Every college president's success depends on building good relationships with outside groups, whether donors, alumni, or legislators. Presidents of Roman Catholic colleges have one more party to please: the local bishop.
In recent months, the bishop of Scranton, Pa., asked colleges in his diocese to assure him that they were not providing birth control. The archbishop of New Orleans boycotted Xavier University of Louisiana's commencement because the speaker, a Democratic Party strategist, supported abortion rights. And dozens of bishops spoke out against the University of Notre Dame's decision to invite President Obama to give its commencement address and receive an honorary degree.
That controversy received nearly nonstop attention in the three months following the announcement that Mr. Obama, who supports abortion rights as well as research on human embryonic stem cells, would speak on the campus. But while such incidents get a lot of news coverage, experts on Catholic higher education say they do not reflect the typical relationship between bishops and colleges.
"For the most part, presidents and bishops get along fairly well," says the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
Yet the controversies raise questions about how the 200 or so Catholic colleges in the country interact with their local bishops. Small, locally oriented institutions can be much more vulnerable than national name-brand ones, like Notre Dame, in a dispute with a local bishop.
"One good thing that will come from the recent flurry of commencement controversies is there is more interest on the part of presidents and bishops and other interested parties in having a more fully formed dialogue about how to go forward," says Richard A. Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. "How that will come out remains to be seen."
The association's Board of Directors discussed campus speakers at its meeting this month, Mr. Yanikoski said in an e-mail message. The directors recommended that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops withdraw a 2004 statement, "Catholics in Political Life," that has led to confusion over who should be invited to speak at Catholic college commencements. The conference was expected to discuss related issues at its June retreat, Mr. Yanikoski says.
Those conversations build on a discussion in progress for more than 20 years. Church and college leaders have interacted much more frequently in the decades since Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde Ecclesiae, a document defining the relationship between the church and Catholic institutions of higher education throughout the world.
"Because of more focus and attention on Catholic identity since Ex corde, since 1990 there actually have been more conversations between presidents and bishops," says the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, president of Catholic University of America.
Many leaders in Catholic higher education see that as a positive development. It reflects a shared desire to foster good relations with the bishop in his role on and off the campus, even though in almost all cases bishops have no direct control over colleges' operations. If a relationship sours, as it has in several cases, a bishop can create a public-relations nightmare.
So how do presidents navigate this important and sometimes tricky relationship?
When potential conflicts arise, it's imperative for the president to contact the bishop as soon as possible. "What the bishops don't like is reading about things in the newspaper," says Father Reese. Regular communication can make a big difference. "If they have a good relationship before the crisis happens," he says, "it tends to keep the rhetoric under control."
When Francesco C. Cesareo was appointed president of Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass., he received a congratulatory letter from the local bishop. Mr. Cesareo took the opportunity to write back and set up a meeting, even before beginning his job.
Now, two years into his presidency, Mr. Cesareo continues to talk with his bishop every month or so, and meets with him formally each year.
"I think one of the most important things for a Catholic college president is to cultivate a positive relationship with the local bishop," he says. That can make tough situations a little easier. "Making sure there are no surprises," he says, "is critical."
The relationship between president and bishop is unlike any other in higher education. Only a few Catholic institutions are directly under the authority of a bishop; Catholic University is unique in that it was founded by the American bishops as a group. Most Catholic institutions were founded by religious orders, which have separate authority structures. In some cases, a bishop may serve on a Catholic college's board, but his role is the same as any other board member's.
Canon law gives bishops the "duty and right" to make sure principles of Catholic doctrine are faithfully observed at Catholic colleges, and says those who teach theology must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority. Bishops also have the authority to determine which institutions in their dioceses are Catholic.
Ex corde describes the relationship between bishops and colleges in more detail, saying bishops are responsible for promoting Catholic institutions and protecting their Catholic identity from civil authorities. It states: "This will be achieved more effectively if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation, and continual dialogue. Even when they do not enter directly into the internal governance of the University, Bishops should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University."
Some bishops, however, are more comfortable on a campus than others. Bishops also have many responsibilities, so they may visit campuses in their dioceses or interact with college leaders only a few times a year. Monitoring every on-campus event isn't high on most bishops' agendas.
Not Just Damage Control
The Archdiocese of Baltimore sought strong ties to the three Catholic colleges located there. So the archdiocese designates one auxiliary bishop to work more closely with them.
The Most Rev. Denis J. Madden, who has been in that role since 2005, attends a joint meeting of the three colleges' theology departments each year. He works with the colleges in their outreach to parochial schools. And he deals with controversies when they arise, which he says is infrequently. Even then, he says, the archdiocese often lets it go, unless a scheduled speaker actually plans to say something that explicitly defies church teaching.
Sometimes, responding to a potential campus controversy simply raises its profile, Bishop Madden says. "It gives people a platform," he says, "when maybe they weren't going to talk about those things."
What's more, he adds, having a relationship with the person on the other end of the phone makes all the difference.
The presidents try to do their part as well. "If there's something going on on campus I think the archbishop might get complaints about, I call him," says the Rev. Brian F. Linnane, president of Loyola College in Maryland, which is located in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
That has happened a few times in his four years as president. Before a public lecture by a controversial theologian, Father Linnane called the archdiocese. He did the same when a student group planned to perform the play The Laramie Project, which addresses the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student.
Because the archbishop is the diocese's final word on Catholic teaching, "it is important for us as a Catholic university to be in communion with him," says Father Linnane. Often bishops hear about a Catholic college only when something goes wrong, he says, and so the college must articulate its accomplishments to the diocese.
Bishop Madden has an unusual academic background for someone in his position, having earned a master's degree in psychology from Columbia University and interned at the University of Maryland's medical school while completing his Ph.D. at Notre Dame. Those experiences have given him "a wider view" of higher education, he says.
His background in psychology also has provided him with an analogy for understanding the archdiocese's relationship to the colleges. Psychology, he says, needs both clinicians in the field and researchers in the lab. Similarly, the church needs both the hierarchy's pastoral work and the intellectual contributions of academics. "I look to our theology departments to help us," he says, "to help the bishops in fulfilling their role as bishops."
After all, the relationship between presidents and bishops is supposed to be about more than damage control. "It isn't just about an earlywarning system," says Mr. Yanikoski, president of the Catholic-college association. "It's about recognizing the distinct roles the church and university have in society, and the roles of bishops and presidents. And there are times those roles will lead to different practical judgments."