Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bad news at St. Thomas

Father Dease, president of my undergraduate alma mater, the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., recently published a report on the Board of Trustee's fall meeting. In his report, he announced that the St. Paul/Minneapolish archbishop would no longer serve as ex officio chairman of the board, but would instead be elected to five year terms.
Father Dease writes:
One very upbeat moment during the plenary session came when the board saluted Archbishop Harry Flynn for his leadership as chairman since 1995. The board presented him with a framed certificate of appreciation that said: "Champion of Catholic higher education and model of servant leadership, intellectual and moral courage, you exemplify caritas, the greatest of all Christian virtues. You do us honor, and we thank you."
Implementing a process the Board Affairs Committee began last February, the board also elected Archbishop Flynn to a five-year term as chairman of the board after making appropriate changes to the university's bylaws which heretofore had stipulated that the ordinary (head) of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis serve ex officio as chairman.
The changes were made to recognize the increasingly important role that Archbishop Flynn has at St. Thomas. He has been a very active chairman, meeting regularly with faculty, staff and students, attending campus events and serving on committees such as the one that wrote our new mission statement. More recently, he has agreed to serve as an honorary co-chair of the Opening Doors campaign. After he retires as ordinary next year, he will move into the late Monsignor Terrence Murphy's office in the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center.
The board also removed ex officio references from two other board positions. Father Kevin McDonough, vicar general of the archdiocese, will continue to serve as vice chairman and was elected to a five-year term. The board elected me to five-year terms both as a trustee and as president of St. Thomas.
These changes as well as others made previously reflect recommendations made to us five years ago by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities when it reviewed with our board best governance practices. One AGB recommendation was to conform our bylaws to what is now the common practice among Catholic colleges and universities: to elect the board's chairman and vice chairman.
(You can read Father Dease's full letter here.)
For obvious reasons, this is very troubling. What connection to the Church does St. Thomas now have? What clout can the Church exercise if the university goes astray? What if the archbishop openly criticizes the university, and the board decides not to elect him to another term?
There are so many good things happening at St. Thomas -- everything from the seminarians at St. Paul and St. John Vianney, to the Catholic Studies program, to the faithful Catholic professors I studied under in the philosophy department. But without a regulating body, there is now nothing to ensure that these good things will continue. I'm very afraid for St. Thomas' future.
Another alumna has been keeping me abreast on another situation brewing: St. Thomas' English department adopts a "common text" every year, which all incoming freshmen are required to read. Apparently this year's text is quite unsavory and even anti-Catholic. You can read about it here.
I'm trying to think positively about St. Thomas, especially since the education I received there left me a better formed Catholic, but all I can do is pray for the university's future. As much as I love to hear of new, vibrant universities like Christendom, I continue to pray for established universities like St. Thomas, because so much good could happen if they were to re-embrace their Catholic identity -- not only as individuals or programs, but as an entire university administration.


Steve said...

I fail to see why this is a bad thing. Franz, I wish you would expand on this.

Franz Klein said...

Potential situation:
St. Thomas decides to officially support abortion, give money to Planned Parenthood, etc., or decides to contradict Church teaching in any way. At present, the archbishop could call together the board of trustees and condemn the university's action, hopefully precipitating retraction by the university. If his position were ex officio, no amount of pressure from anybody, no matter how powerful, could cause the archbishop to lose his position. But now, if the archbishop stands up for the faith, the powers-that-be could strong-arm the fellow trustees not to re-elect him to another five year term. In effect, the archbishop has lost his ability to stand up for what the Church teaches. That's why it's such a bad thing.

Cassandra said...

Well Steve, let me fill you in. Franz misses a big part of the play.

The Board clearly shows its colors if there were any doubt before. This is just in time to avoid having Nienstedt serve as Chairman. Instead they choose Mr. Spineless in Flynn who can be controlled. Yet, they get the appearance of looking Catholic by showing an Archbishop on the Board. Nienstedt will have his hands full, and will have to fight a board with an emeritus Archbishop on it. Note that it took five years to implement the AGB recommendations (as if a Catholic college should kowtow to them) so that is obviously a ruse.

Very, very clever.

An end around by Nienstedt might to require any organization calling itself Catholic in his Archdiocese to require ex officio members on the Board.

alisonchris said...

I've never thought of A Handmaid's Tale as being anti-Catholic--rather, I've always read it as anti-religious-extremism. For example, I believe that Islamic terrorists have subverted and corrupted Islam for militaristic and political purposes, and televangelists have subverted and corrupted Christianity for personal (particularly financial) gain. I don't believe either group accurately represents, or even truly believes in, their respective religions.

Regardless of Atwood's intentions, I would hope that St. Thomas, as a Catholic university, is using A Handmaid's Tale to open a dialogue about misrepresentation and/or subversion of the Catholic faith. If the world in A Handmaid's Tale is truly representative of a Catholic utopia, I would be very disturbed...

Anonymous said...


I know not your inclinations toward the Catholic Church, but the forthcoming comments assume that you are at least a believing Christian. Despite what Archbishop Flynn's previous record has been or what his moral character is, there are more charitable ways to make your case than to call him "Mr. Spineless." Keep in mind that he is a successor of the Apostles, warts and all. There's not an excuse for public derision.

David said...

As an alum of St. Thomas, it causes great pain to see such acts takes place. The person who defended St. Thomas in one of the responses above defends a similar position that I have heard many times, both while I was at the school and over the decades since. Yes, many good things have taken place under Archbishop Flynn. But what about the trend of the university as a whole (and one could ask this same question about the Archdiocese as well)? To have a packed minor seminary looks great at the moment. But what if the university has set itself up through the administrative hires, the faculty hires, and in its actual, working mission (to be a large, powerful university) for apostasy in the end? For me, I treasure St. Thomas in my heart(it was a College when I attended). The increasing secularization though of the university has also been apparent through the years, and I suppose one could argue that strands of it go back, yes, even to Archbishop Ireland and his relationship with Rome.

I do not see much hope in another one of the seemingly good things that have happened at St. Thomas, namely its Catholic Studies program. As much as I do appreciate the Catholic Studies program and the great individuals that run it, should not the university as a whole be one? The existence of any Catholic studies program usually indicates that something in the university has gone wrong, and this is an attempt to solve the problem. However, like had happened to many Protestant universities and colleges in this country, such moves simply result in isolating the identity into a kind of container, which then allows the university as a whole to move in a non-Catholic way. And as James Burtchaell persuasively argues in THE DYING OF THE LIGHT, the leaders at the time who initiated such isolating developments (for Protestants, it usually meant separating the seminaries from the universities), they had no real idea of the consequences of such moves, and how it would shift future generations of the faculty and administration by changing hiring practices and actual mission statements -- usually in a direction contrary to the intentions of founders.

Burtchael's book does a good job at detailing some of these shifts both in Proestant and in Catholic universities. The advantage for Catholics is the very structure of the Church and the Magisterium in the end, which gives us some hope. As one of the figures mentioned in a comment above, the Archbishop could still remove the Catholic identity. However, that really is not a solution.

I suspect however that many on the board and even many faculty silently--perhaps not so silently--hope for such a removal. And for them, this change in the structure of the board is just one step further toward that entire process.

I once saw an outline of how certain groups in this country intended on weakening the ability for Catholic hospitals and schools to operate with our Catholic identity. The plan was extremely sophisticated and well over 20 years long. As far as I can tell, these tactics have worked well against many hospitals that once were Catholic. The tactics would include ones such as the kind of shift in the board to which we are all responding, a shift that creates a serious rift between the Hierarchy and the institution.

Much more can be said. But in my mind, this step is a sad event for St. Thomas, for our Church, and for our nation.