Can the Church recapture dissident ‘Catholic’ universities?
By Phil Lawler | July 27, 2012
Most Catholic Culture readers, I suspect, were delighted (as I was) to hear the news that the Vatican has stripped the “Catholic” and “Pontifical” titles from the institution known as the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. I was delighted, too.
What a refreshing change, to see ecclesiastical authorities finally rejecting the pretense that an institution dominated by dissidents, in open conflict with Church authority, could still be regarded as a “Catholic” university! Would it be too much to hope that American bishops (perhaps nudged by the Vatican) might take similar steps? We could easily supply a long list of colleges and universities that should no longer be allowed to parade as “Catholic” institutions—if only for the sake of truth in advertising.
But before indulging that daydream too long, stop and consider the possible consequences. If a bishop were to take the bold step of declaring that, say, Georgetown (or Boston College or Fordham or Loyola—take your pick) is no longer a Catholic institution, would the Church be forfeiting a valuable resource?
At one time all these universities were genuinely Catholic. Built up by the contributions of loyal Catholics, they nourished generations of students in the faith before something went terribly wrong. These schools exist because faithful Catholics wanted a solid Catholic education for young people. The campus, the buildings, the proud traditions: these are all part of a patrimony, handed down by our forefathers in the faith. Are we willing to give them all away now?
Yes, I know; these institutions already largely controlled by professors and administrators who are at best indifferent to the Catholic faith, and at worst hostile. But that could change. Just as the culture of dissent took over the schools in the late 20th century, a resurgence of orthodoxy could recapture them in the 21st. If the schools were officially stamped as non-Catholic, it would be much more difficult to reclaim them.
Even if these universities show no fealty to the Catholic faith, they continue to raise funds on the strength of their Catholic identity. They continue to treat the local bishop with respect, and to pay homage—or lip service, at least—to their Catholic heritage. But many of these schools have already formed lay boards of directors, severed legal ties with the religious orders that founded them, and otherwise paved the way for a smooth transition to purely secular governance. Do we really want to push them to take that last step?
The “Pontifical Catholic University of Peru” (I confess that I don’t know what the institution should be called now) is a special case. As I understand it, the institution’s founding documents stipulate that the Archdiocese of Lima should control a seat on the board, and that if the school ever loses its “pontifical” status, the title to the campus will revert to the archdiocese. If so, then in this case it seems that the Church will not lose the university—as long as the archdiocese is willing to mount a legal fight to preserve its own patrimony.
But American Catholic universities do not operate under the same legal constraints. They are already independent of the hierarchy. If they were deprived of the right to call themselves Catholics, a few changes in the bylaws might eliminate all problems. So the dissidents would gained control of these institutions might be free to walk away with them, and faithful Catholics would lose another portion of their patrimony.
Would it be worth the loss, to eliminate the prevailing confusion? Would it be better to admit that these schools are already lost to the Church? Maybe? But I suspect that less dramatic steps could be equally effective.
A resolute bishop might not need to strip a wayward school of its “Catholic” status. He might only need to remind administrators of that possibility. Imagine that a bishop warned a Catholic university president that he (the bishop) was thinking of making a public announcement that the school was no longer Catholic; wouldn’t that have an impact? Or suppose the bishop said that he was prepared to call a few wealthy Catholic donors, and encourage them to suspend their contributions? This might be one of those cases in which the threat is more potent that the execution.