A new article in The Atlantic looks at how many Jesuit colleges are rebranding themselves to project an image of fidelity to so-called "Catholic values" without proclaiming fidelity to actual Catholic teachings.
There is a lot to chew on in Autumn Jones' "The New Brand of Catholic Universities," and more than a few religion ghosts – that is, hints of valuable religion angles that are left unexplored. Key words? Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
Two points especially call out for clarification. The first is that of what happened to the Jesuits. Jones writes:
A fourth of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities currently have lay presidents, and the number of Jesuit priests who are active in everyday operations at the schools isn’t nearly as high as it once was.
That is putting it mildly. Here's how the Washington Post reported the decline in local Jesuit vocations in 2011, which reflects a global trend:
When John Langan came to Georgetown University in 1975 as a young Jesuit priest, he was one of 112 brothers from the Catholic order on campus. ...
Today there are barely half as many Jesuits at Georgetown, the order’s flagship university. Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school in Northwest Washington, is down to 17, compared with 43 in 1970.
It would have been enlightening for the Atlantic to at least ask why there are fewer Jesuits at Jesuit colleges. The reasons (such as those brought out by First Things then-editor David Mills in his response to the 2011 WaPo piece) could shed light upon the forces contributing to the diminishment of the schools' Catholic identity.
The other omission in the Atlantic piece concerns an issue raised by one of Jones' sources:
Sean Daru, a 2014 Regis [University] graduate from Denver, sought a Catholic education and needed to stay close to home for family reasons. Regis was his only option. "It is different in very meaningful and obvious ways," Daru said. "Some of those differences are good and necessary. And some of those differences aren’t. While, undoubtedly, there are things that make Regis Catholic, there are things that are missing that are central to what it would be to be a Catholic university."
That last line is a great quote; I would call it the heart of the article.
After reading it, one would expect a follow-up question: What things are missing from Regis that are central to the student's idea of a Catholic university? Eucharistic adoration? Required classes in Catholic theology? A social-justice club that is active in the pro-life arena? The reader is left guessing.
One last note: The Atlantic quotes Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh extensively throughout its article, even giving him the last word.
However, although the article mentions organizations that are working to promote Catholic identity at Jesuit colleges, it fails to quote any representative of such a group, or any outside critic. Instead, it permits McCulloh to respond extensively to a generalized account of such groups:
Today, a handful of organizations, concerned about these changes, advocate for a stronger Catholic identity at Jesuit universities. The 1887 Trust and the Father King Society are two examples. Participants share concerns regarding events, speakers, curriculum requirements, and faculty appointments.
But McCulloh hasn’t been fazed by these efforts: "I respect the right of people to form groups, to create circles, to engage in discussion about issues that are important to them and those they feel ought to be relevant to us. I have actively engaged with them and I have let them know that I do not agree with their perspective."
"If they experienced it with us, no, they would not find perfection," McCulloh continued. "But they would find that all of the things that the Church and the Jesuits are asking universities to do are here and obvious."
Once again, the last line invites a follow-up: What things are church authorities and the Jesuits asking universities to do?
Without any information from an actual representative of the groups that are calling Jesuit universities to greater religious accountability, McCulloh is responding to a straw man. In other words, where is the other side of this debate?