One of the most challenging issues in Catholic higher education today is Catholic identity itself. For some the question is whether our institutions enjoy sufficient academic freedom. For others it is whether our institutions are Catholic enough. In the end, it comes down to how best to balance the built-in tension between academic freedom and fidelity to Catholic teaching.
This issue was debated in February at the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and it certainly is an issue that comes up regularly at the University of St. Thomas. At almost any gathering of alumni or benefactors, I am asked, “So just how Catholic is St. Thomas?” and I find the best way to answer is to describe the many ways in which St. Thomas carries out its Catholic mission.
Contrary to a concern expressed by a Minneapolis newspaper columnist last November, St. Thomas has done more than just a little “to resist the slide to secularization.” We have done a lot, in fact.
When I began as president of St. Thomas in 1991, I emphasized the importance of maintaining wholehearted commitment to “the cultivation of a vital Catholic identity” and “the development of the whole student. Not only the mind, but the heart – and the soul – as well.”
Seventeen years later, I am happy to report that we have made remarkable progress in establishing an even more vibrant Catholic community through a number of rich academic, co-curricular and community initiatives. Examples include:
Theology and philosophy courses. All of our undergraduate students are required to take three theology and two philosophy courses – a requirement that has been kept in place for decades. Consequently, we have one of the largest theology and philosophy faculties in the country, and their influence is felt both in and out of the classroom.
Center for Catholic Studies. Founded in 1996, this is one of the largest programs of its kind in the nation, with 275 undergraduate majors and 90 graduate students. The center’s John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought and Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy sponsor conferences and conduct research. The center publishes the quarterly Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture.
School of Law. We opened the school in 2001 with a mission of “integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice.” That mission has attracted a current enrollment of 470 students who readily respond to our challenge to become servant-leaders in their profession.
Seminaries. St. Thomas collaborates with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in sponsoring two seminaries. The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity prepares candidates for the priesthood and offers degree programs in lay ministry. St. John Vianney Seminary is the largest college-level seminary in the United States; in five years, its enrollment has doubled to 154 and it accounts for 12 percent of all collegiate seminaries in the country.
Rome presence. We opened a campus in Rome in 2000, and more than 350 students have enrolled in our Catholic Studies semesters and January Term programs. On Christmas Eve, our liturgical choir performed in St. Peter’s Basilica for the third time in two decades.
Murray Institute. The institute, a donor-funded partnership with the archdiocese, has enabled more than 600 teachers and principals in Catholic elementary and secondary schools to receive graduate degrees at St. Thomas free of tuition since 1993.
Spirituality and service. Our tradition of faith has found expression both in our eight chapels and in our efforts to promote community responsibility. In 2006, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching named St. Thomas one of 62 “community engagement” institutions, citing the 80,000 hours of service that our students and employees contribute to our community each year.
Catholic identity programs. We received two Lilly Foundation grants totaling $2.5 million – and matched by donors – to establish our “Beyond Career to Calling” program, which encourages faculty, staff and students to explore vocations. Additionally, all new employees participate in an orientation to our Catholic mission, and hundreds of faculty and staff attend more intensive seminars on integrating Catholic principles into our life and work.
Higher education leadership. We sponsored a conference in 1995 that drew 450 educators from 130 Catholic colleges and universities and the prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for Catholic Education to discuss the unique challenges facing our institutions. I subsequently served as chair of the American Catholic Colleges and Universities board and now serve as the American representative to the International Federation of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
These activities are embraced by our faculty and staff, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, because they enable us to more effectively carry out our mission: “Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.”
And that may be the ultimate question to ask – not “How Catholic is St. Thomas?” but “Are we fulfilling our mission as a Catholic university?” I have never been more convinced that the answer is “yes,” and we will surely continue to seek out in the years ahead more opportunities to strengthen our Catholic nature and to live out more effectively our Catholic mission.