Gonzaga University graduate Autumn Jones asks a provocative question in a December 30 piece for The Atlantic, “The New Brand of Jesuit Universities.” Jones chronicles a rebranding effort by Jesuit universities across the country, and considers “whether this rebranding attenuates the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church.” In search of an answer, Jones solicits comments from Jesuit faculty members, students, and administrators.

Running throughout the piece is a straw man argument, expressed by some interviewees, namely: Catholic universities can either “fall in line” with the Church, or they can be “places where young adults are encouraged to think critically.” Few of those interviewed seem to believe that a Catholic university can be both authentically Catholic and of the highest intellectual caliber.

Academics who find Catholic identity and academic rigor to be opposed to one another tend to be those most invested in the drive to make Catholic universities “contemporary” and “competent.” According to defenders of this view, Catholic universities must “balance” mission and identity with the need to be modern. Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh spoke to this issue in the Atlantic piece: “There is a tension between the desire to be strongly identified as Jesuit and Catholic and the desire to respond effectively to the call to be a contemporary, competent university in North America. How do you accomplish that without compromise?”

As the parent of two graduates of Gonzaga, I lament the weakening of Jesuit universities’ Catholic identity. At the same time, however, I am persuaded that Gonzaga University and others can be strong in Catholic identity and be “contemporary, competent universities in North America” if university leaders can find the will to mend and maintain their universities’ commitment to their Catholic mission.

Autumn Jones points out in the article that Catholic universities need to attract students who are not necessarily devout, or even Catholic. The unfortunate Jesuit response to this challenge, however, seems to be to de-emphasize the Catholic identity of their universities. “‘A typical kid in the U.S. has one toe in his Catholic upbringing and a foot solidly planted in the secular American culture,’ said Rev. Michael Sheeran, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.”

Given that situation, Sheeran appears to believe that a Jesuit university cannot approach these students with a clear religious identity. Better, as Autumn Jones describes Sheeran’s view, to “invite students to ask questions of meaning and purpose, without the fear of appearing too religious.”

“The last thing you worry about is whether they are making a religious quest,” Sheeran said. Instead, “Are they asking the ‘meaning questions’? What we are doing is invitation Catholicism versus command Catholicism. We invite them where they are and we invite them to go deeper.”

A formulation like “command Catholicism” versus “invitation Catholicism” is typical of the false choices presented by those who defend the weakened state of Catholic identity at Jesuit universities (does Sheeran know of any reasonable parties calling on colleges to “command” students to believe or to become Catholic?) It is commendable to strive to meet students where they are, but students will find the invitation to “go deeper” more appealing if it is extended by an institution proud of its identity and committed to the clear expression and defense of that identity. As New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan has said, young people will give their lives for a mystery but not for a question mark. Watering down the Catholic identity of a Catholic institution does not invite smart young people to ask questions of meaning and purpose, nor does it adequately serve the typically 50 percent or more of the student body that is already Catholic.

Instead of acting to reclaim and strengthen Catholic identity, however, many Jesuit universities are actively downplaying their religious affiliations in an effort to court secularized students. The fear seems to be that an institution with a strong Catholic identity might be a deal breaker for these students. As Jones points out in her article, Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri has removed “Jesuit” from the university tagline, while Denver’s Regis University actually hides its Catholic affiliation.

“We hide the word ‘Catholic’ from prospective students,” said Traci McBee, who helps oversee fundraising efforts at Regis University. “We focus on the Jesuit piece rather than the Catholic piece. We’re able to transform a little quicker because we are not waiting for the archbishop to give us permission. We don’t have to ask the Pope when we want to make changes.”

Leave aside for a moment McBee’s implication that the archbishop and pope are somehow of less importance to a Catholic university that focuses on the “Jesuit piece” than they would be to a non-Jesuit Catholic university. Actively hiding the Catholic affiliation of a university seems to us an unproductive way to begin a relationship with students who the institution wishes to invite into a deeper quest for meaning and faith. The continuation of this trend of “hiding” Catholicism can only result in a further secularization of the overall atmosphere on campus.

What should Catholic universities be doing to appeal to Catholics and non-Catholics alike? What are the true characteristics of an authentically Catholic university? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their Application For Ex Corde Ecclesiae For The United States sets out clear guidelines. Among them are these:

1.“The university should strive to recruit and appoint Catholics as professors so that, to the extent possible, those committed to the witness of the faith will constitute a majority of the faculty.” Currently Gonzaga University does not even track the religious affiliation of its faculty, never mind have a plan in place to reach this important goal.

2.”To the extent possible, the majority of the board should be Catholics committed to the Church.” There is no plan on Gonzaga’s part to meet this benchmark.

3.“The education of students is to combine academic and professional development with formation in moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the Church; the programme of studies for each of the various professions is to include an appropriate ethical formation in that profession. Courses in Catholic doctrine are to be made available to all students.” As Professor Eric Cunningham has pointed out, “This has also been a point of much debate, especially with regard to whether Religious Studies classes are actually teaching sound Catholic doctrine or not.”

In the Atlantic interview, Gonzaga’s President McCulloh said, “There is a living, dynamic relationship of the Society and the Church of which it is a part.” Still, it’s ultimately out of the university’s hands as to whether it retains its Catholic identity, he said; it’s up to the Catholic Church.

While granting the point that it is in fact the Church that gives institutions the right to use the label “Catholic,” shouldn’t the institution be working hard to earn that designation in good faith? Should not Gonzaga and other Catholic colleges at the very least follow the major recommendations of Ex Corde Ecclesiae? The Church has the power to tell us, as individuals, whether we are Catholics in good standing, but it behooves us to do what the Church asks of faithful Catholics. So, too, with Catholic institutions.

In the article, McCulloh referred to 1887 Trust, an organization dedicated to restoring Gonzaga’s Catholic identity, of which I serve as president:

“I respect the right of people to form groups, to create circles, to engage in discussion about issues that are important to them and those they feel ought to be relevant to us. I have actively engaged with them and I have let them know that I do not agree with their perspective. If they experienced it with us, no, they would not find perfection,” McCulloh continued. “But they would find that all of the things that the Church and the Jesuits are asking universities to do are here and obvious.”

And yet, Gonzaga, and many other Catholic universities are not accomplishing even the minimal guidelines of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

McCulloh was given the last word in the article, and ended with a straw man:

“The Church has long looked to the Jesuits and to Jesuit universities as a place where difficult issues can be discussed, hammered out, raised and questioned, to be faithful to the Church and to do the hard work of trying to engage the world,” McCulloh said. “The Church has never said there is a set of things we don’t want you to talk about.”

No one has suggested that there are topics about which Catholic administrators, faculty, or students should not speak. What the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has suggested is that “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

The interviewees in the Atlantic article seem blissfully unaware of the crisis in Catholic higher education. Thankfully, other observers are not so sanguine. In recent articles, Randall Smith has written about the common phenomenon of Catholic university colleagues who “check the box ‘Catholic,’ but hate the teachings of the Magisterium.” Noted author and commentator Rev. George William Rutler maintains “Our Catholic education system is a disaster, from kindergarten to the university level.” Matthew J. Franck argues for the pressing need to “reassert the freedom of Catholic opinions at a Catholic university,” and Robert Oscar Lopez describes a virtual “implosion of Catholic higher education.”

Neither Gonzaga University, nor other Jesuit universities are doing “all of the things that the Church and the Jesuits are asking universities to do.” Not by a long shot. The “rebranding” of Jesuit universities is turning once great Catholic institutions into shallow “products” consumed by often-unsuspecting parents and students. Products that offer far less of the rich, proud heritage and substance of Catholic higher education than those parents and students have a right to expect.

Jim Infantine is president of 1887 Trust, a non-profit organization, the purpose of which is to provide a source of information, a means of communication, and a collective voice to Gonzaga University alumni and others in the Gonzaga family who are concerned about recovering and preserving the Catholic identity of the University.

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