Taking Up Their Cross

For those given to despair over the irreligious bent of much of American higher education today, there isn’t often much to be cheerful about. Institutions like Yale and Duke that once cultivated Christian gentlemen now tend to treat the pursuit of morality as the peculiar and potentially subversive hobby of a few odd groups of odd students.

But not all schools have followed suit. Even among the more influential schools, where secularization seems to pull the hardest, some have managed to hold fast to their spiritual anchoring. These schools stubbornly insist that there really is such a thing as truth and stubbornly insist on advancing it.

In the forefront of this resistance are Catholic colleges, and among the staunchest is the Catholic University of America, located in Washington, D.C. As its name suggests, this school has a prominent place among Catholic universities. It is, as Speaker of the House John Boehner put it during the commencement address May 14, “the center of Catholic intellectual life in America”; it is the national university of the Catholic Church; and it is faithful to its mission.

“CUA is a place where university mission is not in question,” says English department chairman Ernest Suarez. “The university’s Catholic identity is present and active.”

This is not to say that the university insists on adherence to the Catholic faith among students. Twelve percent of the roughly 3,500 undergraduates and 39 percent of the 3,200 graduate students are not Catholic, after all. “Other than three mandatory theology courses that most undergrads have to take, Catholic U does not require any of its students to participate in anything specifically Catholic or faith-based,” says John Henderson, a junior at the school.

Still, it remains steadfast in its mission of promoting the faith and instilling virtue among students. It accomplishes this primarily through the campus ministry, the spiritual arm of the university. The ministry provides many opportunities for students to grow in their faith, ranging from daily Mass to regularly meeting student groups and to nearly a dozen student-led retreats per year.

Collectively, these activities have a powerful impact. “Many students you talk to will say that, before coming to CUA, they were only nominally involved with their faith,” said Henderson. However, the university “seems to be a fertile ground for the conversion of hearts…. Upon coming here and being roped into the campus ministry events that are incorporated into orientation, they experience a rejuvenation—or a first time birth of—fervor for Christ.”

More controversial, though, are the things Catholic University does not allow on campus, such as a recognized club for gay students or an unchallenged platform for public figures that are hostile to Catholic teachings. This latter point was demonstrated by an incident in 2004 in which actor Stanley Tucci was barred from speaking on campus due to his pro-abortion activities.

Nor does the leadership at Catholic have much patience with professors who are hostile to Catholic teachings. Charles Curran, for one, was a theology professor pressured into resigning in 1986 because he did not agree with Catholic teaching on contraceptives, homosexuality, and other matters.

“Our school of theology and religious studies is an integral part of the church’s teaching mission about the truth of the Gospels,” said Catholic University’s president John Garvey in an interview with the Pope Center. When asked about how CUA would handle a professor like UNC-Chapel Hill’s Bart Ehrman, who has made a small fortune selling books arguing that Christianity isn’t true, Garvey was clear. “Somebody who says they’re [i.e. the Gospels] not true is really not teaching what Catholics believe, so there’s a problem with us having somebody like that on the faculty.”

Garvey, previously the dean of Boston College Law School, took over as president last summer. Unlike his predecessor, he is not a priest.

Catholic University’s decision to take a stand for traditional morality—even to the point of firing professors—is remarkable, especially in light of the direction other prestigious, religiously based schools have taken. Consider, for example, a recent live sex demonstration at Presbyterian-founded Northwestern University and the biennial “Sex Week” at Congregationalist-founded Yale.

Catholic universities have not been exempt from the trend toward secularization, though, and they have experienced a significant amount of drift since the second half of the twentieth century. The aforementioned Charles Curran, for instance, started expressing anti-Catholic views in the sixties, but didn’t leave until 1986, under pressure from then-Cardinal (and now Pope) Joseph Ratzinger. Many Catholic schools have seen crucifixes disappear from the classroom, and Georgetown University, a Jesuit Catholic school, is the academic home of law professor Chai Feldblum, nationally famous for advocating against traditional Catholic doctrines on sexual morality.

Somehow, Catholic University found its way back to the straight and narrow path. According to the various sources I talked to, a good deal of this counter-cultural religious focus can be credited to Catholic’s leadership both past and recent. President Garvey gave a special amount of praise to his predecessor David O’Connell, now the Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.

Garvey pointed to three things that O’Connell did to advance the Catholic University of America’s spiritual mission.

First, O’Connell made clear to everyone—including faculty, the board of trustees, the academic affairs committee, and students—that Catholic University was to be serious about its Catholic identity. “The Catholic faith became more integral to the teaching and research mission of the university,” Garvey said.

Second, Bishop O’Connell reformed the campus ministry. O’Connell invited three Franciscan priests (members of the Order of Friars Conventual) to campus to minister to students full-time. “I think they’ve made a huge difference in ministering to our students and bringing their faith alive in everyday life,” Garvey noted.

Finally, Garvey gave O’Connell credit for being a good public spokesman for the university. He was so good, in fact, that he received a glowing tribute from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when he retired. “He’s a genuine inspiration to all of us,” Blitzer said. “Whenever we have needed his analysis … he’s been there for us.” (You can watch the “Situation Room” tribute here). As Garvey pointed out, O’Connell “spoke well and frankly about our being Catholic,” which “helped both internally and externally with people knowing what we were about.”

In addition to the efforts of Bishop O’Connell, Garvey credits the leadership of the Catholic Church with keeping its affiliated universities on mission. Unlike many other schools that have a religious tradition, Catholic schools “have had the advantage of a kind of collective review [by the Catholic Church].” A religious mission is “something that you can’t hold onto just on your own.”

In particular, the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document written by Pope John Paul II in 1990, has helped shape the discussion about what a Catholic college should be. It defines the church’s view of Catholic higher education and provides a “Catholicity Test,” as Inside Higher Ed put it, for schools to measure up to. “Ex Corde has encouraged a lot of activity on the part of these schools to be more intentionally Catholic,” said Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges & Universities.

In summary, it seems that for religious universities to stay on mission they need consistent leadership, both at the administration and church levels. As president Garvey said, a spiritual mission isn’t something that you can hold onto on your own. CUA’s success in this regard—and Yale’s apparent failure—attest to his point.

“Catholic higher education is a heavy cross,” remarked the noted Catholic (and Yalie) William F. Buckley, Jr., in a 1967 speech. “It is blessed only in the sense that the cross is blessed, in that it gives us the heavy opportunity to do our duty.”

Catholic University of America is still willing to take up that cross, and for that, both it and its supporters deserve credit.