When Catholic Colleges Pander to Caesar, Caesar Exacts a Toll

Nine days ago a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released a decision that is sure to effect a conflict that should exist between religious institutions and secular entities such as labor unions. In this case the struggle will likely be religious freedom versus the rights of employees who are not of the same religious persuasion as that claimed by the institution. In particular, the target is New York City’s Manhattan College, which is allegedly Catholic.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, has responded to this case with wise words, pointing out that the premise for the NLRB ruling is that, while the Archdiocese of New York acknowledges that Manhattan College is Catholic, the fact is that the NLRB’s review of college statements and course content resulted in the NLRB’s assessment “that the purpose of the College is secular and not the ‘propagation of a religious faith.’”

Further, the NLRB decision “listed several examples from the school’s own governance, faculty, coursework requirements, and literature to prove its lack of a meaningful relationship with the Catholic Church. These included the diminishing number of leadership roles filled by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and the school’s emphasis on ‘academic freedom and diversity’ and ‘institutional autonomy,’ which Manhattan College called ‘[requisite] for its effective functioning and the achievement of its Mission.’”

Academic freedom, autonomy, and diversity—the worldly trio of defenses that resounded not so long ago when more than 80 Catholic bishops and many lay Catholics protested the “Catholic” University of Notre Dame’s hosting of President Obama. 

Putting this in a historical perspective Reilly writes, “For decades since the infamous Land O’Lakes declaration, too many Catholic colleges and universities have straddled the line between Catholic and secular.” 

In other words, worldly influence has affected college leadership, betraying the Church for the sake of worldly influence, prestige and, of course, federal money. Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel Kevin Theriot suggests that there are “ways Catholic educators can defend their exemptions from laws that require health insurance coverage for contraception or employee benefits for same-sex couples.”

But Theriot warns, “Any available exemptions for religious institutions will not apply if a college that was founded as a religious institution has become largely secular. It is therefore vital that Catholic colleges and universities maintain their Catholic identity in all of their programs in order to best protect their religious character and mission.”

Perhaps the most insightful and helpful perspective on this growing problem comes from Monsignor Charles Pope, who suggests that the Church has some serious reflection to do.

The fact is that the Church is to be a light to the world, but it sometimes happens that we fall short and God must allow the world itself to rebuke us. The Christian community is supposed to be self-correcting. It is an embarrassing truth that it sometimes takes Caesar to tell us to give to God what is God’s, to be more serious about our Christian walk, and to be true in our claims to be Catholic. …

One may argue that bishops could have been more forceful, Rome more demanding, or that the Catholic faithful should have voted with their feet long ago and stopped frequenting and supporting fake Catholic institutions. But in the end, God may well be allowing a secular authority, which has no understanding of things religious to insist upon truth-telling. In so doing it may well be that God is following an old pattern where Pharaoh had to give Abram a good swift kick in the pants …

Like it or not, the world demands of Catholics what they seldom demand of other denominations: that what it means to be a Catholic should be clear and that it be lived to deserve the title. The secular government may mean harm in this, but God can use it for good. (cf Gen 50:20)