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Catholic Universities: Hold ‘em or Fold ‘em?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 21, 2005

On October 31st, Archbishop Michael Miller addressed the University of Notre Dame on Catholic Universities and Their Catholic Identity. Archbishop Miller is the secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. His purpose at Notre Dame was to set forth what the Vatican says Catholic Universities need to do to fulfill their mission in the Church.

What Miller emphasized, of course, was that universities must reclaim their Catholic identity by making an institutional commitment to the Church’s evangelical mission. None of this is new, though it seems clear that Notre Dame is increasingly receptive to the message, even if many other formally Catholic universities are not. But what was new and interesting in the speech is the window Archbishop Miller opened into Benedict XVI’s mind on this question.

Citing Benedict’s writings before his election, Miller notes that Cardinal Ratzinger had said many times that it might be better to prune away those institutions which are now so secularized as to have little hope of being brought into the service of the Church. Among other things, Miller cites the following from Ratzinger’s 1997 interview with journalist Peter Seewald:

[O]nce the church has acquired some good or position, she inclines to defend it. The capacity for self-moderation and self-pruning is not adequately developed . . . [especially] where we have far more church institutions than we can imbue with [an] ecclesial spirit. And it’s precisely the fact that the church clings to the institutional structure when nothing really stands behind it any longer that brings the church into disrepute. (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium: An Interview with Peter Seewald, Ignatius, p. 174)

Miller also cites papal biographer John Allen, who wrote: “The new pope’s conviction is that sometimes the best thing the church can do under such a set of circumstances is to let an institution go, recognizing that once its vital link with the faith is severed, clinging to it merely fosters the impression that the church is interested in possessing institutions for their own sake.” (The Rise of Benedict XVI, Doubleday, pp. 218-220)

Archbishop Miller hastens to add that no one yet knows Benedict’s mind on this issue as pope. But the message is clear. The Congregation for Catholic Education is telling Catholic colleges and universities to think twice before they refuse to renew their commitment to the Faith. They may not be able to count on their importance to the Church. They may be cut off.

This is really very striking. I’ve watched Vatican efforts to deal with dissent and secularization now for nearly forty years, and I’m pretty sure this is something new. In other words, I’m pretty sure this is not an exhortation but a threat.

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