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Smaller Church, Bigger Faith 5: Social Services and Universities

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 30, 2014

I predicted one final installment to this Smaller Church, Bigger Faith series, but I have since thought of a separate penultimate point which should not be passed over. I mean the need to reform the Church’s ancillary institutions, such as her semi-official social service organizations and especially those universities which bear the Catholic name. Over the past fifty years or so, these have given grave scandal to the faithful, leading them to believe that the Church’s moral teachings may be set aside in favor of modern “insights”.

Too many of these organizations have contributed to the bigger Church, smaller faith syndrome which it has been the object of this series to address—the devolution of a Church which constantly gets in its own way, a Church whose members impede the New Evangelization by their own tepidity or worse. Our Lord says He will spew the lukewarm out of His mouth (Rev 3:16). Ought not the Church to seek, at least in some reasonable measure, to combat this lukewarmness, this easy accommodation with worldly patterns, as it is still exhibited by so many social service and university leaders?

Social Services

Most readers are familiar with the recent efforts of the Vatican to reform and reinvigorate the Church’s social service agencies, beginning perhaps with Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est in 2006. We can also recall the furor over Catholic Relief Services collaborating with organizations which promote contraception, the subsequent change in leadership of that organization, and the advice offered by a number of high-ranking churchmen at general meetings of the CRS leadership.

In various parts of the world, conflicts have also arisen over the placement of children with gay parents by Catholic adoption agencies. Similarly, for several years now there has been an open battle between the American bishops and the Catholic Health Association, headed by Sister Carol Keehan of the Daughters of Charity, a battle which has touched the most central teachings of the Church regarding the sanctity of human life. While progress is undoubtedly being made, and while in this particular case the American bishops have stood firm in their resistance to contraception, sterilization and abortion under Obamacare, the renewal of the Church’s social service agencies has a long way to go.

In many cases these agencies need to learn again how to undertake a distinctively Catholic apostolate instead of relying on secular judgments about what constitutes the good.

Universities and Theology Faculties

In most cases, I believe the social service organizations can be brought into line by the bishops in various places if they have the will to do so. This is less easily done with Catholic universities, however, where the common refusal to uphold Catholic teaching is both more widespread and even more damaging. The secularization of Catholic education in the twentieth century was quite remarkable, including the dominance of Modernism in theological faculties around the Western world. The governance of universities by boards of trustees, often in countries like the United States which typically require such governance for accreditation and the granting of degrees, makes colleges and universities fairly difficult to reform.

There have been three main causes for the departure of the universities from the heart of the Church (recall the title of Pope John Paul II’s landmark instruction for reform, Ex Corde Ecclesiae). The first is the generalized secularization of the Western worldview and the rise of reliance on the natural sciences, which has caused so many other disciplines (philosophy, theology, literature, political theory, history, etc.) to lose both their focus and their confidence in favor of a certain naturalistic reductionism.

As a case in point, I have just begun reading Politicizing the Bible, a scholarly study of the roots of historical biblical criticism by Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker. The authors trace back to the fourteenth century an ever-increasing trend toward not only examining the natural aspects of Scripture (the languages, the literary genres, the historical circumstances) but also insisting that only natural interpretations are legitimate, ruling out the supernatural, the miraculous, and even the idea of Providence. In a similar way, the collapse of a Christian vision has changed every subject in academia.

Competition and Modernism

The second major cause has been the felt need of Catholic universities to compete with their secular counterparts, especially in terms of the number of their prize-winning faculty. This led Catholic schools deliberately to dilute themselves by hiring highly-regarded scholars regardless of whether they shared a common mission. In an era in which a secular vision determines what constitutes scholarly achievement throughout the West, and in which false notions of academic freedom protect even the most flighty of rebellions against the Catholic tradition, the deck is stacked against the Faith in every university that bases its development on this false competitive premise.

A case in point here is the University of Notre Dame which, while it still has many wonderful faculty, in fact went down this road in the second half of the twentieth century. This is recounted by, among others, the late Ralph McInerny in his autobiography, fittingly inspired by the Book of Job with the title I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You. In recent years, a running battle between the Bishop of South Bend and the President of Notre Dame over several issues, and also an outcry by many Catholics over the University’s decision to honor President Barack Obama at the very moment he was attacking the principles of the Catholic Church, have thus far gone unresolved.

The third major cause has been the rampant Modernism among the Catholic intelligentsia, starting early in the twentieth century and coming out into the open beginning in the 1960s, especially in religious orders devoted to higher education. One thinks particularly of the Jesuits, who used to provide a great deal of the intellectual leadership of the Church. Thus, under a twofold influence, both academic and priestly, many universities have developed a kind of quasi-official animus against orthodoxy. This has also affected colleges and universities influenced by women religious, particularly in the United States.

The situation is getting slowly better, I think, and of course it varies greatly from school to school and order to order (in general, for example, one can trust the Dominicans). But key Jesuit-run institutions have proven to be hard nuts to crack, with Georgetown University in Washington, DC a prime example of the type. At Georgetown, the dominant ambiance has become decidedly heterodox, both doctrinally and morally. The lived resistance to Catholic teaching on sexuality is hard to miss there, as is the alignment of faculty with political programs which fail to respect the sanctity of human life. In other words, such universities are simply representatives of the dominant culture operating under a religious veneer. An authentic Catholic voice is confined to relatively isolated individual faculty and students.

Pope Francis

I had hoped Pope Francis would put himself in a position to address the reform of the Jesuits more forcefully, but in addition to whatever he does behind the scenes, he is thus far continuing his predecessors’ example of gentle pressure and encouragement, stressing the essential ecclesial nature of the Jesuit mission. This was particularly noteworthy in his recent address to the faculties of the Jesuit-run institutes in Rome, in which the Pope emphasized the need to open one’s mind and heart to God in prayer in order to do theology, rather than hardening oneself into fashionable methodologies and schools of thought. The title of his address speaks volumes: Ecclesiastical Universities are not Machines for Producing Theologians and Philosophers.

This is good, of course, but greater attention needs to be applied across the board to the reform of Catholic colleges and universities so that true academic excellence can emerge through the vision and clarity which only deep fidelity engenders. This will not be accomplished through a simple exercise of authority, as the relationships in many cases do not permit the direct exercise of pontifical or episcopal discipline. Here the wisdom of serpents is necessary to secure the innocence of doves.

But I would add to our list of critical steps the creative restoration of Catholicity in the Church’s social service organizations and universities. This can join the prudent exercise of ecclesiastical authority and the emphasis on strong preaching which I have already identified as critical needs. Wayward social and intellectual institutions provide constant “experts” to the media, enabling the faithful of every stripe to claim support for patterns of life, thought and belief which, in reality, reject Christ—and so impede the New Evangelization.

Of course, some social service organizations and universities may get markedly smaller in consequence of their renewal. But given how frequently they directly impede or even reverse the evangelization of their beneficiaries and students, such a reduction would be a very small price to pay.


Previous in series: Smaller Church, Bigger Faith 4: The Challenge of Preaching
Next: Smaller Church, Bigger Faith 6: Our Responsibility

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - May. 05, 2014 6:57 PM ET USA

    "When the Son of Man returns, will He find any faith?"

  • Posted by: Ray and Ann - May. 04, 2014 3:27 PM ET USA

    Yes, the church has been betrayed by many from within. But who was at the head of the church when this heterodoxy proliferated throughout?...he was just raised to sainthood! I'm afraid that much of what occurred under John XXIII was due to his naiveté as well as the rapid secularization of the culture. I feel that he was unable to deal with it effectively at the time, and the situation in the church worsened under his papacy.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 01, 2014 6:45 PM ET USA

    And "who" will do this? And does God overlook the fact that in the main this is NOT being done? I think not. But God is merciful, not to be confused with naiveté or (perish the thought!) stupidity. And what is going on in Peru right now? And who is the One who has orchestrated these circumstances? Certainly "no man.." A South American Pope dealing with a Pontifical University.. He has delegated the task, but he cannot delegate the responsibility. The problem as J Mirus has defined it is obvious

  • Posted by: Defender - May. 01, 2014 6:36 PM ET USA

    The consequences of doing nothing, which all of the American bishops have seemingly done, is to lose yet another generation of Catholics. Do we really want another generation lost? The Apostolic Constitution talks about Catholic universities and their "Catholic Identity", so it seems action can (and should) be taken. Most CINO universities have lost whatever "identity" they ever had anyway, so start with the Jesuit ones (Georgetown, BC, LMU, Loyola Chicago, etc) and be done with it.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - May. 01, 2014 1:01 PM ET USA

    You are right that Universities that carry the Catholic name have fallen. This did not happen over night. It began slowly like a child who is testing the authority of its parents. The child will do something he knows is forbidden to see how the parents will react. In a similar way the Universities tested the waters to see if their spiritual father the Bishop would react. So it comes back to Bishops who lacked true Love of God who let Universities stray from the light into darkness.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Apr. 30, 2014 9:12 PM ET USA

    "in general, for example, one can trust the Dominicans" The Dominican college in my location, Edgewood College (Madison, WI) is not Catholic at all. It's sponsored by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, who see themselves as being at odds with "the institutional Church." Edgewood has little or no connection to the local Church. The Eastern and Western Provinces of the Dominican Friars, and the Dominican Sisters of Nashville and of Ann Arbor are the ones that are good

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Apr. 30, 2014 8:47 PM ET USA

    The Church can't do this, the Pope can't do that, its all so complicated. But the premise for this series is a smaller Church. The Pope can bring that on in an instant. He can speak softly while carrying a big whoopin stick. He could declare off limits on pain of excommunication all 'catholic' schools which refuse orthodoxy. He could force Catholics to face the issue, while clearly showing which side is right. He could severely cut into the financial health of the offending schools. Just do it.

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