Ursuline Sister Alice Gallin is Father Theodore Hesburgh’s contemporary in the world of Catholic higher education. After twenty“five years as a faculty member, administrator, and trustee of the College of New Rochelle, she went to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in 1975 and soon became its executive director. On retirement in 1992 (except for board memberships and consultancies) she began researching this book, and managed to publish in the meantime American Catholic Higher Education: Essential Documents, 1967“1990 (1992) and Independence and a New Partnership in Catholic Higher Education (1996).

There is no one better placed to retell the story of Catholic educators’ latter“day attempt to stand with one foot in the Church and the other in the secular culture, and no one more steadfast in her belief that the boat has never drifted too far from the dock. What she presents is not a simple memoir; she has painstakingly searched a variety of archives to give many voices a hearing.

The title provides her master metaphor: Catholic higher education, especially since the 1960s, has been negotiating its identity with a number of new and mutually adverse constituencies”the secular culture, the educational establishment, the American Association of University Professors, the judiciary, the philanthropic foundations, the student market, the donors, the professoriat, the academic disciplines, and, reluctantly, the Church. What the thus far two“hundred“plus Catholic“presenting colleges and universities have mostly refused to notice is that these diverse competitors for their allegiance pull in diverse directions, and in their attempt to oblige them all, the educators did not negotiate their identity. They bargained it away.

Gallin capably evokes that strenuous yet promising period of the Catholic schools, the late fifties and early sixties. She reminds us of the familiar names that supplied the wherewithal by which Catholics crossed the threshold into the Big Time. There were the great foundations”Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Lilly, Danforth, Pew, Mellon; the generous new founts of governmental funding”GI Bill, NDEA, HEFA, BEOG, SEOG, SSIG, NSF, Fulbright, Bundy, Pell; the educational establishment in the city“state at One Dupont Circle”ACE, AAC, AAHE, NAICU, CIC, AAU, AGB, CGS, CASE, AAUP, AAAS; the faces and initiatives that put such a better face on the culturally parvenu Catholics”Pope John XXIII, Vatican II, Kennedy, Bea, Shuster, Murray, Hesburgh, Gannon, Küng, Novak; and the reassuring advocates of Catholic respectability”Riesman, Marty, Greeley, Kerr, Hassenger.

One day Catholics found the nerve to emulate the best and the brightest models of higher education, were delighted to find a welcoming patronage where previously they had been only patronized, and were abruptly offered competitive access to the resources that would finally make excellence possible. It was almost too good to be true (and it wasn’t, really). Then in the mid“sixties, at the very time academic ambition and academic excellence were incestuously mating on Catholic premises, came the first stroke of doom. A series of lawsuits challenged confessional institutions for being too “sectarian” to qualify for federal funds . . . just when it had become unimaginable to exist without those new dollars.

Gallin leads us through that fearful, fateful decade from the mid“sixties to the mid“seventies, when Catholic educators pleadingly assured American Academe that their faith might have been just a sentimental memory, a topic of history, a conventional courtesy, a tightly sequestered idiosyncrasy, a financially useful constituency, a legitimate object of detached curiosity”but never, never , an acknowledged resource of intellectual perspective, or inspired imagination, or critical judgment. Faith was not really the community or the culture of Catholic education, not even a component; it was only a peripheral. And what the educators were swearing was true began to become so, even if it had not been so when they first started saying it.

Doom took the form of a legal challenge to governmental funding of new facilities at four Maryland colleges: Horace Mann League v. Board of Public Works of Maryland . The case was filed in the Maryland Courts in 1963, adjudicated in 1966, and finally decided after various appeals in 1976. Judgment was given against the two Catholic colleges involved, whereat their lawyers strenuously counseled Catholic educational officials across the nation to eliminate all “sectarian” features of their institutions that might compromise their secularity.

In the years to follow, U.S. higher education underwent a terrifying financial crisis. The Catholic educators were the most terrified. As Gallin’s narrative makes plain (despite her disappointing failure to see its lessons), the direct threat of insolvency paralyzed any inclination to sustain the Catholic character of their higher education. The energy to disqualify faith was coming now from Catholics themselves, not from their cultured despisers.

Henceforth Catholics were not to be suspiciously numerous on their own campuses. They were not to be dominant (and not, for God’s sake, brazenly recruited) among trustees, administrators, faculty, or student body. No academic course, service of worship, or student activity with a discernibly Catholic sentiment could be required of anyone. No policy or undertaking based on Catholic idiosyncrasy could be enacted or enforced, lest the federal subsidies be misused.

Now this was not quite what the Supreme Court had said to the Catholic educators, but with so much finance at risk, this was what their lawyers regarded as a prudently protective over“response. It coincided closely with an energetic conviction then growing amidst many educated American Catholics that assimilation was not just politic but providential. So the Catholic clients could be wantonly docile to their lawyers’ admonitions, since the new accommodations to secular practice were felt to be a timely and respectable upgrade.

Apart from some deplorably shrill Cassandras (Gallin not among them), few Catholics protested. This was because they could not have imagined what a denaturing change this was going to inflict on the campuses that had so recently become estimable. They assumed (wrongly) that the old place would stay pretty much the same demographically because, after all, only people drawn by a sense of sympathy and solidarity with the Catholic faith would want to come to a Catholic campus to teach or to study. They could not anticipate how readily religiously indifferent or even hostile academics would, as Deep Throat would later put it, “follow the money.”

The book recounts a fascinating early hint of what was underway. For Catholics, the sixties were a time when John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris , the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Hans Küng’s The Council, Reform, and Reunion , and the gracious sharing of appreciation and pulpits (and, in some places, communion) brought Catholics into wonderfully warmer relations with their “separated brethren.” But at the same time a little“noticed St. Louis survey ominously suggested another sort of outcome. During the sixties, while the number of graduates from Catholic high schools who went to college increased by 33 percent, the number going to Catholic colleges decreased by 43 percent. A national Jesuit poll reported an abrupt 10 percent drop in Catholics in their student bodies. Gallin’s study pauses at this point to notice with historian Philip Gleason “a significant movement in the direction of secular norms of excellence and away from the older belief that Catholic higher education should embody and make available to its students a distinctive Catholic educational vision.” But his insight is not one she pursues.

During the sixties and seventies, when American college enrollment increased fourfold, the increase at Catholic colleges was sevenfold. Much of the increase was not in the intellectual disciplines but in vocational training, another change that debilitated the capacity of the institutions to be dynamic communities of intellectual inquiry and conviction. Even less were they likely to develop convictions that might be alternatives to the ruling American and academic orthodoxies.

At this point the book turns to another narrative, one in which the author has been even more intimately involved. Just as the Catholic educators were making their peace with academic and civic imperatives, their Church moved in on them from another quarter, with the unspoken inference that the U.S. Catholic body scholastic was short of breath . . . or Breath. “By 1975,” Gallin recalls, Catholic educators “were fairly certain that their eligibility for federal funds would be upheld by the courts.” But now they were being challenged by the Vatican: How, after a surrender of yet unknown extent to the civil and academic authorities, could universities and colleges advertising themselves as Catholic consistently refuse to allow the Catholic Church similarly to set her standards of faithful performance?

As Gallin tells this story in which she has been an important and partisan character, the keynote of the annoying Vatican intervention has been neither candor nor cunning, but a relentless persistence. The Curia people are repeatedly stiff“armed, but they repeatedly return to the issue. The fellows in Rome aren’t all that bright, but they never seem to give in or go away. University presidents continued to name Gallin as one of their negotiators even during her retirement, so her account of Rome“as“Panmunjom is not simply archival. She recounts how the presidents kept playing the winning cards of Academic Freedom and Autonomy, and could not understand why they failed to trump. They argued for Openness, Humanity, Dynamic Change, Renewal, Scholarship, Excellence”all the academic absolutes. The Vatican people smiled, but kept saying that they needed to verify whether it was a Catholic Openness, or Humanity, or Whatever.

If the American campuses really were Catholic, as ardently claimed, then surely they had to be openly answerable like every other entity in the world claiming the same fidelity . . . to the Catholic Church. The presidents insisted Rome would just have to trust their efforts. But by this time the folks in Rome were treating the American word like the Russian ruble, and insisted they needed to take a closer look and judge for themselves. The Americans talked dialogue as an improvement on confrontation; the fellows drawn from many nations to Rome, while loath to be confrontational, have been obdurate, perhaps because they remember times when that See’s service to the Church (and the world) has had to fall back upon obduracy as fidelity’s last resort.

The Gallin account makes clear her enduring loyalty to the hold“out presidents, but she acknowledges “that the danger to the identifiable Catholic character of most of the colleges was and is not imaginary. Although the presidents have reacted strongly against any proposal for a clear juridical relationship with the hierarchy, they have not been able to articulate with precision the characteristics of their institutions which they regard as giving [them their] Catholic identity.” By this time the reader may be drawn to believe that it is not precision but candor that is lacking.

Gallin takes up George Marsden’s home truth: “In seeking diversity of faculty and students in every institution of higher learning, have we overlooked the need for a diversity among institutions? If homogeneity takes over, then how can a community hand on its distinctive character?” But then she falls to speaking again of “a core” of educators committed to the Catholic mission, and one realizes she simply does not get it. This is not a task for a core of the confused. It requires legions of the committed.

Nowhere in this earnest chronicle does the author allow herself to consider that those into whose careless hands a waning but prosperous Catholic ministry, built up with such great pluck for so many years, has been entrusted, and who have insisted with ardor that Rome should underwrite whatever they do as the best that Catholics could hope for, are like your lovable, ex“con brother“in“law who keeps wanting you to co“sign the loan for his Jaguar.

Ishmael Law writes on Catholic theology and education.

Articles by Ishmael Law

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