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Catholic Universities Struggle to Adapt to Modern Changes


Santa Clara received attention when the university decided to drop coverage of elective abortion procedures for faculty and staff members earlier this fall.Santa Clara received attention when the university decided to drop coverage of elective abortion procedures for faculty and staff members earlier this fall.

Shortly before the start of the 2013-2014 school year, faculty and staff members at Santa Clara University, a mid-sized Jesuit institution in Silicon Valley, received a letter that stunned them.

According to the letter, the university had reviewed the health insurance policies offered to employees and chose to drop coverage of elective abortion procedures, effective immediately.

The university’s decision sparked an uproar, setting off a petition drive and unwanted media spotlight on the college.

“No one I know saw this coming,” says a still-testy Dr. Linda Garber, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Santa Clara University. “We got the letter in the mail saying it had been done. Generally speaking, a lot of this would have been done through the university’s governance or benefits committee.”

Faculty and staff at Providence College, a Catholic college located near downtown Providence, R.I., received equally surprising news about their benefits during the previous academic year when the administration announced it was ending coverage of certain birth control procedures.

“For many years, voluntary birth control had been included in health care,” says Dr. Fred Drogula, an associate professor of history and president of the faculty senate at Providence College. “What they said was that it was never supposed to be covered and, when they learned that a mistake had been made, they canceled it.”

“We faculty found that a rather unsatisfactory answer,” continues Drogula, “that such a mistake went on for years and no one caught it. Then suddenly they noticed the oversight when the birth control debate was in the news. So in the middle of our contracts the health policy was changed.”

The cancellation of birth control coverage at Providence College was just one of several incidents in recent years that the faculty interprets as an attempt to adhere to Catholic theology at the expense of free speech on the campus. Drogula noted that, a few years ago, the president forbade the staging of the play “The Vagina Monologues.”

But the incident that drew the most attention was last September when college officials canceled an event featuring John Corvino, a Wayne State University associate professor of philosophy and a nationally known lecturer and proponent of gay marriage. Planning for the event had been in the works for eight months.

“It came as a tremendous shock to the faculty,” says Drogula. “Historically Catholic institutions have welcomed debates on disputed topics. The faculty thought this [decision] was a sharp separation from Catholic practice that has welcomed engagement.”

“This is a serious problem,” adds Drogula. “It confronts us with the specter of an administration trying to silence academic freedom.”

Identity crisis

The series of incidents at both colleges illustrate a sharp divide at some of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities between an increasingly religious, diverse faculty and a group of administrators who find themselves struggling to maintain the Roman Catholic identity and beliefs upon which these institutions were founded.

“The big thing is simply this — since the last 30 years, there has been a concern from Catholic colleges to maintain their identity,” says Dr. James Keating, an associate professor of theology at Providence. “The biggest problem is how to maintain that identity when so many students and faculty are not Catholic.”

“In the past, Catholicism informed the way they [Catholic colleges] did things,” continues Keating. “[But] since the 1970s, Catholic colleges have populated faculty with people who are not Catholic.”

Keating notes that a similar transformation has occurred within the student body at many of these colleges over the last half century. Once upon a time, he says, the norm among most Catholic families was to send their children to Catholic schools. Few Catholic families do so today.

To survive, many Catholic colleges have aggressively recruited non-Catholic students. In some urban areas, that means attracting large numbers of African-Americans, who are largely Protestant, or, in some cases, children of Muslim immigrants, says Keating.

He adds there’s also a disconnect between the teachings of the church’s leaders and the thinking of the lay membership, many of whom include Catholic faculty and students.

“At any Catholic college, if you polled the faculty about what they thought about homosexuality, it would mirror the general population’s [views],” Keating says. “That also goes for the students. It’s not that different from students at the neighboring state schools.”

Changing Catholic values

The faculty/administration divide on many Catholic college campuses comes at a curious time for the church. Many bishops around the world, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, continue to preach against homosexuality and abortion. But, in recent months, Pope Francis has made statements about both subjects that have been interpreted by some as taking a softer stance on the issues.

The comments have riled many conservative Catholic groups, delighted some Catholics and confused others. Some faculty members at these colleges have speculated that the newly announced restrictions on certain aspects of health care coverage may be a message from college administrators that the church is not moderating its stance on long-held beliefs.

Dr. Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, confirms this theory. In an email sent by his spokeswoman, Galligan-Stierle says that Catholic values are not changing.

“Our colleges and universities continue to embody the Christian message in a faithfully Catholic way as institutions both academic and faith-filled,” says Galligan-Stierle. “The timeless truths of Catholicism continue to be present in U.S. Catholic higher education. What you’re seeing now is that our universities — as communities of both faith and reason — have distinctive ways to align their Catholic identity at this time in U.S. history. Just as Pope Francis is re-examining how the Church demonstrates gospel values in contemporary society, Catholic colleges and universities are re-examining how they can demonstrate their commitment to gospel values today.”

Spokespersons for the colleges cited in this story declined to make anyone available for an interview, as did the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

Faculty and administrators at several of these colleges have taken small steps to repair the rift between both sides. But they appear to be a long way off from closing it.

At Loyola Marymount University, a Los Angeles university where the administration also ended abortion coverage, the board of trustees came up with a compromise: its ban on abortion coverage would remain in effect, but employees could opt into a third-party plan that would cover it.

“By removing this, they have effectively reduced our compensation,” says Dr. Nora Murphy, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount.

She says the university plans to continue the conversation about abortion coverage next year and has pledged to include the university benefits committee in the decision-making process.

Murphy, who describes herself as an atheist, adds, “There are plenty of things that happen on this campus that are in conflict with Catholic teaching. They cover birth control and same-sex benefits. We have faculty getting gender reassignment surgery. To cherry-pick this one legal medical procedure and remove that from all the other benefits is just so odd. The argument that it’s not in line with Catholic identity doesn’t really work. So the argument is, what’s next?”

Garber, who identifies as a lesbian and teaches classes on gay and lesbian issues, also wonders about what’s next.

“I have not seen any indication that the university [is] going after gay and lesbian rights,” she says. “On the other hand, no one foresaw them curtailing coverage of abortion coverage. That’s why it’s worrisome.”

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