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Catholicly Educated: A Reflection on the Legacy of Monika Hellwig and the Mission and Identity of Catholic Universities

By Joseph A. O'Hare, S.J., President Emeritus, Fordham University

published in Woodstock Report No. 84, March 2006

In the November 28, 2005 issue of America magazine, the President Emeritus of Georgetown University, the Rev. Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J., pays tribute to Monika Hellwig, who was a member of the Georgetown theological faculty from 1967 until 1996, when she left Georgetown to become executive director and later President of the Association of Catholic College and Universities, a position she held until June 2005. It was in the latter role that I worked with Monika for eight years, and much of our shared attention during those years was devoted to the continuing conversation about the Catholic identity and mission of the more than 200 colleges and universities that belonged to the Association.

"It is clear that Monika was thoroughly committed to the Church without being controlled by it."

At the enter of that conversation was the recurrent question of whether Catholic institutions that were independent of ecclesial jurisdiction could be nonetheless "really Catholic" because of the continuing commitment of those responsible for the institution. One could oversimplify that conversation by saying it concerned the relationship between control and commitment. Could institution be committed to the Catholic intellectual and religious tradition without being directly under the control of canon law? In reflecting on the personal witness of Monika Hellwig's life, it is clear that Monika was thoroughly committed to the Church without being controlled by it. As a theologian she thoughtfully explored the implications of Catholic doctrine for the pastoral and personal needs of individuals of faith and individuals seeking faith.

Monika's own personal journey in faith was one of consistency through many changes. Her German father was born a Catholic; her mother, of Dutch Jewish background, was an adult convert to Catholicism. In 1935, when her father was killed in a Christmas auto accident, her mother, concerned about the danger to people of Jewish origin in Nazi Germany, took Monika and her two sisters from their home in Berlin to Limburg in the southern Netherlands. Four years later, the Hellwig girls were sent to a boarding school in Scotland. At the end of the war the three girls had a brief reunion in the Netherlands with their mother, who died three months later. Monika's education continued at the University of Liverpool, until she entered the Medical Mission Sisters at the age of 22. After her novitiate she came to the United States to study at the Catholic University of America. Later, after leaving the Medical Mission Sisters, she was invited back to the Catholic University of America to finish her doctorate. In 1967 she began to teach at Georgetown University, where she remained until 1996, when she left to become Executive Director and then President of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, a position she held until June 2005. At her sudden death in October 2005, she was mourned by her three adopted children, three grandchildren, and her two surviving sisters.

During her years as leader of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Monika patiently responded to those critics who continued to argue that Catholic colleges and universities could not be committed to their Catholic identity and mission unless they were clearly under the juridical control of ecclesiastical authorities. Many of us thought that the question had been resolved with the publication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990, which accepted the legitimacy of institutional autonomy when it affirmed that even in institutions where the Bishops do not participate in the governance of the institution, they should not be considered extrinsic to the life of the university. The question seemed to surface again, however, in the prolonged exchange between the American Catholic bishops and the Vatican Congregation for Education concerning the development of regional norms for the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae to the United States and, in particular, the obligation of Catholic theologians to seek certification (a mandatum) from their local bishop. In the end, the bishops defined this obligation as a personal one between the individual theologian and the local bishop, leaving the question of institutional autonomy untouched. More recently, however, an official of the Vatican Congregation on Education suggested in a speech at Notre Dame some weeks ago that perhaps an "evangelical pruning" of Catholic institutions would be necessary under Benedict XVI to identify those that were authentically Catholic.

"Conversation rather than control has been the source of a renewal of Catholic identity and mission on our American Catholic campuses."

The start of this conversation, which has ranged on for several decades in international meetings on Catholic higher education and in exchanges between the International Federation of Catholic Universities and the Vatican Congregation on Education, can conveniently be identified as the famous Land O' Lakes meeting convoked by Father Ted Hesburgh, C.S.C., then President of Notre Dame in 1967. The statement issued at the end of that meeting affirmed the need for Catholic universities to be independent of any external authority, either secular or ecclesiastical. At the same time, the Land O' Lakes delegates also affirmed that fidelity to Catholicism should permeate all Catholic institutions. The vision of the Land O' Lakes statement, which would be unfairly caricatured by conservative Catholics in later decades, was a model of an authentically Catholic university that was independent of canonical jurisdiction. In the words of a distinguished canon lawyer, such institutions seek to maintain and strengthen communion within the Church but not incorporation into the canonical structure of the Church.

The need for such juridical independence for a Catholic university's institutional autonomy was affirmed in various documents, most notably in the statement adopted by the delegates to the Second International Congress of Delegates of Catholic Universities, held in Rome in 1972, "The Catholic University in the Modern World". While not explicitly rejecting such a model, the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, in commenting on that document, noted that "this is in no way means that such institutions are removed from those relationships with the ecclesiastical hierarchy which must characterize all Catholic institutions."

The legitimacy of such a model for a Catholic university was of particular concern here in the United States, where most of our Catholic colleges and universities had moved to forms of governance where ultimate authority resided in independent boards of trustees. During the extended period of consultation that preceded the publication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990, the A.C.C.U. had argued for the legitimacy of this model of a Catholic university. The argument was advanced in various responses to the Congregation's requests for comments on preliminary drafts of what would become Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

During the planning for the visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States in September 1987, the ACCU was asked to prepare a draft for the address the Holy Father would give on Catholic higher education at a meeting of Catholic colleges and universities to be held at Xavier University in New Orleans in September 1987. A small committee of three was assigned this task, and the text we sent over described the network of Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States as a resource for the Church not matched anywhere else in the world. In speaking of the presence of the Church in the Catholic university, the ACCU draft introduced the notion of a different model of Catholic university that had developed in the United States and perhaps elsewhere as well. "The presence of the Church will be expressed in one way in regard to pontifical institutions and ecclesiastical faculties, and in another way in those institutions that, while they are not under direct ecclesiastical jurisdiction, nonetheless are "really Catholic" in the sense that they exercise the threefold mission of Catholic institutions of higher education." The reference to the threefold mission of Catholic higher education was drawn from the Pope's address on this theme in his earlier visit to the United States in 1979. The phrase "really Catholic" was taken from Canon 808. In the address he actually gave in New Orleans, Pope John Paul II did not explicitly address the issue of a "really Catholic" university that would not be under the jurisdiction of Church authorities. In discussing the relationships of bishops and theologians, however, he did note that "The Bishops of the Church, as Doctors et Magistri Fidei, should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic university."

"The lessons learned on our campuses may suggest a piece of the strategy needed for restoring a sense of moral authority in the Catholic Church in the United States."

The legitimacy of a Catholic university independent of ecclesiastical jurisdiction was an important issue at the Third International Congress of Catholic Universities that was convened in Rome in April 1989 as the culmination of the continuing consultation that informed the development of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. There was near unanimous support for the legitimacy of such a model. The recommendations of the Conference on this issue and the language developed by participants in the Conference were retained in what became Article 1 of the General Norms of Ex Corde Ecclesiae: "A Catholic university, as Catholic, is linked with the Church either through a formal, constitutive and statutory bond, or by reason of an institutional commitment on the part of those responsible for it". In the section dealing with relationships with Bishops, Ex Corde Ecclesiae recalls language from the Pope's 1987 address in New Orleans, "Even when they do not enter directly into the internal governance of the university, bishops 'should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University.'" (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 28)

Whatever tensions may have been at work at different moments in this decades long conversation, I believe that the conversation has had a transforming influence on Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. On all of our campuses, the issues of identity and mission continue to be explored in a variety of ways. Recognizing that the faculty will be at the center of the actual life of a university, programs to recruit faculty members who are likely to be sympathetic to the Catholic identity of our institutions have been emphasized. Even more important, perhaps, programs for the continued orientation of new faculty after they have been hired have been introduced, as have institutes in Catholic studies and discussion groups that engage senior and junior faculty in continuing exploration of themes arising from the institution's Catholic identity. At their best, in my experience, these programs are part of a continuing conversation, encouraged perhaps by the office of identity and mission, wherever that is located in the institutional structure, but deriving their energy and enthusiasm from the faculty themselves, rather than faculty responding to the mandates of central administrators. Responsibility for the Catholic identity and mission of the institution in everyone's responsibility.

Conservation rather than control has been the source of a renewal of a sense of Catholic identity and mission on our American Catholic campuses. Conversation had led to new initiatives, too often overlooked by those watchdogs of orthodoxy who seem to believe that the Catholic identity of an institution is determined by the boundaries such institutions observe rather than by the initiatives they undertake in developing programs that are inspired by the Catholic intellectual and religious tradition. To be more specific: is the authenticity of an institution's Catholic identity determined by its vigilance in never inviting a public figure who supports pro-choice legislation to give a lecture or receive an honorary degree? Does this test, which seems to be the consuming preoccupation of groups like the Cardinal Newman Society, override any judgment about the Catholic character of the intellectual and pastoral life of the university? Are Catholic institutions to be judged primarily by what they do not do, without any discernible interest on the part of self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy in the positive undertakings they should pursue?

In recruiting new faculty, we have come to recognize more and more clearly that what can appear to be an impeccable Catholic pedigree is no guarantee that an individual will actually be interested in promoting the Catholic identity and mission of the institution, at least once tenure is achieved. On the other hand, faculty members from other religious traditions or none, who are interested in questions of value beyond the narrow boundaries of their own disciplines, can often be engaged participants in this important dimension of a Catholic university's life.

In fact, over the past several years, as we have wrestled with this crisis of leadership in the Catholic Church in the United States in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, I have wondered if the experience of Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States could be instructive for the wider catholic community. Is continuing conversation, rather than assertion of juridical control, the better path to the restoration of trust in Catholic leadership in the Church? An increasingly educated and disappointed Catholic people recognize the need for moral authority, indeed seek it desperately in a time of shifting cultural values, but do not automatically recognize that authority in any assertion of canonical control or clerical position. I believe that the enthusiastic response Pope John Paul II has received in his visits to this country testifies to a widely felt need for authentic moral authority, even among those who may disagree with particular Vatican policies. But while seeking a source of moral authority, our Catholic people are not as ready as they once may have been to recognize such authority simply by title of ordination or hierarchical position.

Our bishops, I believe, will need to learn a new language to restore trust in their authority, a language that becomes possible only through listening to the needs and frustration of their people. As they listen, some voices will be intemperate; others will pursue personal agendas. Patience and generosity of spirit will be the most important resources of our bishops on their journey toward the restoration of trust.

Is it presumptuous to suggest that the habits of conversion necessary to build trust in an academic community may offer some guidance to the leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States as we move forward on the long journey towards healing the wounds of the past and restoring trust in the future? It is no accident that the Common Ground initiative launched by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, despite the opposition it received from other hierarchs in the United States, found a receptive home on Catholic campuses. The habits of respect for diversity and learning through dialogue that are the necessary conditions for any successful academic community, if adopted more widely in the Catholic community in the United States, could lead to a more generous and more credible pastoral response to those who feel alienated from Church life.

I am not suggesting that campus debate is the model for decisions on doctrinal matters. A vote of the faculty senate is not the proper method to determine the meaning of the Immaculate Conception. But for a pastoral response, as opposed to an affirmation of doctrine, would not the wider Catholic community learn something from the way our Catholic academic communities have supported gay and lesbian students, welcomed divorced and remarried Catholics and engages in confident conversation with those attracted to or only curious about our Catholic intellectual and religious traditions?

In any case, I believe the conversation about Catholic identity and mission, now more than three decades old, has helped transform our institutions and enriched our lives. I believe that many of our bishops, who have been partners in this conversation with us, have a better understanding of the contribution that Catholic higher education in this country has made and can make to the Church in the United States as it pursues its mission of evangelization of culture. At this moment of crisis in our Church, I also dare to suggest that the lessons learned on our campuses, of sympathetic listening and respect for diversity of opinions, may suggest a piece of the strategy needed for restoring a sense of moral authority in the Catholic Church in the United States.