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Archbishop: Catholic identity essential

Katie Perry | Tuesday, November 1, 2005

As his papacy progresses, Pope Benedict XVI will likely take the path of “evangelical pruning” – or refusing to maintain institutions that have lost their Catholic identity – Archbishop Michael Miller said Monday at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Center auditorium.

Miller, who serves as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, focused on the challenges facing American and European Catholic universities as he delivered the University’s 2005 Terrence Keeley Vatican lecture.

While he never referred specifically to Notre Dame, Miller’s commentary had unspoken implications for the University as a leading higher institution of Catholic learning.

The lecture drew some of Notre Dame’s most prominent leaders and shapers of its Catholic identity, including University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh and Dean of Arts and Letters Mark Roche.

Miller looked to the writings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – to predict which stance the Church might take to deal with institutions with a diluted Catholic identity.

“[The pope] argued that it might be better for the Church not to expend its resources trying to preserve institutions if their Catholic identity has been seriously compromised,” Miller said. “His writings show that a time of purification lies ahead, and this undoubtedly will have some ramifications for Catholic institutions.”

Past writings indicate that the new pope believes it is a mistake to uphold institutions that lack a solid Catholic identity, Miller said.

“For [the pope] … the measure of an institution can be judged by its Catholic integrity,” Miller said. “If [secularization occurs], it might be a matter of truth and justice that such an institution is no longer upheld. [Pope] Benedict [XVI] and others may believe that if a Catholic institution is no longer motivated by a Catholic identity, it is better to let it go.”

Miller said the Church could take two approaches to confront institutions where Catholic identity has been lost: the pope’s “evangelical pruning” or a method of hopeful patience.

“[Proponents of the latter method] believe that while a part of a university’s ecclesiastical identity might well be compromised, it is still better that we be patient because the institution is only ‘held hostage’ by a generation that will pass,” he said.

Some Church leaders would rather put up with a “less than ideal” situation and pray for the amelioration of an institution’s Catholic identity than dissolve ties with such places, Miller said.

“[The pope] appears to be more inclined to avoid scandal and lead a path of evangelical pruning, but we don’t know,” he said. “We await.”

Miller said Catholic universities can demonstrate a Christian presence by carrying out the Church’s evangelizing mission and providing service to the world.

“All the basic academic activities of a Catholic university are connected with – and in harmony with – the evangelizing mission of Church,” he said. “Every Catholic must play a role at the center of ecclesiastical life.”

Miller said one significant way Catholic universities in America and Europe can provide service to others is by assuaging the “asymmetry” that exists between these institutions across the world, especially in impoverished regions of Africa.

“The Holy See urges Catholic universities to develop partnerships with those of emerging nations to grow in solidarity and mutual understanding,” he said.

Miller said Catholic identity is lost when universities mistake their intrinsic bond to the Church for an external, supplementary component.

“Much more than a collection of individuals animated by their faith, a Catholic university is made of a community which may give collective witness to Catholic faith,” he said.

Miller said the mutability of the Church requires the constant improvement and advancement of Catholic identity at these institutions.

“The burden of proof falls on the university itself,” he said. “Such a decision to retain one’s Catholic identity is not about maintaining the status quo, but [rather] making positive changes.”