Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., president, was interviewed for a Catholic Colleges & Universities section cover story on CUA in the National Catholic Reporter . Tom Roberts, editor of National Catholic Reporter , also mentioned the story and Father O'Connell in his "From the Editor's Desk" column. See the story below.

A Laboratory on Identity Catholic University president seeks to make former 'home of dissent' into model of fidelity

From: National Catholic Reporter Date: Nov. 3, 2006 Author: Joe FeuerherdFr. David O'Connell, president of The Catholic University of America, had just completed the opening address on the second day of a university-sponsored conference on "The Catholic Church in America: 2006." The 52-year-old Vincentian, speaking in September, addressed the question of what makes a Catholic university authentically Catholic, a familiar theme in his nine-year tenure heading the "bishops' university."

Polite applause followed the 23-minute address.

"Say what you will about David," observed one faculty member whose bemused tone indicated significant disagreement with the content of O'Connell's talk, "but he speaks his mind clearly." O'Connell has been doing just that since he was plucked by Catholic University's board from a deanship at St. John's University in New York to head the institution from which he earned his doctorate in canon law.

"Our Catholic universities and colleges -- especially faculties that have influence over hiring decisions have blindly accepted the criticism ... that Catholic universities and their Catholic faculties are somehow second class," O'Connell said in his September address. "They seek as peers those non-Catholics who are regarded, not always honestly or accurately, as the best in their fields, rather than seeking out people who are not only the best in their fields but also the best in their faith. ... For them 'Catholic' is merely an adjective that is limiting and negative, rather than descriptive and vibrant."

The tone of O'Connell's leadership was set early. At his inauguration as Catholic University president in 1998 he took the controversial "oath of fidelity," publicly vowing to "hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety" and to "avoid any teachings opposed to that faith." From the outset he embraced Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church"), the 1990 papal document many other Catholic university presidents viewed as a threat to academic freedom.

"I want it [Catholic University] to be faithful to the church," O'Connell declared in his inaugural address. He continued, "What would it profit us if we surrender that responsibility or even strike compromise in its regard to gain the grudging acceptance of the whole academic world -- only to lose our soul in the process?"

The grudging acceptance of the whole academic world. It's a taunt of sorts from the Philadelphia-raised priest. Who needs them? he seems to ask -- them being the secular arbiters of academic excellence and their fellow travelers on Catholic campuses.

O'Connell's views are, of course, more than theoretical. The Catholic University of America is a laboratory for his strongly held views on the notion of "Catholic identity."

The specter of Curran

Ghosts run rampant through the 193-acre campus of The Catholic University of America in the northeast Washington neighborhood of Brookland. The buildings -- Gibbons, Spaulding, Conaty, Spellman, Ryan -- recall long-dead bishops and cardinals who launched and nurtured the university. There is, for example, the spirit of Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the late church historian who spent more than 50 years at Catholic University. It was a famous 1955 Ellis essay, "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life," to which O'Connell alluded when seeking to debunk the notion that Catholic universities are "second-rate."

And there's the specter of Fr. Charles Curran, a theologian and former faculty member who hasn't taught at Catholic University in nearly 20 years. Curran had a long record of dissent from church teaching, most notably as it related to artificial contraception. In the late 1960s he was fired, only to be reinstated after a student strike. In 1986, Curran's canonical mandate to teach at a Catholic university was withdrawn by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and he was subsequently fired by The Catholic University of America's board of trustees.

Curran challenged his dismissal in court, but lost. He now teaches at Southern Methodist University, though his presence is still felt at Catholic University. The American Association of University Professors censured the university for its treatment of Curran, a sanction that remains in place. (For a review of Curran's memoir.)

In a 45-minute interview conducted in his Nugent Hall office, O'Connell spoke frankly about Catholic University, its history, and his objectives as president.

"For a long time Catholic University had the reputation as being the home of dissent," he said. "Why? Because a number of faculty members at the institution had that reputation and, quite frankly, were that way. When the church said something, the first thing out of the mouth of Catholic University was how it was wrong -- not why it was right or how to make it better known or understood."

He continued: "Where do these types of questions and controversies arise? They arise in the ecclesiastical schools, which is the reason the university was created. Theology, canon law, philosophy, these are considered sacred sciences, ecclesiastical disciplines that are under the discipline of the church. So for anyone within the discipline of canon law to run counter to the church is ridiculous -- because your discipline, your science, and your procedures and structure, everything about it, is to help the church be what it is. And we did have people in that school who challenged everything that came out of the church. When Curran had the first controversy in '68 and his later controversy in the '80s, the canon lawyers were right there with him." Not anymore. Today, says Msgr. Kevin Irwin, dean of Catholic University's School of Theology and Religious Studies, all faculty members who are required to have the mandatum ("an acknowledgment by church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic church") possess it.

The Catholic University still has its controversies. But they are more likely to come from outside the institution, not from a rebellious faculty. The issues are familiar to all Catholic university presidents: to permit a pro-choice speaker to address a university assembly, to grant an honorary degree or podium to someone who at some point was less than pure in their articulation of Catholic teaching, to allow "The Vagina Monologues" to be performed on campus. And so on and so on. It is, perhaps, the stalest of discussions in the nation's 230 Catholic institutions of higher education -- the Catholic answer to the old saw that academic debates are so intense because the stakes are so low.

O'Connell won't allow "The Vagina Monologues" on campus. "I find the play crude, ugly, vulgar and unworthy of staging or performing at CUA in any venue whatsoever," he said in January. The play, he said, "has become a symbol each year of the desire of some folks to push Catholic campuses over the edge of good and decent judgment."

These are the kinds of issues that make for unflattering headlines in The Washington Post, Catholic University's hometown paper: "Catholic U Bars Actor-Activist at Forum" and "CU Tells Students They Can't Start NAACP Chapter" are two relatively recent examples.

The most recent brouhaha was fueled by the right. The conservative Cardinal Newman Society, a small watchdog group that monitors Catholic campuses for their fidelity to the group's interpretation of church teaching, scolded O'Connell and Catholic University's law school for allowing Pennsylvania Senate candidate and law school alumnus Robert Casey -- an antiabortion Democrat challenging conservative Catholic incumbent Rick Santorum -- to speak on campus. In a letter to O'Connell protesting Casey's appearance, Reilly said the candidate's support of "public funding for contraceptives, laws mandating contraceptive coverage in health plans, and civil unions for homosexuals," among other things, should disqualify Casey from speaking at the school.

"Whether intentional or not, CUA is signaling that it endorses this political candidate and deems his public dissent from Catholic moral teaching unimportant," said Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Newman Society.

"Although the dean of the law school defended the decision to invite him against complaints of political favoritism by arguing that the speech was not political in nature, there was no way a candidate in the most contested Senate race in the United States could appear on campus and it not be a political speech," Catholic University alumna Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, wrote in the National Catholic Register.

O'Connell responded indirectly in his conference address.

"I don't believe that certain self-appointed watchdog-of-orthodoxy groups, with their heavy-handed and controversy-generating tactics are helpful in [lessoning polarization in the church]. In fact, they deepen the divide and they intensify the lack of ecclesiastical unity based on our common faith," he said.

Critics on the left, who argue that academic freedom is jeopardized or violated by a university that won't open its doors to those who question or reject Catholic teaching, and those on the right, who say O'Connell doesn't enforce his own standards, miss the point, says O'Connell.

"I don't believe the institution is conservative," he told NCR. "I certainly don't believe it's liberal. I want to steer it to the center. I want the institution to be the place where the church can encounter what it believes, express what it means by what it believes, and offer it to people as something good for their lives."

O'Connell's 1990 canon law thesis was an exploration of Canon 810, the part of church law stating, "The conference of bishops and the diocesan bishops concerned have the duty and right of being vigilant that in these universities the principles of Catholic doctrine are faithfully observed." In this view, academic freedom includes the obligation to be fully Catholic. He invoked the metaphor of the "big tent" in his conference presentation. "A Catholic university is not the tent," said O'Connell. "A Catholic university is a structure that helps to support the tent. A Catholic university must be in the tent."

Bishops, said O'Connell, are rightfully involved in the business of a Catholic university; not least The Catholic University of America, "the bishops' university."

'The bishops' university'

"What is the use of being The Catholic University's board of directors if we can't fire an untenured professor?" asked Philadelphia Cardinal John Krol during one of the Curran-era controversies.

Good question -- one that goes to the heart of what makes The Catholic University what it is, both for good and for ill.

Half of the unwieldy 50-member board of trustees is composed of bishops. By virtue of his office, the archbishop of Washington, now Donald Wuerl, serves as chancellor; Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop William Lori is the board's president. Board members include Archbishops Raymond Burke (St. Louis), Charles Chaput (Denver), Timothy Dolan (Milwaukee), Wilton Gregory (Atlanta) and Harry Flynn (Minneapolis-St. Paul); and Cardinals Edward Egan (New York), Sean O'Malley (Boston), William Keeler (Baltimore), Roger Mahony (Los Angeles), Justin Rigali (Philadelphia) and Adam Maida (Detroit).

It's a complex relationship, that of board-member-bishop to university, fraught with conflict. On a day-to-day basis those conflicts have little to do with esoteric disputes over academic freedom versus Catholic identity. Money, for example, is a key concern.

As president of a weakly endowed, tuition-dependent university, one of O'Connell's chief jobs is to raise money. He does so with one hand tied behind his back.

Before approaching a potential donor who is not a Catholic University alumnus, O'Connell checks with the local ordinary. "I'm trying to raise money from Catholics and those Catholics live in dioceses and those Catholics are known to the bishops as well who are trying to raise money for their schools and their dioceses," O'Connell told NCR. "So for me to turn to them and say, 'I'm going to visit Mr. Smith who is capable of helping the university,' they ...say, 'He's helping me with this [already],' so it's hard." Said O'Connell, "If the bishop says no, then I say OK and I don't pursue it."

The challenge, said O'Connell, is to get support for "this institution in Washington, D.C., when they have their own institution in California or Nevada or some place far from this location."

Further, said O'Connell, "we had a dysfunctional development operation here for many, many years. Someone was sent from their diocese and they'd come and learn the trade and then be sent back to their diocese as the director of development there. We never had any real continuity in the operation."

Being the "bishops' university," to be sure, has its pluses, not least the $4 million national collection that goes to support Catholic University scholarships. But the "Catholic" brand name -- and the baggage it carries -- can also prove difficult. "I walk in as the president of Catholic University but I walk out beaten up because of individual X's or individual Y's experience with the Catholic church," O'Connell said.

He offered an example: "Very recently I met with a very successful alumnus, obviously with the hope that at some point he is going to be supportive and generous. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he brings up Humane Vitae, which is 40 years old, and proceeds to go off on me on Humane Vitae and contraception and why does the church teach that, and so on and so forth. It sidetracked the whole conversation and the whole purpose of the visit." Said O'Connell, "Nothing happened as a result of the meeting that benefits Catholic University. I didn't walk out of there with a check to support the university."

Catholic identity, like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, is "one of those things that you can say I know it when I see it," O'Connell told NCR. In his conference address he offered five specific areas that can be measured when judging an institution's Catholic identity.

First, leadership. "At Catholic universities the leadership, the president and senior administrators in particular ... must be visibly and demonstrably committed to the Catholic identity and mission of the institution. It must be a presidential priority, emphasized at every possible opportunity and in every administrative decision."

Next, a faculty and curriculum supportive of church teaching. "Dissent is not a valid option or an equal comparable alternative to what the church presents as truth within the Catholic university. Far too many concessions are made ... to a society and culture in which truth is presented as relative."

Third, "an active spiritual life outside the classroom," represented by an active campus ministry program. This, perhaps, is the area most noticeable at Catholic University, where O'Connell recruited an energetic and well-liked Franciscan, Fr. Bob Schlageter, to head up the university's campus ministry effort. O'Connell has put the university's money where his mouth is: two full-time priests, one part-time priest, four lay campus ministers and 16 student ministers (who receive financial aid for their work) staff campus ministry. More than 200 new Catholic University students, for example, attended the freshman retreat held in September.

Fourth, said O'Connell, is campus life. "Guidelines and procedures that support Catholic living in dormitories and residence halls and that are enforced are essential to the ... institution and community."

And, finally, "good relations with the universal and local church."

The Catholic University just welcomed its largest freshman class in history. More dormitories are planned to deal with the growing student body. John Zogby, the noted pollster, has signed on as the university's Life Cycle Institute senior fellow. "His appointment marks a milestone in the development of the institute as a national center for public policy and Catholic social thought," said Stephen Schneck, institute director and chair of the Department of Politics.

More good news: Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, Fr. Paul McPartlan and Fr. John Paul Heil, noted theologians all, have recently joined the School of Theology and Religious Studies.

"I think we've made a change at the university, at least I feel that way," O'Connell told NCR. "That's what I intended to do when I came here -- to reclaim what the university is all about."