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‘Embrace the Mission’: Bishop Ricken Seeks Authenticity in Catholic Education

In a wide-ranging interview with The Cardinal Newman Society about authentic Catholic education, his role in the founding of Wyoming Catholic College and even the controversial Common Core standards, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisc., said that the Catholic Church calls schools and colleges to “embrace the mission of Catholic intellectual life and a Catholic way of life in the world today,” and not to “just give lip service to the mission.”

Bishop Ricken has been a leading figure in Catholic education, perhaps most notably as co-founder of Wyoming Catholic College and by his recent statement rejecting adoption of the Common Core State Standards in Green Bay’s Catholic schools.  He authored “A Checklist for Growing Your Faith” in the Newman Society magazine for high school students, My Future, My Faith, and wrote a forceful plea for faithful education in the Newman Society’s 2009 publication, The Enduring Nature of the Catholic University.

“The 1967 ‘Land O’Lakes Statement’ by leading Catholic educators precipitated a revolution in Catholic higher education that amounted to heresy and schism,” Bishop Ricken wrote in his chapter, “The Restoration of a Catholic ‘Idea of a University.’”  He called for colleges focused on Christian formation: “…Catholic colleges must address the whole person—mind, body, heart and soul—and illuminate the meaning of wisdom, purity, charity and God’s mystery.”

Recently, Newman Society reporter Joe Giganti met with Bishop Ricken to discuss his reaction to statements by the rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, Bishop Enrico dal Covolo, who told the Catholic News Service that Catholic universities today risk serving only “dominant ideologies” and “economic systems of the moment” when they focus on technical skill.

An “authentic” university, Bishop Covolo said, addresses “crucial questions that no one can avoid, that is: ‘Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Where am I going?  What is my relationship with others, with the world?  What is the final meaning of existence?’”

In his interview with The Cardinal Newman Society, Bishop Ricken agreed that Catholic education must give young people what they need for a fulfilling Christian life—and to do it with fidelity to Catholic teaching.

“The youth want genuine integrity, and they want a challenge, and they want to be challenged,” Bishop Ricken said. “Apologizing, compromising is simply not appealing to them.  Why should they spend their life doing that?  So they’re looking for something of real value to give their lives to.”

Providing such value requires Catholic educators who understand and appreciate the Catholic faith, he suggested.

“…[W]ith regard to Catholic colleges and universities especially, what’s happened is they have a Catholic identity, but sometimes they’ve forgotten what that means,” Bishop Ricken said.  “So people who maybe did not have the best formation in Catholic doctrine or Catholic teaching are asked to do things that sometimes they may not be that qualified for.”

The result, he said, is that those who are supposed to be teaching in a Catholic way “may not have the full acumen with regard to the Church’s understanding of what education means and formation of the human person.”

So how does the Church address this problem, especially when a particular Catholic college loses its way?  Bishop Ricken believes the active engagement of a local bishop with the Catholic colleges in his diocese is key to preserving and strengthening their Catholic identity—and the 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex corde Ecclesiae, similarly emphasizes this point.

“I think the bishop’s responsibility is to invite that Catholic college or university into dialogue with the hierarchy,” Bishop Ricken said.

But such dialogue has to be meaningful, he added.

“It’s got to have integrity to it,” Bishop Ricken said. “It doesn’t mean the bishop runs the college, not at all.  It doesn’t mean the bishop is the primary governor of the college.  But it does mean that, with regard to the integrity of the expression of the Faith and Catholic teaching, there is a strong bond there.  And when there’s not a strong bond, it is easy to get off mission.”

What if a college simply ignores what the bishop says?

“When there is a good dialogue, everyone flourishes,” Bishop Ricken insisted.  “And I know a couple of colleges where this is working beautifully—where the administration, the theology faculty and the bishop have regular exchanges about the issues of the day in light of Catholic teaching.”

Such dialogue works when the participants genuinely seek “the answer that is deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition—not by trying to side skirt it or something like that,” Bishop Ricken said.  But if dialogue doesn’t work, it’s because commitment to Catholic teaching “is usually lacking.”

With confidence in dialogue, Bishop Ricken has also embraced authentic Catholic education by his action.  In 2005, while bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, he co-founded Wyoming Catholic College with Dr. Robert Carlson and Father Robert Cook, who became the first president.

“It grew out of my concern as pastor, as the bishop of Cheyenne, that our young adults were disconnecting from the Church,” Bishop Ricken said, adding that he was “pretty aware that they did not know their faith.”

The initial response was a 10-day seminar for young adults on Casper Mountain, with prayer and “the best speakers we could find.”

“So at the end, I said, ‘We’re having this seminar—and subsequently school—because we don’t have a Catholic university,’” Bishop Ricken recalled.  “And for some reason, I said, ‘Yet.’  And after I said the word ‘yet,’ all these young people came up and said, ‘Bishop, we gotta have a Catholic college in Wyoming.’”

Establishing a new college is always a foreboding task. But the Diocese of Cheyenne, noted Bishop Ricken, had a special challenge: it had no Catholic high school (and still does not), and had only six Catholic grade schools.  But today, enthusiasm for Wyoming Catholic College—which is recommended in The Newman Guide for its strong Catholic identity—is “catching, big time,” he said.

“It was a real act of faith,” Bishop Ricken said. “We had no money, no land, nothing. I said we are not going forward unless we get free land—650 acres, which is what they wanted—plenty of access to water, electricity and not too far from a town.  But out of town, because we wanted to emphasize the outdoors, and they have a wonderful outdoor program.”

Perhaps most importantly, Bishop Ricken added: “It has lots of integrity and strong Catholic identity.”

He explained how such an authentically Catholic college can assist a bishop, by linking Catholic instruction to good theology.

“Catechesis is not theology, but catechesis leads to theology—and out of theology should come a genuine and faithful catechesis,” Bishop Ricken noted.  “So there’s a definite relationship between the local Church and a Catholic college or university.  And when those are connected with integrity and appropriately, it helps the Catholic college and it helps the diocese or the local area there.”

Catholic colleges also can have an important impact outside the Church, he said, but only if they remain true to their mission.

“Catholic colleges make the greatest contributions to other colleges and universities and to society when they are thoroughly Catholic,” Bishop Ricken said.  “If they become like every other college or university, they no longer have the distinctive mission they’ve been entrusted with.  And so they’re not that much different from any place else.”

That, of course, is a lesson for all levels of Catholic education.  Promoting and defending faithful Catholic education has been the mission of The Cardinal Newman Society for more than 20 years, and efforts to promote Catholic identity are found today in Catholic schools and colleges nationwide.  It’s exciting.  But there are always new challenges to overcome, in an increasingly secular society.

Ending the interview with an aside about his own response to one such challenge—the nationwide rush to embrace the Common Core State Standards, which he has refused to join in the Green Bay Diocese—Bishop Ricken expressed the importance of remaining true to the time-tested mission and values of Catholic education.

“Our Catholic schools are the diamonds in our own backyard,” Bishop Ricken said.  “They are our treasure.  Those grade schools, high schools and colleges—these are really a tremendous gift. And we have to take care of them. And we have to make sure that they understand what their identity is and what their mission is.

“And the more we do that, the more we can make a contribution to society—and that doesn’t mean that we’re saying that other schools are not good.  It is simply saying our schools are different.”

Catholic Education Daily is an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. Click here for email updates and free online membership with The Cardinal Newman Society.

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