Commentary: Why ‘CINO’ label isn’t helping the Church

University of Notre Dame Credit Chuck W Walker Shutterstock CNA University of Notre Dame. | Chuck W. Walker/Shutterstock

On Monday, Villanova University won the NCAA basketball tournament for the second time in three years. The University of Notre Dame won the women's tournament on Easter Sunday, beating Mississippi State with a last-second 3-pointer from junior Arike Ogunbowale, who had beaten Connecticut with a last-second shot just two days earlier.

Ogunbowale was a heavily recruited college prospect, but she chose Notre Dame after attending a Catholic high school, because she wanted to grow in faith.

From many corners, though, as these Catholic colleges celebrate their victories, I've been hearing a familiar criticism: that Villanova and Notre Dame, like many schools, aren't "really" Catholic colleges - that they're "CINO" - Catholic in Name Only.

The CINO label usually gets applied to Catholic colleges, hospitals, schools, and other institutions which seem to have wavered in fidelity and enthusiasm for the fullness of truth, or to have rejected directly some tenets of the faith.

Of course, with a few notable exceptions, many Catholic colleges in the United States seem to jettison their Catholicity whenever it's inconvenient, or to choose only those parts of being Catholic that appeal to donors, students, and faculty. Their administrators seem often to be afraid of alienating anyone who thinks doctrine old-fashioned or intolerant, or, perhaps, to think those things themselves.

It is a scandal when Catholic colleges compromise the faith to appeal to the elite tastemakers of secular academia, or when chronically dissenting campus ministry programs and theology departments are more likely to alienate students from faith than to form them as disciples. It's discouraging when "serious" universities seem to be embarrassed by serious Catholicism. It's tempting to simply write them off.

But the CINO label isn't helping the problem. In part because it isn't true. And in part because it lets college administrators off the hook.

In a juridic sense, a Catholic university is Catholic because it is recognized as such by an appropriate ecclesiastical authority, and, as such, it is accountable to the mission and norms for Catholic universities outlined in John Paul II's Ex corde ecclesiae. Being a mediocre Catholic university, or a dissenting Catholic university, doesn't change the thing itself: in a juridic sense, a university is Catholic because the Church says it is, even if, by failure to live up to its mission, or to observe those norms, it is a failing Catholic university.    

In a deeper sense, a Catholic university takes its identity from the vision, hope, and faith of the Catholic people who built it.  

The majority of Catholic colleges in the United States, Villanova and Notre Dame among them, were built mostly with the pennies of immigrants, who hoped to found institutions to educate their children without compromising their faith. They were commissioned and supported by bishops who hoped they'd do just that. They were founded, at least many of them, by the pioneering missionary priests and sisters of religious orders.

America has Catholic universities because men and women were willing to fight the elements, fight their poverty, and fight unrelenting anti-Catholicism in order to build them.

Compromising Catholic identity is a betrayal of those sacrifices, and demands accountability.

But telling universities they are "Catholic in Name Only" cedes the premise that they are supposed to act like genuine Catholic institutions. The CINO label is another way of telling colleges that faithful Catholics don't expect much from them. And, frankly, faithful Catholics have the right to expect faithfulness from Catholic universities. Vocally. And often.

But the CINO attitude is a way of letting ourselves off the hook, too.

It's easy to carp about Catholic universities, to focus on their failings, to wonder when bishops will act, and to believe they'll never change. But faithful Catholics are called to something else.

Pope St. John Paul II said, repeatedly, that every Catholic is called to the "new evangelization." The first step of that project, he said, is to "remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community."

This means, in practice, to preach the Gospel to Catholic institutions that seem to have jettisoned it. Catholic universities come to mind, among others.

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We're responsible, in other words, for the renewal of dissenting Catholic colleges, or lackluster parishes and schools, or morally compromised Catholic hospitals. We're responsible to call them to conversion. We're responsible to witness to the faith. We're responsible to offer them our help.

It's comforting for us to write off "CINO" institutions, suggesting they aren't really Catholic, whenever they disappoint us. But they are Catholic. And if our Catholicism is more than just a name we carry, we have to help them live that mission.

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