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Posted May 30, 2007

It should be noted that if it weren’t for The Catholic University of America’s Life Cycle Institute the first national studies on religious education, the permanent diaconate, the sacrament of reconciliation, African American and Hispanic Catholics, campus ministry and the status of seminaries and priests ordained 5 to 9 years would not have been produced. It should also be noted that if it weren’t for the Life Cycle Institute, we would not have moved as quickly to establish the collection for infirm and retired religious – a collection that brings in ten of thousands of dollars per year and says to elder religious “Thank you for all you did to make the American church what it is.”

Dear CUA, don't kill the messenger

For more than 30 years, The Catholic University of America’s Life Cycle Institute, a modest operation with a small endowment, has produced significant contributions to research on education, child development and welfare, as well as ongoing analysis of the changing demographics and attitudes in the Catholic church in the United States.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, under new director Stephen Schneck, the institute began a “reorientation ... toward the public policy concerns of Catholic social thought.”

Those plans and ambitions are now in danger. In the May 11 issue, we reported that Vincentian Fr. David O’Connell, university president, plans to move the institute from its current quarters into a portion of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, the 100,000-square-foot boondoggle that was the brainchild of Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida.

That move alone might not be threatening, but in discussing the future of the institute, O’Connell told NCR that he envisions “a solid Catholic think tank that would be helpful to the church, to society and to the university” and that the new think tank, still in the imagination phase, might be incompatible with the mission of the Life Cycle Institute.

It is a given that, over time, institutions change, missions change, personnel change. The question is: What is being lost and what is being gained? Will the university and the wider Catholic community benefit? Or does “helpful to the church” in this case reflect the kind of churchspeak that translates into “less problematic for the church”?

There is an urgency to the questions because the board of Catholic University, nearly half its members bishops, meets in June to decide on O’Connor’s proposals.

This story has several levels and each is marked by a lack of accountability and any mechanism for requiring accountability, as well as refusal of leaders to communicate with those most affected by their decisions.

Let’s begin with the John Paul II Cultural Center. We have reported extensively in the past over the lack of planning and vision, not to mention a lack of funds, for this misguided monument to a papacy. Maida, through direct loans and loan guarantees, committed the Detroit archdiocese to providing approximately $40 million in subsidies to the center. Those funds were shipped to Washington without consultation with or accountability to the people of Detroit. The center never developed as Maida imagined it would and has experienced severe financial problems from the start.

If Catholic University were to move a think tank into the John Paul II center, it would provide Maida at least a partial way out of his predicament. The fact that Maida sits on the board of Catholic University and is president of the executive committee of the center might ring conflict-of-interest alarms to many accustomed to operating in real-world circumstances. But in the Catholic world, such conflicts and lack of accountability are accepted as business as usual. And since the center still owes Catholic University $2.8 million toward the purchase of the land on which the center stands, it is unlikely that university officials will complain too loudly about a lack of transparency.

On the academic side of things, decisions are moving ahead with almost no consultation with faculty and staff affected. It is unfortunate that the faculty senate, by one vote, turned back a resolution proposed by Schneck asking the university administration to treat the institute in the same way it deals with programs or departments. If that were the case, under Catholic University policy, officials would be required to obtain input from faculty. No such requirement exists for institutes.

The process at least would have allowed questions and concerns to surface, and some of those questions are significant.

One of the recent products of the institute is the book American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church by William V. D’Antonio, James D. Davidson, Dean R. Hoge and Mary L. Gautier, all names, among others, familiar to those who value the practice of serious social science applied to questions important to the church.

As a matter of full disclosure, NCR has an interest in the project. The book’s acknowledgments point out that the work is the fourth in a series of studies of American Catholics, the first two of which were made possible by financial support from NCR. The paper has also given financial support and supplied generous space to publicize subsequent reports. We think the studies are important to understanding the church in the United States.

Some of the findings, however, could be disturbing to church leaders and others who would rather ignore the evidence and continue imagining a church that doesn’t exist.

In the foreword to the book, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., writes: “Any bishop or priest in contact with his people today knows that Catholics are not all of one cloth. They think, act and feel differently about their faith. When asked what religion they practice, they identify themselves as Catholics, but exactly what they mean by ‘Catholic’ varies widely.”

He admits that the findings “might irritate, anger or confuse some. ... But don’t kill the messenger: The Catholic church in the United States lives the experience the data describe.”

Kicanas gets to the nub of the most important question: Are we confident enough as a church to look honestly at ourselves, to take stock of who we say we are and what we hold as indispensable to defining ourselves as Catholic?

“For too long as a church,” he continues, “I think we have been tired and unimaginative in responding to the reality that is happening around us. We have struggled, too frequently unsuccessfully, to articulate in a convincing way the truths of our faith and the attitude that we, as believers, take toward the Truth.”

In the end, he notes, it is not sociologists and researchers who determine church doctrine. “We can ignite the faith if we stop fighting one another and put our energies into listening and responding to God’s people, who are as hungry as ever for the Gospel.”

Listening honestly, however, means understanding that the listening can be painful as well as exhilarating.

The mini drama being played out at Catholic University is about more than a move across campus and trying to temper the effects of a cardinal’s awful real estate speculation. This is about whether Catholics can trust the products of their institutions of higher education. It is about whether our thinkers and researchers are free to pursue the truth without worrying whether that truth comports with the world as envisioned by those in charge.

The bishops and other members of the board should engage in a long and frank discussion before moving ahead with any plans to dismantle a long-established and respected source of important information about Catholic community and life.