Nicholas G. Hahn III, editor of RealClearReligion.org, wrote a piece for the Chicago Tribune this week suggesting that Catholic universities may have “found a new rallying cry” in Pope Francis’ potent message to Notre Dame: “And this is important: its identity, as it was intended from the beginning. To defend it,to preserve it and to advance it!”
Hahn wrote that many Catholic universities have fallen into secularism, but “now they have a pope telling them they can't have one foot in each world.”
Hahn traced the decline in Catholic identity back to the1960’s.
The very public decline of Catholic higher education traces to July 1967, when the president of Notre Dame, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, and his friends in the Ivory Tower produced a statement on the nature of a modern Catholic university. "The Land O' Lakes Statement," named after a town in northern Wisconsin where the Catholic academics met, began by erecting a wall of separation between church and campus: "(T)he Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority o fwhatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself."
This declaration of independence annoyed the American bishops ("clerical authority") who oversee the Catholic colleges within their dioceses. And it gave cover for dissident Catholic intellectuals teaching in theology departments. Professors such as Charles Curran at the Catholic University of America could oppose papal encyclicals without the slightest pause. DePaul University emeritus professor John Dominic Crossan could suggest that Jesus' bodily resurrection probably didn't happen and suffer no consequence.
But Hesburgh and his statement are beginning to fall out of favor. When I interviewed the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, in September 2011, he didn't mince words. "You can't have a Catholic university that takes Land O' Lakes as a charter document," he told me.The statement was essentially Protestant, the cardinal said: "I shouldn't have to change my religion in order to make some group happy who doesn't like the exercise of episcopal authority within the Catholic Church."
For more information on the history of the crisis and ongoing renewal of Catholic higher education, read The Cardinal Newman Society’s Timeline and Background of Ex corde Ecclesiae.
Hahn recalled one moment that “crystallized” the debate over Catholic identity when, in 2009, the University of Notre Dame honored President Barack Obama, whose pro-abortion rights position and record were well-known, and a number of students and alumni boycotted the ceremony.
He said he believes that after all, even universities such as DePaul, his alma mater, have seen an increase in Catholic identity in recent years. “Today, the largest Catholic university in America is perceptibly more Catholic than when I was a freshman in 2005,” he wrote in the Tribune, “but there is still a long way to go.”
To further this, Hahn hopes that Catholic college and university presidents are paying attention to the words of Pope Francis, which, he suggested, have implications beyond the University of Notre Dame.
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