Politics & Policy

The C Word

Catholic schools should embrace their identity.

How Catholic should a Catholic school be?

Marymount Manhattan College is listed in the official N.Y. Catholic directory. Yet the Cardinal Newman Society for the Preservation of Catholic Higher Education recently came down on Marymount when its administration announced abortion-supporter Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.), would be their 2005 commencement speaker.

In recent years, Marymount hasn’t played up its Catholic heritage. It shouldn’t be included in the official N.Y. Catholic directory (and won’t anymore). A Catholic school that wants Hillary Clinton to speak at the pinnacle of its year is sending a pretty clear message: We don’t believe what a Catholic institution should, we don’t want to be Catholic.

More schools need to make the decision to embrace or ditch the C-factor, because being “Catholic” should mean something.

So, Marymount is ditching. The school administration has emphasized that it is nonsectarian and the N.Y. archdiocese reportedly is dropping the institution from directory rolls.

At least that school is being honest.

In 2003, a similar thing happened at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The school, which identified itself as Catholic, invited New York attorney general and Democratic rising star Eliot Spitzer, another backer of legal abortion, to speak at their graduation. With a little urging from the Cardinal Newman Society, the “C” word soon disappeared from their brochures and Marist disappeared from the official Catholic category permanently.

And the list goes on. According to the Cardinal Newman Society, some 13 schools this year will host totally inappropriate commencement speakers. Rudolph Giuliani, for instance, will be talking at Loyola, Md.

What’s my beef with Rudy?

Again, giving a platform to a prominent supporter of legal abortion sends a bad signal from a school. Catholic-school administrators must ask themselves: “Are we defenders of the dignity of human life, or aren’t we?” I’m all for academic freedom and intellectual curiosity, but at the same time, a religiously grounded school with a particular moral frame and purpose should represent the worldview implicit in the Catholic label.

This identity crisis is not new to Catholic higher education and not confined to graduation day. Some 27 U.S. Catholic colleges and universities put on performances of The Vagina Monologues this year around Valentine’s Day, and not for the first time.

The Vagina Monologues is a play in which, among other things, a woman seduces a teen girl during a lesbian statutory rape scene. It has no business being on a Catholic campus, but it was.

These examples of Catholic schools’ eyebrow-raising moments are worth noting. They get to the heart of a key issue in American higher education today.

Even if you don’t buy into the creed, the products of Catholic education greatly contribute to our national conversations on ethics–some of the hottest issues of our day. More than occasionally, the schools turn out smart, moral kids, well-grounded ones who are thinking about these issues in a healthy, helpful way. It’s a net gain for us all.

To be self-consciously Catholic should be something the schools capitalize on. If we weren’t such a God-talk-fearing society–at least in the media–there might not be an insistence to follow the secular schools’ line of thought.

Catholic-school administrators should proudly proclaim what distinguishes their institutions from other schools: “We have a higher purpose. We’re in the education business for reasons beyond the usual Earthly ones.”

It’s a case the late pope, John Paul II, laid out in his statement on Catholic education, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.” Contrary to embracing the political wills of the secular age, he wrote: “If need be, a Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.”

My own alma mater, the Catholic University of America knows this debate quite well. Bizarrely, considering its name, CUA had its days when its previous president tried downplaying its Catholicism. But a new day has dawned. The current president, Fr. David O’Connell, made the choice to affirm his commitment to the teachings of the Church–taking an oath in that spirit, in fact. CUA’s aiming in the direction you’d expect any place that calls itself Catholic to be heading in.

O’Connell is a leader in encouraging Catholic schools to embrace what they are and are meant to be. As a bonus, he’s D.C.-based and has had considerable cable news airtime of late.

A priest/school president who talks as a public Catholic, representing a proud-to-be-Catholic institution?

Amen!

(c) 2005, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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