- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The outgoing president of Catholic University of America is calling on the Vatican to give more direction to Catholic higher education, citing the confusion among Catholics after the University of Notre Dame’s speaking invitation to President Obama in May 2009.

“Notre Dame didn’t suffer for it,” Monsignor David M. O’Connell said about the invitation, which was condemned by 80 bishops. “In fact, Notre Dame benefited from it.”

Notre Dame was widely criticized by some Catholics as violating a 2004 directive from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that instructs its colleges to “not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.” Even though President Obama is pro-choice on abortion, which the Catholic Church condemns, Notre Dame gave him an honorary degree along with its highest-profile general platform - its commencement address.

But, Monsignor O’Connell pointed out in an interview Wednesday with The Washington Times, nothing happened.

“Obama goes to Notre Dame and everyone gets their pants in a twist; 80 bishops pile on saying Notre Dame shouldn’t have done that; the president comes and gives a speech; [the university] still turns away 1,000 students; they still get a million dollars in contributions; they honor the [papal] nuncio. … They’re back in the good graces of the church - what happened as a result of this?” the college president asked.

The whole matter has caused confusion among Catholics, he added, as to what, if anything, the 2004 statement means or whether it is binding on anyone.

“We still have not resolved what these things mean,” he said.

Monsignor O’Connell, 55, who is retiring in August after 12 years at the helm of the 7,000-student Catholic University, is concerned enough about the direction of Catholic education that he’s taking a sabbatical year to write a book about it. He will live in a home owned by his religious order, the Vincentians, in Cape May, N.J.

The monsignor, who eventually may be named to one of many vacant bishop posts across the country (“The rumors are very strong,” he said in his Times interview), took his concerns to the Vatican in March.

He got a 70-minute audience with Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican department that oversees Catholic universities and seminaries.

“I wanted a conversation with him about Catholic identity,” the monsignor said, “and the famous Land O’Lakes statement which I think has introduced confusion into the Catholic higher education community of being an alternative to Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”

Ex Corde Ecclesiae is the 1990 Vatican mandate for how Catholic universities should be governed and structured. The Land O’Lakes statement was a 1967 document signed in Wisconsin by 26 Catholic university presidents and other officials that claimed autonomy from the church in the name of academic freedom.

But 20 years after “Ex Corde” was issued, some Catholic institutions are still not following it, the CUA president said.

“I’d like the Holy See to say ‘Ex Corde’ is normative,” he said, “not Land O’Lakes. To appeal to Land O’Lakes as a source of vibrancy in Catholic education is mistaken,” he added.

But the Vatican refused to issue any clarifying statement, Monsignor O’Connell said.

“They were attentive,” he said of his March meeting. “But the basic response is that this is a local matter and it should be taken up by the bishops of the United States for this region and it did not require the Holy See’s intervention.”

There is a USCCB task force devoted to Catholic identity and higher education, he added, but “where those deliberations have gone and what state they are in, I do not know.”

The university president, who will be honored Thursday at a 4 p.m. reception for administrators, staff and faculty at the college’s Pryzbyla Center, is widely credited with instilling new life into Catholic University during his tenure. CUA, when Monsignor O’Connell took over in 1998, “was falling apart at the seams,” Catholic commentator Michael Sean Winters said in a May 13 blog for the Catholic magazine America.

“Administratively, financially, and institutionally, it was in a bad way,” Mr. Winters said. “The bishops, who own it after all, had lost confidence in the place. The only pontifical university in the country appeared to have lost its Catholic identity.”

The campus was still divided over the tenure of dissident theologian Charles Curran, who in 1968 led 600 theologians in opposition to “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reiteration of the church’s teaching against artificial birth control. Father Curran was dismissed in the late 1980s.

Ten years later, Monsignor O’Connell, then 42 and the second-youngest man to assume the post, was selected from more than 100 candidates as CUA’s 14th president and given a mandate to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae. As a pontifical university, CUA has the Vatican’s authority to issue academic degrees in canon law, theology, Scripture and philosophy that carry the church’s official approval.