Catholicism, Inc.

Author: Naomi Schaefer Riley

“He is a person who could easily hold an endowed chair at Notre Dame.”

Sitting in a spacious office on the top floor of Notre Dame’s gold-domed administration building, the university’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, pays Pope Benedict XVI what might be the ultimate compliment around here. In fact, Father Jenkins recounts the story of how in the 1960s his famed predecessor, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, actually offered such a position to “a young promising theologian” named Joseph Ratzinger, “who graciously

With that theologian set to embark on his first papal visit to the United States this week, it might be a good time to ask whether such an offer would have been made today. And – more significantly – whether someone with the pope’s beliefs about Catholic higher education could accept. In a much-anticipated speech at Catholic University of America in Washington on Thursday, the pope will address the leaders of the nation’s more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities, and Father Jenkins will be listening closely.

Asked to speculate on what Pope Benedict might say, Father Jenkins tells me, “The greatest respect we can show him is to let him speak and then reflect.”But the president, who himself has a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford,says that the pope is “a subtle thinker [who] doesn’t think in slogans.” Father Jenkins is worried that “people with various interests will pick out a line or a phrase,” and misunderstand the pope’s message

Just who those nefarious-sounding interests are might be a little confusing to those not paying attention to the divisions in American Catholicism. But Catholic colleges are on the front lines of a battle for the soul of the church. The conservative Cardinal Newman Society, for example, recently published a guide to Catholic colleges for parents, and Notre Dame did not even make their list because of faculty members who were critical of church teachings and social programs on campus for gay students.

“The Newman society has no ecclesiastical standing and no academic standing,” Father Jenkins says.

“For me, it resembles nothing more than a political action committee.”

With a student body of more than 11,000, a Division I athletics program, one of the most vocal alumni groups in the country, a faculty that has grown by 500 members in the last two decades, and a religious order (the Congregation of the Holy Cross) that still exercises control over the school, Father Jenkins has more constituencies to satisfy than most congressmen. And with a school endowment of $6.1 billion, he is also, for all intents and purposes, in charge of a sizable corporation.

American Catholicism has changed a lot in the last half-century, and Notre Dame is a microcosm of that shift. Father Jenkins, a trim, soft-spoken man who looks younger than his 54 years, took over his position in 2004. He is part of a generation of priests who received their education not only after the liturgical reforms of Vatican II (1962-65) – he graduated from Notre Dame in 1976 – but after the so-called “Land O’ Lakes” statement. Signed in 1967 by a group of Catholic educators (including Father Hesburgh), the
document was read by many as a declaration of independence from the Vatican. It read in part: “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

Catholic universities have since become less tethered to the church. Their faculties and student bodies include many more non-Catholics. They no longer need money from the Vatican to survive. But the tug of war for control of Catholic institutions of higher education continued.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, an encyclical whose provisions included a requirement that theologians teaching at Catholic schools receive a stamp of approval from the church (a “mandatum”), and that the campus environment should be supportive of a Catholic way of life.

Father Jenkins calls Ex Corde a “superb document” that he has read “many times.” But most Catholic college leaders, including Father Jenkins, have not implemented it to the extent that they or others expected they would have to. The mandatum provision, for instance, was met at the time with outrage by college faculty and administrators, who found it to be an infringement on academic freedom. But since then, Father Jenkins explains, “positions softened a bit on that. Misunderstandings were eliminated.”

The way the mandatum controversy was resolved is this: Local bishops give their approval to some theologians and not others. But no one besides the bishop and the theologian knows who has it. So Father Jenkins can claim total ignorance about which members of his own theology department are approved by the church.

Other intellectual battles seem to have been resolved in the university’s favor as well. Despite the Vatican’s clear condemnation of liberation theology, a Marxist approach to Christianity, the doctrine is still proudly taught at Notre Dame.

Father Jenkins says the situation is not so clear cut: “Liberation theology is a label for a family of views and concerns . . . [a set of] theological reflections in light of certain social and economic conditions.” In other words, no violent revolutionaries here.

Despite the large presence of liberal faculty members, Father Jenkins complains that in some circles, the school is not considered radical enough. People on the left say that “we’re too tied to the Republican party. We don’t advocate enough for women’s ordination. You name the socially divisive issue and we’re criticized that we’re not on the front on [it].” And it is true that on the spectrum of Catholic universities, Notre Dame is considered somewhat middle of the road – still less radical than its Jesuit brethren like Georgetown, Fordham and Boston College.

But that may be changing. Father Jenkins recently made headlines with his decision to allow the college to sponsor a performance of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” during the week leading up to Easter. He is not the first Catholic college president to accede to campus demands for this play, but his nod of approval is deeply symbolic. The local bishop, John D’Arcy, condemned the play as “an affront to human dignity, as Catholic teaching understands it.” But Father Jenkins defended his decision to go forward with it (providing an academic panel was convened afterward) on the grounds that “a Catholic university is a place to confront controversial issues and a Catholic teaching should be sympathetically presented.”

So is there a line Father Jenkins won’t cross when it comes to such material? “There are things,” he is certain, “that fall below the line of serious intellectual contribution and reflection,” but this one did not.

Despite what seems to be a slow drift toward secularization, Father Jenkins insists that Catholic institutions in general, and Notre Dame in particular, have something distinctive to add to American higher education. “With all respect to great academic institutions in this country, they’ve shed their religious tradition, and with it a certain kind of overarching moral view of education. They do great work.I don’t mean to demean them. But we have the opportunity to be the place that combines the highest level of reason and inquiry with living a religious faith.”

About 30 students walked out of the Vagina Monologues in protest after the first scene. And people familiar with the university are not surprised that it was the kids, not the grown-ups, who registered the strongest objections.

The students are probably the most religious part of Notre Dame. They live in single-sex dorms, attend mass frequently, protest abortion on campus and in Washington, etc. Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that a greater percentage of the students have not attended Catholic school or grown up in a mostly Catholic community, Father Jenkins sees among them “a kind of yearning for tradition.”

That younger Catholics tend to be among the more conservative ones is not the only demographic shift going on in the church. According to a recent Pew study, one third of native-born Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. But the Catholic population has remained steady due largely to an influx of Hispanic immigrants. And those immigrants look to be the future of the church.

Latinos, who tend to go to more conservative churches, account for almost half of Catholics under 40. This shift, too, is evident at Notre Dame, where the Hispanic population has grown by 50% in the last 10 years. (Today almost one in 10 students is Hispanic.) Our Lady of Guadalupe observance has become one of the more popular campus celebrations.

Father Jenkins reflects on this change. He recalls reading the letters of the Rev. Edward Sorin, the Frenchman who founded Notre Dame in 1842. Father Jenkins notes, “He was complaining about the Irish immigrants. They don’t work very hard; they’re not very good students. Germans are the hard workers.”

Father Jenkins laughs at the irony: “Of course we came to be dominated by the Irish.” He credits waves of immigrants with “reinvigorating” the church in this country, and he expects that Hispanics will continue that tradition.

That students would make up the heart of the school’s religious life was probably inevitable. Only half the faculty is Catholic now, and there are about 40 priests left on campus.

Father Jenkins believes the church needs to involve the Catholic laity more in religious responsibilities. Notre Dame, for instance, runs a program called the Alliance for Catholic Education, which sends laypeople to teach at Catholic schools in poor areas. Father Jenkins tells me that it would be “unwise . . .to sit around waiting” for an increase in the number of people going into vocations. And he points to the university as an example of how this can work well. “If you came here 50 years ago, the administration would have been Holy Cross priests. . . . Now we have very talented, faithful lay people who have taken on some of those positions. The university has benefited, no doubt.”

In fact, Father Jenkins insists that the education at Notre Dame has improved in the last few decades. Compared with when he was a student, he observes, “there is a richer intellectual life now.” Certainly the level of Notre Dame students has risen. It holds a U.S. News ranking in the top 25. And the school no longer has that scrappy image of immigrants struggling to fit in. Again, it is symbolic of the status of American Catholics, who have become so well assimilated that, according to a Pew poll done last year, if a presidential candidate had to pick a religion that would make him most likely to win votes, it would be Catholicism.

There are still plenty of football fans who may see the school as the underdog, though. Especially after it won only three games in the 2007 season. “Football is a symbol,” says Father Jenkins, who dismisses last year’s problems as the “vicissitudes of winning and losing.” “The fact that we graduate 99% of our players who stay around for four years – people see that and they think ‘Oh, they do it the right way.’”

Notre Dame has a contract with NBC to broadcast every one of the school’s home games through 2010. Father Jenkins won’t say whether he thinks the agreement will be renewed – he tells me that “viewership has stayed strong.” But if Notre Dame really wants to increase its market share, Father Jenkins might think about changing the team’s name to the Fighting Latinos.

Ms. Riley is the Journal’s deputy Taste page editor.

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