In an essay on Catholic higher education published in First Things before his death in 2009, Fr. Richard Neuhaus wrote: “When a school is haggling over its mission statement, it is a sure sign that it has already lost its way.” While Fr. Neuhaus never taught on a Catholic campus, he understood that debating over the mission statement was just the start of the defining down of the Catholic identity itself.
Identifying the strategies that some Catholic colleges have used to redefine themselves, Fr. Neuhaus wrote that describing themselves as having been “shaped” by their “Catholic heritage,” or their “historic Catholic tradition,” was a sign that the institutions were distancing themselves from the Church. And, he noted that some referred only to the name of the founding religious order rather than the Church itself.
For example, the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth, Kansas, described itself as having been “shaped by the educational mission of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.” Ohio’s Ursuline College describes itself as offering an education, “within a Catholic tradition marked by the Ursuline heritage of educating women.” And, although the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota maintains that the college has been “dedicated as a campus community to our Roman Catholic heritage and identity,” the College distances itself from that heritage by stating that St. Catherine’s affirms the aspects of the Catholic identity that are “appropriate to higher education,” and claims that the College “values the rich and diverse history of the Church and the vision of Vatican II.”
While the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, CT describes itself as having been “founded by the Sisters of Mercy in the Roman Catholic tradition,” the “Core Values” section of their website states: “The University of St. Joseph is grounded in its heritage as a Catholic institution expressing the Catholic tradition in an ecumenical and critical manner.” And, although Stonehill College describes itself as a Catholic institution, it reassures potential students and faculty members that the College has a “long tradition of free inquiry.” Likewise, Holy Names University described itself as being “rooted in the Catholic tradition,” but the reference to the lower case spelling of “catholic” is meant to show the university’s inclusiveness—what they call the University’s “universality:”
Rooted in the Catholic tradition, Holy Names demonstrates a respect for others’ values and customs. This is evident in holiday displays that incorporate symbols for Kwanzaa, Muslim, Jewish and Christian celebrations. Students experience the universality of a catholic education at Holy Names University.”
My own campus—Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, one of a few dozen truly faithful colleges and universities in the country—describes itself on its website and in all promotional materials as “Passionately Catholic.” In contrast, most Jesuit colleges and universities have historically described themselves as “Jesuit institutions,” rather than Catholic colleges and universities. But, recently, the Jesuits have defined even that identity down in what a 2014 article in Atlantic Monthly called a “major rebranding.”
The Jesuit Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri removed the word “Jesuit” from the university tagline; and Regis University in Denver, Colorado, launched a new brand campaign deleting both the words “Jesuit” and “Catholic” in the school’s definition or its brand platform. “We hide the word ‘Catholic’ from prospective students,” Regis spokesperson, Traci McBee, told an interviewer for Atlantic Monthly: “We focus on the Jesuit piece rather than the Catholic piece. We’re able to transform a little quicker because we are not waiting for the archbishop to give us permission. We don’t have to ask the Pope when we want to make changes.”
While such actions may seem to be a drastic departure from the Catholic identity of each of these schools—and a refusal to acknowledge the mission of Catholic higher education as articulated in Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae—the truth is that when one visits the websites of each of these Jesuit institutions, there is no question of their commitment to helping students become “men and women for and with others” in terms of addressing poverty and social justice.
The ideological commitment to social justice has not only become institutionalized on Jesuit campuses, it has also reached far beyond the twenty-eight Jesuit campuses to the majority of the more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities. Such a commitment can be noble, but sometimes the commitment to social justice can become so distorted that it requires a pro-choice perspective on abortion, or women’s ordination—both counter to Catholic doctrine—to ensure social justice for women.
For example, in an attempt to help create a new generation of Catholic law school graduates who are ready, willing and able to expand access to abortion through shaping public policy, and defend organizations like Planned Parenthood, Law Students for Reproductive Justice now have chapters at the following Catholic University law schools: De Paul, Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola (Los Angeles), Loyola (Chicago), Santa Clara, Seattle, St. Louis University, University of Detroit Mercy, University of San Diego, University of San Francisco and Villanova. The Cardinal Newman Society has also documented that many Catholic colleges and universities provide undergraduate student internship credit for volunteering to function as clinic escorts at Planned Parenthood and other abortion facilities.
The movement away from evangelization and toward social justice is reflected in the mission statements on each of the Jesuit campuses and is increasingly part of the mission statement of the more than two hundred non-Jesuit Catholic colleges and universities. Sometimes the social justice mission is reflected in the campus itself. The newest building on the Sacred Heart University campus in Fairfield, CT has been named Jorge Bergoglio Hall. An enormous residence building in the heart of campus, Bergoglio Hall stands across the street from Angelo Roncalli Hall—a residence for first-year students.
Neither building has any indication that the buildings are named for the papal leaders of the Catholic Church, and it is likely that some students have no idea who Angelo Roncalli is. But, in a two-sentence explanation on an obscure page on the Sacred Heart website, students can find that “Jorge Bergoglio is the birth name of Pope Francis…his views align perfectly with our mission to instill in our students and other members of the SHU community with a deep sense of the Catholic intellectual tradition and its emphasis on social justice.”
A similar entry on the website reads that “Angelo Roncalli is the birth name of Pope John XXIII, the “Good Pope.” Crediting him with “radically changing the face of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century by calling the meeting of the Second Vatican Council in 1962,” both men are viewed as social justice advocates. Neither Karl Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) nor Josef Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) have been given such honors on the Sacred Heart campus.
On many Catholic campuses, the mission of social justice is a phrase with the power of a command. During a public debate at the Jesuit St. Joseph’s College of Philadelphia, the dean of the faculty stated, “a student who did not believe in social justice would not qualify for a degree at this school.” Fairfield University’s mission statement makes the promotion of justice “an absolute requirement.” The problem with mandating a commitment to social justice is that students and faculty are often mandated to agree with the ways in which social justice is defined on campus—and beyond.
Earlier this month, the Catholic Theological Society of America awarded its most prestigious annual award to University of San Diego theologian Orlando Espin, a theologian whose work was lauded by the CTSA as having “wrestled with problems associated with the historical and contemporary legacies of colonization, slavery, racism, and prejudice against LGBT persons.” In accepting his award, Espin thanked his husband of eight years. Expanding access to marriage for same sex couples is viewed as part of the commitment to social justice on many Catholic campuses—despite Catholic teachings to the contrary.
Still, a commitment to social justice, without a commitment to teaching students about the Church’s natural law foundation for social justice makes a Catholic education no more distinctive than a secular education. In 2013, concluding that his alma mater “takes pride in insulting the Church and offending the faithful,” William Peter Blatty, author of the best-selling book, The Exorcist filed a Canon Law petition with the Vatican asking that Georgetown University be denied the right to call itself Catholic. Calling Georgetown a “Potemkin Village,” Blatty complained that “at alumni dinners, they will make sure there is a Jesuit in a collar at every table, like the floral arrangement.” Others have filed similar lawsuits. Whether the Vatican chooses to respond remains uncertain.