The National Catholic Review
Wilson D. Miscamble
How can Catholic identity be preserved?
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Catholic universities in the United States possess a certain Potemkin Village quality. While their buildings are quite real, what goes on within them has increasingly lost its distinctive content and come to resemble what occurs in secular institutions of higher learning. Students emerge from Catholic schools rather unfamiliar with the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition and with their imaginations untouched by a religious sensibility. This reality is painstakingly revealed in Catholic Higher Education (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006) by Melanie Morey and John Piderit, S.J., who predict that “a crisis is looming within American Catholic higher education.” It will be increasingly difficult to maintain even a Catholic facade in the academic life of these institutions.

 

Morey, Piderit and other thoughtful commentators argue that if Catholic universities are to navigate successfully through the difficult challenges of the moment, they must confront the fundamental issue of faculty composition and address the need to recruit a committed Catholic faculty. Is this possible? Or is the day too far gone when an institution might renew its religiously based mission by hiring faculty members who will support and sustain it?

At the Tipping Point?

An examination of the present situation at the University of Notre Dame suggests that the tipping point is at hand—a parlous situation that assuredly is replicated in all the major Catholic universities. Dramatic action will be required to secure the school’s Catholic identity. If even Notre Dame, with its abundant resources and its storied role in Catholic education, fails in this effort, one must wonder who can succeed. Some specific details illustrate the nature of the crisis as it exists at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s mission statement draws upon Ex Corde Ecclesiae and rightly declares that the “Catholic identity of the University depends upon...the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals” on the faculty. Nonetheless, the last three decades have seen a dramatic decline in the number of Catholic faculty members. The figure as of 2006 was 53 percent, which is somewhat inflated by those who answered “Catholic” on the faculty questionnaire but for whom the practice of the faith appears nominal at best.

The prospects for the immediate future clearly worry senior administrators. Notre Dame’s provost, Thomas Burish, has explained: “When the prospective rate of Catholic retirements is plotted against the contemporary rate of Catholic hires as a constant, it is clear that soon Notre Dame will no longer have the predominant number of Catholic faculty members whom we require.”

In Catholic universities, as in their secular peers, the academic department constitutes the key entity where hiring decisions are made. Today at Notre Dame, however, few departments conscientiously and enthusiastically support the mission statement’s call for a predominant number of Catholic faculty; the theology department and the law school are notable and honorable exceptions.

In some departments, a person who tries to raise the issue in a serious way risks being marginalized. Professor Kevin Hart, a brilliant Catholic intellectual and the editor of the journal Religion and Literature, dared to do this in the English department. Hart objected to the appointment of a candidate he thought incompatible with the Catholic mission of the university and found himself roundly criticized for his intervention.

The issue can still be raised in the department I know best, the history department; yet that guarantees little, as is evident from the results of its recent hirings. There are now 32 members of the history department; only 12 are Catholic. This past year we hired three additional faculty members, only one of whom is Catholic. This is hardly the way to maintain a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals. In fact, we hired in exactly the reverse proportion needed. As it moves into the future, Notre Dame must hire at least two-thirds Catholic faculty simply to arrest the decline that ultimately puts at risk its identity as a Catholic school.

One sometimes hears that the root of the problem is not in the departmental hiring process, but rather that it is a “supply” problem: there just are not enough really good Catholic scholars out there. A corollary is that all the really smart Catholics have gone into law or medicine or business. But should we accept the supply-side argument? Forgive me for being a little skeptical. The Rev. Andrew Greeley’s careful research since the 1960s put to rest the canards that Catholics were anti-intellectual, overly materialistic, academically inferior and not well represented in graduate schools. He demonstrated that plenty of Catholics have pursued academic careers across a wide range of disciplines. Catholic scholars there are aplenty.

But implicitly the further claim is made that these scholars just are not good enough, given the present aspirations of universities like Notre Dame. Not enough of these scholars have the right academic pedigree—they have not received the imprimatur of an elite graduate school (the Ivy League, Chicago, Berkeley or Stanford, with an occasional stoop down to Michigan); they have not won the prominent fellowships or published with the prestige presses. Perhaps there is something to this argument. Certainly a focus on the criteria of academic pedigree and prestige narrows the available pool, but forgive my further skepticism. I am familiar with too many cases in which an able Catholic did not obtain a position here.

The Cambridge Cases

My skepticism was especially heightened from a particular episode in 1999-2000, when the history department investigated the possibility of appointing the distinguished British Catholic intellectual Eamon Duffy. Duffy, who teaches at the University of Cambridge, is the author of—among other works—a landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars, which reframed how scholars have viewed the English Reformation. He is a historian of the first rank, known well on both sides of the Atlantic. His appointment would have done much to raise the reputation of Notre Dame’s history department.

Yet no offer was made to Eamon Duffy, so we do not know whether he would have come to northern Indiana. Colleagues worried about the “fit” (always a useful concern if you want to block something) and about the conditions of his employment, given that he would have done some significant teaching in Notre Dame’s London program. But strikingly, there was concern that Eamon Duffy was too much of a “Catholic apologist” and that he engaged in discussion of contemporary church issues, especially in the pages of the British liberal Catholic magazine, The Tablet. His tone was deemed rather on the “polemical side” (Duffy dared to think that Queen Elizabeth I has a few things for which to answer). The depth of Duffy’s faith commitment and the impact of it on his scholarly work and his intellectual commitments bothered certain people. So Eamon Duffy continues his teaching at Cambridge today, much to Notre Dame’s loss.

Just a year or so before Eamon Duffy’s appointment was considered, an appointment was made at Notre Dame of another Cambridge academic, this one in the English department. Professor Jill Mann was appointed for a five-year term to occupy an endowed chair each spring semester. Mann, a distinguished scholar and Chaucer specialist, served as president of the New Chaucer Society, where she gave a presidential address entitled “Chaucer and Atheism.” As she blithely revealed in the opening paragraph of her address, the “atheism” to which she referred was her own. Notably, she appeared to want her atheism to have a major impact on her scholarly work.

Professor Mann recognized the importance of religion (both in medieval times and our own), but her intellectual suppositions were quite at odds with a Catholic worldview. Toward the conclusion of her address she said: “If you believe, as I do, that ‘there’s nobody here but us chickens,’ then you also believe that there is no predetermined or transcendental truth. I agree with Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish that truth is not something we discover but something we make.” For her, “the dangerous people...are not those who say that there is no absolute truth, but those who say there is, and that they know what it is.” Perhaps she was unfamiliar with John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor; and presumably she might have found amusing—or even dangerous—the declaration in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that “it is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”

Professor Mann’s views may have troubled some of those who approved her hire, just as they did a few hardy souls in the English department who were overwhelmingly outvoted. But the chance to make a notable appointment that would increase Notre Dame’s visibility among its secular peers won out. Hiring an individual who might in certain ways undermine the school’s true mission took a back seat to the payoffs in terms of academic prestige and reputation. Appointments like Mann’s suggest that prestige trumps Catholic mission in the hiring process.

Needed Action

Occasionally, of course, fine appointments are made. A recent press release proudly announced the appointment of Professor William Evans, a noted economist from the University of Maryland. But no press release advised that the aforementioned Kevin Hart of the English department had decided to leave Notre Dame for the University of Virginia. Notre Dame will need many more appointments like that of Evans, while still retaining scholars like Hart, if it is to forge a faculty truly supportive of its identity as a Catholic university.

The matter of hiring Catholic faculty has been of concern at Notre Dame for some time. The Rev. Robert Sullivan, of the history department and the Erasmus Institute, now heads an effort to identify able Catholic scholars. He also heads an ad hoc committee on recruiting outstanding Catholic faculty members, appointed by Provost Burish. One of the charges for this committee is to identify “the best practices for hiring Catholic faculty members.” One can only hope and pray for the success of these endeavors.

It must be understood, however, that this is not a matter that can be massaged by minor measures. The temptation for administrators is to hope that a little adjustment here and a bit of tinkering there might improve the situation without stirring faculty opposition. Settling for minor measures in the present circumstances, however, indicates a complicity in the secularization process. A major change in the hiring process is required, and the need for it must be approved at the level of the board of trustees and implemented with courageous leadership, whatever faculty resistance it generates.

If the seemingly inevitable downward trend in the Catholic percentage of the faculty is to be arrested and reversed, a major board decision calling for two-thirds of all future appointments to be committed Catholic scholars is essential. This would require very different ways of hiring from the department-based procedures of today. The university would need to engage in what might be termed strategic hiring or hiring for mission. A recognition that this approach is crucial to its identity could drive the endeavor. It would require Notre Dame (and other schools that want to preserve their Catholic mission and character) to be truly different from their secular “preferred peer” schools. Failure to take such action, however, will lead schools like Notre Dame to merely replicate such secular institutions and to surrender what remains of their distinctiveness. This is surely a sad prospect for those who hoped, with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, that a Catholic university might constitute “an authentic human community animated by the spirit of Christ.”

Wilson D. Miscamble, C.S.C., is professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. His book From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima, and the Cold War (Cambridge Univ. Press) was published in September 2006.

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DAVID GENTRY-AKIN | 9/26/2007 - 5:20pm
Thanks to Father Miscamble for having the courage to tell the truth about what is happening at our Catholic colleges and universities. Increasingly, our academic departments have been taken over by those who are non-Catholic, ignorant of the Catholic intellectual tradition in all but the most superficial sense, and, sadly, sometimes even anti-Catholic. In many of our institutions, the rich Catholic intellectual, moral, and aesthetic tradition has been replaced by vague commitments to 'diversity' and 'social justice', which in reality differ little, if any, from the values espoused by our secular counterparts. We value what we know, and so our non-Catholic colleagues, who now predominate in many of our institutions, can hardly be blamed for hiring others like themselves, people who share their secular perspective and values. The issue really isn't one of quality or of a dearth of highly talented Catholic intellectuals, though much more needs to be done to cultivate the next generation of them. The issue is a matter of a completely different worldview, and often a worldview deeply biased against religion, which consciously or unconsciously shapes the values of those who are doing the hiring. My point here is not to place blame, but rather to describe the reality. Non-Catholic scholars are not to be blamed; most are simply the products of their own academic formation at secular institutions, a formation which is often deeply hostile to religious perspectives. As Father Miscamble notes, the initial screening of candidates takes place at the departmental level, and thus someone with a strong commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition would not make it past 'the first cut'. Senior administrators who interview finalists would hardly know that others--equally talented and perhaps with much more to offer in terms of fit with the mission of the institution--had applied. If one's eyes are open, one can even observe that highly talented members of religious communities, and sometimes even members of the sponsoring congregation, are subjected to scandalous treatment. They aren't wanted because they are people of faith; not because they are intellectually inferior. Of course, Catholic institutions of higher learning have long had non-Catholic scholars in their midst, and these non-Catholics, people of other faith traditions and sometimes of none, can and do contribute a great deal to the intellectual flourishing of the university. The issue, however, is whether there will be a sufficient number of Catholic intellectuals on our faculties to assure that the Catholic intellectual tradition continues to permeate the culture and to be the lifeblood of the institution. Much is said against Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but how many have actually read and studied it? Theologians were initally quite alarmed by the provisions for the mandatum, a concern that is readily understandable given the uneasy relationships that often exist between bishops and theologians, but Ex Corde has a lot more to say about the ethos of a Catholic institution of higher learning that really deserves our attention. What is needed, too, it should be noted, is not merely more Catholics on our faculties, but more Catholic intellectuals. While having people of faith in our midst is valuable, what we really need are people of faith who can connect that faith to the intellectual life; who can connect faith perspectives to the questions being raised--in the classroom and in the academy--by all of the other disciplines. While there are many ways of approaching this problem, I believe that Catholic Studies programs--programs which include philosophical and theological perspectives but which go beyond them to engage in dialogue with the other humanities and with the natural and social sciences--are an important part of the solution. A Catholic Studies program seeks to overcome the 'silo mentality' of the disciplinary perspective by creating cross-dis
DAVID GENTRY-AKIN | 9/26/2007 - 5:18pm
Thanks to Father Miscamble for having the courage to tell the truth about what is happening at our Catholic Colleges and Universities. Increasingly, our academic departments have been taken over by those who are non-Catholic, ignorant of the Catholic intellectual tradition in all but the most superficial sense, and, sadly, sometimes even anti-Catholic. In many of our institutions, the rich Catholic intellectual, moral, and aesthetic tradition has been replaced by vague commitments to 'diversity' and 'social justice', which in reality differ little, if any, from the values espoused by our secular counterparts. We value what we know, and so our non-Catholic colleagues, who are now predominate in many of our institutions, can hardly be blamed for hiring others like themselves, people who share their secular perspective and values. The issue really isn't one of quality or of a dearth of highly talented Catholic intellectuals, though much more needs to be done to cultivate the next generation of them. The issue is a matter of a completely different worldview, and often a worldview deeply biased against religion, which consciously or unconsciously shapes the values of those who are doing the hiring. My point here is not to case blame, but rather to describe the reality. Non-Catholic scholars are not to be blamed; most are simply the products of their own academic formation at secular institutions, a formation which is often deeply hostile to religious perspectives. As Father Miscamble notes, the initial screening of candidates takes place at the departmental level, and thus someone with a strong commitment to the Catholic intellectual tradition would not make it past 'the first cut'. Senior administrators who interview finalists would hardly know that others--equally talented and perhaps with much more to offer in terms of fit with the mission of the institution--had applied. If one's eyes are open, one can even observe that highly talented members of religious communities, and sometimes even members of the sponsoring congregation, are subjected to scandalous treatment. They aren't wanted because they are people of faith; not because they are intellectually inferior. Of course, Catholic institutions of higher learning have long had non-Catholic scholars in their midst, and these non-Catholics, people of other faith traditions and sometimes of none, can and do contribute a great deal to the intellectual flourishing of the university. The issue, however, is whether there will be a sufficient number of Catholic intellectuals on our faculties to assure that the Catholic intellectual tradition continues to permeate the culture and to be the lifeblood of the institution. Much is said against Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but how many have actually read and studied it? Theologians were initally quite alarmed by the provisions for the mandatum, a concern that is readily understandable given the uneasy relationships that often exist between bishops and theologians, but Ex Corde has a lot more to say about the ethos of a Catholic institution of higher learning that really deserves our attention. What is needed, too, it should be noted, is not merely more Catholics on our faculties, but more Catholic intellectuals. While having people of faith in our midst is valuable, what we really need are people of faith who can connect that faith to the intellectual life; who can connect faith perspectives to the questions being raised--in the classroom and in the academy--by all of the other disciplines. While there are many ways of approaching this problem, I believe that Catholic Studies programs--programs which include philosophical and theological perspectives but which go beyond them to engage in dialogue with the other humanities and with the natural and social sciences--are an important part of the solution. A Catholic Studies program seeks to overcome the 'silo mentality' of the disciplinary perspective by creating cross-disc
F FREYNE | 9/20/2007 - 2:59pm
The article by Wilson D, Miscamble, C.S.C. on the faculty situation in our Catholic colleges and universities is pertinent and insightful. For point of reference, my undergraduate degree is from Manhattan College in engineering; my spouse is a graduate of Mt St Mary’s CA. in History; and my PhD is in theoretical physics from UCLA. Two observations: First, what is the needed “faculty quality” in a Catholic college, and how is that to be implemented in accord with the unique mission of the Catholic College? Does a Catholic college need to import and hire Nobel Laureates to acquire prestige? What would it take to handle the “care and feeding” of such professors? Would their presence contribute to the learning and development of undergraduate students, or could they be effective only with near-PhD students and post-docs? I suspect these so-called superstar professors would become the equivalent of the huge blue whale which beached itself near Ventura CA a week ago. From my experience, there are many Catholic scholars in all fields in this country who would be worthwhile additions to Catholic campuses, and would follow Catholic principals by conscious choice as necessary in their teaching. The claim of “lower quality” is bogus. To find them would take some diligent active, not passive searching(i.e. looking at resume replies from some ad). I would encourage Wilson D, Miscamble, C.S.C. in this search. A second comment: My oldest son Seamus (PhD in Civil / Structural Engineering, University of Oklahoma) has been on the faculty at Manhattan College the past few years. In one of his engineering classes, he must address “business ethics” as part of the curriculum. When I discussed this topic with him during the Christmas break, I readily supplied him with many examples of current ethical breakdowns from the pages of publications such as eetimes and court reports. There are a flood of ethical cases: South Korean DRAM integrated circuit price fixing, theft of circuit synthesis code, stock option pricing back-dating, etc. Fortunately, in his classroom discussion of ethics, he can incorporate the USMA West Point honor code (“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do”), the Ten Commandments from the Judaic-Christian tradition, as well as a Roman Catholic viewpoint. It may be that other secular schools can and will promote situational ethics wrapped in the sparkly gauze of moral relativism; that is not the role or mission of the Catholic college. I expect that this is what the parents of the students want as the basic standard for the Catholic college. But sticking to their Catholic identity, the Catholic colleges will survive and thrive while others fail. One additional point: How does the distinguished English professor at Notre Dame include Atheism with Chaucer? When I read Chaucer as an undergraduate, it concerned tales from pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas Beckett. Now, for example, the friar’s tale and the summoners’ tales could be considered scurrilous and naughty, but what is the link to atheism? How would this be appropriate for undergraduates at a Catholic college? Or is this a case of some professor trying to indoctrinate her individualistic views on undergraduates?
DANIEL BURR | 9/6/2007 - 9:05am
In his September 10 article about Notre Dame, Wilson Miscamble misses the forest (what has become of higher education today) for the trees (his concerns about faculty hires). At selective institutions, Notre Dame included, higher education has become an investment. A four year undergraduate degree can easily cost $160,000. Americans who can afford it consider this a wise investment because the returns--admission to "top" graduate programs, high paying jobs, connections--exceed the outlay. These kind of returns are possible only when a school has nationally recognized faculty members. What they are recognized for hardly matters. The investment model of higher education is encouraged by our obsession with rankings of the "best" colleges and by the expectation that schools will offer their student-clients a campus filled with amenities. No doubt an interest in a Catholic worldview plays a role when parents decide to send their child to a Catholic college, but I fear for most this interest must be secondary to the expectation that this education will be "worth it" in a very tangible sense. I do not know if anything can reverse this trend, but wringing hands over the number of Catholic faculty members at a school like Notre Dame seems a futile response to a much bigger problem. Daniel Burr
Bill Mazzella | 9/4/2007 - 11:02am
Wilson Miscamble's has a valid concern in that more Catholic professors in a Catholic institution are desirable. All things being equal in scholarship, of course. On the other hand his identification with Ex Corde Ecclesiae may indicate he is more into propagation and polemics than scholarship. On the non-appointment of Eamon Duffy he begs the question on the competence of Duffy. After all even Duffy, in a new edition of 'Stripping of the Altars' offered major apologies over his discounting of serious events in history. Whether Duffy is too polemic or lacks scholarship can be debated but his apology is in black and white. Most disturbing is Miscamble's embrace of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which until the pedophilia crisis derailed it, was a permeating source of terror for scholars at Catholic Universities. At any rate Miscamble notes the deep Catholic presence in Notre Dame's theology and Law department. That may be just what the doctor ordered. Most likely the brilliant professor, Jill Mann will learn something if she sticks around. Despite the direction Miscamble recommends that Notre Dame take, he might acknowledge that ND is doing pretty well and to no small degree because Ted Hesburgh demanded that truth and engagement be preferred to dictatorial documents alla "Ex Corde." In fact whenever an intrusive Curia official began harassing ND and Catholic universities Ted Hesburgh knew whom to call to keep such intruders away from a solid university. Prophets of doom notwithstanding he did a heck of a job.
NICHOLAS CLIFFORD | 9/3/2007 - 8:41am
Fascinating article. But I wonder whether, whatever the results of Andrew Greeley's research, the supply problem is quite so easily dealt with. I am not aware of a large, or even middling, number of Catholic academics out there who could be classified as among the leading intellectuals of our society. I have done a lot of faculty hiring (at a secular institution); at one point we sought a Catholic scholar for our Religion Department, but the applicants were a rather sad lot -- with one significant exception, though in the end we lost her to Notre Dame! Perhaps these Catholic intellectuals exist; and if they do, are organizations like the American Catholic Historical (or Philosophical) Associations keeping track of them, to help in identifying them to search committees at places like Notre Dame or BC? (Are there other such Catholic associations -- in biology, political science, physics, economics, literature, etc., who should be doing the same thing?) Of course we should be wary if Catholic institutions (or indeed any others!) get caught up too much in the US News rat race. But -- here's a radical suggestion! -- while we get upset about the secularizing culture that may appear to be gaining the upper hand in such institutions, should we be equally upset about the non- (anti-?) intellectual culture that seems to pervade those charged with the direction of the American Catholic Church? Perhaps that culture even more urgently demands to be changed. How many bishops, for example, charged with overseeing the fortunes of Ex Corde show any interest in intellectual matters and intellectual seriousness? Perhaps in private they may, but as far as their public voice is concerned, they seem concerned only in taking positions and making statements, unwilling to listen to any who might disagree with, or be confused, by them (and unwilling perhaps to listen even to those who might agree!)How many of them, in their concerns with Ex Corde, have taken the trouble to read O'Brien's splendid The Idea of a Catholic University (2002)? or other such books? How do they respond to the ideas contained therein? Or, as it appears, is the easiest response simply no response? In any case, they aren't telling. If one ever saw a bishop, or group of bishops, actively wrestling with a problem, and willing to entertain arguments from various sides, this might do more than anything else to change the view that they are at best uninterested in intellectual matters, and at worst, fear them. Perhaps they do so wrestle; but they seem excruciatingly careful not to let it show. Theirs is not a culture that is going to nurture the Catholic Salks and Oppenheimers, whose absence Monsignor John Tracy Ellis noted a half-century ago. Yet it is a culture that may well, even unconsciously, convince young men and women that if they want to be good Catholics, they should say goodbye to their intellectual interests, or if they want to be good intellectuals, they'd better say goodbye to Catholicism.
RON DIRKS MR | 9/1/2007 - 4:11pm
I agree with Wilson Misamble, C.S.C. that it is essential for Catholic colleges and universities to make every effort, by policy, to hire professors who are 1) practicing Catholics, 2) personally subscribe to and profess the Church's teaching on faith and morals as presented in the Catholic Catechism, papal encyclicals, and major teachings such as Ex Corde Ecclesiae, etc. 3) demonstrate academic achievement to the PhD or post-doctoral level in their academic teaching speciality from recognized and accrediated institutions of higher learning, and, have published articles, books and research papers read by their peers and recognized for their scholarship. If a Catholic professor or any professor hired by a Catholic university does not or cannot understand how Church teaching on "Truth" as explained by the late Pope John Paul II in his Ex Corde Ecclesiae can be understood epistemologically with "truth" as used in the natural, physical and social sciences, for example, she/he should seek an explaination from a fellow professor whose academic speciality is in philosophy or theology that does understand and can explain the issues and resolution to her/his intellectual satisfaction. No one has to be able to fully understand these philosophical and theological arguments to be a Catholic in good standing with the Church but acceptance of the Church's teaching on these points are required from all in virtue of Faith. When I was a graduate assistant '67'-'69' to the late James Collins, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University it was most inspiring to me, as a catholic student, to observe this internationally known philosopher make a daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament just before he began his lectures. His deep Catholic faith and devotion and his philosophical acumen, exceeded by no one in the world in his day, were seemlessly joined in his life. I was not the only student who observed Dr. Collins. Other students, Jesuit and other faculty, staff and countless others on the campus witnessed his daily example of a faith deeply and honestly lived within the context of a vibrant academic life of teaching, researching and publishing. Dr. Collins always faily presented the positions of the philosophers whether in his lectures or his books, but in the end, always critiqued them from a viewpoint of realistic theism. We students learned from a Catholic master. If Catholic universities do not have a sufficent number of instructors, who are themselves Catholic, to pass on the teachings of the faith and who create and share their knowledge and way of life in a Catholic environment with each other and the students who have come to them with the hope of experiencing truly higher Catholic education, those Catholic universities cannot be distinguished from their peer public institutions and thus, they fail their Catholic mission, i.e., do not make the grade of being Catholic and should not, in all honesty, identify and profess themselves as such.