By Jones, Arthur
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 39, No. 1
When the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities was formed in 1899, there were about two dozen institutions of higher education on its roster.
Today there are 214 member colleges and universities--a dozen of them in Canada--but due to closings, mergers and takeovers, the overall figure is down by about 20 from the 1970s.
The big expansion in Catholic tertiary institutions came in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the GI Bill made higher education available to American servicemen and women who'd served in World War II. Given that almost a quarter of those soldiers were Catholic, and the secular world was distrusted to a degree not easily understandable today, the returning soldiers wanted what their church had to offer.
In the 1950s, "Catholic identity" was not an issue.
Religious orders ran the institutions they had founded. The Catholic identity was as obvious as the starched collars of the priests and brothers and the habits of the sisters in the classrooms, corridors and graduation photographs.
Today, even glimpsing a representative of the ordained or vowed religious is a rarity on many Catholic campuses. Indeed, some colleges today
find it difficult to persuade the local dioceses to make a priest available for sacramental ministry.
"The women still running colleges have been perturbed about that for some time," said Monica Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. "You can hardly create the ambience of the Catholic campus if you never have sacramental worship. You can have all kinds of prayer services the students put together, but that isn't the same."
Hellwig, who has directed the association for the past six years, two years ago shepherded its emergence out from its decades-long existence as a department of the National Catholic Educational Association into a separate entity.
The idea of moving the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, often called the ACCU, from under the umbrella of the National Catholic Educational Association, the NCEA, had been discussed for decades. They weren't always together. The relationship dated back possibly to the 1920s, "as part of a move to present a united front against what was seen to be hostile forces in the educational world," she said.
"The reasons for separating again," continued Hellwig, "really were twofold. One, that intrinsically the college world functions differently [from the educational association's constituents, which are elementary and high schools]. And that from the point of view of separation of church and state, ACCU ought not be seen as part of NCEA because, in the first place, NCEA represents schools that are directly under the bishops."
When she joined the Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities, she said, issues included "doubts about the association's identity and why they were keeping it going," but the need for solidarity and dealing with Ex Corde Ecclesiae furthered their cause.
Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church") is shorthand in academic circles for norms mandated by the Vatican to safeguard the religious identity of Catholic colleges and universities. The period during which the norms were created and implemented has been a stormy one for relationships among U.S. theologians, their bishops and the Vatican.
Hellwig said her predecessors had made all kinds of contacts with the Holy See and "had begged for--but didn't get--something better adapted" to American Catholic colleges and universities than the norms the Vatican insisted on. On Catholic identity, she said a consciousness of responsibility for the Catholic character of colleges and universities was first raised as an issue by lay faculties in the early 1980s. It took on speed and impetus in the 1990s.
"I think that right after Vatican II people assumed the Catholic character could take care of itself," said Hellwig. …