Brass Tacks: Catholic University’s Catholic Identity Crisis

At a place with the name “Catholic University of America,” you would think there would be no such thing as being “too Catholic.” Not so: The Washington, D.C.-based university is in its second year of a nasty in-house battle that is ostensibly over a search for a new permanent dean for its law school but is actually over the Catholic identity of the law school and perhaps the university as a whole.

Catholic University has an energetic new president, Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., who has pledged his loyalty to traditional Church teaching while at the same time increasing student enrollments, fattening faculty budgets, and boosting morale at a campus that until recently had a reputation as an academic backwater. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a visiting scholar at Catholic on and off since 1994.)

But the university also has a faculty—at its Columbus School of Law as well as some of its other schools— many of whose members believe that the surest way to ratchet up the quality of a Catholic institution of higher learning is to eradicate all traces of the overtly Catholic from its ivied halls. Call it the Harvard Syndrome: a form of status anxiety that afflicts professors at religiously affiliated colleges who worry about being taken seriously by their colleagues at secular colleges.

Thus, when Catholic’s law school moved into a brand-new building in 1994, some professors fought to keep crucifixes off the classroom walls. They also agitated for a nonsectarian “meditation room” instead of a Catholic chapel in the new law building. Fortunately, someone reminded someone that this was, after all, the Catholic University of America, and both the crucifixes and the chapel were installed.

Then, in 1999, Bernard Dobranski, who had been dean at the law school since 1994, left to head the new Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan, started by Domino’s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan. Dobranski, a veteran administrator at several Catholic law schools, had pushed hard to raise the school’s Catholic profile, adding to its faculty Helen Alvare, then pro-life director for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. When Dobranski departed, Father O’Connell appointed an interim dean, Robert Destro, who has taught at the law school since the early 1980s, and put together a search committee to find a permanent dean.

That was when the trouble began. The obvious choice to succeed Dobranski is Destro himself. He is a popular teacher, and is coauthor of the leading law school textbook in the country on religious liberty. (Neither Destro nor any search-committee members are giving press interviews, at least to me.) But Destro has a major flaw, as far as some of his faculty colleagues are concerned: He is just as dedicated as Dobranski to shoring up the law school’s Catholic identity.

The 1999-2000 search effort devolved into a search for ABD—Anyone But Destro. The committee turned in three names to Father O’Connell. The acknowledged front-runner, Arthur Gaudio, former dean of the University of Wyoming’s law school, was a Catholic as well as an able scholar and administrator, but there was no indication that Gaudio had any interest in strengthening a distinctively Catholic presence at Catholic University. After receiving complaints from conservative Catholics, Father O’Connell rejected all three nominees and put together a new seven-person search committee for the 2000-2001 academic year.

“I wanted to give him another year of administrative work,” says Father O’Connell of Destro, who is still serving as interim dean. But the two most influential members of the committee are its two representatives from the law school faculty, elected by their fellow professors. Neither Geoffrey Watson nor Leah Wortham is Catholic or—as might be expected, given the leanings of those who voted for them—said to be much concerned about things Catholic.

Catholic law schools in the United States, most of which started off as night programs aimed at helping first- generation Americans cram for the bar exam, have historically had a weak sense of Catholic identity. But an administrator with a profound commitment to Catholicism can do something about this. Specifically, he can recruit faculty members like Alvaro who are willing to explore the interface between the law and a myriad of rich Catholic intellectual traditions.

Furthermore, administering a Catholic law school these days takes raw moral courage to buck an aggressively secularized legal culture. The American Association of Law Schools now forbids its members to discriminate not only against gay students but against gay student organizations that might promote activities contrary to Church teaching. The ban contains a religious exemption, but its boundaries are unclear, and several Catholic law schools have caved to the association’s demands. The Jesuit-run Boston College, for example, recognizes the Lambda Law Students Association, whose Web site links to a commercial site offering a list of gay bars in the Boston area.

If Destro’s name, or that of someone who shares his convictions, doesn’t show up on the law school search list at Catholic University this spring, Father O’Connell will be in a Pontius Pilate-style pickle: It is theoretically possible but often politically suicidal for a college president to bypass the recommendations of a search committee. He may need superhuman fortitude to face down a law faculty that believes any Catholicism beyond the nominal is too much.


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