The Catholic University of America

Address of The President of The Catholic University of America,
The Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M.,
to The American Hierarchy
National Conference Of Catholic Bishops
November 16, 1998

Thank you, Cardinal Hickey, for your gracious words. Your Eminences and Your Excellencies: Good afternoon.

It is an honor and real privilege for me to be here with you today, the first day of your annual meeting. I say that as "the new President" of The Catholic University of America but I also express those sentiments as a priest and a Vincentian. Thank you for this opportunity to address you --- and thank you for the leadership you provide for the Church as its authentic teachers and pastors.

As His Eminence mentioned, I was ordained in 1982 and have spent virtually my entire priestly ministry in some form of education: high school, higher education and seminary. At the same time, I have worked throughout the last 11 years for several dioceses as a part-time tribunal judge and canonical consultant. I am also very happy to be an alumnus of The Catholic University of America.

The reason I come before you today is to speak briefly about that institution, the national university of the Church in this country. Founded, as you know well, by the bishops of the United States, the university continues to benefit from your promotion and support. The proceeds from the annual collection alone give the university the same spending power as the income from an endowment of $100 million dollars. Much of this funding is returned to our students in the form of financial aid and tuition assistance. Without it, our ability to attract, to enroll and to retain the best students in your dioceses would be seriously compromised. It is a collection that truly benefits us all and on behalf of the entire Catholic University community, I express our profound gratitude to you and to the people of your dioceses.

As President, I am deeply committed to leading an institution that is unambiguously Catholic at all levels: in teaching, in research, in student life, in spiritual formation and campus ministry, in governance and in operations. I do not believe, as some do, that there is a true dichotomy between being a "university" in the modern sense of the term and being "Catholic." I say this, not as an expression of a new President's hopeful naivete; this is really my third exper ience of senior university administration. I say this because I have observed it first-hand and have tried to make it so.

I would be dishonest, of course, if I claimed that tensions do not exist at Catholic universities but these are tensions, in my estimation, arise most frequently when academic freedom --- as it is understood or perceived to be by some --- is asserted without an acknowledgement of a corresponding, even logically prior, academic responsibility and academic accountability. That relationship, I believe, is the fuller picture of the search for truth and knowledge that a Catholic university provides.

In my experience, especially as Dean of a very large faculty, I have found that a well-defined and clearly articulated Catholic identity and mission enable an academic institution to do more rather than do less. Nowhere should that be more evident than at The Catholic University of America.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae has been extremely helpful in this regard, in my opinion. Aside from the real beauty of its compelling message, I believe the papal document - at long last - has framed the whole discussion in such a way that Catholic institutions now must make serious decisions about what they are and what they want to be, that they were not willing or able to face in the years before the constitution's promulgation. The Catholic University of America must be the place where these institutions look for guidance.

I am convinced that the time is right for The Catholic University of America to turn the page, to learn from and then, with courage and vigor, move beyond some of the more difficult experiences of its relatively recent past, to become the leader among its Catholic peers that its name announces.

The Catholic University of America has the responsibility to be such a leader and I am committed to it. Our university has that responsibility and that freedom, however, not only by virtue of its name or through an accident of history but by the purposeful design of its founders, your predecessors in the episcopacy.

I come before you today - perhaps boldly - to ask you to promote The Catholic University of America in your dioceses on a grand scale. Please share the message with your young people and their parents that CUA is a good place for Catholic students to study, to learn, to live and to grow in their life of faith. Its graduate programs, in particular, have received great recognition in the academy. Ours is the only Catholic institution in the country that is a member of the prestigious American Association of Universities, an organization composed of the 62 best research institutions in the nation.

Finally, I come before you today to ask your prayers, so important to us, so very important to me as President. Without an active life of faith and prayer and service, the university is "just another school." The students have demonstrated to me time and again in these last three months that their interest in and commitment to developing their own life of prayer and service.

I give you my assurance today that I shall work as long and as hard as I am able to lead CUA forward as the national university of the Church, both academically and from the perspective of Catholic leadership.

We are, after all, responsible and accountable to you, the bishops and our sponsors. As The Catholic University of America, we are the servants of the teaching mission of the Church that is yours, by office, to fulfill. Please know that we stand ready and eager to serve.

Thank you very much for your attention and generous support. I look forward to welcoming you to campus this evening. My prayers are with you as you continue your meetings this week.

Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M.