) need to be concerned with these issues, not just with their own agendas.

Something else to consider is how the Catholic Church and the Catholic education system haven’t been spared in this global age of resentment. It is a resentment toward the ecclesiastical system, resulting from the fallout of the sex-abuse crisis, the refusal to deal with racism, and the apparent detachment from reality affecting many members of the hierarchy. But there is also a resentment toward the ecclesial vocation of Catholic institutions of education, based on the view that the Church is identified not just historically but essentially with racism, colonialism, and sexism. It’s the view that sees any tradition as oppressive rather than as possibly liberating, life-denying rather than life-affirming, and therefore not worth adhering to, much less saving—an attitude that can be summed up as “extra Ecclesiam, sola salus”: the only salvation is in leaving the Church. It’s difficult to counter such an attitude, especially after decades of political alignment between the majority of the Catholic hierarchy and the Republican Party, including Trump’s GOP.

Resentment presents its own problems for the question of Catholic mission. If it is obvious that Catholic colleges and universities should not be engaged in proselytism, what’s more controversial is the issue of the evangelizing and kerygmatic mission of these schools. What are departments of theology and/or religious studies in Catholic universities and colleges for? How did their roles change compared to the rise of other Catholic mission-related entities (office for mission, campus ministry, think tanks, etc.) and to the creation of more intentional, faith-based academic departments (Catholic Studies departments, for example)? Do departments of theology and/or religious studies have a future on Catholic campuses? (I’m not even trying to address the differences between theology and religious studies here.) It’s not hard to imagine a future without them. Substitutes already exist.

If we decide that inhabiting our religious tradition is incompatible with contemporary academia, we’re only legitimizing another religious canon while forsaking our own.

Once it was assumed that Catholic colleges and universities must teach faith across disciplines. Now, despite the fact that the faith perspective on mainstream Catholic campuses tends to be articulated, thanks to Vatican II, in ecumenical, interreligious, inclusive, and non-proselytizing terms, that faith perspective has become controversial (not in statements, but in deeds) as a driver of overall educational mission. Doing theology in, with, and for the Church, as well as for the broader world, has become controversial not only for non-theological faculty, but also sometimes for theology and religious studies departments on Catholic campuses. In addition to compatibility problems with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, this also presents compatibility problems with Pope Francis. If the perspective of lived faith is discarded from the outset, if the missionary and evangelizing dimension is discarded, one wonders what the liberal Catholic enthusiasm for Francis is about. It reminds me of the enthusiasm “cold warriors” had for John Paul II.

Many progressive Catholics ignore Catholic conservatism or even hold it in contempt. But they can’t afford to ignore the current “Francis moment,” to neglect this shrinking window of opportunity for exercising the energy needed to give new life to a Catholic understanding of education. From Laudato si’ to Fratelli tutti, it is clear that Pope Francis is leading a movement that rejects Catholic exclusivism and neo-fundamentalism, that critiques neoliberal capitalism, that seeks development of doctrine on the death penalty and the dismantling of a moral rigorism in the service of a bourgeois and conventional Catholicism. This fits perfectly well with efforts emphasizing diversity and inclusion as part of a Catholic identity that goes beyond what the canon of Western civilization contains. Yet at the same time, the relief brought about by Pope Francis’s disavowal of the culture-war agenda can sometimes work almost as a kind of functional anti-Catholicism, in which Catholicism and Catholic culture are taken seriously only insofar as they support the technocratic paradigm of the contemporary university or one side of the two-party ideological agenda.

In his latest book published in English, The Unnamable Present, Italian author Roberto Calasso uses opposing images of “terrorists and tourists” and “fundamentalism and Silicon Valley” to describe the divide of faith in contemporary society. To presuppose a detachment from one’s faith perspective as a prerequisite for scholarly objectivity and a condition for being at a university open to cultural and religious diversity would make us spiritual tourists—visitors who conceal their religious tradition or choose not to inhabit it at all. This includes faculty, students, and administrators. If we decide that inhabiting our religious tradition is incompatible with contemporary academia, we’re only legitimizing another religious canon while forsaking our own.

It’s true that practices of discipleship come first, and then comes reflection. But that reflection is essential to spell out further implications at the level of praxis. The insistence on social justice, diversity, and inclusion—as commendable as it is—needs doctrinal and theological foundations, where the dimension of normativity is not rejected a priori. These ideas can and must be articulated as elements of the mission and identity of Catholic institutions of higher learning. Catholic social thought can survive only on the basis of theological foundations—a theology that is different from the apologetics of the tradition or of the papal magisterium. Surrendering Catholic education to a post-theological and post-ecclesial mode will sooner or later make social Catholicism not just politically and culturally irrelevant, but also intellectually impossible to explain and justify. Other countries face a similar challenge. In Germany, for example, theology departments in state universities (in a system of concordat—established Church) are in conversation with the bishops and the seminaries over the direction and the future of Catholic theology. But these kinds of discussions aren’t happening in the United States, in part because of the private-market nature of Catholic higher education, in part because of the almost total estrangement from the institutional Church.

I came to this country in 2008 in part because of the control the Catholic Church in Italy exerted over theology, so I’m not indifferent to the threat that ecclesiastical tyranny presents to Catholic intellectual life. But it would be an illusion to think that Catholicism can survive, much less thrive, if we disregard the fate of Catholic academic institutions and the place of theology within them. To paraphrase Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the university is one of the places where the Church does its thinking. If we lose the “Catholic” university, we’ll be left with a reactionary, non-thinking Church.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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