Conveniently Catholic

Lessons from the unusual case of Manhattan College

St. John Baptist de la Salle (left) and Brennan O'Donnell

St. John Baptist de la Salle (left) and Brennan O'Donnell, president of Manhattan College (right)In a statement that might have been more appropriately released by a Catholic bishop, a federal agency earlier this year issued a ruling that the “public representations of Manhattan College clearly demonstrate that it is not providing a religious educational environment.” The ruling was issued by the National Labor Relations Board at the conclusion of a hearing over whether adjunct professors at Manhattan College have the right to unionize. While Manhattan College claimed that it is exempt from the NLRB’s jurisdiction because it is a church-operated institution, the federal labor board judged that the college had distanced itself so far from the authority and teaching of the Catholic Church that it no longer merited government recognition as an institution that is church-operated. 

The NLRB based its ruling on a thorough review of the published materials issued by Manhattan College, including mission statements, descriptions, admissions brochures, and trustee reports. Noting that Manhattan College’s own admissions brochure does not include any reference to the Catholic Church or Catholicism, and that the college is owned, operated, and controlled by an independent Board of Trustees, not by the Catholic Church or any other religious entity, the NLRB issued a 26-page report which concluded that the college cannot claim a religious affiliation in an effort to prevent the unionization of its employees. 

Pointing out that although the college frequently cites its Lasallian tradition in describing itself in its public documents, the NLRB concluded that these references are made in “purely secular terms.” In fact, the NLRB noted that the College’s Trustee Report—a report that is distributed to prospective hires—states that “recent scholarship on De La Salle has made it possible to disengage his educational achievement from its roots in Catholic France of the 17th century and apply Lasallian educational principles in religious pluralistic contexts.”

Concluding that Manhattan College’s public statement distancing itself from its Catholic roots in the work of St. John Baptist de la Salle “belies its efforts in this case to construe its public reference to De La Salle and Lasallian education as dispositive of its religious affiliation,” the NLRB has managed to do something that most Catholic bishops have been reluctant to do for more than four decades now. The NLRB has stated publicly that neither the culture nor the curriculum at a once-strong Catholic college is guided by the Catholic Church. 

The findings by the labor board should not surprise those who have been following the slow slide to secularization of Catholic higher education. Catholic colleges and universities have been moving steadily away from their Catholic identities since 1967, when a group of Catholic college leaders met in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin and issued a crucial statement on the nature of Catholic higher education. The opening paragraph of the 1,500-word statement began: “To perform its teaching and research function effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” 

Historian Philip Gleason described the Land O’ Lakes statement as a “symbolic manifesto” that marked a new era in Catholic higher education. Within the next few years most Catholic colleges moved to laicize their boards of trustees. Some colleges went even further. Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart and Webster College publicly and officially declared themselves “no longer Catholic.” Manhattanville promptly dropped part of its name, deleting the now too-Catholic sounding “College of the Sacred Heart.” Webster was not only the earliest Catholic college to announce that it was choosing to relinquish its Catholic identity, but its president, Sr. Jacqueline Grennan, renounced her religious vows and withdrew from her own religious order to become a lay leader so that she could function as president of the now-secular institution.

While most Catholic colleges retained their Catholic identity, nearly all of them laicized their leadership. St. Louis University, founded in 1818 as the second Catholic college in the country, was the first major Catholic university in the country to give laymen a dominant voice on its board of trustees. In 1967 the 13 Jesuit priests who comprised the board of trustees at the university voted that five of them should remain on the board, and then voted to give equal membership to 18 laymen representing various faiths. Reflecting on the first year of lay control, Father Paul Reinert, SJ, the president of St. Louis University at the time, found that the new lay dominated board “surpassed our most optimistic hopes.” When considering the move to laicization in his 1970 book The Urban Catholic University, Father Reinert maintained, “We did not change the character of the university as an institution affiliated with the Catholic Church…rather, it was a reorganization aimed at better achievement of the academic objectives of the university.”

Some historians believe it is likely that the potential for new revenue streams offered by affluent lay trustees with business and government ties played a more important role in the move to laicization than did a simple desire for academic freedom. In The Academic Revolution, Christopher Jencks and David Riesman point out that “business leaders who joined the boards were expected to make greater efforts to raise money from their friends.”

It is likely that in some cases, the availability of federal grants and private secular foundation grants and contracts has indeed hastened the secularization process in Catholic higher education. And, when it benefits them, some Catholic colleges and universities will readily abandon their identities to garner additional funds. In a 2009 case that is the polar opposite of the Manhattan College case, St. Louis University found itself forced to renounce its Catholic identity publicly by claiming that “it is not controlled by the Catholic Church or by its Catholic beliefs” in a case heard before the Missouri Supreme Court. A lawsuit filed against the university by the Masonic Temple Association argued that the $8 million in tax increment financing that St. Louis University received for its new sports arena violated state and federal constitutions. The Missouri Constitution prohibits public funding to support any college, university, or other institution of learning controlled by any religious creed, church, or sectarian denomination.

In response to the lawsuit, the university assured the court that “with 42 trustees, it would take 22 of them to conduct the university’s business. With 22 trustees assembled, it would take at least 12 votes to approve a corporate act of the board. Thus, the nine Jesuit trustees on the board do not have the numerical authority to take any action on behalf of the university.” The school also pointed out to the court that despite its Jesuit tradition, “the school does not require employees or students to aspire to Jesuit ideals.” In a friend of the court brief filed on behalf of the Masonic Temple Association, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote that “it is surprising that the university would sell its heritage for $8 million.” 

Responding to the NLRB ruling, Brennan O’Donnell, president of Manhattan College, posted a statement on the college website decrying the findings and claiming that “the analysis clearly and unfortunately demonstrates the NLRB’s lack of understanding of the identity of Manhattan College as a 21st century Catholic college whose mission requires engagement with the broader culture of American society and higher education.”

It is difficult to know how much longer this duplicity can continue, as the Catholic bishops are showing a renewed interest in confirming the commitment to a Catholic identity by the colleges and universities in their dioceses. On January 20, 2011 Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry of Los Angeles, chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the 10-year review of the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States. Bishop Curry expressed the hope that “this review will help us appreciate the positive developments and remaining challenges in the collaborative efforts of bishops and presidents to ensure the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”  

Literally translated as “from the heart of the Church,” Pope John Paul II’s papal document called for Catholic colleges to be accountable to local bishops. A key component of this accountability led to a controversial requirement within the papal document that all theologians obtain a mandatum or certificate from their local bishops, attesting that their teaching was in keeping with official Church teachings. This has posed a problem for most Catholic colleges and their bishops, as there are many theologians in leadership positions whose teaching is in direct opposition to authentic Church teachings.

A long-time supporter of abortion rights for women as a social justice issue, Manhattan College theology professor Joseph Fahey was one of the signers of a full-page ad placed in the New York Times on October 7, 1984 by Frances Kissling, then president of Catholics for a Free Choice. The ad asserted that “there is more than one theologically and ethically defensible viewpoint on abortion within Catholicism,” and called for “dialogue” among Catholics to acknowledge this “situation of pluralism in the Church.” Fahey, a former Maryknoll priest and co-founder of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, continues to teach theology at Manhattan College.

Also at Manhattan College is Judith Plaskow, a lesbian professor of religious studies, whose publications often argue against “privileging” heterosexual relationships. In her edited collection of readings entitled Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion, Plaskow and her co-editor argue that heterosexism is “the fundamentally religiously endorsed form of oppression when it comes to sexuality.” 

Under Ex Corde Ecclesiae, dissident professors who are teaching Catholic theology courses would not receive the mandatum from the bishops. But the bishops cannot always know everything that is happening on the campuses within their dioceses. They have had to depend at least to some degree upon the presidents of these colleges and universities—and most of these presidents have chosen to ignore what is occurring on their own campuses. 

It will take real courage on the part of the bishops to do an honest assessment of the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. And it will require that the presidents finally cooperate. It is only when the bishops, the boards, and the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities are willing to embrace the richness of their sacred heritage, and the authority vested in that heritage, that they will once again allow themselves to be guided by Cardinal Newman’s founding vision for Catholic colleges and universities. Newman believed that Catholic colleges and universities must be “the seat of wisdom, the light of the world, and the minister of the faith.” Unless these Catholic institutions decide again to become a “light of the world,” Catholic higher education will not survive much longer.

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)