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

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 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. 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.

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.

Did trustees ask Nienstedt if he would be too busy? Hennes referred the question to the archdiocese, and McGrath said he didn't know.

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."

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. 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.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, which can be found at www.startribune.com/thinkagain.

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