Catholic education

Searching for "Catholic identity" on campuses

St. Ignatius Loyola was clear from the beginning that a Jesuit education would involve more than texts and classrooms, teaching that students should "absorb along with their letters the morals worthy of a Christian." Thus, the motto of the Society of Jesus can be found in gilded letters across the front of Georgetown University's famous Gaston Hall: "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam Inque Hominum Salutem (For the Greater Glory of God and the Salvation of Humanity)."

In other words, a Jesuit university should be judged on its impact on souls, as well as the quality of its research and scholarship. Attempting to balance this equation has caused intense and often bitter debates at Georgetown and other Catholic schools across the nation -- with the Vatican listening in.

The key is to follow St. Ignatius in linking morals and academics, according to the founder of the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown, a program dedicated to building character and virtue in students. This strategy is also linked to Vatican demands that Catholic educators maintain a "Catholic identity" on their campuses.

"For far too many students today there is a huge gap between what happens in our classrooms and their experiences in their dormitories, in the dining hall and in the rest of life on and off campus," said Patrick J. Deneen. Thus, it's time for Catholic administrators and faculty members to remember that the "state of our students' lives has as much to do with the state of their souls as the state of their bodies and their minds."

Growing concerns about "Catholic identity" issues played a role in Deneen's recent decision to leave Georgetown and accept a similar political science post at the University of Notre Dame. While stressing he doesn't want to "become the poster boy for Georgetown bashing" the political science professor said he was increasingly concerned about the impact of years of clashes between Georgetown and church leaders over issues of doctrine and public life.

These debates could reach Rome, if a prominent Georgetown graduate has his way. Academy Award winner William Peter Blatty, best known for writing "The Exorcist," is leading a petition drive requesting that the Archdiocese of Washington and perhaps the Vatican investigate 20-plus years of complaints about the university's compliance with guidelines in the 1990 "apostolic constitution" on education issued by Pope John Paul II entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)."

"We may choose to file a canon action again, one much larger in scale and seeking alternative forms of relief that will include, among others, that Georgetown's right to call itself Catholic and Jesuit be revoked or suspended for a time," noted Blatty, in his online appeal ( to supporters. "What we truly seek is for Georgetown to have the vision and courage to be Catholic, but clearly the slow pastoral approach has not worked."

The Georgetown administration did not respond, earlier this week, to repeated requests for a response to the Blatty effort.

Among its many requirements, Ex Corde Ecclesiae states: "In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching." However, the pope also said the "freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected."

Georgetown is not alone in struggling with the tensions created by these kinds of statements, stressed Deneen. The key is that administrators must be willing to seek faculty who are committed to a school's "character and mission," as well as to their own research and careers.

At the same time, Deneen said he has found that today's students "crave input" on subjects that are both highly personal and academic -- such as dating and marriage, as well as how to blend career ambitions with concerns about building strong families in neighborhoods and communities that mesh with their personal values.

The goal is for Catholic educators to find a way for dialogues about these kinds of moral topics "to infuse campus life at every level," from the dorm room to the classroom.

"It used to be normal for students to hear about these kinds of moral and spiritual issues from faculty members, not just from campus ministers," said Deneen. However, on far too many Catholic campuses "they are no longer seen by faculty members as being important to their work. Some even consider them off limits."

Notre Dame and her children

The women's clinic nurse confirmed that Lacy Dodd was pregnant, and then told her not to worry because she had "other options." That wasn't the kind of reassurance Dodd wanted, as a University of Notre Dame senior weeks away from her graduation ceremonies. When she returned to campus, Dodd headed straight to Notre Dame's grotto -- a small cave modeled after the famous Marian shrine in Lourdes, France.

"I knew this: No amount of shame or embarrassment would ever lead me to get rid of my baby. Of all women, Our Lady could surely feel pity for an unplanned pregnancy," wrote Dodd, in an essay aimed at Father John Jenkins, the university's president. The text was posted online by the journal First Things.

"In my hour of need, on my knees, I asked Mary for courage and strength. And she did not disappoint," she added. "My boyfriend was a different story. He was also a Notre Dame senior. When I told him that he was to be a father, he tried to pressure me into having an abortion. ... 'All that talk about abortion is just dining-room talk,' he said."

Family and friends stood by Dodd's side. Today, a decade later, she is a single mother and her daughter's name is Mary. Dodd serves on the board of Room at the Inn, an organization working to build an on-campus facility for pregnant unwed students at Belmont Abbey College, near Charlotte, N.C.

The timing of Dodd's essay -- "Notre Dame, My Mother" -- is, of course, linked to her alma mater's decision to invite President Barack Obama to deliver its mid-May commencement address and to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.

Throughout his political career, Obama has opposed all restrictions on abortion rights, even in late-term procedures. But he has also reached out to Catholic and evangelical voters by pledging to help lessen the need for abortions, through government efforts to aid needy mothers and their children.

Catholic traditionalists and many Notre Dame alumni argue that honoring Obama in this way violates a 2004 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops policy that said: "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."

Three years later, the bishops underlined the importance of this issue, arguing that the "direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many."

However, a recent online count found that only 66 bishops, out of 195 dioceses nationwide, have issued public comments critical of Notre Dame's decision. So far, the Vatican has remained silent on the issue.

Meanwhile, a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll found that 50 percent of American Catholics approve of Notre Dame's decision to "invite" Obama, while 28 percent disapprove. However, only 37 percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend Mass weekly agreed with the Notre Dame decision, compared with 56 percent of those less active in the church. This parallels that fact that 61 percent of these "attend less often" Catholics support abortion rights in all or most cases, as opposed to 30 percent of the "attend weekly" Catholics.

Alumni and current students know that these kinds of divisions also exist at Notre Dame, said Dodd. Notre Dame students also face crisis pregnancies and some young women there are convinced that they must have abortions in order to stay in school.

While others focus on the political implications of honoring Obama, Dodd said she worries about the impact of this symbolic event on women in the commencement audience who are wrestling with the same secret she faced 10 years ago.

Thus, she ended her essay with this question to the priest who currently leads Notre Dame: "Who draws support from your decision to honor President Obama -- the young, pregnant Notre Dame woman sitting in that graduating class who wants desperately to keep her baby, or the Notre Dame man who believes that the Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil of abortion is just dining-room talk?"

These kinds of influences make a difference, said Dodd.

"I think that Notre Dame needs to be in the lead when it comes to supporting women who face unplanned pregnancies," she said. "Notre Dame needs to be on their side -- always."