WASHINGTON – In an address to Catholic college and university presidents Jan. 29 in Washington, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., praised them for making “Christ’s mission come alive and flourish” and challenged them to renew and strengthen their mission using guidelines established by the 1990 Vatican document on Catholic higher education.
The bishop, who gave a keynote address during the Jan. 29-31 annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, noted that much has changed in the 20 years since Pope John Paul II issued “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” (“From the Heart of the Church”).
Bishop Kicanas said the initial concerns about the document “have lessened as universities and colleges learned that bishops seek communication and desire cooperation and collaboration.”
He praised Catholic colleges for making efforts to strengthen their Catholic identity and incorporate church teachings into student life – especially through “pro-life groups, mission immersions, prayer and retreat opportunities, ethical and moral education in all fields.”
But the bishop noted that there are aspects of “Ex Corde” that still need to be more fully implemented, most notably, the need for teachers of Catholic theology to receive a mandate, or church authorization, from their local bishop.
He said some Catholic colleges and universities have sought this mandate, but others have not. This inconsistency, he said, “could reflect some distrust or concern about undue interference or not seeing the importance of doing it.”
Bishop Kicanas stressed that involving the bishop with faculty members who teach Catholic theology is “critical to true communion in the church.” He said there is room in academic communities for “disagreement, debate and clash of ideas, even in theology,” but ultimately the bishop “is the authentic teacher of the faith” and is responsible for how that faith is interpreted.
In a word to bishops, he said they should make sure they do not exercise this authority “harshly, unilaterally or without conversation and an effort to reconcile diverse teaching” especially since bishops and college leaders should be working together to “build stronger bonds and relationships.”
Other areas stressed in “Ex Corde” that he said also need more focus include: making Catholic identity central in core curriculum, campus activities and symbols on campus; and encouraging campus ministry programs to reach out to more than just a small group of active members but to the college community at large.
Bishop Kicanas told the university leaders that his respect for them and what they do every day “could not be greater.” He said he knew of their challenges and frustrations firsthand since he served as rector and president of the University of St. Mary on the Lake, the major seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for 10 years.
He thanked them for sharing their resources with the church at large, challenging students to live for others and encouraging scholarship.
The bishop urged the Catholic college leaders to look to recently beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman for inspiration. Cardinal Newman, who died in 1890, spent much of his life at Oxford University as both a student and a fellow. As an Anglican priest, he was the vicar at a university church and after he became a Catholic, he founded the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham and a Catholic university in Dublin. Many of his ideas on higher education are in his book “The Idea of a University,” based on lectures he gave in the 1850s.
Bishop Kicanas said Cardinal Newman would certainly tell today’s Catholic college leaders that they should “place Catholic identity first among your concerns” and “educate a generation of laity who would bring their faith to bear on the burning questions of this time.”
On a personal level, the bishop also noted that college leaders should emulate the cardinal’s example of prayer.
“Newman’s prayer life sustained him through rocky and turbulent times, through disappointments and failings, through challenges and self-doubt,” he said.
He said Cardinal Newman’s understanding of cooperation with church leaders is also relevant today.
“Newman can challenge us as bishops and administrators to put down the boxing gloves that sometimes we slip on, to sit together, to converse together, yes and even to have some good laughs together so that we come to a deeper level of respect and trust,” he said.
“Together we can accomplish so much,” he added. “We need to work alongside one another to strengthen the mission of Jesus Christ to which we are all committed and which is under such challenge and question today.”