Omaha, Nebraska
Autumn 1989
Volume 1, Number 1

Entrusting the 'Divine Mission' of Education

Bryan F. Le Beau
Associate Professor of History
Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society

From the beginning, the Roman Catholic Church has committed itself to education as central to its mission. Still, no one could have predicted the development of whole systems of education that have evolved under its auspices.

The Catholic Church has insisted that her divine mission entitles her to precedence over all of other agencies with respect to education. At the same time, however, it has maintained that the family, the state and the church all share in the responsibility for education. The question is how?

How do the family, state, and church share responsibility without one infringing on the legitimate rights and responsibilities of the others? One way is by the church choosing to create its own educational system and to forego the legitimate responsibilities of the state toward education. The Catholic Church in the United States, in fact, made this choice when it created parochial school systems on the principle of liberty through a judicious separation of church and state.

The decrees of Vatican II, which opened the Catholic Church to the modern world, admitted the shared responsibility for the Church by laity and clergy alike, and those decrees have had a profound effect on Catholic education. There is a broad spectrum of opinion on the relative merits of the changes in Catholic education that have resulted from the Vatican Council. Many people decry the de-Catholicizing of Catholic schools, while others make the case that, in general, Catholic education has never been better, particularly on the level of higher education.

One measure of Catholic higher education is the degree of freedom of investigation allowed faculty to search for truth, rather than having methods unduly prejudiced by religious considerations or prescribed by the Church's magisterium. Often, when scholars entertain such creative possibilities, however, tensions arise between their findings and previously held beliefs. The case of Father Charles Curran versus The Catholic University of America is only one, albeit one of the most highly celebrated, of several. Today, we are in the midst of significant change, and the question is, how are Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning going to deal with that change?

It was with such questions in mind, that, in 1986, the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education issued a document entitled, "Proposed Schema (Draft) for a Pontifical Document on Catholic Universities." The Congregation's concern was to guarantee within Catholic institutions of higher learning fidelity to the mission of preaching the Gospel by a more carefully defined relationship between those institutions and the Church's magisterium.

The Congregation distributed this draft document to colleges and universities and solicited comments. The comments they received reflected the concerns of many institutions and scholarly groups that the redefinition of their relationship with the magisterium not infringe unduly (a) on the institutions' legal standing in their home states, (b) on the hiring policies of those institutions, and (c) on freedom of inquiry. Having received replies from around the world, the Vatican Congregation formed an international committee of scholars and administrators of Catholic institutions of higher learning to work with the Congregation to draft a final document. Reports from this committee suggest that the document is nearing completion. It will meet in Rome this fall with the expectation of accomplishing its mission.

The time has come to offer an opportunity to faculty and administrators of Catholic colleges and universities, as well as others interested in higher education, to be informed of the content of the forthcoming document and to look at some of its implications. Creighton University's Center for the Study of Religion and Society will provide such an opportunity on February 2 and 3, 1990.

The Center has invited four of the nation's leading scholars on U.S.-Vatican relations and on the "Document on Catholic Universities" to lead a discussion on this vital issue. They are: James Hennesey, S.J., Professor of the History of Christianity at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York; Patricia Byrne, C.S.J., Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut; James Keenan, S.J., Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York; and Sally Furay, R.S.C.J., Vice President and Provost of the University of San Diego in San Diego, California. Sr. Furay served as one of the American delegates to the international meeting convened in Rome by the Congregation for Catholic Education for consultation on the Vatican's draft of its document on higher education. She will serve as one of the three North American delegates on the commission to review the final draft of that document in September 1989.