Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Can the Church recapture dissident 'Catholic' universities?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 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.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 13 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 25, 2012 7:21 PM ET USA

    I get the sense from reading through the comments that most folks believe the universities mentioned are "dens of iniquity" and despicable behaviors of all kinds. I just have to ask, how many of you have attended the schools or even been there? Look, I'm not saying there are not problems - there are. But "knee jerk" responses and "fiery sermons" speak from immaturity and not to young people. Yes, it's about souls - but souls who have minds and hearts. You can't expect real conversion by fear.

  • Posted by: HCERRI3642 - Aug. 20, 2012 10:30 AM ET USA

    One useful action the bishops could take at these institutions is to replace all priests there who say mass with true orthodox and courageous priests, who would give fiery sermons and lecture unabashedly identifying sinful practices (birth control, extramarital sex, homosexuality, etc) on campus and preaching about the reality of Satan and Hell. Eventually they would have an impact on those institutions if they refuse to back down in their preaching.

  • Posted by: miked.doc6394 - Jul. 30, 2012 3:54 PM ET USA

    A public censure of a college or university could be a first step. Include a short, detailed and public explanation of why the school is being censured. This would educate the people on what a Catholic university should look like and what kind of false teachings are out there. It would also give the university a chance to correct things, if they want to. If not, then they were given fair and public warning that their Catholic title would be removed. Even Nineveh was given 40 days to repent.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 30, 2012 3:44 PM ET USA

    Seems a very callous, utilitarian argument. How many Catholic youth, raised against all odds in the Faith by Catholic parents with the best intentions, go on to lose that faith when those parents send their kids - at enormous expense - to some formerly Catholic institution that inexplicably is still allowed to call itself Catholic. We can always build another Catholic university, but we can never create - or retrieve once finally lost - an immortal soul. This smacks of a chancery finance council

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 30, 2012 12:59 PM ET USA

    At the risk of provoking your perennial complaint that YOU DO adequately call the bishops and Church authority to account, let me say you define the problem in all too mild terms. What is REALLY at stake here, except for the coherent socio-political identity of the Catholic Church herself? Even if we would "lose" the Universities, our identity would be preserved. Conversely, keep those Uhiversities in their present state and we will not just risk losing them but ourselves as well.

  • Posted by: sparch - Jul. 30, 2012 10:12 AM ET USA

    The bishops need a line of attack and need to draw a line in the sand. Wrench the control of the Universities back to the bishops by dissolving the land of Lakes agreement, and reset the univeristiy boards with those more in line with Catholic teachings. To give up control of these institutions now would be casting our pearls before the swine only to be trampled, ie the souls that we can save through these ministries.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jul. 29, 2012 7:50 PM ET USA

    I don't see why it would be more difficult to reclaim said institutions should a time orthodoxic(?) resurgence occur. In fact, the resurgence should alone provide the momentum for reclamation. Leaving things as they are is Chamberlainesque at best, confustion for parents and potential students at the middle, and, worst of all, tacit acceptance of a watering down. A procedure should be defined giving the waywards time for correction...or experience (NOT face) the consequences.

  • Posted by: Defender - Jul. 28, 2012 3:45 PM ET USA

    Let's see...Ex Corde Ecclesiae was signed in August, 1990. Bishop Curry announced a 10-year review of it in January, 2011. So we wait until 2021 - isn't 31 years a little too long, seriously? I believe most Catholic colleges (especially Jesuit) are too far gone, but if an example should be made, either pick a big one (Georgetown, Notre Dame, Boston College) or chose somewhere like LMU, just down the street from the bishop, where he can lead by example.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 28, 2012 12:20 PM ET USA

    It's about souls all right. Stripping Catholic status from the likes of Georgetown or any other "Catholic" university is a "truth in labeling" measure that prevents potential students and parents from deluding themselves about the education they would receive there. It would also preclude the media from using its professors and administrators as "Catholic" experts on the subject. Let the Truth set us free!

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jul. 28, 2012 8:28 AM ET USA

    It's about souls only insofar as people recognize they have an eternal soul. Look at the programs the schools you mention offer. Most, not all, are programs about educating people in production, efficiency, and technical details about "how" to do things. And this reflects our society. How does any pay for such an education without that focus unless your independently wealthy? I don't agree with the comment about Notre Dame - they need to "clean things up a little" but have you been there? more+

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jul. 27, 2012 10:29 PM ET USA

    Indeed it is about souls and indeed so many even in high places in the Church have seemingly lost a supernatural outlook but Mr. Lawler does raise important questions. My knee jerk reaction is to simply say we ought to strip all the big names like Georgetown, Notre Dame etc. of their Catholic status but like Mr. Lawler asks, isn't that giving up valuable resources? And couldn't the climate change in these universities? Very good questions.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 27, 2012 10:21 PM ET USA

    Phil - I don't think that the threat you suggest would have much impact as to Georgetown. DiGioia is a heavy beneficiary of all sorts of government grants, as well as gifts from overseas, and he doesn't evidence much interest in the maintaining Catholic identity. He's primarily concerned with political correctness, cultural diversity,and the approval of his fellows in secular academe.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 27, 2012 7:28 PM ET USA

    Who has the courage of Pope Benedict to look to the past for solutions to today's big problems? Who among the many clerics who were educated at these same institutions have the stomach to act? The reality is the souls. A friend reading Cardinal Newman recently spoke to me about his writings about eternal life. Do we Christians live as if we truly believe? What are the implications of eternal life and the reality of the soul? Do we realize that Heaven is not a given? Yes, it's about souls.