The publication in 1990 of the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae has been the inspiration for continuing conversation within the Catholic higher education community in the United States. The leadership of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and its member institutions have explored ways to deepen and enrich the distinctively Catholic religious and intellectual traditions that identify the more than 200 Catholic institutions of higher education. Ex Corde Ecclesiae itself was the product of a continuing conversation that began with the circulation in 1985 of a preliminary draft and culminated in an international conference held at the Vatican in April 1989. After the publication of the final text in 1990, similar consultation among bishops and college and university presidents led to the development of regional norms for the application of the apostolic constitution to the United States.
Recognizing the value of such conversations, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has established a standing committee of bishops and presidents that meets twice a year to discuss issues that relate to Catholic higher education in the United States. In a memorandum dated Jan. 30, 2006, the retiring chair of the committee, Archbishop John G. Vlazny of Portland, Ore., spoke for the entire committee in writing to those U.S. bishops who are identified as ecclesiastical advisors to the Cardinal Newman Society. The society purports to measure the actual state of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. The Bishops and Presidents Committee has regularly monitored the publications and positions of the Cardinal Newman Society, Archbishop Vlazny notes, and has found them often aggressive, inaccurate, or lacking in balance. The archbishop urges the ecclesiastical advisors to look more closely at the methods of the society, which the committee has found to be often objectionable in substance and in tone, misrepresenting the Catholic colleges and universities in the United States that it criticizes.
What have been the methods of the Cardinal Newman Society that the Bishops and Presidents Committee find so objectionable? The Cardinal Newman Society keeps a close watch on how Catholic campuses observe the society’s self-defined and rather narrow view of what constitutes Catholic orthodoxy. Their litmus tests include: whether any campus group has sponsored a presentation of The Vagina Monologues; whether any politician who does not favor criminalizing abortion is invited to speak at a campus event; whether the institution has sponsored a support group for gay and lesbian students; and, most recently, whether faculty or staff at a Catholic institution supported John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2004 elections.
In pursuit of its skewed view of orthodox Catholicism, the Cardinal Newman Society has been reckless in its caricature of opposing viewpoints, misrepresenting the positions of those with whom they disagree. Even sadder, however, is the assumption behind their watchdog tactics. The test of a Catholic institution implicit in those tactics is a negative one.
The authenticity of an institution’s Catholic identity can be judged, as the Newman Society sees it, merely by what it does not do: no feminist drama, no unapproved speakers, no heterodox honorees, no support for homosexuals and no backing of left-leaning candidates.
The application of such negative litmus tests distorts and diminishes the importance of the Catholic identity and mission of a college or university. The vitality of life on a Catholic campus should be measured far more by the positive initiatives the institution takes than by the narrow boundaries it observes. The Catholic intellectual and religious tradition should be the source of programs and projects on Catholic campuses that other colleges and universities would have neither the interest nor the resources to promote.
Furthermore, a Catholic institution, confident in the strength of its traditions, will not retreat from the challenge of engaging competing ideas in the dialogue that is at the heart of a lively university culture. Many Catholic institutions have established programs and events that promote the dialogue between Catholic tradition and contemporary culture, between faith and science, that Ex Corde Ecclesiae identified as central to the mission of Catholic institutions. Happily the Bishops and Presidents Committee understands the importance of this mission.
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