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Catholic Colleges & Universities

Preserving mission and ministry at college


When the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities was formed in 1899, there were about two dozen institutions of higher education on its roster.

Today there are 214 member colleges and universities -- a dozen of them in Canada -- but due to closings, mergers and takeovers, the overall figure is down by about 20 from the 1970s.

The big expansion in Catholic tertiary institutions came in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the GI Bill made higher education available to American servicemen and women who’d served in World War II. Given that almost a quarter of those soldiers were Catholic, and the secular world was distrusted to a degree not easily understandable today, the returning soldiers wanted what their church had to offer.

In the 1950s, “Catholic identity” was not an issue.

Religious orders ran the institutions they had founded. The Catholic identity was as obvious as the starched collars of the priests and brothers and the habits of the sisters in the classrooms, corridors and graduation photographs.

Today, even glimpsing a representative of the ordained or vowed religious is a rarity on many Catholic campuses. Indeed, some colleges today find it difficult to persuade the local dioceses to make a priest available for sacramental ministry.

“The women still running colleges have been perturbed about that for some time,” said Monica Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “You can hardly create the ambience of the Catholic campus if you never have sacramental worship. You can have all kinds of prayer services the students put together, but that isn’t the same.”

Hellwig, who has directed the association for the past six years, two years ago shepherded its emergence out from its decades-long existence as a department of the National Catholic Educational Association into a separate entity.

The idea of moving the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, often called the ACCU, from under the umbrella of the National Catholic Educational Association, the NCEA, had been discussed for decades. They weren’t always together. The relationship dated back possibly to the 1920s, “as part of a move to present a united front against what was seen to be hostile forces in the educational world,” she said.

“The reasons for separating again,” continued Hellwig, “really were twofold. One, that intrinsically the college world functions differently [from the educational association’s constituents, which are elementary and high schools]. And that from the point of view of separation of church and state, ACCU ought not be seen as part of NCEA because, in the first place, NCEA represents schools that are directly under the bishops.”

When she joined the Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities, she said, issues included “doubts about the association’s identity and why they were keeping it going,” but the need for solidarity and dealing with Ex Corde Ecclesiae furthered their cause.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”) is shorthand in academic circles for norms mandated by the Vatican to safeguard the religious identity of Catholic colleges and universities. The period during which the norms were created and implemented has been a stormy one for relationships among U.S. theologians, their bishops and the Vatican.

Hellwig said her predecessors had made all kinds of contacts with the Holy See and “had begged for -- but didn’t get -- something better adapted” to American Catholic colleges and universities than the norms the Vatican insisted on. On Catholic identity, she said a consciousness of responsibility for the Catholic character of colleges and universities was first raised as an issue by lay faculties in the early 1980s. It took on speed and impetus in the 1990s.

“I think that right after Vatican II people assumed the Catholic character could take care of itself,” said Hellwig. “They wanted to be ecumenical. They wanted to be outward looking. They wanted to be open to all students. They didn’t want to indoctrinate, but they assumed that the whole atmosphere and character of the place would remain as it was.

“Of course,” she said, “with ecumenical hiring patterns at the faculty level, and the disappearing body of religious and priests, that didn’t happen.” At Georgetown and elsewhere in the country, she said, there developed a substantial group of lay faculty “who began to take note of that and wanted to act.”

The first part of the Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities’ new strategic plan focuses on the Catholic character and mission of the colleges by looking initially to and at the boards of trustees. Given the association’s basic role to support the Catholic character of the institutions (and to support their continued existence, an existence precarious for many small colleges), “we’ve launched a workshop on boards of trustees run jointly with the American Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the Association of Governing Boards,” said Hellwig.

“The point is, as religious congregations dwindle it is really the final responsibility of the boards of trustees to maintain the Catholic character of the institutions,” she said.

Given that most trustees are appointed for their legal, financial or construction acumen, or experience in government fields, “they’re there for very practical reasons, very willing to serve. But they and we need to bring mission and ministry to the fore.”

Equally, there’s Catholic updating and immersion for recently hired faculty at Catholic colleges through a program called “Collegium,” which provides faculty -- and graduate students from state campuses who might be interested in teaching on Catholic campuses -- with “a really intensive review of Catholic theology, spirituality, history, sacraments, and so on,” she said.

There’s a summer institute for Catholic college administrators, operating out of Boston College, while student life personnel now have their association to offer similar exposure.

Hellwig, until the immediate post-Vatican II (1962-65) period, was a Medical Missionaries of Mary sister. She left to complete a doctorate in theology at The Catholic University of America, and spent nearly three decades teaching at Georgetown until taking her post with the Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities.

She said another question still before the association is whether it should resist the swallowing up of small colleges into larger institutions, and their closing or mergers, or whether the association could support them in growth.

Mergers in the past couple of decades have included the emergence of the combined Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Detroit Mercy. Detroit Mercy “wasn’t quite a swallowing up,” said Hellwig, “because Mercy was at that point stronger financially than the Jesuits’ University of Detroit.”

“In the 21st century,” she said, “Barat College [in Lake Forest, Ill.] was definitely swallowed up by DePaul [in Chicago], and Marymount College [in Tarrytown, N.Y.] was definitely swallowed up by Fordham University. And some colleges simply went out of existence.”

Catholic higher education comes under the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, and at the national level there is a revived U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ standing committee of college presidents and bishops (where Winona, Minn., Bishop Bernard J. Harrington will shortly succeed Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl as chair). Hellwig is an ex officio member.

Most of the bishops on the committee do not have Catholic colleges or universities in their dioceses.

The Washington, D.C.-based Association for Catholic Colleges and Universities doesn’t do any lobbying. Congressional relations are handled by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, many members of which have religious affiliations.

Meanwhile, she said, “Ex Corde seems to have settled quietly in place. So far we’re not hearing there’s any trouble. I do believe that the bishops were more concerned to have it on the books -- so that Rome would be satisfied -- than they were concerned that the colleges were not Catholic.

“And, of course,” she said, “the presidents were very concerned that drawing too much attention [to Ex Corde and the mandatum, by which a bishop certifies that a theologian teaching in his diocese is sufficiently Catholic in his approach] could get them into trouble with separation of church and state, or could get them into trouble with the [American Association of University Professors] about academic freedom.”

Does Hellwig know of theologians who did not request a mandatum? Or have refused to?

“Yes,” she said. “Apparently nothing happened.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

The Ex Corde Ecclesiae norms, approved by the U.S. bishops, said the mandatum (license to teach):

  • acknowledges that a theologian is a teacher in full communion with the Catholic church. It is not an authorization of a theologian’s teaching.
  • Theologians teach in virtue of their baptism and their competence, not in the bishop’s name.
  • It recognizes a theologian’s responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from presenting as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the church’s magisterium.
  • Seeking the mandatum is each theologian’s responsibility. If a theologian does not do so, the university must determine what further action may be taken in keeping with its own mission and statutes.

-- Arthur Jones

Related Web sites

Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities

Assumption College for Sisters

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002