Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

One of the worst aspects of the recent turmoil before, during and after the annual Commencement at Notre Dame University on 17 May was (and continues to be) indications of poor religious education on the part of some of its students, as was revealed by the manner in which students there responded to interviews for the press and the broadcast media.

One young lady, questioned on TV, argued that since Catholic means "universal," the University was justified in honoring a speaker whose publicly stated views on abortion were inconsonant with those of the Church. Another woman, a graduate a few years ago, was heard on a New York City talk show maintaining that the Church’s anti-abortion stand was "inconsistent" with its positions on warfare and capital punishment.

By and large, too many of the Notre Dame students who were heard or seen were confused, unclear, inarticulate, or, simply, misinformed.

Are students at Notre Dame – as well as students in many other self-styled "Catholic colleges" – being deprived of one of the principal reasons that parents have for encouraging their sons and daughters to seek a Catholic education; namely, solid religious grounding?

What happened in South Bend this year amounted to a national scandal. It had to have pained the many great professors there, as well as those students who remain faithful.

The disgraceful event did not happen overnight, however, but took decades of making.

The rush toward mediocrity on the part of many self-styled "Catholic colleges" was formally launched in Wisconsin in 1967 by the "Land O’ Lakes" statement. This was a 1,500-word document, signed by many Catholic academic leaders, which began with this manifesto: "To perform its teaching and research function effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself." The consequences of this sentence were almost immediate; boards of trustees of Catholic universities were laicized; some schools declared themselves "no longer Catholic"; and the word "excellence" was more and more defined simply in terms of secularism.

One especially helpful chronicle, published this year, is Anne Hendershott’s Status Envy, The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (New Brunswick & London: Transaction Pub.). Professor Hendershott, known as a careful writer, teaches at The King’s College in New York City.

I happened to be in administration at Holy Apostles College and Seminary when some so-called "Catholic colleges" were obviously weakening in overall excellence. I was able to witness closely academia’s negative reception of Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. At the Seminary, of course, John Paul’s great effort to awaken the "authentically Catholic character" of Church colleges and universities was taken most seriously by the bishops involved as well as by the administration and faculty.

But in many self-styled "Catholic colleges," an infectious hubris could be discerned – hidden like a computer virus with a genetic marker that, if deciphered, read "beyond the Church" (as if the Church were born of academia, instead of academia’s having been born from the Church).

Anne Hendershott cites Notre Dame’s Law Professor Gerard Bradley as admitting that failure to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae resulted from a "crisis of faith" on many a Catholic campus. He has argued that the real crisis has been occasioned by the fact that too many college teachers and/or administrators have repudiated "the defining task of the Catholic university"; specifically, "to unite existentially by intellectual effect two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth."

Father Wilson Miscamble, a highly regarded historian on the faculty of Notre Dame, projects a disturbing picture of the Catholic university that has effectively shrugged off its "Catholic" character and has begun to adopt the costume of secularism. As cited by Anne Hendershott, Father Miscamble views such a university as now possessing "a certain Potemkin Village quality… While …[its] buildings are quite real, what goes on within them has increasingly lost its distinctive content … Students emerge from Catholic schools unfamiliar with the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition and with their imaginations untouched by a religious sensibility." The scene is like "the fake Potemkin Villages that had been built to create an impression of prosperity during Catherine the Great’s tours of Ukraine and the Crimea…" (op.cit.229)

The metaphor is apt. And isn’t it ironic that just when many Catholic colleges are abandoning their Catholic identity, many secular colleges are intensifying their newly established Catholic study programs?

The whole picture reminds one of a scene from the Theatre of the Absurd – except that it is so tragically real.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of 

The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.