Frank Mazzaglia: 'Catholic' college not loyal to faith

Frank Mazzaglia

Controversy is raging in Worcester these days as to whether the College of the Holy Cross is truly Catholic.

That's a theme that comes up from time to time. The latest flareup emerged when area Catholics complained to Bishop Robert J. McManus about the college renting space on the campus to the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, a Boston-based agency, for a conference.

The renting organization does not provide direct contraception or abortion services. However, the conference includes workshops presented by Planned Parenthood, NARAL and Pro-Choice Massachusetts, organizations that promote positions contrary to the teachings on faith and morals of the Catholic Church.

A bishop, of course, is the official teacher of Catholic doctrine in a particular diocese. Beyond that, Bishop McManus is an acknowledged intellectual and respected academic. In keeping with his episcopal duties, Bishop McManus laid it on the line in a letter to the college's Jesuit president:

"As Bishop of Worcester, it is my pastoral and canonical responsibility to determine what institutions can properly call themselves 'Catholic.' This is a duty which I do not take lightly since to be a Catholic institution means that such an institution conducts its mission and ministry in accord with Catholic Church teaching, especially in cases of faith and morals."

That reaction could hardly have surprised the college's Jesuit president, the Rev. Michael McFarland. It can be reasonably assumed that somewhere along the line, McFarland was fully aware of the church's long-standing position on abortion. The best MacFarland could do was to respond that the college fully embraced the Catholic positions on faith and morals. He further asserted that the college was only renting space but was in no way sponsoring the organization. The president claimed the college was now obliged to honor its contract.

That's a pretty slippery response. Yet it's the kind of thing that disappointed Catholics have come to expect from some Catholic college presidents.

There is a sharp difference between the development of intelligent Catholics and a Catholic intelligentsia. Any good college can educate its students in the liberal arts. One would think, however, that a truly Catholic college would also instill enough Catholicism to create responsible intellectual leaders in the faith.

Part of that comes from the curriculum and institutional culture. Another part comes from the example of its administrators. Holy Cross knows full well that it has crossed the line. Blurring the distinction between renting and sponsoring is a lame argument. Would the college consider renting to the Ku Klux Klan?

There is also the matter of fundamental loyalty to your basic beliefs. True enough, a college sparks controversy. A good faculty always tests old principles. However, even the most liberal institutions provide open debate where all sides are represented. For traditional Catholics, any of its institutions aiding the promotion of abortion in any way is scandalous.

There is another troubling pattern. Jesuit colleges in particular have used their money along with a variety of platforms to foster a cult following. The chapel may not be full, but who cares as long as the football stadium is sold out.

The "Catholic" tag makes for good marketing strategy. From that perspective, supporting the local bishop may be a necessary annoyance that requires little more than lip service. Catholic religious communities, like the Jesuits, owe their obedience to their own elected superiors and not to the bishop. That's a distinction that many people of other faiths do not realize.

Certainly, it would be problematic to lose any institution, particularly a place with a distinguished history like Holy Cross College, which owes its very existence to the dimes and dollars that Catholic people sacrificed to make it a realty.

Still, no matter what action the bishop takes, for disappointed Catholics and even for some of its alumni, the College of the Holy Cross stopped being a loyal Catholic institution a long time ago.

Frank Mazzaglia can be reached at fmazzaglia@aol.com