Higher Education Leaders Commit to Strengthening Catholic Identity

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON * Affirming and strengthening Catholic identity was the central theme of the 2011 gathering of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, held here Jan. 29-31.

From convention addresses and NCR interviews with participants, it seemed evident that the gathered presidents and administrators, coming from most of the 230-some U.S. Catholic institutions of higher learning represented by the association, were not just committed to maintaining and strengthening their Catholic identity: They were enthusiastic about it and were finding more ways to do it successfully.

U.S. Catholic colleges and universities today have nearly 1 million students and some 65,000 teachers, many of whom are not Catholic, said Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Andrea Lee, president of St. Catherine University in St. Paul-Minneapolis.

"Among our faculties there is an amazing and sometimes confounding pluralism, perhaps occasional antagonism, indifference, and sometimes even embarrassment concerning our religious identity," she said. "Still, on balance, we are enormously proud to be Catholic and to be part of such a magnificent whole."

Later the same day, Jan. 30, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Amata Miller, director of the Catholic identity program at St. Catherine, spelled out in detail that university's program to infuse a Catholic sensibility into all aspects of its life--from academics to campus activities and cocurricular life and to regular faculty and student formation--through workshops, seminars, an annual lecture series and many forms of small-group discussions.

That infusion approach--where Catholic identity consists not just of one or two required courses in theology or church history or the like, but in a pervasive effort to make that identity an integral part of campus life--seemed to resonate with several university presidents interviewed by NCR between sessions.

"Ongoing dialogue with the local bishop is always important," said Thomas Trebon, president of Carroll College in Helena, Mont., one of only seven diocesan-sponsored Catholic colleges and universities in the country.

He said the college, which serves about 1,500 students (1,350 full-time equivalent), has seen in recent years "a significant increase in the number of students" attending Sunday Mass--now averaging 300 to 400 students a Sunday. Even without considering that many students who live in or near Helena may be attending weekend Masses in their local parishes rather than at the Carroll College student center, that level of attendance for Catholic young adults is higher than the national average.

Jesuit Fr. Stephen Sundborg, president of Seattle University, said the university has instituted a variety of faculty and student programs, along with regular dialogue with the archbishop of Seattle, to focus more intently on the Catholic identity of the Jesuit-run university.

At lunch, several college and university presidents around the table expressed similar views, enthusiastically describing the efforts and successes of their institutions' approach to strengthening Catholic sensibility among faculty and students on their campuses.

I can't quote any of their remarks because I wasn't recording or writing notes on the conversation, but the thrust was clear: They loved what they and their faculties were doing to bring the riches of the Catholic moral, intellectual, doctrinal, liturgical, cultural tradition into the academic and campus life of their students. They spoke enthusiastically of the ways academic programs established by their institutions were contributing to lay ministry and other aspects of local church life in the dioceses where they were located.

Two occasions for the focus on Catholic identity were the recent beatification of 19th-century British Cardinal John Henry Newman--whose The Idea of the University remains the classic work on Catholic higher education--and the recent 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul It's August 1990 apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church"), which established norms for Catholic colleges and universities worldwide. …