Usually around Homecoming each year, for some reason I come in contact with an Aquinas Yearbook. I know, an Aquinas yearbook itself sounds foreign enough, but the novelty of the experience is the certain atmosphere found between the covers.Some time ago, Aquinas was a different place. The pages evidence classrooms filled with students taught by Dominican friars clad in white robes tied with rosaries. In each yearbook, certain significance is given to a yearly crowning of the Marian shrine. And graduation was celebrated in the second floor of the Fieldhouse, now known as Bukowski Chapel. Student life was different in many respects.
Though certainly things change with growth and the past usually gives way to the future, it is hard to ignore the somewhat atmospheric change which is occurring at Aquinas, and numerous other Catholic colleges throughout the United States, due to the dwindling amount of vowed religious belonging to orders such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits.
These numbers reached their apex in the early 1960s and began to fall through the completion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
The College’s question of identity sitting ominously in the distance is what will happen with Aquinas College if the Marywood Dominicans cease to provide a religious presence to the campus? Can the Dominican tradition be preserved without Dominicans? And if so, how?
Although it is possible to support the traditions and values of an absent religious order, it seems that the efforts of a Catholic College would be futile if they are not supported directly by the Church, whether through the diocese or religious order. To be Catholic means to be supported and to support; there’s nothing Catholic about a rogue college.
Other Catholic colleges and universities are addressing similar issues. Georgetown University’s resident religious community has shrunk from 100 in 1966 to 60 this year. Searching collegiate newspapers, it is easy to find editorials asking, “Are we Catholic?” As Scott Appleby, a professor of history from the University of Notre Dame, noted, there seems to be “a crisis looming within American Catholic higher education.”
Following the dramatic pause, also insisted by Appleby, he prescribes three steps to regain the beginnings of hope for American Catholic administrators. Appleby recommends that institutional leaders “stay the course, continue to adjust the course and be good to one another.”
I am so glad he didn’t recommend trying to single-handedly fix the vocations problem, overturning the Church’s mandate of celibacy to increase the number of priests or simply ignoring the impending situation. Realistically if we have any type of faith, most of the answers to these problems will not come from our end of the spiritual correspondence.
Along the lines of staying and adjusting the course, we must know what our course headings currently point toward. Aquinas supports a thriving Campus Ministry Department, philosophy and theology majors, a Catholic studies minor, theology as a general education requirement, a Catholic Studies Club and on-campus liturgies.
These facts evidence Aquinas’ recognition and appreciation of the Catholic tradition, and numerous other campus clubs and activities confirm the student support for such values.
Then, how can the College solidify and empower existing programs and activities to enrich the greater Aquinas community, whether Catholic or not? I humbly suggest perhaps filling the room for growth in the philosophy and/or theology departments and strongly considering the importance of a resident chaplain. I’m sure that my peers have other suggestions.
Whatever the answer happens to be, our idea of a Catholic University cannot merely cater to Catholics, and similarly the Catholic Church must enter, though sometimes apprehensively, the outside world. To paraphrase Donald W. Wuerl Archbishop of Washington, the truly Catholic university should work to nurture respect in its interactions, while in its actions remain faithful to its heritage and traditions.
I doubt the answer to the problem will involve either building walls or relativizing distinctions, but I hope (whatever it is) we can bring everyone along.
(Published in Nov. 19 edition of The Saint)