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Catholic Universities are Not Yet a Paradigm for Ethics in the Church

Those eager for reform in the Catholic Church have looked to Catholic universities for inspiration. But Catholic universities are beset by many of the same problems that plague the Church: clericalism, top-down decision-making, lack of diversity, reluctance to change and a culture of fear. These are Catholic twists on more fundamental problems plaguing universities in general. As Jesuit ethicist James Keenan put it in his 2015 book, University Ethics:

Simply put, the American university does not hold its employees to professional ethical standards because it has not created a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability at the university, and this is in part both because of the nature of the contemporary university and because it does not believe that it needs ethics (4).

Universities don’t teach about university ethics. Few of their employees are held to professional ethical standards.

Most of all, the administrators – in particular, those at the highest level of the university from vice presidents and the president to the board of trustees – have not been trained in professional university ethics. Small wonder then that they do not promote a culture of ethical consciousness and accountability (6).

While this blind spot can occur in any type of institution, Keenan says universities and the Catholic Church are particularly susceptible. Both presume that because they teach ethics, they do not need it themselves. If Keenan is right, then Catholic universities are doubly hampered by their university culture and their Catholic culture.

This need for internalized professional ethics takes on new urgency during COVID-19. The month of August saw some universities open early, among them the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame saw 512 positive coronavirus tests from August 3 to 28, in response to which it put all courses online for two weeks and will bring 87 students before disciplinary hearings. The editors of a student newspaper editorialized, “Don’t make us write obituaries.” They assert that while the university’s blaming of the outbreak on students “isn’t entirely misplaced, it has been used to deflect responsibility from the very administrations that insisted they were prepared for us to return to campus.”

To be sure, many Catholic and non-Catholic colleges are doing a better job. But the public looks to the flagship Catholic universities to see how they live their values. Notre Dame so far has not distinguished itself from its secular peers.

If Notre Dame and others fail, the deep causes will be what Keenan has diagnosed: the blind spot regarding ethics and the culture of commodification that has infected American universities. Universities have built up huge infrastructures to woo customers, and the entire U.S. higher education system has habituated young people into thinking that fun and amenities are what they need. COVID-19 is forcing everyone to ask what we have been doing. But there’s no way back to the stated ideal of a liberal arts education as the central purpose of college without a lot of financial pain.

Nor is there a way forward on important goals regarding diversity without making some sacrifices. The attitude of “ethics is for society, not for us” has tainted certain responses to the revitalized movement for racial justice. At one Catholic university, the reaction was to issue an impressive-sounding plan for diversity and inclusion. It features new procedures for reporting students who post biased statements on social media and an initiative to create new courses on diversity. Keenan would remind us, however, to beware of a possible disconnect between word and deed.

One would have to take a moment to notice what is not included in this university’s plan: goals and strategies to increase faculty and staff of color (less than 1% of tenured faculty are of color), to increase enrollment of students of color (about 5% are Black, compared to 10% of residents in the state and 40% in the university’s host city), and to be a better citizen of that financially struggling city. One might also be surprised to learn that the administrator in charge of a new student diversity center laid off the university’s rare Black employee with a supervisory role, only to put out a job ad calling for a more junior employee to do much the same duties.

Obviously, neither I, nor still less the reader, is privy to the particulars of a personnel decision. But a senior officer familiar with the situation gave me a take on why an action like this occurs with impunity: “It’s clericalism, pure and simple.” You see, the administrator in charge is a priest, known to have a long history of clashes with supervisees at two Catholic universities, firing or forcing out many of them.

Keenan’s diagnosis of the lack of internal ethics in such institutions is reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching about removing the log from one’s own eye (Matthew 7:5). In the case above, the log is the “defensiveness and certitude” of white progressives, which “make it virtually impossible to explain” to them how they uphold racism (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 5).

Keenan concludes his book saying it’s time for those with institutional power ­– boards, administrators, and tenured (especially white, male) faculty – to get serious about internal ethics. Sadly, in my 25-year career in Catholic higher education, I have seen enough to be discouraged about all three groups.

But because of the Black Lives Matter movement, my hope has gravitated to students and laity – the folks with the numbers and the money, even though they have the least institutional power. We have seen what young people can effect through collective action. For instance, Georgetown University students voted in April 2019 to pay an annual fee into a reparations fund for the descendants of the 272 slaves that Georgetown sold in the year 1838. The students acted six months before the university itself did.

Catholic universities and the Church should not wait for demands or demoralization, both of which are already eating away at them. They should get to work on enculturating internal ethics while the time is ripe.

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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