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A Catholic university for Australia: surely not modelled on Notre Dame?

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 Contents - Oct 1988AD2000 October 1988 - Buy a copy now
A Catholic university for Australia: surely not modelled on Notre Dame? - Michael Gilchrist

Recent Australian press reports reveal that plans are well advanced for the establishment in Fremantle, Western Australia, of Australia's first Catholic university. Reports also indicate that this university is to be "modelled extensively" on the "successful formula" of Notre Dame in the United States.

The current President of Notre Dame, Fr Edward Malloy CSC recently led a team of experts from that University to Perth to meet Mr Denis Horgan, Chairman of the Planning Board for the new university, and other involved persons. Fr Malloy was quoted as follows: "We can give the benefit of our experience, especially in the application of Catholicity to such an institution".

If those engaged in the worthy project of establishing a truly Catholic university in Australia are keen to find American exemplars, there are several deserving their close attention. These orthodox Catholic colleges and universities, unlike Notre Dame, Georgetown or Catholic University of America, find no difficulty in accepting the legitimate authority of the Pope and Magisterium in matters of faith and morals; nor do they see this as any threat to their academic freedom.

Orthodox colleges

Their orthodoxy contrasts refreshingly with the dissent and equivocation tolerated at their more prestigious counterparts. Some outstanding examples of the former include: Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College, the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University of St Thomas, Houston.

To the average Australian Catholic, the prospect of an Australian version of the legendary Notre Dame might seem both exciting and edifying. However, those familiar with current conflicts between orthodoxy and infidelity in the Catholic Church in the United States may well experience less immediate optimism.

The background to the key issue was outlined in a recent article by former information officer for the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, Russell Shaw. He analysed the current crisis of American Catholicism in terms of a "conflict between orthodoxy and a runaway version of inculturation - Roman Catholicism versus the 'American Church'.". The former, coexisting uneasily with the latter, remains loyal to the Pope and Magisterium; the latter intones a familiar refrain: "Rome doesn't understand".

Foremost among the American Church's critics of Vatican and Papal policies have been several high profile representatives of the larger "Catholic" colleges and universities, notably Notre Dame, Georgetown, Fordham, Boston College and Catholic University of America.

In fact, of the approximately 240 institutions of higher education in the US claiming the name "Catholic", scarcely a dozen could be said to be totally loyal to the Magisterium.

"Devastated vineyard"

Dr Alice von Hildebrand has described the American Catholic higher education scene as "a devastated vineyard" as Catholic colleges and universities vie with their secular equivalents in their secularism, relativising the absolute and absolutising the relative. Moreover, many of these institutions, once noted for their strong religious identity, have not only been tolerating, but actually encouraging theological dissent in the name of academic freedom.

A number of complex developments have contributed to this sorry picture, but one can identify as a major milestone the historic July 1967 meeting of representatives of some twenty of the largest Catholic colleges and universities at Land O'Lakes, Wisconsin.

There under the leadership of Notre Dame's President, Rev Theodore Hesburgh, the meeting affirmed: "The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself".

This "trust us" policy, in effect, elevated the rights of faculty member above those of Catholic students, parents and Magisterium in determining the proper limits of orthodoxy and orthopraxis. The subsequent results have been devastating to the faith of Catholics born in the US and elsewhere, given, for example, the large numbers of Australian priests, religious and lay educators who have extended their theological qualifications at what have become bastions of the neo-modernist new church.

Theology departments in a large number of US Catholic colleges and universities have become well-established centres of dissent characterised by constant sniping at the Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger and the Vatican in general: "the petulant heterodoxy that flourishes in rarified settings". Two extensively researched features in 1984 and 1985 in the American Fidelity magazine posed the question: "Is Notre Dame Catholic?" Author of this research, Dr E. Michael Jones, concluded in the negative.

Dr Jones provided disturbing evidence of heterodoxy among Notre Dame's theologians, coupled with bitter hostility on the part of many faculty members who viewed any questioning of their teachings as "witch hunts" or a "vigilante mentality".

Of those who did respond to a questionnaire, one priest, on the wrongness of abortion and homosexuality, answered: "These are hopeless questions; there is no way of knowing". Another priest responded: "How can anyone speak of something being objectively wrong."

Father Richard McBrien, Head of the Theology Department, indicated that there was no department "policy" on abortion or the divinity of Christ.

Notre Dame full professor, and radical feminist, Dr Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, had signed a pro-abortion manifesto, but Fr McBrien saw no problem regarding her tenure or any question of dismissal. A Church History course titled "Church Evolution", presented a highly negative version of Catholicism, including assertions that Luther was basically right and that Jesus was "a creature of his time". The professor concerned subsequently admitted that he was an atheist.

Another member of Notre Dame's Theology faculty (Rev Niels K. Rasmussen), who committed suicide in 1987, and turned out to have been a practising homosexual, left instructions that there was to be no form of Christian burial.

At Jesuit-run Fordham University, its President Fr. Joseph O'Hare SJ recently defended the "academic freedom" of one of his faculty who required the viewing of X-rated, hard-core pornography as part of his course on communications. On the other hand, Fr O'Hare fired a woman faculty member apparently guilty of writing too many articles tor orthodox Catholic journals.

Daniel Maguire, a former priest, and a signatory of the notorious 1984 "pro-choice" New York Times advertisement, is a theologian on the faculty of Marquette University, Milwaukee.

This is despite the Vatican's statement that former priests should not teach religion or theology. The faculty of another institution, Boston College, invited Maguire to lecture there in 1986 despite his earlier reported comments: "My four visits to the [abortion] clinic made me more eager to maintain the legality of abortion for women who judge they need them".

In contrast, during her 1987 address at possibly the most orthodox Catholic university in the US, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr Alice von Hildebrand affirmed: "A Catholic university is a place where there can be no room for permissiveness, for moral laxity - sexual purity must be taught as a key virtue, deeply embedded in reverence, in charity". That such a reminder was needed was confirmed by recent events at three of the largest and most prestigious Catholic universities.

In the first instance, under pressure from the Office of Human Rights in Washington, DC, Jesuit-run Georgetown University's Law School had agreed to provide a $3,740 subsidy to the Lesbian and Gay Association of Georgetown University Law Students. Failure to comply could have meant loss of tax-exempt status of its property and the occupancy permits for university buildings.


This abject surrender to secularism and immorality led shortly afterwards to a similar situation at nearby Catholic University of America, where a gay and lesbian student organisation had its constitution accepted by the student activities office.

With university recognition, this group became eligible to receive funds from the student government, to advertise events on campus and to conduct campus-based meetings and forums. The organisation of gay and lesbian students, according to a recent report, proposed to "educate the university community about gay and bisexual issues" and to "push the administration to produce good and effective AIDS policy guidelines".

A similar capitulation occurred during 1988 at Fordham where the Gay and Lesbian Student Union has now organised forums featuring homosexual speakers, including one involved with disruptions of the Sunday Mass at St Patrick's Cathedral, New York City.

Given these and other aberrations among many of America's Catholic colleges and universities, the recent Vatican determination to regulate the use of the label "Catholic" was long overdue, as was its move against dissenting theologian, Fr Charles Curran, at about the same time.

The Vatican schema insists that the boundaries of academic freedom do not extend beyond the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church: "The Catholic university exists within the Church and is part of it ... Its Catholic character is derived from the ordering of the university to integral truth which is put before mankind by the Catholic Church and the members of the university take on this truth as their own."

Cardinal Newman is often invoked by champions of academic freedom. Perhaps they should study his definitive work The Idea of a University, more closely, for it argues persuasively that there is no conflict for Catholics between natural truth and Revelation. Yet those critics of the Vatican schema who have been most anxious to submit themselves to the infallible decrees of government departments and currently fashionable secular experts have been quick to reject the right of a divinely instituted authority to define their Catholicity for them.

As Newman pointed out: "If the Catholic Faith is true, a university cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot teach universal knowledge, if it does not teach Catholic theology". Moreover, added Newman, this university needed to submit to the Catholic Church's "direct and active jurisdiction ... lest it should become the rival of the Church with the community at large in those theological matters which to the Church are exclusively committed".

Pope John Paul II has made several emphatic and unambiguous pronouncements about what a Catholic university should be.

During his first visit to the United States in 1979, the Pope reminded a gathering of Catholic college and university presidents of their duty to ensure fidelity to the teaching of the Magisterium: "It behoves the theologian to be free, but with the freedom that is openness to the truth and the light that comes from faith and from fidelity to the Church".

There is an obvious inconsistency between this Papal concept of a Catholic university and the claim of the 1967 Land O'Lakes statement invoked ever more vehemently since 1985 in response to the Vatican draft document on higher education.

In late 1985, the President of Catholic University of America, Fr William Byron, SJ declared that in the US, anything which sought to impose "outside control" on a college or university as the Vatican's draft document did was "threatening quite literally to destroy the university".

Fr Timothy Healey SJ, President of Georgetown University, commented at the same time: "All externally imposed orthodoxies are bad for universities, because they don't work and because they're ultimately destructive". Fr Byron added that Catholic universities would rather give up their Catholic identity in the legal sense than lose a "half billion in federal aid".


At the 1986 Annual Meeting of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, the theme was "Catholic Universities: what makes them Catholic?" The President of Fordham University, Fr Joseph O'Hare SJ, addressed this meeting to the effect that issuance of the Vatican document would be "short-sighted", observing that if the proposed document put Catholic institutions under ecclesiastical authority, Fordham would have to declare itself not a Catholic University "in the sense of the document or the provisions of Canon Law". In fact, as catechetical adviser to New York's Cardinal John O'Connor, Msgr Michael Wrenn, pointed out in a recent journal article, Fordham had already described itself as an "independent university" in 1968 in order to qualify for government funds.

Late in May 1988, there took place a Conference of 60 Presidents of Catholic colleges and universities. Although the draft schema of the pontifical document was not on the agenda, several of the guest speakers took the opportunity to inveigh against Roman "oppression". Monika Hellwig, a professor of theology at Georgetown, spoke out against "continuing efforts in the Church to apply prior censorship to theological debate by tighter controls over Catholic colleges and universities".

Another speaker at the same conference, Editor of Commonweal, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, condemned the assertion of Catholic identity which saw reversion to "a vicious cycle of authoritarianism". By way of example she cited the case of Fr Charles Curran: "The appalling spectacle of one of our most scrupulous, thoughtful and quintessentially Catholic moral theologians being hounded out of the country's flagship Catholic university is all too apt to provoke the unfortunate reaction: 'If this is Catholic identity who needs it'?"

Fr Malloy's "line"

In this regard, it is worth reflecting upon comments made by Fr Edward Malloy, Notre Dame's President, during a 1987 interview for the National Catholic Register.

Fr Malloy was to succeed as President the outspoken Fr Theodore Hesburgh in July 1987, and now finds himself at the centre of the current debate over what actually constitutes a Catholic university. Interestingly, while Fr Hesburgh was the visible leader of US opposition to Rome's schema on Catholic higher education, it was Fr Malloy who actually wrote the first draft of Notre Dame's highly publicised response to the Vatican document.

Fr Malloy claimed that the document was "inapplicable to the American context" and "fundamentally unworkable". Rome had called for the local bishop to have final control over whether colleges and universities in a diocese measured up to certain standards of Catholicity and thus could call themselves "Catholic". This move, said Fr Malloy, would be "contrary to US civil law" while violating "the essential structural components of a university in a democratic society". Furthermore, financial support from federal and state sources could be threatened.

As himself a former member of Notre Dame's controversial theological department, Fr Malloy expressed surprise at the fuss over its head Fr Richard McBrien, "a relatively moderate and responsible theologian". In fact in recent years, McBrien's major work Catholicism has been censured by both the Australian and the American bishops, and among the twenty or so members of the theology department hired by McBrien has been the controversial bioethicist, Fr Richard McCormick SJ.

Fr McBrien has been a continuous critic of the present Pope and in a recent Notre Dame alumni magazine, wrote an article on the theme of "The hard-line Pontiff". Nevertheless, McBrien expects as much support from Malloy as he obtained from Hesburgh.

Another Notre Dame theology professor, Fr David Burrell, called the Vatican statement on higher education "a dastardly document", declaring that "we don't want the Church bureaucrats from another culture to decide if we're Catholic".

In one of its detailed exposes, "Is Notre Dame Catholic?", Fidelity magazine examined the bizarre experiments conducted in 1977 by one of its faculty members, Dr Basu, and the vain efforts of another faculty member to have them halted. The experiments entailed procuring abortions of the unborn suffering from Tay Sachs disease, via amniocentesis. The then President, Fr Hesburgh, was asked to prohibit the experiments and he put the matter in the hands of theology faculty member, Fr Edward Malloy.

Hesburgh subsequently endorsed Malloy's theological view "which would give qualified approval to the experiment as described". Furthermore, in his own book Homosexuality and the Christian Way of Life Malloy offered views on "committed" non-cleric homosexual relationships, similar to those of Fr Charles Curran.


In the light of what has been discussed so far, there would seem to be need for considerable caution and prudence if Australia is to see a truly Catholic university established. It is disturbing that Fr Malloy and Notre Dame should have been selected as sound bases of Catholicity for an Australian counterpart. Moreover, since the final draft of the Vatican document on higher education remains to be completed, organisers of the new university would need to remain open to this document's evolving guidelines. At least Australia has the opportunity of avoiding American mistakes of the past twenty years.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 1 No 7 (October 1988), p. 8

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