11.03.2005

Catholic Higher Education

According to a recent "Inside Higher Education" article, questions about the Catholic identity are back in play again, or are likely to be back in play again, soon.

Now, as an aspiring theologian, I'm rather suspicious of attempts to regulate Catholic identity by the use of canon law; I've commented before on how in the American context the use of law in insttitutions sets up the conditions for a conflictual relationship. At the same time, though, I think one has to be careful of one's knee-jerk reaction that any suggestion from the Vatican that Catholic colleges and universities maintain their Catholic identity is a veiled grab for power...e.g., the kind of reaction that might be suggested by the headline "'Evangelical Pruning' Ahead?". Yes, these are institutional human relationships and it would be naïve to suggest that power is not deeply involved in these discussions; but as Newman suggested in The Idea of a University, "though it had ever so many theological Chairs, that would not suffice to make it a Catholic University." To take the demand of the Vatican seriously means sustaining continued reflection on what it does mean to be a Catholic university, even, perhaps, at the risk of challenging some secular ideas of what a university should be.

Now, and here's where the rub comes in: one can easily find through a quick google search a number of Catholic traditionalist sites suggesting that this sort of conversation has not happened. But it's my impression that the experience of arguing about the implications of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, as well as the particularly problematic situation of the sexual abuse scandal in the American church, have contributed to a lively discussion about the Catholic identity of colleges and universities. Projects like the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College demonstrate a great deal of concern among Catholic educators that the best that their research has to offer, both in the theological sciences and in many other fields, be brought together to make the doctores vital contributors to the wider life of the Catholic church. One fears that, in attempting to evaluate Catholic universities, outside observers might not have enough respect for the particular inculturation of Catholic life in the U.S., and judge that, because a particular kind of Catholic identity (Tridentine piety, strong vocational numbers, strong connections with a local ordinary) is not present at American Catholic universities, that any Catholic identity is missing. It's that fear that might motivate headlines like that above; one can hope and pray (and, I think with some cautious optimism, expect) that a Ratzinger papacy is too intelligent to fall into that trap.

(In a previous incarnation, your correspondent wrote a senior thesis for his B.A. on the implications of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the life of the church. He noted, with some amusement, that the first discussions of Catholic identity began while he was a wee grammar school student at the Cranston-Johnston Catholic Regional School in the early 1980s. One notes with continued amusement, and respect for the different temporality of affairs ecclesial, that over six years have passed since that thesis was written, and the matter remains at hand...)

1 comment:

Celine said...

Back home, seconds after the radio shouted "Habemus papam...Iosephus....Ratzinger!" various of my profs scrambled to prepare for their media interviews. I was in one of their offices, and one of the things s/he found was that himself was all for a smaller Church and giving up on those institutions lost to their Catholic spirit. The deadwood, so to speak. Now on one hand, I'm all for jettisoning whatever institutions aren't welcoming and fostering Christian life and development. But on the other, my first thought was, "Ack! The universities!" However, BP, I'm confident that vibrant innovation-leaning Catholic universities like BC and Notre Dame will continue to flourish, just as I am confident more tradition-leaning billionaires will keep on founding Ave Marias. As for vocations, the SJs are still up there, comparatively. But as for women's orders... Well, although I know some absolutely lovely older nuns, the loveliest are the younger traditionalist ones, and whenever I start thinking about cutting my hair and signing up, I meet some cranky old broad seething with rage over women's ordination, the bishops in general, etc. Yikes.