Commencement Remarks 2009

What’s Next for Catholic Higher Education?

by President Patricia McGuire ’74

2009 Graduates await their diplomas.

2009 Graduates await their diplomas.

What’s next for Catholic colleges and universities? The controversy over the University of Notre Dame’s commencement invitation to President Barack Obama sharpened the edges of long-simmering tensions over the meaning of Catholic mission and its application on campus. While some of the tensions are between the bishops and universities, the conflicts often become inflamed through the rhetoric of “watchdog” organizations imposing their own ideas about what constitutes orthodoxy. (“Heretic” is the printable denunciation of choice for many critical blogs, as I know from the attention my own remarks at Trinity’s Commencement received when I spoke about the Notre Dame situation. Readers can find my remarks here.)

Like many facets of collegiate governance, presidents spend considerable time working with ecclesiastical authorities while trying to be responsive to constituents who want the institution to follow a different course. While this can occur on the secular side – why we should care more about an accreditation report than a ranking in U.S. News – the stakes ratchet-up considerably when religious identity is at stake. An anonymous blogger might have more influence with alumnae views of institutional fidelity to Catholic mission than the bishop himself.

A large body of official statements, supplemented by years of dialogue, governs the relationship of Catholic universities with the Church. This relationship has evolved within the rubrics established through Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1991 statement on Catholic higher education. After the Notre Dame commencement, many institutions are reviewing Ex Corde, and three points are notable for this moment:

First, cultivating the relationship with the local bishop…


A new alumna and her family.

A new alumna and her family.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae makes it clear that Catholic universities and their local bishops must have “…close personal and pastoral relationships” that are “characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue.” Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl recently emphasized this relationship in a statement in Origins, the documentary service of the Catholic News Service, in which he called upon the universities to work in solidarity with their bishops, recognizing that the voice of the bishop is not “just one among many voices” but rather a unique and authentic voice speaking for the Church. At a time when so many groups and individuals claim to speak for the Church, this guidance is especially important.

Trinity has long worked with the Archdiocese of Washington on a wide range of needs in education and service; the Education for Parish Service program conducted here as a ministry of the Sisters of Notre Dame is renowned in this diocese and many others. On a personal level, I have had the pleasure of learning a great deal from the late Cardinal Hickey, Cardinal McCarrick, and now Archbishop Wuerl; all have been pastoral in discussing challenging issues. My “no surprises” rule in all administration applies doubly to Trinity’s relationship with the bishop; if something is happening on campus that might cause concern, I try to call the bishop before the news gets to him. My experience consistently has been that the bishop, far from telling me what to do unilaterally, will talk it through pastorally with the wisdom of experience from handling similar issues with other organizations.

Second, upholding the Catholic university’s full and integrated identity…

Ex Corde Ecclesiae respects the fundamental characteristics of the university as a community of scholars engaged in the search for truth through teaching, research and service to the community. ECE and related statements, including the remarks of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholic college presidents when he visited in 2008, make clear the Church’s respect for institutional autonomy and academic freedom, with the expectation that the exercise of those principles will not offend Catholic teachings.

commencement 2009A Catholic college is not the same as a parish school or catechetical class. As Ex Corde states eloquently, universities must pursue the great questions of human life through research and teaching, probing the ethical dimensions of society’s challenges, pushing past narrow disciplinary walls to the synthesis of knowledge. We have special obligations to promote social justice and to make education accessible to those who have not had educational opportunities.

Trinity works continuously within these guidelines. While not a research university, in our curriculum and related programs, Trinity strives for a continuous focus on developing student critical reasoning abilities as the bedrock of sound ethical and moral judgment. We cultivate a campus climate that honors and respects the dignity of every human person, while nurturing faith and spirituality through an active Campus Ministry program. As part of our heritage from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, social justice is a centerpiece of campus life and teaching.

Third, giving witness within the culture…

student at commencement 2009Most of the confrontations over Catholic mission come down to this third point. We work hard to uphold Ex Corde’s expectations, then – BAM! Something happens to disturb the peace. Perhaps a student club decides to stage The Vagina Monologues. Perhaps the campus health clinic shares literature on birth control. Perhaps an alumna discovers that, yes, there is a gay student club on campus. Perhaps a graduate attending reunion is a well known pro-choice politician. Perhaps the president of the United States is invited to commencement.

Charges of “Heresy!” fly from the blogs and websites of the watchdogs, and the Archbishop’s office gets hammered with nasty phone calls and emails. The idea of constructing a human community based on respect and civility goes up in smoke.

If all we do to protect our Catholic identity is insist on what we will not do, who we will not hear, what plays may not be staged, what activities are not acceptable, then we have largely lost both our collegiate selves and our Catholic sensibilities as well.

Colleges and universities are noisy, contentious places. The noise is all about learning, pushing the edges of what we already know to find out what we still have to learn. A robust faith should not fear the noise that emanates from the clash of ideas that signifies the engagement of the university with the larger culture. That engagement, which Ex Corde clearly expects of Catholic universities, obviously poses both challenges and opportunities. The dialogue of faith and reason is that – a dialogue, starting with the expression of ideas, some of which will be contrary to what we believe. Where did we get the idea that we can only hear those with whom we agree? A university by its very nature is a place of free speech, argumentation and exploration.

Some of the most virulent critics of Catholic higher education believe that the world would be a far better place if the bishops “stripped” certain universities of their Catholic identity. I am always amazed when I read these overheated statements, because they are so lacking in the fundamental Christian charity that is essential for our mission to thrive. Fortunately, most bishops are wiser than that. Rather than driving their Catholic colleges into a corner over every incident, as the critics would have them do, the best bishops work with their presidents to turn controversies into opportunities to illuminate and deepen the community’s understanding of what it means to be Catholic in a world that needs our witness more than ever.