The term Catholic university is an oxymoron, no matter how you mouth it. But then, for the most part, so is academic freedom. At least in practice. Neither exists, really, except in pantomime. Yet from the hullabaloo that’s followed the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent decision to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae (ECE)—a papal edict issued in 1990 that defined the proper mission of Catholic higher education—you’d think we had a Manichaean standoff on our hands. Shadowboxing is more like it. The vast majority of Catholic colleges and universities haven’t been recognizably Catholic for a long time, nor, despite ECE, will they probably ever be. Meanwhile, academic freedom (even as the American Association of University Professors [AAUP] defined it 60 years ago) has been undermined routinely on almost all campuses by everything from speech codes to politicized hiring and tenure decisions. ECE versus AAUP is a contest of nonentities.
Talk to just about any hard-line Catholic these days and he’ll grumble about the appalling secularization of Catholic higher education. Catholic campuses are only Catholic in name, he’ll tell you, and he’s mostly right. There are, for example, no crucifixes in the classrooms at Boston College. Only 20 percent of Jesuit-founded BC’s board of trustees are Jesuits, and only 6 percent of its faculty. At Notre Dame recently, a student government group complained to the university’s board of trustees about a steady decline in its Catholic professorship. Similar conditions prevail at a lot of American Catholic colleges and universities. That’s probably most of the reason why Domino’s Pizza impresario Thomas S. Monaghan was able to convince Bernard Dobranski, erstwhile dean of Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, to become dean of the new Catholic law school Monaghan was starting with $50 million of his own money. Monaghan envisions Ave Maria School of Law, which will open this fall in Ann Arbor, as a real Catholic school, teaching fides et ratio—the implication being, of course, that the other 26 Catholic law schools in America aren’t.
But now that ECE is on the table, it’s becoming increasingly clear why, like most former Protestant colleges in the U.S., most Catholic schools have gone secular. To be a university in the true sense of the word and to be academically competitive with lay universities, Catholic schools have had, in essence, to admit heresies. You can’t, after all, teach students to think if you’re always telling them what to think. You can’t debate freely if, every time you discuss something unorthodox in the classroom, you’ve got to footnote it with the wearisome caveat that it isn’t the Truth because Mother Church doesn’t agree. Moreover, you can’t have a true plurality of views if, as ECE proposes, (1) a majority of the faculty members and trustees must be “faithful Catholics,” and (2) theology instructors must receive a mandate from their local bishops. But if you don’t do the above, you can’t rightly call yourself a Catholic institution. So, long ago, administrators made the obvious choice—call yourself Catholic, but fudge the particulars, and maybe nobody will notice.
Though it seems radical, ECE is really just more of the same: token nods to the Vatican, which will amount to nothing in practice. For one thing, the Church can’t enforce it. It can’t exert appreciable control over its institutions of higher learning unless it’s prepared to finance those institutions entirely out of its own coffers. But, right now, most Catholic colleges and universities operate independently of the Church, relying at least in part on public funds. For another, the precepts of ECE are so vague, it’s impossible to know how they would apply in practice.
But even if ECE could be enforced, would it really threaten an academic freedom that’s so atrophied? If anything it would only dextrally counterbalance the prevailing orthodoxies imposed by the left. For instance, if preference were given to practicing Catholics in the hiring process at certain institutions, how would that be different from the preference commonly and unashamedly given to women, minorities, poststructuralists, postcolonialists, and the like at many other institutions? Or if, at Catholic colleges, you could suddenly be penalized for using the Lord’s name in vain, how would that differ from other schools like the University of Pennsylvania, where in 1993 a student was punished for calling a group of noisy black students “water buffalo”?