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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Role of Catholic Universities in American Public Life

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Our first lunch colloquium of the semester took place January 30, when David O'Brien, Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, spoke on the role of Catholic universities in American public life.  O’Brien noted that Catholic universities affirm three lines of responsibility: professional, ecclesiastical, and civic. In the 1960s, these lines cohered well and were epitomized by the inscription over the chapel doors at the University of Notre Dame: “God, Country, and Notre Dame.” In the late 1960s, however, with the American values of institutional autonomy and academic freedom at stake, a number of universities turned their charters over to independent boards of trustees. For a while, this new arrangement worked as universities gained prominence in the academic world. But some critics now fear that such assimilation has entailed a loss of Catholic identity.

O’Brien rejected this criticism and the passive voice of assimilation and accommodation that lay behind it; he articulated an alternative narrative that uses the active voice of liberation, solidarity, and shared responsibility. For him, the move of Catholic universities into the mainstream has been positive in that it has helped the Church to participate in the transformation of the United States and the world.  The move has not been without tension, but the “bilingual approach” (which allows for both faithful Christian discipleship and responsible American citizenship) favored by university presidents such as Theodore Hesburgh reflects the daily Christian practice of using one language among friends and another in areas of shared responsibility. O’Brien noted that Catholic universities have reintroduced religion into the undergraduate curriculum and focused on the needs of the poor in a way that serves the public good. Thus academic work is located within the horizon of the world in a way that reflects Vatican II’s call for Catholics to embrace the world in which they live.