Editorial: Catholic identity

  • August 11, 2017

Regardless of where you stand on the nasty public spat involving the president of the University of St. Michael’s College and some school faculty, it seems fundamentally obvious that a Catholic institution of higher education should promote a visible and distinctly Catholic identity.

That was the core argument made to an international audience by St. Michael’s president David Mulroney during a June 22 speech in Quebec City. He stressed that in an increasingly secular society it is ever more challenging to resist the cultural tide and remain demonstrably Catholic. He said his role, was “to define and shape the mission” and, in particular, reconnect St. Michael’s with its historic “sense of Catholic mission.”

It’s hard to argue with any of that. But some of the faculty were upset by a speech that mentioned some unacceptable recent practices at the school while failing to cite the many staff and student achievements. Mulroney ruffled feathers by referencing a “very negative student culture” that in the past included what he called “corruption” by the student union, tasteless use of social media, excessive drinking, partying and an environment that objectified women. In short, he denounced types of behaviour that no Catholic institution should tolerate.

It’s seldom wise, however, to air dirty laundry in public. But Mulroney isn’t alone in overlooking that lesson. His speech prompted 22 professors and staff to sign a public letter of non-confidence pointed at a president who they claim painted a “distorted picture” and “dishonoured” the school, as if their letter did anything different.

Hopefully the two sides can agree that St. Mike’s must reflect Catholic values and, perhaps, heed St. Matthew’s wise advice: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

It’s unfortunate that reaction to one part of Mulroney’s presentation overshadowed the more important truths he spoke. A small campus on Canada’s largest university, St. Mike’s needs to work hard to preserve an authentic Catholic footprint. That’s not to suggest anyone has abandoned this obligation, only that the school needs to answer society’s increasing ambivalence towards faith with a firmer resolve to maintain its distinct identity.

The issues Mulroney raised were examples of how school leaders have failed students. He wasn’t bashing students. He questioned a school culture that gave rise to these problems. A Catholic institution must do better.

When he arrived at St. Michael’s three years ago, Mulroney said he detected a sense of “ambivalence about stating the school’s mission.” There was a reluctance on campus, he said, “to say anything that might be embarrassing or, in that strangest of all phrases, too Catholic. How can you be too Catholic?” he asks.

It’s a fair question. How indeed?

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