Outgoing CUA president laments ‘confusion’ about Catholic identity in higher education

05 20 2010 OConnell Msgr. David O'Connell. | CUA.

Catholic higher education in the U.S. needs more guidance because of “confusion” about Catholic identity, the outgoing president of Catholic University of America has commented. An official with the U.S. bishops’ conference says that a review of Catholic higher ed is upcoming and that many schools are trying to put their Catholicity into practice.

Msgr. David O’Connell in March had a 70-minute audience with Cardinal Zenon Grocholweski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. The monsignor told the Washington Times he wanted to converse with the cardinal about Catholic identity, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" and the Land O’Lakes statement.

"Ex Corde Ecclesiae", a 1990 Vatican document, outlines the requirements for the governance and structuring of Catholic universities. The Land O’Lakes statement, which claimed autonomy from the Church in the name of academic freedom, was signed in Wisconsin in 1967 by 26 Catholic university presidents and other officials, according to the Washington Times.

Msgr. O’Connell stated that the 1967 statement had introduced “confusion” into the Church.

Another source of confusion, in his view, was President Obama’s invitation to deliver the commencement speech and to receive an honorary degree at the University of Notre Dame, despite the U.S. bishops’ statement that universities are not to honor pro-abortion rights public speakers.

"Obama goes to Notre Dame and everyone gets their pants in a twist; 80 bishops pile on saying Notre Dame shouldn't have done that; the president comes and gives a speech,” he told the Washington Times. However, the university “still turns away 1,000 students; they still get a million dollars in contributions; they honor the [papal] nuncio. ... They're back in the good graces of the church - what happened as a result of this?”

"I'd like the Holy See to say 'Ex Corde' is normative," he continued, "not Land O'Lakes. To appeal to Land O'Lakes as a source of vibrancy in Catholic education is mistaken."

Msgr. O’Connell, who also confirmed that he is strongly rumored to be a candidate for bishop, reported that at the Vatican meeting officials were “attentive.”

However, they told him Catholic education is a local matter that should be taken up by the U.S. bishops and does not require Vatican intervention.

In a Thursday interview, CNA spoke about "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" and Catholic higher education with Marie A. Powell, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ conference’s Office of Catholic Education.

She said the relation of Catholic higher education to the Catholic faith and the bishops is “pretty well spelled out” in "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" and the U.S. bishops’ document outlining its application. Powell said "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" is an effort to “set out guidelines and a vision for how Catholic higher education should relate to the Church.”

The documents call for a “close association” between a Catholic college or university and the diocese it is in. There should be a “supportive” and “collaborative” relationship between the educational institutions and the bishops.

Professors who are teaching in the theological disciplines are supposed to have a “mandatum” and permission from the local diocese to teach Catholic subjects, she explained.

Powell told CNA she did not know whether the bishops had taken a position on the Land O’Lakes statement, noting that "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" came out “long after” that document.

Asked whether there is a problem with Catholic schools not following “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” she said it depends on what is meant by “a problem.”

“If you look at what Catholic colleges and universities have done in the last few years about trying to set up positions or offices within the university setting, many of them have set up something to do with the mission of the university being a Catholic institution.”

Referring to a recent Boston College study, Powell said that over the past decade more than half of the over 220 Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. have set up a “mission unit” on Catholic identity.

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“That probably means that they are taking their Catholicity quite seriously and are figuring out ways of putting it into practice.”

Asked whether more guidance is necessary, she reported that the application of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” in the U.S. is supposed to be reviewed in upcoming years. “There will be some dialogue among bishops and Catholic university presidents to see if there needs to be more detail in the application.”

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