by M. Bultitude
It was great to catch up. I’ve been observing your efforts and the efforts of your colleagues at the University of St. Jude these last few years. With grace, you’ve been sowing seed and pruning the trees. I expect that good fruit will continue to be borne.
I am concerned about Owen, however. It seems clear that his university has been adrift for several decades. Because mission was taken for granted and the religious order was strong, there was no substantive discussion of mission during those years and the subtle approach to Catholic witness gradually tapered into lukewarmness and compromise in many areas. This is to be expected. As we both know, Catholic institutions usually drift and ultimately become indistinguishable from their secular counterparts, except for the crucifixes on the walls and the religious signaling in their public communications. Indeed, as Charles observed about one of our leading Catholic universities, its fidelity seems to be inversely proportional to how loudly it proclaims its Catholic identity and the number of gilded statues of Our Lady it sets up on campus. Owen’s situation and similar universities offer a cautionary tale for those with ears to hear and an opportunity for our own examination of conscience.
Why this drift toward mediocrity, lukewarmness, and irrelevancy takes place is a complex question that many wiser minds have studied. And as we’ve discussed, this drift and compromise takes place in different ways in different eras. This is not surprising since the pressure to compromise our fidelity changes over time. No one today wants to revive the debates over Christology or asks us to pinch a bit of incense in the worship of Caesar, but there is enormous pressure to compromise on questions related to marriage and the family, protecting vulnerable human life, and DEI. And rather than developing and articulating with clarity a Catholic vision and responses to these questions, we are tempted either to embrace the secular view du jour or try to avoid the topics completely. Might this be the equivalent of what Jesus called, “hiding your light under a bushel”?
And if all that is not bad enough, Owen has reported that during the period of his university’s waning fidelity, there was also a hollowing out of intellectual standards, an apathy toward the Catholic intellectual tradition, a naive technophilia, a corrupting ethos of consumer culture, an embrace of corporate jargon, and a reduction of the faith to a therapeutic sentimentalism. Were these causes or effects? It was hard to tell.
But why were they tempted to avoid clarity about their Catholic identity? What I saw at Owen’s university is what might be called “strategic ambiguity.” The word “Catholic” was used over and over again but never defined in a substantive way. Rather than simply directing the members of its university community to Ex Corde and the Catechism and saying, “we seek to embody this vision of reality and propose it to our students and community” and “this is the standard by which our Catholicity should be judged in all that we say and do,” efforts to clarify and strengthen Catholic identity were treated as acts of aggression or self-righteous judgement, or both. This reminds me of when Prof. Kirke told me that he had been called a member of the “Catholic mafia” and admonished by the university’s chaplain for using the word “orthodox” (which the chaplain described as “divisive”). I laughed at first, since he did work for a Catholic university. But it soon became clear, based on what followed, that this was no laughing matter.
A related temptation that Owen’s university faced was that of treating “Catholic” as a cipher into which people could project whatever meaning they wanted. “Yes, we are Catholic,” some would say, but “Catholic” was like a salad upon which you could place any number of of ‘toppings.’ You are pro-life? Good for you, but you should probably keep it to yourself. You are pro-choice? That’s your right. An easy-going relativism was the order of the day. Here the fundamental error seems to have been that they thought that they could decide what the word “Catholic” means. But they didn’t seem to realize that the meaning of “Catholic” and “Catholic University” is something normative that Catholic universities receive from the Church. And that there will always be parts of a faithful Catholic university (or hospital or social services agency) that runs up against—often in painful ways—the dominant values of the larger culture. To be a Catholic university or even a Catholic person is by definition to be countercultural. To think otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking. We must remember Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
But again, why might they have avoided clarity? Was it always strategic? With this question we are on thin ice. Sometimes a lack of clarity seems to have stemmed from simply not knowing the substance and purpose of Catholic higher education and not being willing to work to gain that knowledge. We are all busy, the documents have funny Latin titles, and who has time to do all of that reading? And if they haven’t experienced faithful Catholic higher education first hand, it can all seem inessential to the real work of their jobs and either sentimental, muddle-headed, or ideological. Never mind that the very business experts that they seek to emulate place clarity of mission at the center of their thinking about success in more mundane matters. Just getting everyone to agree that the university should be ‘Catholic’ seemed like a great victory, even if there was wide disagreement about what the word meant.
At the same time, I think the well-meaning leaders at Owen’s university tended to understand fidelity through the labels of politics, such as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal,’ or ‘right and left.’ They thought of fidelity as a kind of extreme on one end of the spectrum while infidelity was simply the other end of the spectrum. And both positions were seen as a matter of legitimate personal preference. There was no recognition that there exists a clear, objective, and received center of fidelity–given by the Church–to which all were called and from which one could choose to depart, thereby becoming less faithful and objectively less Catholic. (In some quarters such a claim would be considered not only impolite but a form of intolerant speech that could cost that person her job.) The idea never seemed to occur to those leaders that there were objective ways to evaluate an institution’s fidelity and that some institutions were more faithful while others were less.
Sometimes, however, I think that that their strategic ambiguity was just that: strategic. Every university needs students and donors and wants to be accepted by those considered successful on the world’s terms. They feared that if they were too clear and direct about their commitments, they would attract some students, donors, and friends but alienate others. (Meanwhile, they didn’t see that faithful institutions don’t have room for all the students who want to attend. And that donors are knocking down the door.) Wouldn’t the ideal situation be, so they reasoned, to attract all donors and all students and be approved by all those with cultural power and cachet? With this approach they ‘buried the Catholic lede’ with some audiences and keep it front and center with others. But their audience was not stupid. And even if they fooled them initially, the ‘audience’ eventually figured it out. Someone famous once said, “You cannot serve two masters.” Over the long run, the donors who cared about Catholic substance, rather than ‘Catholic Lite,’ shifted their support elsewhere and Catholic students who wanted to attend an unabashedly faithful institution found another home. Owen’s university experienced all of this. Thankfully their new president and chairman have a chance to correct the course of the institution. But it will require courage to embrace the objective meaning of ‘Catholic,’ a clear vision for how to embody that meaning in their particular institution, and the ability and backbone to communicate that vision for a long period of time in the face of strong opposition at every level of the university.
But as we discussed last time, the real casualties at Owen’s university during those lost decades were not the consciences of its leaders, the casualties were the souls of the students. If we believe, as Jesus preached, that the truth will set us free, and we want what is best for our students—i.e., if we love our students—then we will not be strategically ambiguous. Rather, we will be forthright and engage in what Benedict XVI called “intellectual charity.” This form of charity leads students from shadows and images into truth (including countercultural truths), toward a full vision of an integrated reality illuminated by Faith. It is a vision that will set them free, give them guidance for how to live well, and put them on the path to ever-deeper communion with their Creator. There is no greater gift than this that we can give to our students and the members of our community. (And it may cost those who lead such institutions everything that this world holds dear.)
The primary tragedy at Owen’s university was not that a once faithful Catholic institution was slowly sliding into infidelity, mediocrity, bad-taste, and irrelevancy within a cloud of strategic ambiguity about what it means to be ‘Catholic,’ it was the tragedy of students never encountering the life-transforming truth of the Catholic faith in all of its complexity and richness–even when it runs counter to the dominant culture–in the very place where such an encounter should have been possible. It’s as if someone walked into a hospital where the doctors did not give the patient a true diagnosis and treatment either because they were not real doctors or disliked the ‘dogma’ of real medicine–and should be working in a different kind of institution–or because they feared that the patient may not want to hear the truth.
Thankfully, you and I work at institutions committed to developing a courageous, faithful, intellectually-rich, and joyful Catholic witness. (And it is warmer here than where Owen is.) Let’s keep Owen and his university in our prayers.
And let us pray for one another,
p.s. I am going to confession this afternoon but we’ll reconvene at St. Anne’s this evening. Ambrose will be with us. See you there.