Catholic University of America, The

views updated


Incorporated in 1887 under the laws of the District of Columbia and canonically erected with pontifical status by Leo XIII in 1889, The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., was the first Catholic institution of its kind to be established in the U.S.

Pontifical Status Action for the establishment of a national Catholic university was successfully initiated in 1884 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore by the efforts of Bp. John L. spalding of Peoria. His proposal gained force when the council learned that Mary Gwendolyn caldwell had offered $300,000 as a founding endowment.

The need for a university had been mentioned as early as 1819 by an Irish-born Augustinian missionary to the U.S., Robert Browne. In succeeding years the idea had interested such men as Abp. Martin J. spalding of Baltimore, Bp. Thomas A. becker of Wilmington, and Isaac T. hecker. There was persistent opposition to the plan from some of the hierarchy, including Bp. Bernard J. mcquaid of Rochester and Abp. Michael A. corrigan of New York, as well as from certain representatives of the German Catholics, some members of the Society of Jesus, and a segment of the Catholic press.

Despite these opposing forces, the bishops meeting during the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 authorized their Apostolic Delegate, Abp. James gibbons, to appoint a committee to initiate the project. During the next few years plans were formulated at committee meetings. The Catholic University of America was decided upon as the name and Washington, D.C. selected as the site. At the meeting of October 1886, Bp. John J. keane of Richmond was chosen as the first rector after Bishop Spalding of Peoria had declined the post.

In 1885 Pope leo xiii had sent his private approval of the project and in 1887 gave his endorsement in a letter to Gibbons and his fellow bishops. On April 19, 1887, the university was incorporated by Congress under the laws of the District of Columbia. On March 7, 1889, in the apostolic letter Magni Nobis Gaudii the pope formally approved the statutes and accorded the institution pontifical status. The university was formally opened on Nov. 13, 1889, with Pres. Benjamin Harrison among the many guests who attended the ceremony, which was the final event in the centennial celebration of the U.S. hierarchy.

Besides Keane as rector and Philip J. Garrigan as vice rector, the faculty numbered ten. Of these, two were Sulpicians, John B. Hogan, the librarian, and Alexis Orban, the spiritual director. Two were Paulists, Augustine F. hewit, lecturer in church history, and George M. searle, lecturer in science. The only layman, Charles W. Stoddard, was lecturer in English. Five of the faculty were European-born: Henri hyvernat, professor of Scripture; Joseph pohle, philosophy; Joseph schroeder, dogmatic theology; Thomas J. bouquillon, moral theology; and Joseph Graf, music. The 46 students who enrolled initially were drawn from 21 dioceses, one was a Sulpician, and nine were from the Paulist house of studies.

Early in 1889 Cardinal Gibbons had been asked by Hewit, Superior General of the Paulists, if his community might establish a house of studies near the university. Gibbons replied on February 19 that the trustees would permit and would also invite other communities to establish such houses. The Paulists were thus the first of many orders to found houses of study in the neighborhood.

Although the university had opened as a graduate school of theology for the clergy only, it was not long before the need was felt for additional academic disciplines as well as for the increased revenue that would accrue from an enlarged student body. In October 1895 the school of philosophy and the school of social sciences were opened to all qualified male applicants.

The new students included three African Americans, of whom Bishop Keane said, "They stand on exactly the same footing as other students of equal calibre and acquirements." When the newspapers reported, however, that women would also be enrolled and some began to apply, the university announced that it regarded the matter as too important for hasty decision and therefore "it has not yet been considered by the Board of Directors, and nothing will be done except as they decide." Although later years saw a certain variation in policy regarding the admission of both groups, properly qualified women have been admitted since 1928 and black students since 1937.

Finances and Growth. In its early years the university depended entirely on student fees, gifts, and a meager investment income. The total was too small to permit the university to fulfill its purpose as an institution of graduate instruction. Finances proved still to be the chief problem facing the third rector, Denis J. o'connell, who assumed office in March 1903. At O'Connell's suggestion, strongly supported by Cardinal Gibbons as chancellor, Pius X in September of that year gave public authorization for an annual collection to be taken up throughout the dioceses of the U.S.

Another change hastened by the financial crisis was the introduction of undergraduate lay students in the fall of 1905. The step was taken both to increase income and to bring the university's facilities to more students. The first 15 years had proved there were too few students either prepared for or interested in graduate studies to warrant continuing on that level alone. Nonetheless, as new programs and departments were added and a few suppressed, the university continued to emphasize in its mission statement and stated priorities its predominantly graduate character.

Bishop Spalding's proposal for an advanced teachers college, similar to that at Columbia University in New York City, began to take shape in 1911 with the founding of Catholic Sisters College. Established as a separate corporation (1914), it was located apart from the main campus, but its degrees were conferred by the rector of the university. Parallel courses and instruction were given in Brady Hall, erected for that purpose, because the policy of the university did not allow the sisters to attend classes and lectures on the main campus nor to mingle with the male student body there. Beginning with graduate students, the students enrolled in Sisters College were gradually integrated with the general student body of the university. By 1964 it had been incorporated into the university administratively, and in 1968 the trustees voted it out of existence.

Change and Reorganization. World War II had a major impact on the university with regard to both the size and the character of the student body. The outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1939 meant that many priests and seminarians who would have previously pursued graduate studies in Europe, a majority in Rome, came to Washington. The large proportion of clerics and religiousexempted from the draftamong the student body somewhat attenuated the drop in enrollment that affected most colleges and universities in the country. In the years immediately following the war lay students taking advantage of the GI Bill swelled the enrollment, while the number of religious students began to decline. Unlike in the early decades when enrollment was often far below the number that could be accommodated, after the war the university was at times strained to provide for the number of applicants. This was particularly true during the time of Bishop William J. McDonald when total enrollment grew from 3,858 in his first year as rector (195758) to 6,779 in his last (196768).

In 1964 the Catholic University joined with four other universities in the District of Columbia (American, George Washington, Georgetown, and Howard) to form the D. C. Consortium of Universities. This arrangement enabled the participating institutions to coordinate their respective graduate programs and permitted graduate students, with certain restrictions, to enroll in courses at the other universities. The university's Mullen Library is a member of the Washington Research Library Consortium that enables seven universities in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area to cross-list their holdings and share resources through a digital library system.

Bishop McDonald's rectorship was a watershed in the history of the university. Preoccupied with building, the production of The New Catholic Encyclopedia, and a desire to appease a number of constituencies with conflicting expectations, he did not cope well with the momentous cultural and religious changes signaled by the Second Vatican Council taking place at the time. He secretly expunged sections of the report that the Canon Law faculty had prepared for the council's Ante-Preparatory Commission and tightly controlled who could speak on campus, banning a number of respected Catholic theologians. Internal tensions, caused in part by the rector's disregard for established academic procedures, came to a head in the spring of 1967 when the board of trustees, ignoring the recommendations of the faculty, voted to terminate the services of the Reverend Charles E. Curran, an assistant professor in the school of theology. Faculty and students, in public protest, absented themselves from the classroom and took the issue to the media. The unwanted publicity caused Cardinal o'boyle, the chancellor of the university, to intervene. Father Curran was reinstated, but the incident was to have lasting consequences for the protagonists as well as the institution. Bishop McDonald resigned shortly afterwards, Father Curran emerged as a major voice in the U.S. church, and new instruments for the governance of the university were adopted.

In the wake of Bishop McDonald's departure, the board of trustees hired outside consultants and set up a series of committees that led to a thorough rewriting of the university bylaws and the formulation of new statutes for the ecclesiastical schools (theology, philosophy, Canon Law). The new documents reaffirmed the university's ties to the Catholic Church, made provision for an elected board of trustees that would be made up of an equal number of clerical and non-clerical members, and adopted titles for the administrative officers more in accordance with American usage. The rector was replaced by a president who did not need to be a priest, and in fact, the first two presidents appointed under the new bylaws were laymen, Clarence Walton (197078) and Edmund D. Pellegrino (197882). Pellegrino was succeeded by William J. Byron, S.J., the first member of a religious order to head the university.

The new statutes enacted for the ecclesiastical faculties in 1968 followed the general norms of the apostolic constitution Deus Scientiarum Dominus of 1931, and they have been interpreted to comply with subsequent directives of the Holy See (Normae quaedam (1968), Sapientia Christiana (1979), and Ex corde ecclesiae (1990). The norms in these and related documents provided the context for the protracted litigation, canonical and civil, that ended in the withdrawal of Father Charles Curran's missio canonica and his departure from the university. The issues, many and complex, divided the campus and brought much unwanted notoriety to the university. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith examined Curran's writings and questioned his theological method as well as the position he took on certain issues, chiefly in the area of sexual ethics. While defending his orthodoxy Curran maintained that the overarching issue was academic freedom. For the board of trustees and the university administration the overarching issue was their right to credential teachers of Catholic theology according to Church norms and procedures. The civil courts decided in favor of the university under principles of contract law in March 1989.

Throughout its history the university has sought to bring the Catholic intellectual tradition into conversation with the pursuits and priorities of the American academe. The mission is not unique to The Catholic University of America, but its pontifical status and singular relationship to the Church presents an ongoing challenge to the institution to find ways and create structures that safeguard its Catholic character and insure academic freedom in the tradition of American universities.

Bibliography: p. h. ahern, The Catholic University of America, 18871896: The Rectorship of John J. Keane (Washington 1949). c. j. barry, The Catholic University of America, 19031909: The Rectorship of Denis J. O'Connell (Washington 1949). r. j. deferrari, Memoirs of the Catholic University of America, 19181960 (Boston 1962). j. t. ellis, The Formative Years of the Catholic University of America (Washington 1946). p. e. hogan, The Catholic University of America, 18961903: The Rectorship of Thomas J. Conaty (Washington 1949). c. j. nuesse, The Catholic University of America: A Centennial History (Washington, DC 1990).

[j. t. ellis/eds.]

About this article

Catholic University of America, The

Updated About content Print Article