The controversy over Notre Dame’s awarding President Obama an honorary degree raised a fundamental question: What is a Catholic university?

Many rich examinations of Catholic mission exist, of course, (from the works of John Cardinal Newman in the last century to Ex Corde Ecclesiae today) but they rarely have any effect on attempts to build Catholic mission. One reason for this may be that these examinations are too rich to serve as guides to definite action. Those in favor of stronger Catholic identity have difficulty maintaining focus on the best among many related concepts. They are left appealing to a complex magisterial document few have read carefully in an era when such appeals to authority carry little weight. Critics latch onto whatever pieces make easy targets. In the battle, the mission gets lost.

This is a common problem for many organizations with complex missions. The solution is simplicity: Distill the organization’s goals down to an essential idea stakeholders can understand easily, grounded in ideals they already accept. Maintain emphasis on that idea and make the goals substantial but feasible to prevent practical objections from distracting attention from the main goal.

Catholic universities can use just such an organizational strategy. To do so they should focus relentlessly on two points: the imperative of intellectual engagement with the world that is at the heart of Ex Corde and a concrete and feasible goal that will foster this engagement. We suggest the following program:

1. A Catholic university must strive to be the place where the Church intellectually engages the world.

2. To do so, it ought to have at least one faculty person in every field of study whose research and teaching integrate Catholic thought and practice with that field of study.

These two points capture the essence of Ex Corde by focusing directly on achieving the outcome and connect the Catholic character to ideals faculty already accept, based on the research and teaching central to any university.

Schools that manage to get past mere discussions of Ex Corde frequently stumble at the implementation stage because their efforts have no substantial connection to their research and teaching mission. In the process, Ex Corde gets mischaracterized, and people respond to these misperceptions rather than its essence. For example, one source of misunderstanding is the frequent reduction of Ex Corde to its specific recommendations that theologians receive the mandatum (a truth-in-advertising clause that applies to a small portion of what is taught) and that fifty percent of the faculty be Catholic.

Other schools have focused on nurturing a distinctively Catholic campus culture or environment. Sometimes this involves emphasizing the material dimension of the social justice teachings, whether in classes or increased service opportunities. This may also include more specifically religious elements: expanded theology classes, beefing up campus ministry, religious imagery on campus, or directors of mission and identity.

But why do such measures make a Catholic university special? It has a different mix of people and theology that’s Catholic when calling itself Catholic? That’s not much of a difference. Why does hiring Catholics matter if none of them study or teach anything connected to the faith? And what do service and statues have to do with the central missions of research and teaching? Ultimately, these inadequate efforts undermine the potential appeal of Ex Corde by what one might call the “Dilbert Effect.”

A common theme in Dilbert is the cynicism of workers who know their performance is being measured by some metric only weakly related to the central mission of the company, or which has been inappropriately extrapolated from one part of the organization to the whole.

The common characterizations and implementations of Ex Corde as “fifty-percent Catholics plus the mandatum,” or more service, more social justice, more Catholic events, etc., can reinforce this organizational cynicism. Everyone knows the university mission is research and teaching, but the operative criteria for judging conformity to Ex Corde have little to do with those primary functions. Without substantive actions, Catholic mission seems superficial, and the Dilbert Effect grows more caustic over time. Naturally, presidents avoid pushing Ex Corde too hard: Why exhaust precious political capital for something so tangential?

Even if a school explicitly commits itself to the ideal of serving Catholic intellectual engagement with the world, it may not take the next step of hiring people who have made a special effort to integrate work in their discipline with Catholic thought and practice. Since no one does the integration substantially, everyone feels some responsibility for it at least weakly. This creates angst among the (probably numerous) faculty who do not feel called to specialize in this integrative work but experience unreasonable demands on them to do so. Their anxiety will likely lead to antipathy toward the mission itself.

The only way around Dilbert-type cynicism or fear of Catholic mission is thus clarity and substance: Recognize that the mission requires integration, and provide some people who do that in depth. Focusing discussions of Ex Corde on these central points can help move understanding toward that end.

Consider each in turn.

The first is what everyone should envision as the point of Catholic education: A Catholic university is the place where the Church intellectually engages the world.

While eternal principles such as the omnipotence and transcendence of God and the dignity of the human person do not change, our understanding of human life, and the best means to live out those principles, may. Consequently, the Church needs places in which real reflection can be made in real time. That is what Catholic universities exist to do, and it is this special concern to make teaching and research useful to the Church that makes them different from other universities. While most work will probably not explicitly consider faith, all the research and dialogue at a fully Catholic university will occur within a culture shaped by a Catholic worldview: the basic affirmations that God exists, that we have a physical and spiritual nature and have dignity because that creator of the universe has made us and loves us, that there is a moral law, and that because God has made the universe to be comprehensible, we can work joyfully in that process of discovery, seeking to understand what he has made and how it works.

How should we allocate resources to achieve this goal? Because the gospel is given to transform all areas of human existence, and because changes occur in all disciplines, intellectual integration must happen in all fields. Hence the second part: at least one faculty person in every field who faithfully integrates Catholic thought and practice with the discipline in his or her research and teaching. Theologians can speculate about how the Church should relate to the several sciences, but it is better to solicit the insight of Catholic scholars in different fields, who are in the best position to understand what dimensions of their field connect most with, or most need, the light of faith, and who understand how knowledge from their field might matter for the Church. Requiring at least one such person in each department is critical because it insures that at least some integration is occurring in each discipline and symbolizes the essence of the mission. Unlike the fifty percent hiring policy, this places the emphasis on achieving the integration, not a quota toward an often unspecified and merely hoped-for end. And this need not be implemented immediately. It could be phased in over a five-to-seven-year period in which departments search for professors who could do that work effectively and fit in well.

This type of approach is enthusiastically supported for other types of mission-driven schools. Howard University, for instance, strives to have at least one African-American in each field who specializes in the intersection of that field with race studies. Wellesley College does the same for gender studies. This strategy for advancing a school’s mission does not just bolster institutional identity”it also creates beneficial diversity across institutions. Just as Howard and Wellesley provide places for greater examination of race and gender, Catholic universities add intellectual diversity to the academy by providing more intensive reflection on faith.

Importantly, this approach would also vastly increase work integrating Catholicism with different academic disciplines without requiring that all, or even most, members of each department engage in such work and without instituting a massive hiring program for Catholics. Not all Catholic schools, then, would have to follow the model of Christendom College or Franciscan University in having nearly all faculty be Catholic. For this reason, non-Catholics (or even Catholics who do not feel called to integrative scholarship) should not feel threatened by this model. In fact, clearer Catholic mission strategy clarifies the role of non-Catholics: They contribute to the mission by the same quality research and teaching that would be necessary elsewhere. Of course, we believe that many would enjoy working within the intellectual environment created by the school’s Catholic mission, and no doubt the immediate presence of scholars specializing in the relations between their discipline and Catholicism would inspire many of them to explore such relations themselves.

Finally, we owe this to our students. The university is a perfect setting in which to help students reflect on the pastoral and professional problem of understanding their profession as a part of their vocation. Not to provide this integration at all, or to leave it up to theology classes, is to imply that such integration is impossible. It is to confirm the dangerous impression that what one learns on Sunday has no relevance to the work one does Monday through Friday.

The program we have laid out is straightforward and eminently achievable. And since it involves the central”research and teaching”missions of any university, it is less open to undermining by the Dilbert Effect. We can therefore move beyond the superficial distractions to the deeper issues. Can such integration be done? Yes, or what’s the point of Catholic schools in the first place? The interesting and exciting challenge is doing it.


John Larrivee is associate professor of economics at Mount St. Mary’s University; F.K. Marsh is associate professor of management at Mount St. Mary’s University; Brian Engelland is professor of marketing at Mississippi State University.

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