That Catholic ghost at Notre Dame of Maryland

Time for a brief trip into tmatt’s massive folder of GetReligion guilt, that niche in which I stash mainstream news stories — good and bad — that catch my attention but then get trampled in the rush to react to bigger stories. This time around, I think that this particular story deserves late attention, not because it is of massive importance, but because it represents another example of the struggle at The Baltimore Sun to recognize that the Roman Catholic Church is a big, complicated institution and that it is often important to talk to a variety of Catholics to find out what is going on.

Baltimore is, of course, a rather liberal Catholic city in a state that has become as blue as blue can be, in political terms. I would assume that 99 percent of the Catholics who buzz the Sun newsroom to alert them to potential stories are to the left of Catholic center. The conservative Catholics that I know — I live on the south side of urban Baltimore — have pretty much given up reading the local newspaper. I think that’s tragic.

What we have here is a perfectly normal news story about the retirement of Mary Pat Seurkamp, the president of a major Catholic institution in the area — Notre Dame of Maryland University. This president is symbolic in many ways and she has led her school in an era of major change.

Thus readers are told right up front:

Seurkamp, 65, … She will retire this month after 15 years leading Notre Dame, one of the longest tenures of any college president in the state. She was the first layperson to lead the Catholic institution, and oversaw an era of diversification and expansion. Students have looked up to her for her public poise, openness and sharp sense of fashion. …

Seurkamp came in at a time when women’s colleges were on the endangered species list in Maryland. Goucher and Hood had both moved to full coeducational models, and there were serious questions about the long-term economic viability of single-sex colleges.

The president responded by expanding coeducational graduate programs and continuing education efforts, with the undergraduate women’s college surviving, due to the financial support provided by the rest of the school’s offerings.

This is interesting and this theme of innovation dominates the story — as it should.

However, what is missing is the reality that the past decade or two have seen tremendous changes in the wider world of Catholic higher education, in part due positive and negative tensions linked to (you knew this was coming) that crucial papal document from the Blessed John Paul II entitled Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which both urged and required all Catholic colleges and universities to remain uniquely Catholic. I would think that some of these moral, doctrinal and academic issues may have touched life at a Catholic school for young women. You think?

Not according to this story. In fact, the word “Catholic” is only used twice and in neither case does it yield any content other than mere information about the school’s market niche or the president’s personal history. As far as this story goes, Seurkamp’s work has raised no “Catholic” issues at all.

My question is whether all Catholics in this region — right, left and center — would agree. However, in this story, only voices who are interested in the president’s financial and purely academic are quoted. Other issues? What other issues?

In the Sun report, this is about as close to Catholic issues as one is going to get:

In her early days as president, Seurkamp was struck by the familiar comforts of a women’s college: the relative lack of vandalism, substance abuse and distractions from academic life.

Though she quickly felt comfortable, the college community’s comfort with her had to grow over time. The place had always been led by one of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, so people often slipped and called Seurkamp “Sister.” And they had no idea what to make of her husband, because the campus had never had a first spouse. (Seurkamp jokes that he’s now more popular than she is.)

“Any time there is a change from what people are used to, there is a time of figuring out how that’s going to work out,” she says. “In my early work, I had to show a deep commitment to the foundation of the university and its core values.”

Oh, what might those “core values” be?

Wait a minute. Wasn’t that “core values” issue the hook for all of those big questions from Pope John Paul II?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Rachel K

    I could be wrong, but I believe President Seurkamp was the president of Notre Dame when they founded the campus lesbian support group, which led to a giant firestorm among alumnae and current students alike. It would have been interesting to touch on that.

    That said, I worked at Notre Dame for a few years, and President Seurkamp was definitely committed to the Catholic identity of the institution. In addition to having the usual positions like vice president of student development, vice president of academic affairs and CFO, we had a vice president of mission, a sister whose sole duty was to make sure that anything the college did was in line with the mission of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Every new employee was required to undergo a training session where we learned about the history and charism of the SSNDs (you know a former Notre Dame employee because we rattle off “Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger” in the same breath as Elizabeth Seton or Angela Merici). Even in terms of those sexy controversial issues, she wasn’t just the “gay support group” president–male students weren’t allowed to spend the night in dorms, and when students were talking about wearing pro-choice symbols to graduation in 2010 (which was in response to other students wearing pro-life symbols, which I think was in response to the abortion provisions in the Affordable Care Act), she came down on them like a bag of hammers. But again, you wouldn’t know any of that from this article, which is a shame.


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