The Orwellian World of Catholic Higher Education

A report on the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae reveals next to nothing about the real state of affairs on Catholic college campuses.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II released Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the papal document defining the centrality of Catholic higher education. Its title translated as “from the heart of the Church,” the document called for Catholic colleges to be faithful to their Catholic mission and accountable to their local bishops. Fiercely resisted by many Catholic college presidents and faculty members, who viewed Ex Corde Ecclesiae as a threat to their academic freedom, it took more than 10 years to implement. Last month, the Office of the Secretariat of Education at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released what they called The Final Report for the Ten Year Review of the Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States.

Unfortunately, the Ten Year Review provides almost no information about the progress that has been made in implementing the papal document on the 230 Catholic campuses throughout the country. Rather than providing facts about the implementation, the Ten Year Review is a one-page, self-congratulatory, platitudinous document that lauds “ongoing dialogue” and a “spirit of collaboration,” but says almost nothing about what is really happening in Catholic higher education. In fact, any Catholic who has been paying attention to the culture and curricula on many of these campuses can be forgiven if he felt like he had stepped into a chapter of George Orwell’s 1984 when reading a recent headline in the National Catholic Reporter, which proclaimed: “Bishops, colleges find good collaboration in Ex Corde review.” That same Catholic must have been even more surprised to read a headline in Our Sunday Visitor that claimed: “Progress seen in boosting Catholic identity on campuses.”   

Good collaboration with bishops? Boosting Catholic identity? For faithful Catholics, it must have seemed like just yesterday there was yet another serious scandal on a Catholic campus. That is because it was just yesterday. In fact, this month alone included a long list of scandals on Catholic campuses. Leading the list are the annual productions of The Vagina Monologues, most scheduled on or around Valentine’s Day. This year, performances of the play were held on 12 Catholic campuses, up from nine last year; among other things, the play favorably portrays homosexual relations, adult-child sex, and abortion. 

Beyond these annual events, on many Catholic campuses students can get class credit through internships at Planned Parenthood, serving as clinic escorts. Pro-abortion speakers and promoters of same-sex marriage continue to be honored on many campuses. On Friday, February 15, Providence College hosted a lecture by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) despite his 100 percent pro-abortion voting record in the Senate. Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas recently became the first Catholic school in Texas to revise its student handbook to protect transgendered students, faculty, and staff of the university from discrimination based on gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Last semester, dozens of Catholic campuses  celebrated Gay Awareness Month in October, as well as National Coming Out Day on October 11, with many  campuses—as the University of Notre Dame has done in the past—constructing “coming out closets” on campus to encourage students to “come out” as gay or lesbian. At Notre Dame’s Coming Out Day celebration a few years ago, students were invited to “eat rainbow cupcakes, and come out of a giant glittery closet.” Other schools, including the University of San Diego, Santa Clara University, and DePaul University, held “Drag Queen Shows” replete with professional drag queens and cross-dressing students.

It is unlikely that there was any collaboration between San Francisco’s archbishop and the University of San Francisco when Vincent Pizzuto was selected to chair the Department of Theology and Religious Studies Department in 2012. Pizzuto was “ordained” a priest in 2006 in the Celtic Christian Church, which is not in communion with Rome. His church’s website states that Pizzuto has presided at same-sex weddings, and his published work—including “God Has Made it Plain to Them: An Indictment of Rome’s Hermeneutic of  Homophobia,” in the Winter 2008 edition of Biblical Theology Bulletin—is openly critical of Catholic teachings. Still, Pizzuto not only teaches Catholic theology at USF, he also heads the theology department—supervising other theology professors in the department who are teaching Catholic theology. It is difficult to believe that USF and the presiding bishop are working collaboratively in implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Just a few months ago in November, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, the world’s most prominent promoter of infanticide, was the main attraction at a Fordham University conference titled “Conference with Peter Singer: Christians and Other Animals, Moving the Conversation Forward.” 

These are just a few of the most recent Catholic-campus scandals on the long list from the past decade. The most noteworthy of them all was the University of Notre Dame’s honoring the most pro-abortion US president in history at the school’s commencement ceremony in 2009. The scandals continue—despite protestations by presiding bishops. During the Notre Dame commencement scandal, the recently deceased Bishop John D’Arcy, then the bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, publicly pleaded with Notre Dame administrators to reverse their decision to honor President Obama. But his pleas were ignored. In fact, things became so contentious between the bishop and the university that Bishop D’Arcy boycotted the Notre Dame graduation. “A bishop must teach the Catholic faith in season and out of season, and he teaches not only by his words but by his actions,” Bishop D’Arcy wrote; he was joined by 83 other bishops in expressing their disapproval of Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Obama. This was not the first time objections from the South Bend bishop went unheeded. Back in 2006, Bishop D’Arcy protested Notre Dame’s annual productions of The Vagina Monologues.

There was no collaboration between the bishops and the president of Notre Dame on granting an honorary degree to President Obama. There was no “meaningful dialogue” on The Vagina Monologues between Bishop D’Arcy and Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president. My book Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education documents dozens of examples of bishops being disrespected and ignored by the administration and the faculty on Catholic college campuses. So, why are the headlines in the National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor touting the “good collaboration” between bishops and Catholic college presidents during the past decade?     

The answer is simple. The National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor were reporting what the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops provided for them to report. The USCCB provided a one-page report which claimed that the relationship between the US bishops and Catholic colleges has led to “increased cooperation over the last decade.” Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, current chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education of the USCCB, issued the report without any data—even anecdotal data—supporting its assertions. The report simply stated in almost Orwellian language: “Bishops reported that they believe our institutions of Catholic higher education have made definite progress in advancing Catholic identity…the relationship between bishops and presidents on the local level can be characterized as positive and engaged, demonstrating progress on courtesy and cooperation in the last ten years.… Clarity about Catholic identity among college and university leadership has fostered substantive dialogues and cultivated greater mission-driven practices across the university.” 

Orwellian doublespeak 

In Orwell’s dystopia, as the truth becomes uncomfortable, facts are redefined—or sometimes removed—by the Office of the Ministry of Truth. This new version of the “truth” is then disseminated by the Office of the Ministry of Propaganda. While this is not to suggest that the USCCB has become the Catholic Church’s Ministry of Truth, it is difficult not to conclude that the Ten Year Review of the Implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae provides readers with absolutely no information about what is really happening at Catholic colleges and universities. In fact, the report says nothing about campus problems in the past except to claim that despite the progress that has been made, “there is still work to be done.”

To understand how such a vacuous report could be disseminated by the USCCB, one has to go back to November 14, 2010, when the USCCB Committee on Catholic Education approved a 10-year review of the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States. Headed by Most Rev. Thomas Curry, then an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, the Committee on Catholic Education set the goals and the guidelines for the 10-year review. (Curry recently resigned as bishop in the wake of the release of documents showing that he deliberately and knowingly took steps to conceal the abuse of children from law enforcement and to protect abusive priests.)

The guidelines for the 10-year review guaranteed that no data of substance would be collected or analyzed to determine effectiveness. Rather than collecting data to assess effectiveness and progress toward meeting the goals of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the committee stated that the purpose of the review was to “provide a reference tool for both bishops and presidents of Catholic institutions.” Rather than collecting specific information that could be quantified and analyzed, the review was to simply consist of a “conversation between a bishop and each university president within his diocese.” In lieu of collecting facts to inform a report that would assess progress toward goals, the review was described by Bishop Curry and his committee as “not a report, but rather an opportunity for a bishop and a president to meet and discuss the Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States.”

It was anticipated that “this 10-year review, modeled on the five-year review of 2006, will occur in a spirit of ecclesial communion and will yield an appreciation of the positive developments and remaining challenges in our collaborative efforts to ensure the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States.” Rather than a real assessment, the purpose of the review was identified as simply providing an opportunity for the bishops and the presidents to talk with one another—to “dialogue.” The words “dialogue” and “conversation” are used frequently in the one-page report on the 10-year review, as were “positive” and “progress.” The reviewers also promise “continued dialogue…for greater cooperation in advancing the mission of the Church.” 

What the original committee identified as a key element of the review was providing a way for bishops to “share their reflections with one another at USCCB regional meetings.” Once these “reflections” were shared, the minutes of the discussions at all the regional meetings would be compiled by staff and presented to the president of the USCCB. Beyond that, there was never a mechanism created to share any of the outcomes of these conversations with any other stakeholders—including donors, faculty, students, parents, and other Catholics interested in the progress that is being made on their Catholic campuses. The review was never intended to be disseminated beyond a one-page document that offers no specifics on the current state of Catholic colleges and universities.

In a phone conversation with CWR on Thursday, February 7, 2013, Sr. John Mary Fleming, the new executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Catholic Education, helped put the report into context by saying that the 10-year review was “never designed to be an attempt to assess the past.” And although Sr. Fleming acknowledged that “the relationship between the bishops and the college presidents was fractured in the past,” she spoke optimistically about the future, lauding the bishops for “focusing on how they can reach out to create a culture of communion and support.” Acknowledging that challenges do remain, Sr. Fleming pointed to the one sentence within the report admitting that “there is still work to be done.” Sr. Fleming also pointed to the formation of a group of bishops and college presidents who will be working under Bishop Joseph P. McFadden, the current chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education. According to Bishop McFadden, the working group will “continue the dialogue about strategic subjects on a national level.” 

According to the USCCB website, the working group will begin gathering “information on best practices, will offer suggestions for local conversation, and, as needed, develop resources.” Once again, the website says nothing about whether the review will involve collecting data to assess goals, objectives, or activities to meet the requirements of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Yet, any undergraduate student in public policy or social research knows that one cannot adequately assess the effectiveness of a program without systematically collecting and analyzing quantifiable data. Conversations alone will not do it.

It is difficult to know whether anyone at the USCCB has the will to do something about the problems with Catholic higher education—especially if they are unwilling even to attempt a real assessment of those problems. In a recent conversation with a professor at a high-profile Catholic university, he lamented the lack of leadership displayed by the bishops. “For years I’ve upheld and defended Church teaching and have criticized the failure of this school’s leaders to do the same, to the point of hurting my career,” he told CWR. “But when my bishop won’t address the serious problems here, and the bishops at large won’t do anything, I wonder: why even bother?”

The Cardinal Newman Society has helped to document some of these problems. But, more importantly, the organization has identified (in the Newman Guide for Choosing a Catholic College) more than two dozen Catholic colleges (out of the country’s 230) that demonstrate that a strong Catholic identity can be created, revitalized, and maintained. The bishops could have highlighted some of the successes of these schools in their review. But, that would have required them to look at what was actually happening on Catholic campuses.  

Among faithful Catholics monitoring the situation, there has been great optimism that Sr. Fleming, a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, will begin to turn things around for Catholic education. She will have to find out what is happening on these campuses through a real assessment that quantifies goals, objectives, and activities—not just through “dialogue” with those who will tell her what they want her to know. Whether Sr. Fleming will be able to accomplish this through the intractable offices of the USCCB remains to be seen.

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About Anne Hendershott 105 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH