Pope Francis’s Wayward Universities

Originally at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/site/ct-universities-catholic–20140227,0,3998905.story

by Nicholas G. Hahn III

As Catholic institutions across America fight the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, Pope Francis apparently wants the presidents of Catholic universities on the front line of that battle. In remarks to a delegation from the University of Notre Dame last month, Francis told the Irish that they are to be missionaries for the faith. He insisted upon the “relevance of the Christian message” and the “uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom.”

Catholic universities have had a rough go of that lately. In recent years many of these schools have wrestled with how Catholic they are and how secular they are. Now they have a pope telling them they can’t have one foot in each world. They’re Catholic in name, in heritage, in ownership — and, now, “uncompromising” in message.

When Notre Dame conferred an honorary degree on President Barack Obama in May 2009, disputes over its Catholic identity intensified. Some students and alumni boycotted that year’s graduation and commencement speech by perhaps the most ardent abortion rights president in history. The battle in South Bend, Ind., crystallized the extent to which many universities had strayed from the church they ought to better represent.

This intramural clash over the role of universities has been building for half a century: The very public decline of Catholic higher education traces to July 1967, when the president of Notre Dame, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, and his friends in the Ivory Tower produced a statement on the nature of a modern Catholic university. “The Land O’ Lakes Statement,” named after a town in northern Wisconsin where the Catholic academics met, began by erecting a wall of separation between church and campus: “(T)he Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

This declaration of independence annoyed the American bishops (“clerical authority”) who oversee the Catholic colleges within their dioceses. And it gave cover for dissident Catholic intellectuals teaching in theology departments. Professors such as Charles Curran at the Catholic University of America could oppose papal encyclicals without the slightest pause. DePaul University emeritus professor John Dominic Crossan could suggest that Jesus’ bodily resurrection probably didn’t happen and suffer no consequence.

But Hesburgh and his statement are beginning to fall out of favor. When I interviewed the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, in September 2011, he didn’t mince words. “You can’t have a Catholic university that takes Land O’ Lakes as a charter document,” he told me. The statement was essentially Protestant, the cardinal said: “I shouldn’t have to change my religion in order to make some group happy who doesn’t like the exercise of episcopal authority within the Catholic Church.”

There were times during my college years when I wish the cardinal had exercised his authority more often. Sometimes to the chagrin of many in the university administration and faculty, I spent four years at DePaul University trying to enhance its Catholic character as the president of a conservative student organization. We invited Catholic speakers on campus to address controversial issues in the church and the public square, which regularly attracted large crowds and sparked campuswide discussions. Today, the largest Catholic university in America is perceptibly more Catholic than when I was a freshman in 2005, but there is still a long way to go. There are no crucifixes in any classroom. Students remake the school’s namesake St. Vincent de Paul into their own image, sometimes depicting him as Rosie the Riveter or as a gay rights activist (visitors to the Office of Multicultural Student Success are greeted with an image of Vincent waving a Gay Pride flag).

And DePaul continues to offer its employees and students contraception through its health insurance plans. The Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers include contraception in their plans has upset many Catholics and non-Catholics. After the initial uproar, the Obama administration offered a convoluted “compromise” but didn’t exclude religiously sponsored institutions, universities included, from the requirement.

DePaul’s president, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, told the campus newspaper in February 2012 that his hands are tied. “DePaul fully supports the bishops’ stance, but has offered (contraceptive) benefits ever since both Illinois and the federal government required us to do so several years ago.” Many other Catholic universities — Notre Dame included — have sued to fix that, but Holtschneider has so far refused. “Illinois law remains Illinois law,” he said.

Pope Francis evidently will have none of that ambivalence. He reminded Notre Dame officials that they should continue to protect their school’s “foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.” The “quarter” Pope Francis refers to might be the Land O’ Lakes folks or the Obama administration — either one seeks to “dilute” the church.

And in case some quarters weren’t paying attention, Pope Francis stressed his point: “And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it, to preserve it and to advance it!” Perhaps Catholic universities have found a new rallying cry. Let’s hope their presidents were listening.

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