Thursday, December 6, 2007

Kersten: Battle for the Soul of Thomas University


A decade ago, Prof. Frank Mach of the University of St. Thomas made a startling prediction in a paper he wrote for a conference on the institution's Roman Catholic identity. He suggested the university was on course to largely sever its ties with the church.

By the time St. Thomas' bicentennial rolls around in 2085, Mach wrote, any remaining link between St. Thomas and its Catholic roots "is likely to be vague and mostly symbolic."

In fact, events seem ahead of schedule.

Since St. Thomas' founding in 1885, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has held the position of chairman of its board of trustees. But Mach noted that "a vote of the trustees and a subsequent stroke of the pen," could make such connections with the church "vestiges of the past."

On Oct. 25, 2007, the vote that Mach foresaw took place.

St. Thomas' trustees voted to eliminate the archbishop's automatic position on the board. As a result, come next spring, for the first time since Archbishop John Ireland founded the institution, a sitting archbishop will not chair the St. Thomas board.

Moreover, he may not even have a seat on it.

In future years, the trustees can elect as chair whomever they wish: a layperson, technically even a Buddhist.

The vote severing this legal link with the archdiocese is the latest development in a long-running struggle for St. Thomas' soul.

Some of the institution's strongest programs, such as the Catholic Studies department and the law school, still maintain a strong Catholic identity. But external pressures and internal inclinations to secularize abound.

Some speculate that Archbishop Harry Flynn's upcoming retirement was a major factor in the board's vote. During Flynn's 12 years as chair, little has been done to resist the slide to secularization. He will be succeeded in 2008 by Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt, who has a reputation for orthodoxy.

Keeping up appearances

In an apparent attempt to preserve the appearance of a relationship with the archdiocese, the board reelected the retiring Flynn -- as an individual -- to a five-year term as chairman. But when his tenure as archbishop expires next spring, nothing in the university's bylaws will require that the leader of the Catholic church in this region have any official role at the university.

"I found this action very, very disturbing -- it was clearly directed at Archbishop Nienstedt," said Tom Mooney of St. Paul, a St. Thomas alumnus and donor. Many St. Thomas alums are concerned about the "erosion" of the institution's Catholic identity, he said.

"I think there's a problem, and a lot of priests do," said the Rev. Paul LaFontaine of St. Charles Borromeo parish in St. Anthony. "The archbishop is the chief teacher of the faith in the diocese. He ought to be part of the academic community, and respected and regarded as such."

St. Thomas "always has been and always will be a Catholic university," said archdiocesan spokesman Dennis McGrath in a statement.

St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes said that a secular organization that reviews governing boards recommended the by-laws change in 2002. He added that the trustees were concerned that the new archbishop would be too busy to perform the chairman's role.

Did trustees ask Nienstedt if he would be too busy? Hennes referred the question to the archdiocese, and McGrath said he didn't know.

St. Thomas may now be poised to continue quickly down the path to secularization that other once-Christian institutions of higher education blazed years ago.

Who remembers that Macalester and Carleton colleges were founded, respectively, by the Presbyterian and Congregational churches? Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago were also originally church-affiliated institutions. But academics often view religious affiliation as incompatible with elite university status, and believe that it interferes with their "academic freedom."

Rapid escalation

The pace of secularization at St. Thomas could escalate rapidly if two archdiocesan seminaries affiliated with the university -- St. Paul Seminary and St. John Vianney College Seminary -- move to cut ties. Both are independent archdiocesan corporations. St. Paul Seminary was once a separate organization and could possibly be again.

Why should St. Thomas' fate interest anyone who isn't Catholic? Because the widespread secularization of religiously affiliated colleges destroys true diversity in education. There are plenty of schools where students can learn professional skills and how to look out for Number One (and planet Earth).

We need a few places where they can be called to pursue something higher: a transcendent vision of faith and morality. StarTribune


Fr. Andrew said...

wow, who is this Katherine Kersten and why does the strib carry her?

Grambling doesn't apologize for centering on African American culture.

Mt. Holyoke doesn't apologize for being a women's college.

The most attractive people in life are those who are secure in their identity. We seek them out because they know who they are and project that to the world with an invitation to "come and see who I am." We don't like "posers" people who pretend to be who their aren't simply to ingratiate themselves to us. They are false, insincere, and uninviting.

Why can't we understand that with St. Thomas. Be who you are! Catholic, in every aspect. Offer what you offer: education from a thoroughly Catholic perspective. People will still come. Grants will still come. Tuition dollars will still come. In fact, they'll be attracted because you are firm in your identity.

Or maybe I just haven't woken up yet.

Cathy_of_Alex said...

Father: Good points.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering. Where do most candidates for the Diocesan priesthood go to seminary? Please tell me it's not St. Thomas. Also, was it not at St. Thomas where a graduate gave his graduation speech and criticized homosexual acts and was booed. Or was that somewhere else. Thanks much.

Anonymous said...

Oh I am sorry, it was St. Thomas, but the speech was about selfish acts and it was again artificial birth control. I guess a number of people walked out. Well what can I say,----liberal Minnesota twin-cities attitudes.

Anonymous said...

@Susan W.

We have a major seminary (St. Mary's) and a minor seminary (St. John Vianney). Both are located adjacent to the 'campus' of St. Thomas. To my knowledge there is no further connection other than location.

Our seminaries are outstanding and highly respected.

Unknown said...

Susan W:

Both seminaries are located in buildings on the campus of the future University of Thomas.

We have the minor, college, seminary, St John Vianney, [the Cure' of Ars] where the men go to get their undergraduate degree in philosophy and other college requirements from the F-UT. Most of their classes are probably taken at F-UT or other colleges in the metropolitan area.

If they end up with a degree in architecture, like the Ramblin' Rector of SJV did from Georgia Tech, he had to take required courses in philosophy before he was admitted to a major seminary "back east", someplace.

The archdiocese's major seminary is the St Paul School of Divinity, also located on the campus of F-UT. Probably most of their courses are taught by faculty members of the School of Divinity.

Non-seminarians enrolled at F-UT may take most courses offered by the seminaries.

Feel free to correct me on this,
Father, or anybody else!

Fr. Andrew said...

About Seminaries:

Ray is correct on the names:

St. John Vianney forms college age students. I went there for two years and finished off my degree in chemistry while studying my philosophy. Fr. W. Baer, the rector, is a holy and solid man (from that Ramblin' Wreck, as Ray said).

SJV students do study with the general St. Thomas students. The key at St. Thomas is looking at the professor and not the course. Is that clear? Sad, but that is how you choose an orthodox education. Dr. Briel's Catholic Sutdies program is awesome (mentioned in the strib article).

St. Paul Divinity School educates men in their graduate years. I did not go there. Currently, my diocese is sending men there. They have improved their faculty, added kneelers, and made some other improvements under first, Bishop Campbell and now the current Father Rector. I expect St. Paul Seminary will continue to improve under the shepherding of Archbishop Neinstedt- not without difficulty, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much to all of you who answered that question for me. It sounds as though we have a solid base for teaching and training our future priests. God bless you all.

Unknown said...

Father Andrew:

Thanks for your elaboration.

"The key at St. Thomas is looking at the professor and not the course. Is that clear? Sad, but that is how you choose an orthodox education."

Frankly, Father, that is the key to getting a good education out of any large college or university.

I went to the University of Minnesota (I received a scholarship there). Most of the the departments are huge. But in many of the entry level courses in most departments you don't get much of a choice of instructors. Or if the great ones do teach entry level courses, and some do, those courses are large and you don't get much personal contact other than with graduate teaching assistants.

After the first year of school or so, you can start checking around for the better teachers and courses and learning how to avoid the worse ones.

Of course in the smaller departments, like philosophy, you get less of a choice.

Part of the learning process at a good school is learning how to sit through one or more semesters of a course where you may not agree with some or all of the person's ideas and still mature and learn quite a bit and get decent grades.

After you graduate, you will find that life is like that in jobs and in parishes, too.

Unknown said...

The current Rector at the St Paul Divinity School is Monsignor Aloysius Callaghan.

He, Father Baer at SJV and Archbishop Flynn, our East Coast Mafia, are responsible for improving our archdiocesan seminary situation.

Anonymous said...





swissmiss said...

Good points, Father and Ray. I think many local folks are waiting to see what Archbishop Nienstedt does with this situation. May Our Lady guide him and give him strength.

Ironically, my UST class reunion is coming up (I won't mention which one!). With the recent push to raise money for their new campaign, UST called me three times for donations within a month -- I declined and gave them a laundry list of reasons why. Now, a letter arrives in the mail with big words on the front proclaiming that the reunion is coming up. The letter is addressed to my HUSBAND (who is NOT an alumni) and asks HIM, as one of the select few, to be on the planning committee because of HIS stellar "undergrad or alumni involvement at UST." Cough, gag!

The folks at UST seem to find me just fine when they want money, but some how confuse me completely with my hubby for the reunion!

Unknown said...


The counterattack by Archbishop Flynn and Father Dease will be tomorrow in the Strib.

They don't like it that we are calling it a "secular school" already.

Your hubby, Swiss, should ask them for a diploma if he agrees to serve. It will look good on his vita.