Fidelity of new pastoral ministry program at University of Dallas questioned (Updated)

Updated at 4:00 MST, March 7: Dr. Patrick Fagan has issued a retraction of one of his critiques against School of Ministry teacher Sr. Dorothy Jonaitis.

Due to a reporting error, quote from Dean Brian Schmisek was missing the word "formal". Added quote from Schmisek that his department does a good job at staying faithful to Ex Corde. 

Hundreds of students at the University of Dallas are questioning the idea of courses for a new degree in pastoral ministry being taught by teachers from the School of Ministry, after one critic alleged some of them have publicly disagreed with Church teaching.

Concerns about the new undergraduate major--scheduled to be launched next year--were initially raised in an article written by Dr. Patrick Fagan, director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) at the Family Research Council.

Fagan wrote a March 2 column for “The Catholic Thing” expressing concern that the courses may be taught by faculty members from the university’s School of Ministry rather than the undergraduate theology department.

Fagan cited multiple instances in which School of Ministry faculty members allegedly deviated from Catholic teaching on topics including homosexuality, priestly celibacy and women’s ordination. Upon closer examination, many of the Fagan's assertions of infidelity to Church teaching were not substantiated by the original texts.

He also noted that several teachers rely solely upon textbooks by authors who challenge Church teaching on important modern topics such as euthanasia and moral relativism, as well as who oppose Eucharistic adoration as outdated as unnecessary.

Fagan's column also drew attention to a 2007 interview with Dean Brian Schmisek in which he told the National Catholic Register that after a pre-hire screening process, no formal system exists within the School of Ministry to ensure that its teachers adhere to the Magisterium of the Church. At the same time, Schmisek said, “We do a pretty excellent job of fulfilling the mandate of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. 

Fagan, who describes himself as the “proud father of five UD alumni children,” called for the university to investigate before moving forward with the program. If they do not, he cautioned, “I and many like me will be telling like-minded parents to send their children elsewhere.”

Nevertheless, news of the article spread rapidly. Within hours of its release on March 2, a Facebook group to oppose the decision had grown to include more than 350 members, drawing largely from the university’s undergraduate population of about 1,350 students.

“It is becoming evident that the School of Ministry is being led by people who have publicly expressed views that conflict with important and fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church,” said senior Katie Prejean. “I’m worried about the future of the school.”

Prejean said that the strong student response was an indication of commitment to Catholic teaching. “Such a negative reaction is coming out of this because we are truly opposed to it,” she explained. 

Pam Beeler, a current student in the School of Ministry, told CNA that Dr. Fagan’s article “raises legitimate concerns” about the orthodoxy of the department’s faculty.

Beeler, who graduated with her undergraduate degree from UD in 1987, is required by the diocese to take additional graduate level classes at a Catholic university in order to continue teaching theology in a Catholic high school.  Because she lives several hours away, she is completing the degree online.

Beeler said that while her professors in the undergraduate program had proven dedicated to Church teaching, her current experience with the School of Ministry teachers has raised questions in her mind that the school is “not in keeping with what is going on at the rest of the university.”

Alumni and parents joined students in voicing their concerns. An online petition generated more than 200 signatures overnight and grew to over 300 the next day. In addition, the university’s president, Thomas Keefe, received more than 100 e-mails on Wednesday evening. In response, he called a forum on Thursday to discuss the matter with the students.

At the forum, Keefe described the incident as a “miscommunication.” He told students that their concerns were “unfounded” and that Fagan’s article was a misrepresentation of the facts.

“It was intended to scare you. It was intended to raise fear within the constituent group to stop the pastoral ministry degree,” he said.

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Keefe said that the instances cited had been taken out of context or were from the past. “It was at one time, a decade ago, appropriate in this Church to talk about women’s ordination,” he said.

The president said that everything in Fagan’s article would be investigated, but he declined to answer students’ questions regarding the incidents and faculty members mentioned in the article.

“This has nothing to do with individuals,” he said, explaining that students could arrange a private meeting with him if they still had concerns.

Keefe said that the people referenced in the article had been deeply hurt. “They don’t deserve it,” he remarked. “They have devoted their life to the Church. Now maybe not the way you all think they should, and maybe your theology is different, but their sacrifice is every, every bit as compelling as anyone else’s.”

“There are some very talented people in the School of Ministry who are undervalued and underknown here,” said Keefe, adding that he would like to see the undergraduate college work more closely with the School of Ministry in the future.

“One of the problems that we’ve had, I believe, before I came here, is we allowed the School of Ministry to exist, but we kept our distance from it,” he said. “Now we’re actually going to invite them to the table, and we’re actually going to break bread with them, and we’re going to find out that they are people of good faith, working hard.”

Keefe explained that decisions have not yet been made on who will teach the pastoral ministry classes next fall. Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas will be responsible for approving teachers in the new major, although he will not oversee the program. 

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“I guarantee you, no heretical teachings will take part in the pastoral studies degree program,” Keefe stated.

In a video message, Bishop Farrell also responded to the Dallas community. He began by explaining that he had asked the university to develop a pastoral ministry major because of the need for additional help in the parishes of the diocese.

The bishop then acknowledged that concerns about fidelity to Church teaching in the new program had been raised. He assured the people of the diocese that he will always be “deeply concerned” about the “Catholic identity and the Catholic structure that is given in this degree program.”

“That is my responsibility. I do not take it lightly,” he said.

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