Church Must Let Schools Remain Separate Entities, Says Catholic Leader

12/03/2013 12:28 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2014

There is a dissonance in today's Catholic Church. The new pope's resonance with so many church members -- as he openly distances himself from ongoing Church struggles regarding issues like abortion, gay marriage and the role of women -- shows that among more progressive Catholics, there is a true desire for change.

Like many Catholics, I believe this change cannot possibly arrive without the support of Catholic leaders.

That's why it is incredibly enlightening to speak to outspoken Catholic leaders like Brother Louis DeThomasis, who, this summer, introduced his latest book.

In the clearly written and easily digestible, "Dynamic of Catholic Education: Letting the Catholic School Be School," DeThomasis, who has been a major player in Catholic education for 40 years, documents some of the profound struggles he feels currently exist within the expansive realm of Catholic education; a world that encompasses some of our nation's most respected grade schools and universities.

On the one hand, explains the always-passionate DeThomasis during an interview with me, is the Catholic hierarchy imposing strict dogmatic and practical regulations on all institutions with a Church affiliation; on the other, the students and educators -- many progressive Catholics among them -- trying to navigate these rules while not breaking from their faith entirely.

"You have to please the church, the bishops and the alumni," he explains of the latter group, which is therefore torn between fully exploring academic pursuits and trying to avoid trouble with the higher-ups.

DeThomasis currently resides in Rome, where he works as president of Christian Brothers Investment Services GLOBAL, and was previously president and professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, from 1984 to 2005. His educational experience means he knows the drill -- up close.

"They're watching with a microscope," he continues, regarding the hierarchy. "You're almost forced to forget about the student."

Specifically, DeThomasis points out that with its finite belief system, on political and cultural issues such as abortion, marriage and family planning, the Church has the power to dictate on a wide range of items at affiliated schools: what books are read, speakers are invited, art is displayed, plays are performed and topics are discussed.

Note a few recent high-profile examples. Catholic leaders, including the Archdiosese of Washington and the Cardinal Newman Society, reprimanded Georgetown University when the school invited Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to speak at an awards ceremony in May of last year. The pro-choice former governor was seen as controversial by staunch Catholics who believed her personal beliefs, as well as her symbolism as a spokeswoman for Obamacare (which requires health insurance coverage for birth control) presented a blatant challenge to Church beliefs.

The university stood strong, maintaining the invitation and commenting that Sebelius represented a government move to provide insurance for those most in need. Her speech -- which touched on some of the controversy -- resulted in further harsh criticism from Catholic leaders.

Just a month prior, another Catholic institution had a similar experience, with a very different result. Anna Maria College, a small school located in Massachusetts, folded to criticism from a local bishop after inviting Sen. Ted Kennedy's widow, Vicky Kennedy, to perform its commencement address. Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus remarked that Kennedy's support for abortion and gay rights -- two issues championed by her late husband -- made her the wrong choice for the speech, and for the honorary degree she was to receive, and as a result, Kennedy's invitation was rescinded.

DeThomasis points out that we can't simply omit controversial issues from scholarly discussions.

"If you can't talk about gay marriage or birth control, where are our students going to discuss this?" he asks. Questioning these ideas -- and faith overall -- is a huge part of educational life. "Our students are on their spiritual journey. If we're going to be efficient educators, we have to meet them there."

But "just because we discuss doesn't mean we advocate," he says. He is clear in stating that Catholic schools must not ignore the teachings of the church; he believes educational institutions have the responsibility to present those teachings authentically. He also believes, however, that the Church should trust that the school will represent itself as Catholic as it sees best fit, without the strong arm of the Church acting as overseer.

His answer, as outlined in the book, is that schools follow eight "dynamics" that will allow them to inspire and educate their students without unnecessary constraint.

He urges schools, for instance, to, "Not bend to the demands of what critics consider orthodoxy just to keep the peace," to, "allow students total freedom to seek, to question and to embrace their own doubts and convictions within a spirit of the total freedom of inquiry implied by the phrase faith seeking understanding," and to "foster a search for truth in dialogue with the world and culture in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition."

If Catholic schools are to prosper, and most importantly, engage their students, they must not be beholden to the unmovable rules of the Church. "A Catholic school is not the Catholic Church and vice versa," DeThomasis says.

The schools, he argues, are dealing not only with educating their students -- which should be their primary concern -- but with pleasing a hierarchy that continually asks for more.

That equation can't work, and he sees a better way forward than the continual controversy and squabbling between these two separate -- but closely intertwined -- bodies. As a Catholic leader, DeThomasis chooses to speak out in favor of an improved relationship. He hopes others will follow.

"There has to be a new openness," he says.