Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Too Catholic, Even for Many Monks

Catholic colleges and universities in Minnesota exhibit a culture that reflects the greater United States, and Catholic academic institutions elsewhere. For the most part, the lack of priests, nuns and brothers, and the cultural revolution of the last third of the 20th century, have led to less prominence for the Catholicism of the institutions. In fact, the larger they are, the less likely it is that a student would be required to take more than a few courses in theology or philosophy. And the chances are high, even in a theology class, the professor might not even be Catholic.

I wonder if parents are aware of this, or if they care?

St. Vincent College in Latrobe, enrollment 1,700, has been attempting to re-institute and invigorate its Catholicism. Not all faculty and students are happy with that.

April 2008

Whining and grumbling is frowned on at Benedictine institutions like Saint Vincent College. Benedict of Nursia, the Sixth Century cleric whose guidelines for living daily life underpin the philosophy of the Roman Catholic order, characterized “murmuring” — the sort of internal bickering and in-fighting that all too often characterizes academic life — as immensely disruptive to community living, and essentially banned members of the order from engaging in it:

For if the disciple obeys with an ill will and murmurs,
not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart,
then even though he fulfill the command
yet his work will not be acceptable to God,
who sees that his heart is murmuring.

Few sins are as great in Benedictine philosophy as murmuring. Which makes the widespread expressions of unhappiness from staff members and students at Saint Vincent all the more noteworthy. A month ago, nearly three-quarters of the Latrobe, Pa., college’s tenured faculty members wrote to the college’s Board of Directors about the “unparalleled crisis” facing the institution because of the “systematic and pervasive disregard for collegiality and shared governance” showed by President H. James Towey. They focused most sharply on his decision to short-circuit a search for a vice president for academic affairs and to rewrite the college’s accreditation self-study to limit unflattering material, and what they describe as his misleading comments about what he did and why.

Interviews with nontenured professors and staff members in recent weeks suggest that many of them share the impressions of the tenured faculty, but believe they lack the job security to speak out.

And last week, a group of student leaders sent their own letter to Towey, endorsing the faculty’s concerns but adding their own. Although they declined to make it public, several students say that they and many of their peers at Saint Vincent are uncomfortable with the college’s drift to the right (it made its first appearance in 2006-7 in a national ranking of the top 10 most conservative colleges) and with the president’s unilateral decision to impose an Internet filter aimed at gambling and pornography sites, among other things. [Gasp! No porn and gambling?!?!]

Towey, who came to Saint Vincent two years ago from the White House, where he oversaw the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, plays down the level of opposition to his presidency, acknowledging in an interview that there have been some “growing pains” but that he believes he and his critics on the faculty are “working in a renewed spirit of cooperation.”

He writes off much of the dissension to a clash of cultures, noting that he is “new to academia” — “I’m only a sophomore” as president, he says — “and maybe the pace of change I’m accustomed to is different from what people are used to.” He attributes some of the concerns about him to residual hard feelings among some faculty members over his 2007 invitation to President Bush to speak at Saint Vincent’s commencement, and says that “if I were in their shoes, when I heard that the new president of Saint Vincent was coming from the Bush White House and was a stranger to academia, I wouldn’t have been too happy.”

To those students and others who contend that he and the Right Rev. Douglas R. Nowicki, who is archabbot and chancellor of the college, have pushed a hard religious line and increasingly pulled the institution to the right, “the reality is that this is a Catholic Benedictine college, and I embrace its identity and its connection with the church,” Towey says. While some students and faculty members have bristled at what they describe as his overbearing emphasis on faith and his repeated references to the time he spent working with Mother Teresa, Towey does not apologize for his perceived orthodoxy and emphasis on the college’s religious grounding.

“I said in my inaugural that my hope is that one day we’re all together in heaven,” the president says of Saint Vincent’s students. “For individuals here at the college, setting their sights on a diploma is too low. They should be setting their sights on heaven.”

It might be easier to dismiss the consternation about Towey’s presidency off as unhappiness from liberals or heathens if less of the criticism was coming from the Benedictine monks on the campus. Saint Vincent has a strong concentration of monks because of its affiliation with the nearby Saint Vincent Seminary, which includes one of the world’s largest monasteries, and the fact that monks — who, unlike lay faculty and students, are bound by the Benedict’s prohibition on “murmuring” — have been among the most vocal critics of the institution as led by Towey and Father Nowicki speaks volumes.

“The mechanics of the university are grinding to a halt,” says the Rev. Mark Gruber, one of a small number of the more than 15 faculty members, administrators and students interviewed for this article who agreed to be quoted. “The tenured faculty took the lead, fortunately, but there are a lot of other people who share their views, and who are tired of the overriding of collegial discourse, the discounting of the consensus way of decision making, and what I see as the obfuscation of our Catholic mission.”

Serious words, those, and ones that faculty and other critics at Saint Vincent say they did not offer lightly — and insist that they did not intend to make public.

Two Years in the Making

Jim Towey came to Saint Vincent in July 2006, following four years heading President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and after a career in which he worked for Florida’s former Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, and was the chief lawyer in the United States for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity order of nuns.

His inaugural address focused on his hope that Saint Vincent under his leadership would produce students who could help change a culture that he described as desperately in need of change: “A culture that does not revere life and hold it sacred from conception until natural death; a culture that does not esteem marriage and family life and the complimentary nature of the sexes; a culture that abandons its elderly, discards its poor, and defaces its environment; and a culture that is so highly sexualized and violent that God-given human dignity is routinely degraded, is a culture that is living lies and in need of renewal.”

Leaders at Saint Vincent were said to be drawn to Towey, who had no background in higher education, in part because they believed he would help raise the well-respected college’s national profile. (He has maintained close ties with the Bush administration, gaining an appointment to the federal panel that advises the education secretary on accreditation, where he has been a voice calling for more accountability for colleges in the accreditation process.) Many faculty members say they had high hopes for him because of his energy and enthusiasm, and because he often acknowledged, in a self-effacing way, how eager he was to learn about working in higher education. . . .

. . . During an interview last month, Towey is sanguine about the turmoil around him. He says that he took the faculty’s letter seriously — “clearly I have work to do to communicate better” — but also defends his performance so far, citing upticks in enrollment and academic standards, a rising endowment and, he emphasizes, a faculty pay increase.

He also says he doubts that the tenured faculty’s view is representative of the “great majority” on the campus, and tells a reporter that “your story would have been more interesting in early March.” Since the Board of Directors met at that time and both backed the president’s performance and urged him to work more closely with faculty members, Towey says, professors are “getting a better understanding of what I’m trying to do.”

In the interview, Towey also virtually gushes describing how much he enjoys dealing with Saint Vincent’s students, noting that he and his wife have had more than a sixth of its 1,700 students over for dinner, that he is taking a dozen to Calcutta this summer, as he has in the past, to participate in Mother Teresa’s work with orphans and other needy people. “I’m loving the student life here,” he says.

Which must have made it all the more painful last week when a group of students reportedly delivered to him a letter of their own, expressing their own deep frustration about his leadership of the college. While they declined to characterize the contents of their letter, several of them said in interviews that they shared some of the faculty’s concerns about governance and had their own example of the president’s heavyhandedness.

Early in his time at the college, before the start of the fall semester in 2006, Towey ordered that an Internet filter be instituted to block sites related to gambling, pornography and “adult or mature content.” As Towey explained in the entry on his blog last fall about the decision, “Saint Vincent College, from its founding 161 years ago, cares about the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional formation of the students who come here, and seeks to provide an environment conducive to such growth. We promote academic freedom and embrace it. I made this decision because I believe the Internet filter is consistent with both worthy goals. And quite frankly, my focus is not on what we are against as a College but what we are for — beauty, human dignity, gender equality, justice, and the pursuit of the truth.”

Students say they object not so much to the decision, which some agree may be justified, as to the way the president put it in place — secretly, and without consultation with those subject to it. That change, and the president’s constant references on his blog and in his speeches to students’ spiritual health and to seeing his job as helping them get to heaven, makes students feel like they’re “being pontificated to all the time,” says one student leader. “He’s trying to make this into a more uber-Catholic place, and it’s not what many of us signed up for.”

Students griping about preachy college administrators — not such big news. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the situation at Saint Vincent’s is the extent to which many of the Benedictine monks on the campus feel that, as one put it, he is “imposing his narrow view of Catholicism” on a campus with its own vision established over 160 years. It’s not, they say, that they are unwilling to have their views be challenged or to see the campus “revivify a genuine Catholic tradition here,” as Father Mark Gruber says.

“I would have welcomed an intellectually sound reconsideration of the best way to embody the Catholic philosophy at a college,” Father Mark says. “It would be useful to take John Newman’s discussion of the university from the 19th century, or even Benedict XVI’s scholarly approach, and having a set of faculty discussions about what we should do. Instead, we get Mother Teresa of Calcutta a great deal and a lot of talk about heaven. [GASP!!!!!]

“My mission in the classroom, and our mission as a university, is to inform and enlighten, to bring the kingdom of good and of God to this world. I don’t see it as my mission, or his mission, to be a preacher of revival that gets students to heaven.” [That is a Benedictine priest probably with an advanced academic degree who said that!!!!! ] Inside Higher Education


Sanctus Belle said...

What a bunch of whiners! What a shock - Catholicism at a Catholic College!!?? If students/monks/faculty don't like it, they can leave. My husband teaches at a secular and very liberal college - he'd give his right arm to work at this place!

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

Looks like I have one more consideration in the tiny pool of good, CATHOLIC colleges to help my children choose from someday.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Towey is probably doing what should be done at all "Catholic" universities and this is the reaction that would happen at just about every one of them. His approach is exactly what is needed to get change the poisonous culture that pervades these schools. I wish someone like him would do something with my alma mater, St. John's/St. Benedicts. Another Benedictine school that has gone astray. Filled with the same type of whiney monks, priests and nuns that would treat this man the same way. I hope he sticks to his guns because over time the malcontents will disappear and we will have one more truly Catholic university.

Unknown said...


It does indeed seem to be a problem with Catholic institutions these days. Of the hundreds of them, only about 20 or so proudly possess a public "Mandatum."

From what I understand, our bishops are privately meeting with theology professors and privately telling them whether they have the "mandatum" or not. Nobody else knows.

What is most disconcerting is that Canon Law #229 seems to indicate that only lay theology instructors must have the "mandatum."

Somehow, it is assumed that priests who teach theology are orthodox in their beliefs. If there may be other regulations that apply in the case of priests, I would like to know.

Without naming names, I find that not to be the case.