Michael Galligan-Stierle: The RealClearReligion Interview

Michael Galligan-Stierle: The RealClearReligion Interview
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When Pope Benedict XVI met with Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America in 2008, he reminded them that the Catholic identity of their schools "is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction." Nearly five years to the date, I spoke with the President and CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities about that conviction and the campus controversies it may bring.

RealClearReligion: What does the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities do?

Michael Galligan-Stierle: The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities is a membership organization. We have 190 plus Catholic colleges in the U.S. and 20 international colleges, universities, that pool their common monies and common ideals and they ask our association to help them strengthen their Catholic identity. The two ways we do that is by being a public and collective voice and by delivering programs, projects, and written materials to help them strengthen their identity.

RCR: What do you use as a base document for Catholic identity?

MGS: Pope John Paul II's 1990 Apostolic Constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, really frames how we go forward. That document has in it -- in the very beginning -- the four essential characteristics of what a Catholic college or university is. The shorthand would be this: inspire Christian values, connect the Catholic faith to knowledge and research, embody the Christian message in a faithfully Catholic way, and serve all in the search for transcendence and meaning.

RCR: Do you think all of your members live up to those characteristics?

MGS: Well, Ex Corde Ecclesiae is very clear about who the judge of that is supposed to be -- the Bishop in the diocese. Our association helps members to the degree that they have an interest in developing a certain dimension of their school. So, one year a university may put their energy into the campus ministry office, another they may focus on student affairs, another they may put their monies in the faculty to try to strengthen different components at different times. But ultimately, it is up to the Bishop to have that cooperative relationship with the college or university. Sometimes the university will help the diocese, and sometimes the diocese will point out areas where the school needs improvement.

RCR: Francis Cardinal George has said: "You can't have a Catholic university that takes Land O'Lakes as a charter document." Do you agree with him?

MGS: Every Catholic college or university has to take Ex Corde Ecclesiae as its landmark document.

RCR: What do you think of the Land O'Lakes conference?

MGS: It is a subtext of history.

RCR: In my experience as a student at DePaul University in Chicago, the largest Catholic university in America, Catholic identity often played second fiddle to Vincentian identity. Does this tend to secularize a campus?

MGS: I think it particularizes it, but I think you're on to a very good point. I don't think your experience at DePaul is characteristic of the United States because it happens to be one of our largest, and that's not typical. Secondly, DePaul was founded with a unique way of proceeding. That is, when the University of Chicago was founded, Catholics and Jews weren't allowed in. So, the Vincentians built into the mission statement at DePaul some things that generalized things in a certain way that today could be used to secularize.

Of 220 of our colleges, 200 were founded by religious orders, 10 were founded by Bishops, and 10 were founded by lay people. So, the predominant thrust is to proceed through a certain lens, the way of that religious order. You have the basic Catholic way of looking at the world, but then Saints have emerged through history that take a certain dimension of Jesus's message and raise it up into a larger than life perspective. They're all Catholic, but they will start in different places and end up in different places because they believe that dimension of Jesus's Gospel message in the Catholic tradition is the best way to fully realize it.

RCR: What about when religious orders go too far and create, for instance, Vincentianism?

MGS: You are absolutely correct in stating that today in the Catholic Church, not just Catholic higher education, there are people who misunderstand the truth and the essence of who we are. There are people in pews today that approach Mary as a goddess. That's not what our Church teaches. There are other people who take that word, Vincentianism, and use it as a common denominator. That is, they might pull out a couple of things that they really like about a way of life --

RCR: And they forget everything else.

MGS: Right. So, if you are Catholic, you should be the freest person in the world. But, you should also be the person who's the most responsible person for the common good. What happens often in the culture of the United States, Catholics emphasize the freedom dimension without remembering the responsibility that comes with it. You're right: there are people who misspeak. Are they in Catholic higher education? Yes. They happen to be in our Church, too.

RCR: What role do you think Catholic education has in this state of affairs for American Catholics?

MGS: Catholic education needs to be an academic institution that's vibrant and full of the search for truth and simultaneously a place where Catholicism is real and operative. On a good day, when we're batting 1000, that's what we need to be. Are we batting 300? 400? Are we perfect? No.

Our graduates, by every study that's been done in the last 25 years, consistently view their education as substantively more helpful in living an ethical, authentic life. For instance, if you take the Hardwick Day data, people that graduate from state institutions are at 9 percent in terms of having an ethical way of proceeding. Within Catholic higher education: 55 percent. It's not even close!

RCR: How much do American Catholics know about the Catholic faith after going through Catholic education?

MGS: I'm really not an expert in doing a comparison of the general population of Catholics against Catholics in Catholic education. Now, the entire populations of Catholics in the United States would do well to embrace the tenets of the Catholic Church in a more faithful way. Would Catholic higher education be stronger if the larger population did that? Absolutely.

RCR: Would you say it's common for a Catholic curriculum to preclude theology?

MGS: It's absolutely not common. I think you're working through a DePaul lens, not Catholic higher education as a whole. There are no 200 schools in the world that have a higher requirement in theology, philosophy, and ethics. On an aggregate -- not your one campus experience -- it is two courses in theology, two philosophy, and one ethics or morals. You have to back up from the picture and go: you're right, we're not batting 1000. How are we doing with what's happening elsewhere? Not bad. Probably the All-Star team. This association exists so that we can get better.

RCR: What needs to get better? Faculties?

MGS: I think every component of the university needs to get better and faculty is a primary one. Right now, we know from a UCLA study on spirituality, of the 21 million students in the United States that are going through college, 8 of 10 want to grow spiritually during the college years. They believe that during their coursework, they should be able to integrate their understanding of spirituality and have those conversations in the classroom and on campus. Only 5 percent of faculty are willing to have that conversation and yet, 8 of 10 students in a classroom want to have that conversation.

Now, let's parse that out in the Catholic world. How willing are the faculty at Catholic colleges to have conversations about spirituality and making the connection to coursework? 57 percent.

RCR: These conversations are still uncomfortable ones on far too many Catholic campuses. For instance, what about the recent brouhaha at Gonzaga University where administration initially denied and then placed a request for a Knights of Columbus organization under review?

MGS: But, how many of our campuses do have Knights of Columbus? You have one example of one campus that, quite frankly, hasn't made a final decision.

RCR: The fact that it's a question at all doesn't trouble you?

MGS: That they ask questions? I would hope all our campuses ask questions of any group about why they're there. In general, I do think that our schools should be places where good questions are asked. Now, were all the questions asked at Gonzaga? I don't know.

RCR: There are other examples: Notre Dame bestowed an honorary degree on President Obama. Georgetown covered an IHS symbol during a Presidential visit to campus. Aren't these incidents typical of the Catholic campus culture?

MGS: It's not typical. There's no data to back it up. Did those things happen? Yes. Are they characteristic of the large amount of good that's happening on our campuses? Absolutely not. It's like saying: "did you see Wes Walker drop the ball in the playoff game before the Super Bowl? Can you believe it?" It's obnoxious, but are you going to try to convince me that Wes Walker is a bad player? It ain't happening because you're not working with the whole body of work.

I would agree with you that we need to get stronger and this association stands ready to assist every school.

RCR: Can you identify specific areas of focus for improvement? You mentioned faculty as one. What else?

MGS: The best place to look at how to get better is what the Bishops think we ought to do. It's important to remember that it doesn't fall to this association to dictate anything. Now, what are the Bishops saying? More than faculty, we need to find ways to strengthen who our trustees are. We also have to hire for mission better. We have to get smarter about who we hire.

How do you discuss Catholic identity during an interview that doesn't violate state or federal protocol? There are ways to ask questions. One way is to ask this question: "This is a Catholic college. How would you contribute to that Catholic identity?" Well, research now shows us that that's not the best way. The best way is to have interviewees write something before the interview begins on how they're going to take their discipline and apply it to Catholic identity. So, we're getting smarter at this.

RCR: How does Catholic higher education hiring deal with the Church's decline in vocations?

MGS: In 2000, of the 220 colleges, the see-saw tilted. Before 2000, there were more religious and priests than there were lay. And in 2000, there are more lay than priests or religious. Let me give you an example of how one diocese is moving forward. Bishop George Leo Thomas of Helena, who sits on the Committee on Catholic Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has decided to take one of his best preachers with pastoral skill and move him from a parish to a university chaplaincy. He says it has completely transformed the campus. The number of students going to Mass has doubled. Groups of students are meeting to discern a vocation to the priesthood. It has completely reinvigorated the pastoral program at that particular college.

This is in contrast to a number of colleges who have asked their Bishops to give them any priest and the Bishop has said no, because of the shortage of priests. The truth is that Bishop Thomas has a shortage of priests also, but he has made a strategic decision that he believes would be in the best interest of the diocese, the future of priesthood, and the college community. These are very, very hard choices.

RCR: What choices do Catholic colleges and universities need to make about the HHS mandate?

MGS: We're on record about how we believe the understanding of a religious entity according to the HHS is not in keeping with religious liberty, the groundwork of this country. The pillars that the entire thing is built upon are faulty.

RCR: So it's not just about contraception?

MGS: It's religious liberty. It's the government swooping in and naming us instead of the group naming itself. It's a substantive problem. Going forward, it's going to be quite challenging to figure out what to do until the Supreme Court weighs in. There's been an attempt at an accommodation, but it isn't fixing the pillars the mandate sits on. You're tinkering with details, but the structure is faulty. It's a matter of time before the whole thing falls into the sea.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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