BC President William P. Leahy, SJ (left), and Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins, CSC (right).

Photos: Lee Pellegrini

Revitalizing the Catholic Church

The presidents of Boston College and Notre Dame share their visions for the Church’s future. 

With religious participation in the country continuing a decades-long decline, the leaders of two of the world’s foremost Catholic institutions met recently for a candid discussion about how the Church can fortify itself and remain at the center of parishioners’ lives. 

“A Conversation on the Catholic Church” brought together Boston College President William P. Leahy, SJ, and University of Notre Dame President John I. Jenkins, CSC, for a lively talk about navigating the challenges facing the Church. The event, organized by the Notre Dame Business Council and held in November at the Seaport Hotel in Boston, was moderated by BC Trustee Associate Charles I. Clough, Jr. ’64, who is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Boston. Clough got to the heart of the matter in his introductory remarks, noting the dwindling rates of church attendance and religious affiliation, and the resulting pressure on Catholic parishes and schools to merge or simply close.

After concluding his opening comments, Clough took a seat between Fr. Leahy and Fr. Jenkins on a small stage overlooking the audience of more than 200 BC and Notre Dame alumni and community leaders. “God is still with the Church,” Fr. Leahy assured the participants, “but there are tough issues we need to face.” One helpful change the Church could make, he said, would be to borrow a page from many Catholic universities, where boards of trustees are made up of lay people with expertise in matters such as fundraising and the construction and operation of facilities. Similar boards could help archdioceses and dioceses modernize their governance structures, Fr. Leahy said, while ensuring that all matters of faith and morals remain entrusted with the bishop. “I can say our two institutions run well because the boards of trustees have been great,” Fr. Leahy said. “Our two institutions have benefited from lay men and women who have given so much of their time and their energy to being trustees.”

Fr. Jenkins agreed that such a move could benefit the Church. “The strongest dioceses,” he said, “are those that de facto invite in lay people.” Moreover, Fr. Jenkins cited the work of the renowned Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam to argue that the Church’s struggle to connect with young people these days says less about their hunger for spiritual meaning than about a shift in the broader society away from formal participation in groups and organizations. “The sociological data says that it’s a bit of a lonely generation,” he said. “They feel less connected, but spiritually yearning.” 

And in that yearning, Fr. Leahy said, there is opportunity for Catholic institutions. “At places like Notre Dame and BC, there is still a core curriculum,” he said, “meaning that students are required to take courses that deal with large questions, whether they come out of literature, history, philosophy, theology, mathematics, sciences. That is a great opportunity for us to hand on the faith and also to raise the questions that are most important, and to touch on what is meaningful for our students.”

Fr. Jenkins concurred. “You need a high level of formation, intellectual formation, to be the kind of leaders that can help the Church to a successful future,” he said. “And I think BC provides it and Notre Dame provides it.”

Both presidents said that they see Catholic education at all levels playing a significant role in revitalizing the Catholic Church. “So much of the renewal of the Church will be shaped by what happens on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities, and the high schools and grade schools,” Fr. Leahy said. “That’s why I think it is very important that we maintain as many of those schools as we possibly can.”

“What a Catholic institution provides is the question of ‘What’s the purpose of my life?’” Fr. Jenkins said. “That is a different kind of education than just teaching how to program a computer or…how to manage a spreadsheet.” Such an orientation, he added, “helps the Church, but it also, I think, differentiates our institutions.”

Fr. Leahy, who introduced the Church in the 21st Century Initiative at Boston College in 2001 in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, also offered insights on how best to renew parish life. “I think there is faith among young people,” he said. “It is not shown in practice the way our generation or our grandparents practiced the faith, but there is faith. Our challenge is to tap into those great values and desires
that our students have.”

“The greatest power of the Church is the holiness of its members,” Fr. Jenkins said. “For all our challenges, just to live the Gospel and to follow Jesus and to pray and do what you can. Probably as much as any structural change we could make or doctrinal change or change of practice—that is what’s going to strengthen the Church.” 

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