Can colleges stay Catholic?
Institutions confront future with fewer clergy, members of religious orders
By JAY TOKASZ and JAY REY
BUFFALO, NY, Oct. 29, 2006 (www.buffalonews.com) - The region's tradition of Catholic higher education - built by priests, nuns and brothers intent on instilling godly values in their students - spans a combined 630 years for seven colleges and universities.
That vast academic tradition, however, faces a challenging test in the 21st century: How will these schools keep their Catholic identity as the presence of religious men and women on campus fades?
The problem, which faces the 221 Catholic colleges and universities around the nation, might be especially pressing in the Buffalo Niagara region, home to more Catholic schools than any other metropolitan area in the country except New York City and Philadelphia.
Catholic education is at a crossroads, with administrators trying to maintain their schools' roots while improving academic programs - even as some worry that Catholic higher education has shed its emphasis on values.
The seven local schools say they have focused considerable attention on their "Catholicity" since Pope John Paul II issued a controversial call in 1990 for Catholic higher education reform.
Local higher education leaders, moreover, acknowledge that their schools might not look as they have in the past, especially when it comes to the person in the president's seat.
"We're moving into a whole new mode of leadership in Catholic colleges and universities in the United States," said the Rev. Vincent Cooke, a Jesuit priest and Canisius College president.
Clergy or women religious still sit in the president's seat at five of the seven schools - Canisius, St. Bonaventure, Niagara, D'Youville and Villa Maria. But that's likely to change dramatically within a few years. Just recently, Hilbert College replaced longtime president, Sister Edmunette Paczesny, with its first lay leader, Cynthia Zane.
And beyond their presidents, most Catholic schools are preparing for the possible extinction of priests and nuns across campus.
"It will gradually happen to all of us," said Sister Denise A. Roche, president of D'Youville College.