Catholic U: Click, click, connect

When people ask me to describe the toughest part of what we do here at GetReligion (other than trying to keep up with all of the blog-related emails flying around all day, with most of these cyber-gnats originating with yours truly), I always offer a two-part answer. Both answers are linked to guilt. First, I constantly feel guilty about the fact that there is no way we can find out about all of the good stories that we need to praise and I'm sure we miss tons of howlers that are worthy of dissection. Second, I also know that -- even though you GetReligionistas have been to their share of faith-based rodeos -- there is no way that we can know enough information to even spot all the gaps and the ghosts in the stories that we do see.

Here is a classic case in point, which has been in my guilt file for just over a week.

Earlier this month, the Catholic University of America announced the appointment of its new president. At the top of the basic Washington Post story (played on B4, while news of this kind from Georgetown University would be on A1) we are told the following:

John H. Garvey, a law school dean with a long record of scholarship on some of the most divisive issues in the Catholic Church, on Tuesday will be named the new president of Catholic University of America.

Garvey, dean of the Boston College Law School since 1999, will replace David M. O'Connell as president of Catholic, the national university of the Roman Catholic Church. O'Connell announced his departure in the fall and was tapped this month as bishop-elect of the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.

The transition marks a significant shift for Catholic, which has spent the past dozen years rediscovering its spiritual identity under the guidance of an energetic cleric. Leadership now passes to a lay administrator, who spent a semester at Harvard Divinity School before moving to Harvard Law, where he graduated in 1974.

By the way, shouldn't that be "Father" David M. O'Connell or "The Rev." or something? One of the main themes of the story is that Garvey is a layman and that he is following in the footsteps of a priest.

You will also notice that a key element of the story is that Catholic U has, in the past decade or so, emerged as the more orthodox, pro-Catechism Catholic campus here inside the Beltway. The trustees know that Rome's trust is a crucial part of the school's identity now and, thus, that theme was part of the spin put on this announcement by Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, the chairman of the board and leader of the search committee.

Vigneron said the university board expects Garvey to continue O'Connell's work to reclaim a Catholic identity for the Northeast Washington campus. O'Connell raised the share of students and faculty who self-identified as Catholics and hosted Pope Benedict XVI in a 2008 visit. He said trustees also appreciated the legal mind Garvey has brought to bear in analyzing Catholic quandaries.

"I'm very grateful that he's an accomplished scholar, and I think he brings from his legal scholarship a lot of wisdom about the church's place in contemporary society," Vigneron said. "He's a very thoughtful man, very measured. He tries to bring light and insight to matters about which there's a lot of argument."

Now, I should have seen the flashing lights when I read that. You see, "Catholic identity" is a catch phrase that is empty of specific meaning and this passage included yet another reference to Garvey being a leader in addressing issues that represent "Catholic quandaries" who has a "long record of scholarship on some of the most divisive issues in the Catholic Church."

But I missed the point of all that and the Post team didn't offer more than those hints, other than some references to issues that would paint Garvey as a centrist (which he may be, in the context of today's American Catholic reality).

Still, I was not surprised when -- a week or so later -- I saw this item at the conservative website focusing on that "Catholic identity" label. This was a classic case of "click, click, connect."

... (W)hat does it mean, in concrete terms? A school named the Catholic University of America has a degree of "Catholic identity" by default; everyone knows that the university is affiliated with the Catholic Church. That's obviously not what the archbishop has in mind. He is thinking, one assumes, of a school whose faculty members are proud to hold and teach the Catholic faith, and unafraid to bring the principles of Catholic teaching into the public square.

Just last fall, one bold faculty member at a Catholic institution of higher learning did just that. Scott Fitzgibbon, a professor at Boston College Law School, went to Maine to record a television commercial making the argument against legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Regrettably, Fitzgibbon drew very little support from his faculty colleagues at the Jesuit-run school.

While the most strident extremists charged that Fitzgibbon was a "homophobe," a group of 76 professors at BC law school signed a statement affirming their "commitment to making our institution a welcome and safe place for all students, including LGBT students." The dean of the law school -- who was one of the 76 signatories on that statement -- made a point of telling reporters that Fitzgibbon was only speaking for himself, and BC Law was happy to have faculty members who would argue strenuously in support of homosexual marriage. In short, the professor who stood up for Catholic moral teaching found himself isolated. Not much "Catholic identity" at that school.

The kicker, of course, is that the dean of the BC law school who took that public stance against Fitzgibbon was John H. Garvey -- who is now the new president of the Catholic University of America.

You see, I missed it.

Methinks that the Post missed something important, too. Sometimes a university's press release doesn't include all of the crucial facts, when this kind of announcement is made. It might have helped to have talked to some traditional Catholics on the CU campus and elsewhere.

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