Catholic College Presidents Lack Theology Training

July 22, 2003

The lack of theologically educated Catholic college presidents was the subject of a recent article by Judy Roberts in the National Catholic Register newspaper. In the July 20-26 issue of the Register, Roberts begins her story by talking about Christendom President, Dr. Timothy O'Donnell.

"Dr. Timothy O'Donnell is an anomaly in the world of Catholic academia today. Like most of his counterparts at other American Catholic colleges and universities, the president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., is a layman. Unlike most, he holds a doctorate in sacred theology."

Roberts continues her report by explaining that as recently "as 35 years ago, a Catholic college president with such a degree or comparable religious training might have been the norm, not the exception. But a new study on lay Catholic college presidents confirms what many have suspected for a long time: that most of the people leading Catholic colleges and universities today are lay men and women who lack a thorough education in the faith."

This new study, titled "Leadership and the Age of the Laity: Emerging Patterns in Catholic Higher Education," writes Roberts, relates some very surprising statistics, namely that only 4% of lay presidents have terminal degrees in theology; 43% have graduate education degrees; 55% of the lay presidents have no religious training past high school; nearly 33% lack any kind of formal religious education; and a little over 25% have had some type of religious formation in seminaries or religious congregations.

The study was conducted by Father Dennnis Holtschneider and Melanie Morey. According to Fr. Holtschneider, it is of the utmost importance that Catholic college presidents, either lay or religious, "be fluent and knowledgeable about the tradition they are charged with preserving because universities are intellectual enterprises."

According to the story, Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that seeks to restore Catholic identity in Catholic colleges and universities believes that the "real problem is [that] Catholic universities are no longer centered [on] a real Catholic theology. The president needs to make that a priority regardless of what his background is."

But Dr. O'Donnell of Christendom has a little bit of a different take on the subject, reports the Register. O'Donnell feels that his own doctorate in sacred theology was "ideal in some ways but would not be necessary if a president had a solid formation in the faith and recognized that the fundamental purpose of a Catholic university is to educate under the guiding light of faith, as Pope John Paul II made clear in his 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

"The president is probably the most significant in setting the tone for a College," says O'Donnell. "Formation is important, but even more important than formation is a deep faith commitment. That's not something you go to school for."


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