It is a commonsense idea whose time appeared to have come and gone, but which is coming again: Catholic institutions of higher learning should be, well, Catholic. Although many Catholic colleges and universities have capitulated to secularist ideology, an institute at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is weighing in on the side of Catholic orthodoxy. It’s the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education, headed by the charismatic and multi-talented Msgr. Stuart Swetland.
We say the idea appeared to have “come and gone” because it was put forward beautifully and soundly in Pope John Paul II’s stirring and beautiful “apostolic constitution” in 1997, Ex corde ecclesia (“born from the heart of the Church”). Yet Ex corde met with a resounding thud at many Catholic colleges and universities, and the idea seemed to have “gone” — for good.
Those schools and faculties that rejected Ex corde were following a logic of sorts. The historic (and tragic) “Land’O’Lakes statement” of 1967, in which Catholic educators provided a blueprint for abandoning Catholic heritage and identity and chasing assimilationist dreams, appeared at the very moment when Catholic higher education could have offered a desperately needed alternative to secularist indoctrination masquerading as critical learning. Alas, many Catholic educators caved in to the forces bringing ruin to so many secular and Protestant schools. When those same putatively Catholic colleges and universities then rejected, thirty years later, a faithful (and enthusiastic) implementation of John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, it appeared that the educational Rubicon had been crossed and there was no going back. The cure to the educational ills unleashed in the 1960s had come and gone — or so it seemed.
The sad and sorry recent reports of “Catholic” colleges judged by the National Labor Relations Board not to be “religious” at all, the scandalous invitation to pro-abortion President Obama to accept an honorary degree at Notre Dame’s graduation (and the equally scandalous retaliation against those who had the courage to protest) by “America’s Catholic University,” all seemed to confirm that Catholic orthodoxy had been firmly and finally routed on campus.
But that judgment was too hasty. The euphoria of dissent and “freedom” in the late 1960s hid the fact that there were still many faithful Catholics in the U.S. They and the relatively few genuinely Catholic institutions remaining rallied to John Paul II’s vision. We ourselves were pleased to write and speak in support. So did most members of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and other loyal associations. (The FCS itself was born of a loyalist rally in favor of Church teaching in the wake of the widespread revolt of Catholic theologians and others after Pope Paul VI’s issuance of Humanae Vitae in 1968.)
The struggle between the Land’O’Lakes vision and that of Ex corde has proceeded apace in the 15 years since the latter was issued. What is happening now at Mt. St. Mary’s has all the appearance of a decisive move by the forces loyal to Catholic orthodoxy. It is, in fact, an institutionalization of the forces of orthodoxy under the generalship of Msgr. Swetland, who is a former Naval officer who finished first in his class at the Academy, currently an officer with the FCS, and the national chaplain for FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. So he’s the man for the job.
Swetland, an accomplished theologian, is also vice president for Catholic Identity at Mt. St. Mary’s. The “Mount,” the second oldest Catholic university in the United States, is one of the best-kept secrets in America. The board of the university has adopted a ringing statement of Catholic identity. We encourage you to go to the university’s website and read it in its entirety, but let us summarize it in a few words from the statement itself: “A strong Catholic identity is central to the mission of Mount St. Mary’s University. Therefore, all faculty, staff, administrators, executive officers and trustees are to work in concert with and support this Catholic mission.”
That about says it all.
The impetus behind the Center comes from another important institution, itself inspired by and named for the man who, at least in the English-speaking world, best articulated the Catholic educational vision: the newly beatified English cardinal, John Henry Newman. And the organization is the Cardinal Newman Society.
The Cardinal Newman Society has labored for many years to bring the vibrant orthodox vision back to putatively Catholic colleges and universities. Now the Center, a division of the Society, led by Swetland and housed at the Mount, can begin to marshal — to institutionalize — the forces necessary to consolidate gains where loyalist educational forces have advanced and equip those who will sally forth on new fields of battle. It aims to inspire students, faculty, donors, and administrators with the Catholic vision of higher education. It will propose models that work — in campus life, in curricula, in campus ministry — and it will facilitate networking among faithful Catholics in the academy who are dedicated to the vision of Ex corde.
In short, it will get to work.
Inspired by the teaching of Ex corde, faithful to Newman’s idea of a university, located at the Mount, led by Msgr. Swetland, who can doubt that it will succeed? We don’t.
A great idea has come again. Now is the time.
— William Saunders is senior vice president of legal affairs at Americans United for Life. Robert P. George is professor of politics at Princeton University.