Star/Tribune: again the Univ. of St. Thomas (St. Paul): “a turn for the worse”

I posted entries on the travails of the University of St. Thomas where the freshmen have been assigned The Handmaid’s Tale as obligatory reading, the chapel is about to be "renovated", and the new Archbishop has been effectively kicked off the Board as an ex officio member so they won’t have to deal with his Catholicism.

I have been alerted to an article in the Star/Tribune which may be of interest.

My emphases and comments:

Katherine Kersten: Battle for soul of St. Thomas takes a turn for the worse

By Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune

Last update: December 5, 2007 – 11:47 PM

A decade ago, Prof. Frank Mach of the University of St. Thomas made a startling prediction in a paper he wrote for a conference on the institution’s Roman Catholic identity. He suggested the university was on course to largely sever its ties with the church.

By the time St. Thomas’ bicentennial rolls around in 2085, Mach wrote, any remaining link between St. Thomas and its Catholic roots "is likely to be vague and mostly symbolic."

In fact, events seem ahead of schedule.

Since St. Thomas’ founding in 1885, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has held the position of chairman of its board of trustees. But Mach noted that "a vote of the trustees and a subsequent stroke of the pen," could make such connections with the church "vestiges of the past."

On Oct. 25, 2007, the vote that Mach foresaw took place.

St. Thomas’ trustees voted to eliminate the archbishop’s automatic position on the board. As a result, come next spring, for the first time since Archbishop John Ireland founded the institution, a sitting archbishop will not chair the St. Thomas board.

Moreover, he may not even have a seat on it.

In future years, the trustees can elect as chair whomever they wish: a layperson, technically even a Buddhist.

The vote severing this legal link with the archdiocese [This is a key point.  The question must be asked now: Since this is/was a Catholic institution, directly connected with the Archdiocese, and if it is no longer such, then did the break have the consent of the Holy See?] is the latest development in a long-running struggle for St. Thomas’ soul.

Some of the institution’s strongest programs, such as the Catholic Studies department and the law school, still maintain a strong Catholic identity. But external pressures and internal inclinations to secularize abound.

Some speculate that Archbishop Harry Flynn’s upcoming retirement was a major factor in the board’s vote. During Flynn’s 12 years as chair, little has been done to resist the slide to secularization. He will be succeeded in 2008 by Coadjutor Archbishop John Nienstedt, who has a reputation for orthodoxy.

Keeping up appearances

In an apparent attempt to preserve the appearance of a relationship with the archdiocese, the board reelected the retiring Flynn — as an individual — to a five-year term as chairman. [NB: The term is for five years.  But the Coadjutor Archbp Nienstedt will become the ordinary before then.] But when his tenure as archbishop expires next spring, nothing in the university’s bylaws will require that the leader of the Catholic church in this region have any official role at the university.

"I found this action very, very disturbing — it was clearly directed at Archbishop Nienstedt," said Tom Mooney of St. Paul, a St. Thomas alumnus and donor. Many St. Thomas alums are concerned about the "erosion" of the institution’s Catholic identity, he said.

"I think there’s a problem, and a lot of priests do," said the Rev. Paul LaFontaine of St. Charles Borromeo parish in St. Anthony. "The archbishop is the chief teacher of the faith in the diocese. He ought to be part of the academic community, and respected and regarded as such."

St. Thomas "always has been and always will be a Catholic university," said archdiocesan spokesman Dennis McGrath in a statement.  [Oh yah? Making such a statement won’t make it reality.]

St. Thomas spokesman Doug Hennes said that a secular organization that reviews governing boards recommended the by-laws change in 2002. He added that the trustees were concerned that the new archbishop would be too busy to perform the chairman’s role.  [Isn’t there a musical with the song "We’re only thinking of him!"]

Did trustees ask Nienstedt if he would be too busy? Hennes referred the question to the archdiocese, and McGrath said he didn’t know.  [No surprise there.]

St. Thomas may now be poised to continue quickly down the path to secularization that other once-Christian institutions of higher education blazed years ago.

Who remembers that Macalester and Carleton colleges were founded, respectively, by the Presbyterian and Congregational churches? Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago were also originally church-affiliated institutions. But academics often view religious affiliation as incompatible with elite university status, and believe that it interferes with their "academic freedom."  [I seem to remember claims that the Holy See’s Ex corde Ecclesiae would interfere with "academic freedom".  What they really wanted, however, was freedom from Catholic teaching on faith and morals, and no obligation to stick with Catholic Tradition…. unless it is fund raising time, of course.  That is when the slick pamphlets are printed with old photos of stained glass windows, bishops with gloves and miters, and priests teaching in cassocks.]

Rapid escalation

The pace of secularization at St. Thomas could escalate rapidly if two archdiocesan seminaries affiliated with the university — St. Paul Seminary and St. John Vianney College Seminary — move to cut ties. Both are independent archdiocesan corporations. St. Paul Seminary was once a separate organization and could possibly be again.

Why should St. Thomas’ fate interest anyone who isn’t Catholic? Because the widespread secularization of religiously affiliated colleges destroys true diversity in education. [A very good argument.] There are plenty of schools where students can learn professional skills and how to look out for Number One (and planet Earth).

We need a few places where they can be called to pursue something higher: a transcendent vision of faith and morality.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Rudy B says:

    So very sad. As a student of an excellent Catholic university, I will keep them in my prayers.

  2. Michael says:

    I agree with Rudy B and I am in the same boat. The interesting side to all of this is Flynn’s complicity. Will this be one of his last acts? The crowning moment of his legacy?

  3. bryan says:

    “Catholic” universities started down this road a long time
    ago…nothing new here.

    Fordham University (my alma mater) began in the 1970s with its
    secularization so it could legally tap into the funds of New
    York State’s higher education funds. Set up a seperate corporation
    that ‘contracted’ with the Jesuits of Fordham, Inc. to run
    the place. It doesn’t even bill itself anymore as a ‘Catholic’
    university (I guess to avoid the fate of another well-known
    former Catholic university in the archdioces…), but a
    university in the “Jesuit tradition” (whatever that means…
    I guess open dissent, culturally-driven education, and hewing
    to whatever lowest common denominator societal cause du jour
    comes along).

    I guess I take a somewhat contrarian view of the whole thing:
    cut them loose if that’s what they want. Remove the adjective of
    ‘Catholic’ from all of their marketing materials, enjoin them from
    using the identity in any of their descriptions, remove the mandatum
    from their ‘theology’ department, and let them make it on their own.

    IOW, you can’t call yourselves ‘Catholic’ if by your actions, you
    prove you don’t want to be one.


  4. Cosmos says:

    It is amazing how so much of the money that Catholics have invested in the Church over the last century has been diverted, in one or another, outside of the Church. (Selling off magnificent Churches for next-to-nothin and replacing them with expensive and arrogant modern messes; paying-off the plaintiffs attorney\’s who are preying off of the sins of our sodomite priests who; watching politically correct Catholics stock our Catholic universities with non-Catholics who inevitably change the school in their image.)

    It has to be chastisement. To call is purification is a euphemism similar to calling confession/penance reconciliation. It may be true, but focusing only on the positive element of it is deceiving. We are too cowardly to insist that our hierarchy punish sodomites- after all we don\’t want to be seen as homophobic. We are too politically correct to insist that we try to hire Catholic faculty at our Catholic schools lest we be seen as close-minded and anti-intellectual. We are too lazy to make sure that our Churches are not just the pet projects of men with deficient understandings of beauty- God knows we do not want to be seen as a snob, or worse yet, as uneducated! In short, we are getting the Church that we deserve: lukewarm, ugly, bureaucratic, and wasteful.

  5. Sid Cundiff says:

    Most church sponsored universities, Protestant and Catholic, have become secular. Bryan\’s got the cause: money and the creeping power of an alien and pagan god: THE STATE, aka Leviathan — a god that will tolerate no other god.

    In general, educational institutions and university culture in The West has failed us, even seen secularly: It has failed to pass on our cultural patrimony, and it largely serves as haven for Cultural Marxism: people whose principle pleasure in life is hate. These institutions have even failed to teach basic cultural literacy, or even literal literacy!

    But Good Pope Benedict is saving the More Important Institution! This Institution has survived the cultural collapse of the Western Roman Empire; it will survive the current Dark Age, an age that began with the Endarkenment of the 18th C.

  6. TNCath says:

    Once again, it’s the BISHOPS’ responsibility to insure the Catholicity of the institutions his their respective dioceses. If Archbishop Harry Flynn wanted to do something about this, he could, as could bishops across the country who have colleges and universities within their jurisdiction who have lost their way. This of course, also applies to religious orders, parishes, and so-called “private secondary schools in the Catholic tradition” that blatantly downplay the Faith. An old priest once told me that the bishops were the weakest link in the Church. As the years pass on, his opinion seems plausible.

  7. paleothomist says:

    Even when I was a student at UST in 87-91 it was obvious the University was more interested in builiding up its material assets in order to become the ‘Notre Dame of the North’ than in being truly Catholic.

    An anecdote. Back in 1990 a friend of mine (whos wasn’t Catholic) came to visit. He asked if the dioceses financially supported the Univeristy. My roomate and I looked at each other and he commented that it was more likely that the Univeristy was financially supporting the dioceses…

    On the positive side, other posters have suggested that the minor seminary program (St. John Vianney) is a bastion of orthodoxy. If that is true, that would sure be achange from my time.

  8. Hicardo says:

    As you exit the nave, don’t let the door hit your butt on your way out.

  9. Patrick T says:

    That’s quite a tactical move by the board. By keeping Archbishop Flynn for another 5 years they can still claim, “Of course, we’re Catholic, one of our trustees is the Archbishop!!!” Archbishop Flynn ought to resign in protest, but apparently he supports all this.

    It will be very interesting to watch how St. John Vianney Seminary handles this, they have the largest incoming class of seminarians since 1965 and they have a reputation for being relatively orthodox.

  10. Ray from MN says:

    Michael commented: “The interesting side to all of this is Flynn’s complicity. Will this be one of his last acts? The crowning moment of his legacy?”

    Similarly from Patrick T: “Archbishop Flynn ought to resign in protest, but apparently he supports all this.”

    There is absolutely no evidence that Archbishop Flynn supported the change. There is no evidence that he was even there at this meeting where he received the halibut in the face.

    There is a tremendous amount of evidence that Archbishop Flynn was responsible for the resurgence of the two seminaries that are based on the St Thomas campus as large, thriving and orthodox institutions, the St John Vianney college seminary being the largest in the U.S.

    Most dioceses have virtually abandoned undergraduate seminaries. That’s another reason for the priest shortage.

    More kudos for Archbishop Harry Flynn! He didn’t.

    The archbishop is also responsible for the quality of the Catholic Studies program also which has received accolades for its academics and its orthodoxy.

    The consensus of opinion stated by some is that this move to remove the Archbishop as the ex-officio president of the Board of Trustees is a power play by the many very wealthy business types who sit on the Board of Trustees who have been used to getting their way all their lives. For them, the University of St Thomas is a business, something for them to “grow.”

    Catholic Studies Programs and Seminaries aren’t glamorous nor are they growth sectors for them to invest their funds.

    Now a medical school is what they think they need after having successfully created a business school and a law school in the past ten years. They are raising a ton of money for a $500 million fundraising campaign, launched with one $60 million gift from a grateful Catholic businessman quietly, to build that new medical school that would focus on family practice medicine. Sounds great, huh?

    But their problem with the Church that “broke the camel’s back” was that they selected a hospital corporation that performs abortions and so that movement came to a screeching halt, about the same time as the change in the “ex officio” officers tenure on the Board of Trustees.

    The Trustees made no mention of abortions when they scuttled the project. “The timing wasn’t right.”

  11. Ray from MN says:

    My last sentence got lost:

    Maybe the “time will be right” when there is no archbishop sitting on the Board of Trustees.

  12. peretti says:

    Patrick T., I’m glad you used the modifier “relatively” orthodox to describe St. John Vianney Seminary. I would not even go that far. I would say “tepidly orthodox.

  13. Patrick Rothwell says:

    What are the legal options of the Archdiocese and the Holy See, if any? My guess is zero, but someone from St. Paul probably has a better grasp of the issues.

    This is a very disturbing story all the way around.

  14. Anthony says:

    I have been on the campus of St. Thomas for the past four years and now I am doing my graduate work there. It has been sad to see how much opposition there is to orthodoxy. It seems that when I think I have seen the worst something new comes. My freshman year 03-04 was filled with GLBTQ stuff and that has not gone away. I am very thankful for the presence of the Catholic Studies department as well as the philosophy department. They are the ones that are responsible for keeping what is left of the Catholic identity.

  15. peretti – now that’s funny. SJV is one of THE most orthodox seminaries in the country! I know this from both personal experience as a CURRENT student at UST that deals with the SJV seminarians and faculty, and as a Catholic working out in the parishes who sees the objectively visible “ripple effect” on Catholic youth and young adults that the faith-filled efforts of Fr. Baer and Team Vianney has encouraged across the Archdiocese and beyond. And you call them “tepidly orthodox”? Just what the bleep is your definition of “hot” orthodoxy? Or even “warm” orthodoxy? And just what planet do you think you’re going to find it on?

    To all – be real. Check out the SJV website and our Archdiocesan vocations site, I think they speak for themselves!

    Pray for us at UST – the spiritual battle rages on, there has been a positive development in that the student government is behind our efforts to urge the board to re-establish the stable link to the Church through the Archbishop.

    If you are on Facebook, join the group “Apologia – Defend the Catholicism of St. Thomas” for the latest updates. Satan has not won this battle yet, help us fight the good fight with your prayers and fasting, not your ad hominem attacks that do nothing but distract from the real issue – Satan is clawing for another school to add to his conquests. Don’t let him have it.

  16. …the latest development in a long-running struggle for St. Thomas’ soul.

    I also notice that the loss of the university’s Catholic identify is variously described in the article as a “slide to secularization,” “the ‘erosion’ of the institution’s Catholic identity,” and that St. Thomas is “poised to continue quickly down the path to secularization,” and warns that the “pace of secularization at St. Thomas could escalate rapidly.”

    Am I wrong in thinking that this sort of language leads one to think of this transition as something that is happening to the university, like snowfall or evolution, rather than something that the university’s leaders are choosing to do? I was looking for phrases like “break with the Church,” or “renunciation of Catholic identity.”

    This article leaves me with unanswered questions like, who (by name) decided to set the course of the university away from the Church? When did they decide to disassociate themselves from Catholicism? How far do they intend to take it? And why is Archbishop Flynn complicit in the change?

  17. TNCath says:


    Your situation is not unusual. The vast majority of “Catholic” universities, especially those founded by religious orders who have traded their vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience for friendship, economy, and dialogue, are pretty much what you have going on at St. Thomas: remnants of what used to be. The Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“On the Heart of the Church”) was Pope John Paul II’s attempt to strengthen the Catholicity of Catholic universities. As you can imagine, this document, along with most others the last 4 Holy Fathers have promulgated the last 40 years, was pretty much ignored by the majority of “Catholic” colleges and universities in the U.S. Furthermore, the American bishops, for the most part, gave it some pious lip service for a while with few lasting results. There are a few institutions (and even fewer bishops) who have indeed taken Ex Corde Ecclesiae to heart, and they are thriving Catholic institutions. The rest are neither hot nor cold, fish nor fowl, as are the dying religious orders that founded them. Eventually, they (the orders and their institutions) will die off or become completely secular. The sooner the better. The Church will be better off without them.

  18. Joe from UST says:

    One consideration is who owns the land St. Thomas is situated on. Last I heard the archdiocese owned it. Perhaps, I will do a title search. If this is the case, things could get very interesting.

  19. peretti –

    I don’t know how or when you have been acquainted with SJV seminary, but in my ongoing acquaintance with their program and the men who attend, I have never encountered anything but enthusiastic orthodoxy. (I am currently a graduate student in the Catholic Studies department.) I know that SJV didn’t use to be such a great place, so perhaps your experience is from its anti-glory days.

  20. Joe from UST says:

    I just called the Ramsey County recorders office. The property was transferred to the College of St. Thomas in 1985 (The Roach years). I examiner of titles was unable to tell me who the grantor was, but St. Thomas now holds title. I wonder if Roach got permission from the Holy see to transfer the property to the school? (I think approval is required by Canon Law)

    This is all old news. I am an ’04 graduate. St. Thomas’s Catholicism has been souring for a while. Although the Catholic studies department is orthodox, then are by NO mean traditional. Many opposed the Tridentate mass, or at the very least thought it wholly irrelevant. The Catholic studies department is a very Vatican II centered program and you will almost never read any Vatican documents from before 1950. Everything happening how is simply the crescendo of a movement that started within the university a while ago.

    Finally, I think the best thing they could do is make all seminarians, Major and Minor, wear cassocks.

  21. swissmiss says:

    As an alumna of UST, I was always able to say, tongue-in-cheek, that at least St. Thomas wasn’t as bad as St. Kate’s. I don’t have those bragging rights anymore!

    To Archbishop Flynn’s credit, the seminary is doing well and providing the archdiocese with wonderful priests. Hopefully, Archbishop Nienstedt will be able to right the course of UST.

  22. Deborah says:

    The majority of “Catholic” schools are worse than secular ones. The majority of so-called “Catholic” schools are full of idealogues with an aggressive anti-Catholic agenda.

    The present and future prosperous Catholic institutions (parishes, schools, seminaries, convents, etc) are those that are orthodox and offering the traditional Latin Mass. This is a fact.

  23. peretti says:

    Quantitative Metathesis, yes, it has been a while since my limited experience with SJV seminary. I am happy to see in your post that you have met only with enthusiastic orthodoxy. And if this be the case, I am even more happy to say that I now stand corrected. Thanks very much for this good news.

  24. JODWA says:

    I think that recent discussions on changes at the University of St. Thomas have been productive and necessary. My assessment, however, is that some views expressed on these boards ignore the realities of contemporary higher education.

    Higher education is a competitive market and prospective students—customers—are increasingly drawn from diverse cultures and traditions. Without becoming more inclusive, Catholic universities will find themselves increasingly irrelevant in the world of higher education. The Newman Guide to Catholic Universities, listing the most “genuine” Catholic universities, was recently released. None of the schools mentioned have the financial means or the academic clout to compete with top-tier universities. Two institutions that are the most inclusive and do compete at the highest level, Notre Dame and Georgetown, didn’t make the grade in the eyes of the authors.

    I see two choices for Catholic institutions of higher education. Schools can take a heavy-handed orthodox approach and therefore appeal to a very small customer base of conservative Catholics. On the other hand, they can become more inclusive and thereby reach a wider audience with a Catholic message. The first option leads to diminished impact on Catholics and non-Catholics alike, while the latter has thus far been the model for achieving greater influence in higher education.

  25. Deborah says:

    A higher academic institution is either Catholic or it’s not.

    For anyone to describe a traditional Catholic institution as having a “heavy-handed orthodox” approach is insulting and quite ignorant.

    A Catholic teacher once said to me “90% of students at a Catholic schools are pagans”, so why do we try to pretend otherwise.

  26. paleothomist says:

    “Higher education is a competitive market and prospective students—customers—are increasingly drawn from diverse cultures and traditions. Without becoming more inclusive, Catholic universities will find themselves increasingly irrelevant in the world of higher education.”

    Well, so be it. There are some prices that are too hight to pay. If Catholic instititions need to cease to be Catholic in order to be considered top tier, then why bother having Catholic education at all. You can’t serve god and Mammon.

  27. MikeL says:

    Peretti –
    I can also say that “Quantitative Metathesis” (what a mouthful!) is correct about the current orthodoxy of SJV. My son is there and I can tell you that it is now a great example of how orthodoxy can revitalize a seminary and increase vocations. The credit goes to the great leadership of the current rector, Fr. Baer. He has been there about 5 years and now the seminary is bursting at the seams with really great young men. Of course, I am less that objective about one of them, but I’ve met quite a few; they are without exception enthusiastically orthodox and deeply in love with Christ and devoted to His Mother. They continually plot to take back the campus for real Catholicism – they think of the rest of the campus as “mission territory”. I pray they have success.

  28. Andy P. says:

    A small correction to a side point from the article — the University of Chicago never had any religious affiliation.

  29. Thorfinn says:

    Apparently, Archbishop Flynn is just fine with what has taken place. Here’s a link to his letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published today, 8 December.

  30. Matt Q says:

    Disheartening article yet so unsurprising. Sounds quite similar to what took place around 1535 in England. Despite the trappings of the argument, the premise is the same and so is the result–anti-Catholicism.

    In regards to these various bishops, e.g. Flynn ( and his spin ), their behavior seems so indicative of a complete lack of fear for their own souls. It is just mind-boggling what happens to a priest when he becomes a bishop. Actually, it is just an elevation of office. The given priest has always had that mindset. Tough luck for his flock however.

  31. TNCath says:


    You raise some interesting points, although I do not agree with you. One can be “inclusive” in that a college or university can reach out to everyone without compromising its mission. This is what true ecumenism is all about. Nonetheless, the only reasons for the existence of Catholic colleges and universities are for the search for knowledge and Truth and the propagation of the Faith, or to use a more contemporary term, evangelization. True orthodoxy is neither “conservative” nor “liberal” and never heavy handed. Case in point: Pope Benedict XVI. As for financial concerns, a top-notch Catholic university that does not back down on its mission will not fail financially. I daresay that if Georgetown, Notre Dame, and other well-known “Catholic colleges” were to return to their Catholic roots, the Holy Spirit will take it from there.

  32. JODWA says:

    Matt Q:

    Why not trust and support Archbishop Flynn’s decisions? After reading the Archbishop’s response to the Kersten article, it’s clear that the Diocese approves and supports the ongoing changes at St. Thomas. Through all of this, no evidence has been show that leadership wants to do anything but strengthen the Church.

    In my view, if someone is to be vilified in this whole mess let’s look toward Kersten. She’s either incredibly sloppy and/or dishonest. Her meddling has caused grief for many.

  33. TNCath says:

    Why not trust and support Archbishop Flynn’s decisions? After reading the Archbishop’s response to the Kersten article, it’s clear that the Diocese approves and supports the ongoing changes at St. Thomas. Through all of this, no evidence has been show that leadership wants to do anything but strengthen the Church.

    Because Archbishop Flynn has made many questionable decisions in the past with the intention to “strengthen the Church.” History has shown us time after time that just because a diocese “approves and supports” something, it does not mean that it is the right thing to do. I’m sure the archbishop and the College of St. Thomas do not think they are weakening the Catholic presence. I’m just not sure they are too terribly interested in strengthening it, either.

  34. Karen says:

    “He added that the trustees were concerned that the new archbishop would be too busy to perform the chairman’s role. [Isn’t there a musical with the song “We’re only thinking of him!”]”

    Close. Are you thinking of “Thinking of no one but me” from Me and My Girl?

  35. CPT Tom says:

    “I’m /They’re only Thinking of Him” is a trio from the Musical “Man of La Mancha.” It features Don Quixote’s Sister and Housekeeper complaining about the Don to their priest (who is between them) in confession. Very funny, as they are obviously NOT thinking of him, rather of their own disgrace. lyrics here:

  36. Karen says:

    Tom! Thanks — I’d quite forgotten about that one. It seems to me there’s also another lyric in a similar vein.

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