Keeping Colleges Catholic

What's at stake?


The Catholic church in the United States shares in one of the nation’s most distinctive characteristics: the New World’s sense of exceptionalism. Neither history nor experience dictate the future. In the American context, energy and enterprise can reshape human lives in ways that astonished the Old World, and perhaps still do. The American Catholic church, as much as our political, economic, and cultural systems, took advantage of the expansionist and independent spirit of a frontier society. Pioneering bishops, priests, sisters, and lay people helped build a vast system of Catholic institutions, of which the most remarkable is the more than two hundred colleges and universities rooted in the most far-flung rural landscapes and in the most densely populated cities. Catholic schools have sustained in the most disparate regions the presence of a Catholic intelligence. They have handed on the practice of a Catholic intellectual life, at first mostly to Catholics, and more recently to all comers, especially those who are among the least well-off in our society. Indeed, their record in educating first-generation Americans must be unparalleled. These schools have been a gift both to the Catholic church and to American society. Today the future of these colleges and universities is gravely threatened. We do not use those words lightly. Nor did we gather the unprecedented number of articles that follow in this special section without the deepest hope that they will cause not only our readers but the whole Catholic community to consider the consequences of what is about to happen. Next November when the bishops of the United States gather for their annual meeting, they are very likely to approve a set of canonical requirements that would irredeemably alter the character and mission of U. S. Catholic higher education, both for those schools who accept the canonical requirements and for those who demur. The details of those requirements, how and why they have come so perilously close to enactment, and their potential consequences are explored in the six articles that follow. Not light reading we admit, but these essays are required reading for all who are beneficiaries of these schools and for all who care that the Catholic church in the United States remain an intellecutally engaged religious community. The first consequence of an affirmative vote by the bishops next fall will be dissension. Presidents, boards of trustees, and faculties will have to choose-Catholic or Not Catholic, by the Vatican’s definition. That in itself will bring division. Those who adopt the canonical requirements will forsake several distinctive features of higher education in this country-autonomy, academic freedom, and pluralism. Those that refuse the requirements may face the anathema of a local bishop, a religious order, and the Vatican: they will be declared Not Catholic. All of this, mind you, in the name of maintaining the Catholic identity and character of Catholic higher education in the United States. That the achievement of two centuries and a twenty-year conversation about Catholic character and identity should falter or even fail at this point is not only heart-breaking, it is intolerable.

Published in the 1999-04-09 issue: 
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