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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Role of Catholic Universities in American Public Life

The Role of Catholic Universities in American Public Life
David O'Brien, College of the Holy Cross
Location: Boisi Center, 24 Quincy Rd.
Time: 12:00-1:15 pm

photo of David O'Brien

Catholic higher education in the United States stands at the far end of changes that amounted to a Catholic "academic revolution". Between 1967 and 1972 most Catholic colleges and universities transferred ownership and responsibility from sponsoring religious orders to independent boards of trustees. This remarkable process arose from the wider American Catholic experience of what is commonly called Americanization, the movement of many American Catholics from ethno-religious subcultures into the mainstream of American life, a movement measured by income, education, social status and residence. That historical experience was regarded positively because meaning was assigned in terms of Americanism, a body of ideas that affirmed the ideals and practices of American life. In recent years leaders of Catholic higher education have found themselves increasingly on the defensive because the entire experience of Americanization has been called into question. The higher education argument takes place over matters of ecclesiastical discipline (e.g the mandatum for theologians) or supposed church teaching (e.g. the Vagina Monologues or gay rights groups) but the growth of wider concern about personal and institutional integrity and the loss of confidence among Catholic academic leaders arises as well from changing assessments of American society and culture. For that reason the outcome of the higher education argument will be determined by wider developments among American Catholics. The current arguments are important, then, not just for American academic life but for American public life, as Catholics constitute a very important component of American society and culture, as you well know. In short, for friends at BC and Holy Cross: a lot is at stake. The mission and identity questions really do matter!

David O'Brien is Loyola Professor of Catholic Studies and Professor of History at College of the Holy Cross. He has written widely in the history and contemporary life of the Catholic church in the United States. He has served as president of the American Catholic Historical Association and received the Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for distinguished contribution to Catholic Higher Education from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Among his books is From the Heart of the American Church: Catholic Higher Education and American Culture.

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