Catholic universities and the state

Catholic universities and the state February 26, 2015

While perusing news about Catholic universities today, I was struck by two stories that I happened to read in immediate succession. They point to the different directions that institutions take in their relationship with government oversight.

First: Wyoming Catholic College announced that it would not participate in Federal student loan and grant programs, known as Title IV programs, administered by the Department of Education (DOE). From their website:

For the past several months, Wyoming Catholic College has been analyzing the benefits and risks of participating in these programs. And while the financial benefits are undeniable, the increasingly burdensome regulatory requirements are clearly troubling for faith-based institutions.

“By abstaining from federal funding programs,” said President Kevin Roberts, “We will safeguard our mission from unwarranted federal involvement—an involvement increasingly at odds with our Catholic beliefs, the content of our curriculum, and our institutional practices.”

In the accompanying video on the site, President Roberts specifically points to Title IX, the program to insure gender parity (as in sports). His concern is the expanding application of Title IX in recent years. That expansion includes, for example, a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter sent by the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights to colleges, highlighting the fact that Title IX also addresses sexual harassment on college campuses. In May, 2014, the DOE released a list of 55 colleges under investigation for Title IX violations, including one Catholic university. At about the same time (April 29, 2014), the DOE released “Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence,” a document that underscores that Title IX applies to “straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students” equally.

President Roberts suggests three areas where there could be federal intrusion into the life of the college: hiring, admissions, and public facilities (like bathrooms). Timing is key, he suggests: recent decisions (he does not specify which) point to a climate in federal policies that does not favor the independence of faith-based colleges and universities.

Second: The University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio is claiming that it is an “agency of state government” in a suit filed by a former student’s family for wrongful death. From WOAI:

The motion filed by the University says the fact that UIW has a police force that includes officers who are certified by the state makes it a ‘governmental entity’ and is covered by the ‘right to governmental immunity for the actions of it’s [sic] police department and others.’

The family’s attorney commented that while it is true that UIW police officers are licensed by the state, “so are plumbers, and that doesn’t mean that plumbers are ‘units of state government.'”

The juxtaposition of these two stories highlights something of the tension within Catholic universities: they participate in a society and are thus involved in the complex politics that accompany social life. Yet like the Church, they understand their work to be beholden to state law only to the extent that the law participates in divine law.

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