May 25, 2012

Be Our Guest / Daniel Elsener

Marian University responds to Pope Benedict’s call to strengthen Catholic identity

Daniel ElsenerEarlier this month, in an address to U.S. bishops who were making their ad limina visits to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI called on America’s colleges and universities to strengthen their Catholic identities. He urged Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States to “reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission.”

At Marian University in Indianapolis, we welcome the Holy Father’s emphasis on the importance of Catholic identity. We agree that the founding ideals of our university, which are summarized in our statements of vision, mission and values, need to be constantly reaffirmed if we are to carry out our mission—to be a thriving Catholic university dedicated to excellent teaching and learning in the Franciscan and liberal arts traditions.

Marian University’s bold vision is “to provide an education that profoundly transforms lives, society and the world.” The university’s Franciscan values, informed by prayer, are dignity of the individual, peace and justice, reconciliation and responsible stewardship.

We take our Catholic identity seriously because it defines who we are, and it compels us to be a transformative community that builds on a rich history of faith and learning. We also take seriously the Franciscan and liberal arts traditions that shape our vision of a better world to come.

Pope Benedict challenged Catholic colleges and universities to comply with Church law in the appointment of theology instructors, who are required to possess a “mandate” from “competent ecclesial authority”—usually the local bishop. This is our practice at Marian University.

During my time as president, every full-time, Catholic theology professor has formally requested and been granted a mandate by the archbishop. All of our theology faculty teach in harmony with the Church’s expectations within their areas of professional expertise.

In his remarks, Pope Benedict said that preservation of a university’s Catholic identity “entails much more than the teaching of religion or the mere presence of a chaplaincy on campus.”

We wholeheartedly agree.

Visit our campus, and it will become immediately obvious that we are not ashamed of our Catholic identity.

On the contrary, we celebrate who we are, and we invite everyone who becomes part of our university community—regardless of their religious, ethnic, racial, social or economic backgrounds—to grow in their understanding and appreciation of what Catholic higher education contributes to the lives of individuals, society and the world.

As Pope Benedict says, “In every aspect of their education, students need to be encouraged to articulate a vision of the harmony of faith and reason capable of guiding a lifelong pursuit of knowledge and virtue.” The pope contrasts the Catholic ideal of education, which seeks to educate the whole person—mind, body and soul—with views that are too narrowly focused on academic and professional specialties.

Meeting this challenge will require Church leaders and Catholic higher education leaders to collaborate in a creative and sensitive manner as we seek to understand how the search for truth and fidelity to Church teaching and witness can be mutually enriching.

I see a commitment to developing good relationships between the bishops and presidents of Catholic higher education, and a commitment to mutual respect and continual dialogue as the path to making sure that Catholic higher education is a rich environment in which to search for truth and successfully address the needs of the human family.

Fortunately, this has been the case in Indianapolis during my time as president of Marian University. The support and encouragement we received from Archbishop Emeritus Daniel M. Buechlein prior to his retirement has been continued by our apostolic administrator, Bishop Christopher J. Coyne. In this same spirit, we look forward to working with our new archbishop as soon as he is named by the Holy Father.

Pope Benedict says that reaffirming Catholic identity in education is part of a broader effort to build a distinctively Catholic “intellectual culture” in the U.S., and a “society ever more solidly grounded in an authentic humanism inspired by the Gospel.”

This requires not only an excellent Catholic education for undergraduates and graduate students, it also means providing outstanding continuing education opportunities for Catholic lay leaders.

I believe that the engagement of faculty and Catholic leaders on campus is essential if we are to overcome the influences of secularism, and build the kind of “authentic humanism inspired by the Gospel” that Pope Benedict rightly challenges us all to pursue aggressively in the name of Catholic higher education.

At Marian University, we are beginning a wonderful new adventure as our College of Osteopathic Medicine, Indiana’s first new medical school in more than 100 years, has received official word that it may begin to recruit students and offer instruction for its fall 2013 inaugural class.

Our College of Osteopathic Medicine has now been accepted into the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), and is now listed among the colleges of osteopathic medicine on the AACOM web site at

From our unique vantage point inaugurating a new medical school, it was fascinating to hear what Pope Benedict had to say on May 3 to the faculty of medicine and surgery at Rome’s Sacred Heart Catholic University on the occasion of the institution’s 50th anniversary.

The pope emphasized the need for our contemporary culture to rediscover “meaning” and “transcendence” even as we make advances in medical skill and technology. “By following the path of faith,” the pope said, we are “able to distinguish, even in the reality of suffering and death which traverse human existence, an authentic possibility for goodness and for life. … Care for those who suffer is, then, a daily encounter with the face of Christ, and the dedication of mind and heart becomes a sign of God’s mercy and of his victory over death.”

When it is true to itself, a Catholic university draws life and vigor from the dialogue between faith and reason. Religion and science make a true humanism possible because, together, they address the whole of humanity, not simply its various parts.

“It is here that the irreplaceable role of the Catholic university comes into play,” the Holy Father says. A Catholic university that is true to itself is “a place in which education is placed at the service of the person in order to construct an academic competence rooted in that heritage of knowledge which the succeeding generations have distilled into life wisdom; a place where care is not a task, but a mission.”

At Marian University, education—in all its wonderful dimensions—is never just a task. It is a mission that we embrace with both humility and pride. It is a challenge we accept on behalf of the individuals whose lives we are called to transform—along with society and the world—according to the Franciscan and Catholic values that are our heritage and our destiny.

In his address to the faculty of medicine and surgery at Rome’s Sacred Heart University, the Holy Father said, “The Catholic university, which has a special relationship with the See of Peter, is today called to be an exemplary institution which does not limit learning to functionality and economic success, but broadens its horizons to projects in which the gift of intelligence investigates and develops the gifts of creation, abandoning a purely productive and utilitarian view of existence because the human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension.”

At Marian University, we share the pope’s vision for what a Catholic university should be. We are working hard to make this vision a reality in the minds and hearts of every member of the Marian community wherever they are located—whether here in Indianapolis or throughout our nation and our world.

(Daniel Elsener is president of Marian University in Indianapolis.)

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