Nurturing Our Catholic Character

The mission and the nature of St. Thomas are its greatest assets.

My deeply held belief regarding St. Thomas, simply stated, is that the Catholic mission and nature of this university are its greatest assets. They are what inspired its founding in 1885 by Archbishop John Ireland and they are what sustain the support it enjoys today from so many alumni, students, parents, faculty, staff, trustees, friends and benefactors.

As a Catholic institution today, St. Thomas has access to and draws freely upon a rich and varied resource: the Catholic intellectual tradition. Members of a Catholic university community enjoy the freedom and opportunity to incorporate into their teaching and research such matters as personal faith, the place of spirituality and the meaning of the human person. The freedom to integrate into one’s work such considerations makes it possible for faculty and staff to engage their profession not just as a career, but also as a calling — a vocation. Members of this faculty who have come to us from secular universities often have pointed out to me that these are exhilarating freedoms and should not be taken lightly.

Current status of the Ex Corde Ecclesiae discussion

It was clear to me when I became president of St. Thomas eight years ago that its Catholic character could not be taken for granted. In my inaugural address, I urged that we commit ourselves to marshaling our best energies and creativity in the quest to preserve and nurture this character. Without an intentional and focused effort, the spiritual mission of the university would clearly fade.

In the years since, my conviction has not lessened. Today I am even more convinced that without systematic and sustained attention to the religious mission of this university, our Catholic character will atrophy.

It truly would be a tragedy to let the rich and varied colors of our Catholic intellectual tradition bleach through lack of attention and care.

In recent years I have taken part in an excellent national discussion among Catholic educators, American bishops and the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education regarding best ways to implement the general norms of the 1990 papal document, On Catholic Universities, better known by its Latin title, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (which means "from the heart of the church" andrefers to the ecclesiastical origins of the university.)

Unfortunately, the American press too often portrays this conversation on implementation as a power struggle between two polarized groups: the episcopal hierarchy on the one side and the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities on the other.

This simply is not true. What is true is that the conversations have been frank, animated and passionate, but always respectful and marked by careful listening on both sides. I agree with the observation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who stated in a 1997 lecture at Georgetown University that the Ex Corde discussions "have vastly improved the level of trust and communication between the U.S. bishops and the university presidents."

 The same can be said of the conversations between the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) and the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, headed by Cardinal Pio Laghi. The problem with media coverage is that the "conservative" Catholic press tends to regard the presidents as rebellious and stalling for time and the "liberal" Catholic press tends to view the bishops as intrusive, if not oppressive.

Neither interpretation is helpful nor accurate. In fact, the conversation today mirrors the conversation of the 1980s, which shaped the original 1990 papal document. The final version of that document was infinitely better than its early drafts precisely because of the quality and success of that dialogue. As a result, Ex Corde Ecclesiae was received enthusiastically by American Catholic higher education as a rich and helpful guide to Catholic colleges and universities in their quest to keep faith with their Catholic mission and identity. My own feeling is that just as Ex Corde itself became a better document for having gone through several iterations and for having taken half a decade to write, so too will the norms.

What Pope John Paul II wants more than anything else from this dialogue is that Catholic colleges and universities would emerge better equipped to engage their culture.

This is in keeping with the spirit of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. In fact, the document states this explicitly: "A Catholic university must become more attentive to the cultures of the world of today, and to the various cultural traditions existing within the Church in a way that will promote a continuous and profitable dialogue between the Gospel and modern society."

Perhaps the heart of the document is paragraph 13, where the core features of a Catholic university are identified:

"Since the objective of a Catholic university is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture, every Catholic university, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics:

1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such.

2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research.

3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the church.

4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life."

Thirty-two years ago, about two dozen Catholic educators, bishops and religious leaders gathered at Land O’ Lakes, Wis. They issued a statement declaring "the Catholic university today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to, and concern for, academic excellence." Chronicler Alice Gallin identifies two phrases that came from that meeting that have become "fundamental in the ... dialogue: academic freedom and institutional autonomy." She is quick to point out, however, that the Land O’ Lakes statement also said the Catholic university must be an institution "... in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative."

That meeting came to be regarded as a major milestone in the history of Catholic higher education in the United States. It was a moment when Catholic education went on record committing itself to the academy’s highest standards of excellence.

Today, three decades later, the more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States are renowned for their rigor and quality and have clearly taken their rightful place in the mainstream of American higher education.

The St. Thomas Conference

In recent years, a sense has developed that something similar was needed to maintain and reinvigorate the Catholic mission and nature of our colleges and universities. Four years ago, a new consensus began to emerge at a meeting that took place here on campus and many feel it has become a new milestone.

In that conference, co-sponsored by the ACCU and St. Thomas, Peter Steinfels of the New York Times referred to the Land O’ Lakes meeting as a "Magna Carta for modern Catholic higher education. ... You are attending a gathering that is potentially as important as Land O’ Lakes — a gathering that, if you so choose, has every likelihood of entering the history books as signaling a new moment in Catholic higher education, in American Catholicism and, just maybe, in our society’s effort to achieve authentic pluralism."

In the four years since that conference, I believe that Ex Corde Ecclesiae has, to use its own words, begun to serve "as a sort of ‘Magna Carta’ " for Catholic universities.7 Many attribute the renewed interest in the Catholic identity question on campuses to that historic meeting. The "St. Thomas Meeting" is now routinely referred to in the literature. If this university played a role of catalyst in renewing the national discussion, it is because of the outstanding leadership of Dr. Pauline Lambert, the late Sister Pat Kowalski and Professor Katarina Schuth.

In her keynote address at that conference, Margaret O’Brien Stein-fels, the editor of Commonweal, sounded a note of urgency. She declared, "I believe we have a decade — 10 years — in which this question of identity must be honestly addressed and definitively taken on as a commitment and core project of institutions that hope to remain Catholic."  From her perspective four years ago as an informed Catholic intellectual, she believed that this had not yet happened. Today, however, the process is clearly underway.

In the same address, Steinfels cited Stephen Carter’s thesis from his book, The Culture of Disbelief, namely, that for many today in the cultural elite of our society, "faith is understood as a curious avocation, a personal hobby." For Steinfels, this trivialization of the spiritual represents "a loss to the whole society." She devoted much of her address to an analysis of the precise kinds of losses that would ensue were Catholics to cease to engage their culture.

Peter Steinfels asserted that Catholic colleges and universities had not taken the question of Catholic identity seriously. In the late 1980s he began to investigate the matter for a proposed New York Times piece and what he discovered left him "stunned. ... I found confusion and euphemism and evasion and a tremendous sense that the subject could not be discussed openly and candidly."

Happily, the situation has now changed. Today the question is openly and vigorously pursued.

Father Edward Malloy, president of the University of Notre Dame and a member of our board of trustees, has framed the issue this way. In his recent book, Monk’s Reflections, he writes: "The twin dangers facing Catholic higher education today … are the societal trend toward secularization on the one hand, and too narrow a conceptualization of what constitutes a Catholic institution on the other."  I agree.

What is a Catholic university?

What, then, is a Catholic university? Someone once asked the 17th-century scholar, Blaise Pascal, How can you believe in a God you can neither see nor prove? Pascal’s famous response was, "The heart has its reasons the mind does not know."

We might take our cue from Pascal when we ask, What does it mean that St. Thomas is a Catholic university? And we might start by responding that a Catholic university attends to matters of the mind, but also of the heart.

For many, a Catholic university is a place where spirituality is both valued and addressed. In America magazine, Paul Reinert, S.J., and Paul Shore state that "the Catholic university must ... be a place where the spiritual dimension of life is affirmed and explored, not as a peripheral or isolated activity, but as the heart and raison d’être of the institution."

For others, such as Robert J. Egan, S.J., writing in Commonweal, "A Catholic university ... will be a place where a significant number of its faculty and professional staff and of its student body are Catholics and people well-disposed toward Catholicism. It will be a place where being Catholic is taken seriously by most faculty and staff as an intelligent and morally responsible option for contemporary people." When there exists this substantial support for the Catholic mission, a particular type of university community can develop — one based on Christian values.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae states: "A Catholic university pursues its objectives through its formation of an authentic human community animated by the spirit of Christ. The community is animated by a spirit of freedom and charity; it is characterized by mutual respect, sincere dialogue and protection of the rights of individuals. It assists its members to achieve wholeness as human persons."

For Egan a Catholic university "should be a place in which the cultivation of a particular ethos is taking place, an ethos which involves, for example, compassion, humility, honesty, gratitude, critical reflection, spiritual discernment, and a generous concern for people who are suffering, or poor, or oppressed or excluded — a place where faith, hope, and an intelligent love are somehow operative and discussible."

The central role of the faculty

As I have taken part in the discussions of these past years, it has become clear that it is not enough to relegate the burden of responsibility to Campus Ministry or the Theology Department, superb as both of those departments clearly are. Nor does it suffice to develop excellent centers and institutes such as the Center for Catholic Studies or the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, even though both have distinguished themselves nationally, and are widely regarded as the best such programs in the world. Nor does it suffice to raise endowed funds for specifically Catholic initiatives such as these.

What is most critical is to maintain a substantial Catholic presence among administrators and faculty. Of these, the faculty is the most important.

In October 1996, Wilson D. Miscamble, a priest and scholar from the University of Notre Dame, delivered a lecture here on the role of faculty, both Catholics as well as those from other traditions, in the Catholic university. He appealed to both groups of faculty to "consciously reject the societal tendency to trivialize or to privatize religion ... ."

He asserted that "the faculty is located at the heart of a university. When a faculty is hostile to the mission of the institution, its attenuation is likely. When a faculty is passive, the mission is likely to be anemic. When a faculty is committed, however, there is every likelihood that the mission will be fulfilled."

I would suspect that for most of us, of the two tendencies he identified, either to trivialize or to privatize matters of faith, the greater temptation would be the latter. However, when we privatize our faith we do not integrate our professional life with our understandings of ultimacy. Our lives remain compartmentalized and we fail to achieve wholeness. For a Catholic, however, holiness is wholeness.

If, then, as faculty, professional staff and administrators, our work is to become more than a career, but a calling, it will be because we seek a deeper integration, a deeper wholeness, for our own lives — as well as for those of our students.

Miscamble also pointed out that one of the core planning documents at Notre Dame declares that "the Catholic identity of the university depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals."

What does "predominant" mean? Malloy writes that "at face value it would mean at least one more than 50 percent." He clarifies this by adding, however, that his "intention was less numerical than philosophical." His desire, rather, would be that "the overall faculty [would] continue to include a sufficient percentage of Catholics so that its Catholic identity and mission might be fully manifest."

What does all of this mean for St. Thomas?

It means a lot: interdisciplinary research and teaching, service learning, justice education throughout all of our disciplines, faculty seminars on the mission of St. Thomas and outreach to the disadvantaged.

Ex Corde is particularly eloquent in urging faculty of Catholic universities to explore the pressing moral issues of our times:

"Because knowledge is meant to serve the human person, research in a Catholic university is always carried out with a concern for the ethical and moral implications both of its methods and of its discoveries. This concern, while it must be present in all research, is particularly important in the areas of science and technology.

"It is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience. Men and women of science will truly aid humanity only if they preserve the ‘sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person.’ "

Two questions arise as I think of the central role of the faculty. First, how do we maintain a substantial Catholic presence among our faculty? And second, how do we recruit faculty of other faiths who enthusiastically support and promote the religious mission and identity of St. Thomas?

Faculty recruiting

My concern is that if we do not attend carefully in our hiring practices to assuring a substantial presence of informed and committed Catholics on our faculty, within a generation our faculty could look exactly like the faculty of any secular university. Some might reply that prospective Catholic faculty will naturally be attracted to the Catholic mission and character of St. Thomas and that this "natural selection" will be sufficient to assure a significant continuing Catholic presence.

Today, however, we know that the pool of qualified candidates for faculty positions vastly exceeds the number of available positions. With so many candidates seeking so few positions, we can reasonably expect that many will apply to St. Thomas simply because they need the job and not necessarily because they are attracted by the mission.

I want to state explicitly that St. Thomas faculty and staff who are not Catholic are valued members of this community. They afford the life of this community a vibrant ecumenical dimension. Those from other faith traditions enrich us.

It is also important to state publicly that efforts on behalf of strengthening the Catholic character of this university shall in no way be construed to mean that all members of this community will not be valued equally or treated fairly. Religion will not be considered when faculty apply for tenure and promotion. In fact, the papal document is quite clear on this.

The university community of many Catholic institutions includes members of other churches, ecclesial communities and religions, and also those who profess no religious belief. These men and women offer their training and experience in furthering the various academic disciplines or other university tasks.

The document asks only that those who are not Catholic respect the Catholic character of the university. The university in turn respects their religious liberty.

It also asserts the importance of affording each Catholic institution of higher learning the institutional autonomy and academic freedom needed to carry out its mission.

Having said this, I want to reiterate the priority I put on the need to actively recruit faculty who support the religious mission of St. Thomas.

Dr. Judith Dwyer, St. Thomas executive vice president, and Dr. Charles Zech of Villanova University conducted an excellent study on behalf of the ACCU in conjunction with the St. Thomas Conference in 1995 regarding faculty attitudes toward the Catholic mission and identity of their colleges and universities.

In the area of faculty recruitment, they found two hiring practices to be associated with greater faculty support for the institution’s Catholic identity. The first was "the specification in all faculty recruiting advertising that faculty are expected to be supportive of the Catholic mission." The second was to provide "guidelines to search committees indicating their responsibility to recruit candidates who can contribute to the Catholic mission."

Strategic planning

This fall we begin the important process of strategic planning. This critical undertaking will present us with an excellent opportunity to design approaches that will sharpen our focus and strengthen our Catholic identity. As we embark on this new planning effort, I ask that we explicitly include within its scope this university’s Catholic character.

This is not to say that this will be the exclusive or even the primary focus of our strategic planning, which must be comprehensive and encompass the rich and varied dimensions of the life and mission of this academic community. But strategic planning can review the strategies that have proven most effective at other Catholic universities. For example, we might examine the possibility of establishing a Faculty Standing Committee on Mission. We might explore appropriate roles for the bishop within this academic setting.

Here at St. Thomas, the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Harry Flynn, serves ex officio as chair of our board of trustees. This has contributed to the excellent relationship that obtains today between the archdiocese and our board.

Archbishop Flynn also has taken a welcome interest in faculty and professional staff at St. Thomas. He schedules a lunch, usually in his home, every semester with faculty and staff and uses these opportunities to get to know us better, to hear what is on our minds and to speak to us of the importance of nurturing our Catholic character. Faculty typically have reported that they have found these luncheons to be enjoyable and profitable. So has the archbishop. They contribute to an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

Perhaps there are additional ways in which the bishop could be called upon to enrich the life of this campus. According to Cardinal George such examples might include occasional homilies, or structured discussions between the bishop and students regarding their beliefs.


In the words of Ex Corde Ecclessiae, the purpose of a Catholic university is that "the Christian mind may achieve, as it were, a public, persistent and universal presence in the whole enterprise of advancing higher culture and that the students of these institutions become people outstanding in learning, ready to shoulder society’s heavier burdens and to witness the faith to the world."

If we must live with some tension in our Catholic institutions of higher learning today, it is because we trace our roots to both Jerusalem and Athens, the respective homes of faith and reason. Our very mission is to serve both. Christianity has demonstrated, and sometimes brilliantly so, that these two realms are not discrete, much less antithetical. I sense today a new openness to religion on the part of science. There continues to be much that faith can learn from the sciences.

The opportunity to address here in our life and work both nature and grace, and to take part in the fascinating dialogue between fact and meaning, goes to the very core of what it means to be a Catholic university. It may just be that we might see the beginning of a powerful new synthesis — and have a hand in its making!

The opportunity to pursue with colleagues the integration of one’s professional work with the larger questions of meaning and ultimacy represents the great benefit afforded us who pursue our calling within the framework of a Catholic university.

The Catholic mission and character of St. Thomas are a treasure, which we must cherish and carefully steward. If we do not go about this in a strategic and sustained way, it will surely corrode. What is at stake here, to borrow from the title of George Marsden’s book, is nothing less than the "soul" of this university.


Ex Corde Ecclesiae has aroused concerns in Catholic higher education

Ex Corde Ecclesiae was issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990 as an apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education and asks Catholic colleges and universities to affirm their Catholic identity.

In 1996, the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a proposed application of Ex Corde for the United States. In 1997, the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican returned the document, requesting another draft that would be more juridical in nature.

In response, the Ex Corde Implementation Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed a new subcommittee, composed primarily of canon lawyers and chaired by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, to assist with a new draft. In October 1998, a new draft was issued, generating considerable controversy.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) has expressed concerns that some of the provisions — that teachers of Catholic theology have a mandate from the local bishop, that a majority of the faculty and boards of trustees at Catholic universities be "faithful Catholics," and that presidents of Catholic institutions take an oath of fidelity — are inappropriate in the context of American higher education. The ACCU has been working on an alternative proposal to present to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On Sept. 21, 1999, a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released another version of the guidelines for carrying out Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The conference is scheduled to discuss and vote on the proposal in November 1999.