The board of trustees at the University of St. Thomas has severed a key legal link with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, according to the Star Tribune.
In October, the trustees of the University of St. Thomas voted to eliminate the archbishop’s automatic position on the board. For the first time since Archbishop John Ireland founded the university in 1885, a sitting archbishop will not chair the board.
Only the school’s Catholic Studies department and law school are said to have maintained a strong Catholic identity. Two archdiocesan seminaries, St. Paul Seminary and St. John Vianney College Seminary, are affiliated with the University of St. Thomas and could be affected by changes at the school.
Some suspect that the impending retirement of Archbishop Harry Flynn was a major factor in the vote. Archbishop Flynn is believed to have done little to resist secularizing trends at the school, but his successor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, has a reputation for standing up to secularization.
"I found this action very, very disturbing -- it was clearly directed at Archbishop Nienstedt," said Tom Mooney of St. Paul, a St. Thomas alumnus and donor. Many St. Thomas alumni are concerned about the "erosion" of the institution's Catholic identity, he said.
"The archbishop is the chief teacher of the faith in the diocese. He ought to be part of the academic community, and respected and regarded as such," said Father Paul LaFontaine, a parish priest.
The outgoing Archbishop Flynn was elected as an individual to a five-year term as chairman. But the university will no longer be required by its bylaws to include the head of the archdiocese in any official role at the university.
University spokesman Doug Hennes said that a secular organization that reviews governing boards recommended the by-laws change in 2002. He said the trustees were concerned the archbishop would be to busy to perform his duties as chairman.
When asked if trustees had asked Archbishop Nienstedt if he would be too busy, Hennes referred the question to the archdiocese. Archdiocesan spokesman Dennis McGrath said he did not know.
McGrath did say in a statement that St. Thomas "always has been and always will be a Catholic university."
Katherine Kersten, writing in the Star Tribune, urged the preservation of Catholic identity at the university for the sake of students. “We need a few places where they can be called to pursue something higher: a transcendent vision of faith and morality,” she wrote.