Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1990
Volume 1, Number 2

Catholic Higher Education Status Debated

David G. Schultenover, S.J.
Associate Professor of Theology

More than 100 educators from around the country gathered at Creighton University on the first weekend in February to confer about the status and direction of U.S. Catholic higher education. The conference was held in anticipation of the expected publication of a Vatican document on higher education. The papal commission that prepared the document completed its work in November, and one of the three U.S. members of that commission, Sr. Sally Furay, Vice-President and Provost of the University of San Diego, was on hand to report on the process of the document's composition and give her reflections on its meaning.

While there was considerable interest in the content of the document in its final form, the real issues of the conference swirled around a question raised by an earlier draft which circulated in 1986: Given the rapid and radical change occurring today, how may Catholic institutions of higher learning ensure that the Catholic faith will continue in the future to serve as an integrating element in society?

To deal with this question, the first two papers set the historical context of higher education in the United States: Fr. Tames Hennesey, S.J., of Canisius College presented a most enlightening narrative of official Vatican perceptions of the development of higher education in the modern world. Sister Patricia Byme, C.S.J., of Trinity College covered much the same territory but from the perspective of the U.S. church. Both speakers identified the aftermath of the French Revolution as a turning point in the history of Catholic education. With the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the Jesuit-run Roman College, renamed the Gregorian University, a new notion of the nature of Catholic institutions of higher learning was introduced and became well established. Unlike the medieval university, which attempted to be a center of free inquiry immune from political and ecclesiastical pressures, the modern Catholic university was to be an instrument of religious apostolate.

This model was easily maintained in practice so long as these early modern universities were essentially schools of scholastic philosophy and theology. However, once Catholic universities boasting "secular" faculties in addition to faculties of philosophy and theology--for example, the Catholic University of America, founded in 1889--began springing up around the world, tensions arose. Ultramontanism struggled to maintain control of the universities against increasingly strong secularizing forces. The concept of "magisterium," once applied to university professors, became the exclusive preserve of the papacy and, derivatively, of bishops. This development might suggest that the Vatican was seeking to control the universities. The fact is that the Vatican was never much interested in them, except for the few that were granted papal charters. As for others, while their departments of philosophy and theology were closely watched in the aftermath of the modernist crisis, the universities themselves were kept at arm's length.

Recent developments, however, have spawned rumors that the Vatican is now interested in asserting greater control. Indeed, the 1986 version of the document suggested as much. Another development that contributed to the rumors was the publication last March by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of a revised oath of fidelity and profession of faith. Fr. James Keenan, S.J., a moral theologian from Fordham University, deftly covered the issues of conscience raised by the prospect of university professors being compelled to take this oath and make the profession of faith.

Anyone expecting this conference to set U.S. Catholic colleges and universities in opposition to the Vatican in some kind of "good guys vs. bad guys" scenario came away disappointed. The conference-closing presentation by Sr. Sally Furay on the process of revision that led up to the final draft of the document left many participants with a strong impression of the openness and responsiveness of the Vatican Congregation and a hopefulness about the text of the final version.