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Critical Mass

Soul-searching for the Catholic identity of St. Michael's College


Published April 11, 2006 at 12:22 p.m.
Updated November 7, 2017 at 12:32 p.m.

The church bells chime noon at the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel in Colchester as dozens of Sunday worshippers queue up to receive the holy sacrament of communion. The campus chapel at St. Michael's College -- Vermont's largest Roman Catholic church -- is rarely full. But on Family Weekend, every last pew is filled with students and their parents and other relatives.

As the choir sings "Walk in the Rain," the worshippers file down the aisle to the altar, where they receive the Eucharist and a blessing. Then, one by one, they cross themselves, clasp their hands together in prayerful posture, and then slowly file up the sides of the chapel and return to their seats.

When the last worshippers are seated, the Most Rev. Salvatore Matano, Burlington's new bishop, steps forward to address the congregation. He's a small, slight, bespectacled man of 59 whose purple and white vestments seem to envelop him entirely. Yet, when Matano speaks, his voice reaches the rear of the chapel with a commanding presence.

"If you young people remember only one thing from today, let it be this: Always be very, very grateful to your parents," Matano says. "We all want to be individuals and we all want to be free. But don't ever let your disagreements divide you, or your differences separate you."

The bishop's closing remarks about respecting one's elders and nurturing the parent-child relationship are meant for the students in the chapel. But his words could also be interpreted as a message to the college as well. St. Michael's College is, in a sense, an offspring of the Roman Catholic Church, and Matano is, literally, its new father figure. And lately the new bishop appears to be taking a greater interest in that paternal role than did his predecessor.

Matano took over as bishop in November when Pope Benedict XVI formally accepted the retirement of the 75-year-old Bishop Kenneth Angell. Over the years, the relationship between the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, which covers all of Vermont, and St. Michael's College hasn't always been smooth or trouble-free. As one longtime faculty member noted, Angell was first and foremost a pastor who sometimes applauded St. Mike's and other times criticized it. Usually, though, he took a "hands-off" approach to college business and allowed the Edmundite priests who live and work on campus to tend to its day-to-day religious affairs.

Matano, on the other hand, is much more of a Church insider. Before arriving in Vermont, he spent four years in the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., and has been described as more "institutional" in his thinking. Another faculty member noted that Matano's "authoritative" style has led to some friction between the Diocese and the college in the last year.

Thus, it came as no surprise that changes in Church leadership -- in Rome and in Burlington -- have prompted an effort to re-invigorate the Catholic allegiance of St. Mike's. In January, the college's board of trustees adopted a resolution that "reaffirms its commitment to the Catholic identity of St. Michael's College." It calls upon President Marc vanderHeyden to consult with the bishop to "develop a five-year plan to enhance the Catholic mission of the College," and establish "realistic goals and specific measures of progress."

This spiritual self-examination has raised questions on campus: Does the Church believe the college isn't Catholic enough? And if it's not, what changes are in store, and who would make them? How would those changes affect the school's culture of tolerance, diversity and academic freedom, its intellectual reputation and its financial viability? In short, is St. Michael's College an autonomous entity -- or an arm of the Roman Catholic Church?

These questions took on renewed intensity last week when Matano, in a rare press interview, was asked by WCAX-TV reporter Darren Perron if the bishop would "recommend that gay and non-Catholic faculty be dismissed under the directive of the pope?"

"That is an issue that I would have to give serious consideration to in consultation with the college," Matano replied.

Representatives of the Catholic Diocese of Burlington declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. But in a conversation with Seven Days the following day, vanderHeyden made clear his position on the matter. "Our concept of hospitality that says, 'You cannot refuse anyone in your room when darkness falls,' means that we must embrace all people. That has been very much a hallmark of this community. Diversity is very critical," he said. "I certainly will not take the initiative to change anything on St. Michael's policy that says when we recruit and hire people, there's no discrimination on the basis of faith, sexual orientation or physical ability. That's the law of the land."

It would be easy to assume that the Diocese's effort to reinvigorate St. Mike's Catholic character is part of an effort to address the larger problems plaguing the Church: declining attendance, a shortage of priests and financial woes brought on, in part, by ongoing abuse scandals. In March, the Diocese of Burlington announced that seven of Vermont's 130 parishes will close and another 14 will consolidate their operations.

This religious soul-searching is neither new nor unique to St. Michael's. For decades, Catholic schools have wrestled with precarious finances and struggled to strike a balance between their religious and academic missions. But according to Peter Steinfels, author of the book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, "The new story [on American college campuses] is the crisis of Catholic identity."

To understand what's happening at St. Michael's -- and at the other 237 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States -- requires some historical context. In August 1990, Pope John Paul II issued a papal document on Catholic higher education titled Ex Corde Ecclesiae -- literally, "from the heart of the Church." Vatican experts agree that Ex Corde was mostly written by John Paul II himself, who was once a philosophy professor and university chaplain in Poland. Ex Corde spells out what the mission of Catholic colleges should be and calls upon those institutions to establish closer ties to the Church.

In response to Ex Corde, a task force of American bishops and college presidents drafted a treatise titled An Application to the United States, which took effect on May 3, 2001. The Application lays out in greater detail how Ex Corde should be interpreted by American colleges and universities. This year, on the fifth anniversary of that document, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities is again calling upon Catholic institutions to reflect upon their mission. As the Application states, "The responsibility for safeguarding and strengthening the Catholic identity of the university rests primarily with the university itself."

Nowhere is this charge being taken more seriously than at St. Michael's College, which is one of the most liberal Catholic institutions in the country. In many respects, the school's unique character reflects both the core values of its Edmundite founders and the egalitarian spirit of Vermont. The Edmundites and the campus ministry have a long history of working for progressive causes, including poverty relief, civil rights advocacy and the promotion of peace, nonviolence and social justice. The college also has a tradition of embracing religious, ethnic and sexual diversity, which has occasionally put it at odds with the Church.

St. Mike's has a student-funded gay and lesbian group on campus but no student-funded right-to-life group. The school's progressive values are also evident in its hiring and employment practices. St. Mike's offers insurance benefits to same-sex couples -- a requirement under Vermont law. Last year, the school appointed Jeffrey Trumbower, a Unitarian, as dean of the college. Trumbower wasn't the first non-Catholic to hold that position, but he was the first who is openly gay.

Such developments have ruffled the feathers of conservative Catholics, some of whom question whether the values espoused at St. Mike's remain true to Church teachings. That tension was highlighted by vanderHeyden during a February 9 lunchtime forum with faculty and staff on the subject of Ex Corde and the college's Catholic identity.

"I could bring a group of people together in our community who could eloquently argue that we are a very fine Catholic institution," vanderHeyden said. "I could bring another group of people together in our community who, with equal candor and honesty, could argue that we are truly a bunch of sinners." VanderHeyden wasn't being flippant. Faculty, staff and students alike must reflect on whether St. Michael's College is, in his words, "adequately, sufficiently and recognizably Catholic."

The president asserts that St. Mike's is a very fine Catholic school with a spiritual mission distinctly different from its secular counterparts. In his interview with Seven Days, vanderHeyden explained that when it comes to the relationship between the Church and the college, "There's always going to be some tension between what is inspired by faith and what is inspired by reason.

"At St. Michael's, we have always felt comfortable with our Catholic identity," he adds. "If we are candid about it, we didn't work so much on having a relationship with the bishop because we've had a relationship with the Society of St. Edmund who live in our midst. They are our Catholic identity."

That identity is fading, too. St. Michael's College was founded in 1904 by members of the Society of St. Edmund, French priests and brothers who came to Vermont in the late 19th century after fleeing religious persecution in their home country. But the Society, headquartered on the campus, is dwindling. In the 1950s, the religious order totaled 160 members. Today it's down to 40, only three of whom are directly involved in the colleges.

Among them is Father Mike Cronogue, whose youthful appearance and energy belie his 58 years. Cronogue teaches on campus and also runs the Edmundite Center for Peace and Justice. A 26-year veteran of St. Mike's, Cronogue admits that the college's Catholic identity and aesthetic isn't as visible as it once was. (During our interview, he notices with surprised bemusement that there's no crucifix in his office.)

Cronogue recalls that when he first arrived on campus in 1980, about 85 percent of the students were Catholic, and many of them had come up through parochial schools and thus tended to be more "culturally Catholic." Last fall, only 59.7 percent of first-year students identified themselves as Roman Catholic, according to a survey by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program. Nowadays, Cronogue says, his students are sometimes surprised at the beginning of each semester when he begins his classes with a prayer.

Likewise, Cronogue adds, St. Mike's students today seem less grounded in the fundamentals of the faith, and even those raised Catholic often come from families that don't support the Church. Cronogue has also noticed that, in general, students don't seem as well-read as they once were, religiously or politically. But the good news, he says, is that while religious worship is down, community service is up. In fact, about 75 to 80 percent of all first-year students have already been involved in some volunteer work.

Cronogue doesn't see anything new or unusual about the religious soul-searching occurring at St. Mike's. In fact, he sees it as an essential part of the ongoing challenge to remain "in the graces of the Catholic Church."

"The Church promotes the Kingdom of God," he says. "We promote academic dialogue and intellectual understanding within a Catholic context. Those are distinctly different."

Cronogue cannot predict what practical changes may emerge from this dialogue -- the discussions are still in their earliest stages, he notes. But he offers a glimpse into some of the questions that may arise: Should St. Mike's revise its criteria for recruiting new faculty and students? Should candidates' religiosity take precedence over their academic credentials? All other factors being equal, should the college give funding to Catholic students over non-Catholic ones? In short, does St. Michael's College need a "critical mass" of Catholic students and faculty to stay faithful to its mission?

One person offering answers to those questions is Jeffrey Trumbower, who is responsible for overseeing all curricula and faculty recruitment. Trumbower, 45, was just appointed dean in July 2005. He says that while St. Mike's doesn't ask applicants about their religious affiliations or beliefs, those who express an interest in connecting with Catholic activities on campus may improve their chances of receiving an appointment.

Trumbower recently oversaw his first round of hiring. Among the seven new faculty members, he says, only two volunteered that they are "active Catholics" and said they applied to St. Mike's for that reason. "But who knows about the others?" he asks.

Attempting to plumb applicants' religiousness is a tricky business, he says. "St. Michael's College is a place where the Catholic position is articulated, debated, discussed and taken seriously," he adds. "But that doesn't mean it's the only position represented on campus."

Some people on campus would prefer to see the college sponsor only speakers and events that are consistent with Church doctrine, such as anti-abortion politicians, death-penalty opponents and critics of physician-assisted suicide. But Trumbower emphasizes that the college is committed to "complete and total academic freedom," as long as it falls within the bounds of academic soundness, intellectual merit and good taste.

"The kind of Catholicism that St. Michael's professes has always been a very welcoming and open Catholicism," Trumbower adds. "I think others would agree with that. I sure hope to see that into the future."


It's noon on a Tuesday in Alliot Hall, and the student center is buzzing with activity. Several undergraduates are browsing through the campus bookstore, which offers the usual collegiate paraphernalia -- sweatshirts, hats, mugs, school supplies and, of course, books -- as well as an assortment of dorm-room posters: Martin Luther King Jr., Van Gogh, the Grateful Dead, The Breakfast Club. But except for a few leftover Christmas ornaments and items bearing the St. Michael's logo, which features the cross atop Founders Hall, there's nothing remotely religious for sale here: no rosaries, crucifixes, St. Christopher medals or Holy Bibles to be had.

Nearby, the cafeteria is filling with the midday lunch crowd. A woman who's worked there for many years confesses that the cafeteria does serve meat on Fridays during Lent, though it also offers other options. "Some people don't ever eat meat," she says.

In The Princeton Review, St. Mike's students described their interests as "a shared enthusiasm for winter sports, marijuana and (mostly left-wing) political action." SMC students who identify themselves as liberals outnumber those who identify themselves as conservatives by a three-to-one margin.

That social consciousness reflects the college's mission "to contribute through higher education to the enhancement of the human person, and to the advancement of human culture in the light of the Catholic faith."

Outside the cafeteria, tables are set up promoting campus events and fundraising activities. At one, a student is selling raffle tickets to raise money for the Ikaya Primary School in South Africa -- a frequent recipient of Edmundite munificence. The tickets are selling well, even when foot traffic slows to a trickle. At one point, a woman working in the Student Life office across the hall hands him a $20 bill.

"You don't have to enter me [in the raffle]," she tell him. "Just put it in your collection plate."

There's a larger crowd around another table, where two young women are selling blue ribbons and collecting signatures on a petition for the Student Global AIDS Campaign. The petition urges Congress to support funding for microbicides, a gel that allows women, particularly those in developing countries, to avoid contracting AIDS while still adhering to the Catholic Church's prohibition on condoms.

"Personally, I'm very strong in my faith and it's always hard to balance these kinds of things," says Allison Norse, a St. Mike's junior working the table. "The AIDS epidemic is such a wake-up call for humanity, and this is an amazing way to help one another -- and stay true to our beliefs."

Just steps away is the office for MOVE -- Mobilization of Volunteer Efforts -- the community-service arm of the Edmundite Campus Ministry. Each year, MOVE coordinates between 20 and 25 student-led volunteer programs at the local level: mentoring children, working with seniors and the homeless, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, and playing volleyball with inmates at the Chittenden County Correctional Center, to name a few. MOVE also runs extended service trips both domestically and abroad. This year they're sending students to Calcutta.

MOVE Director Heidi St. Peter estimates that between 70 and 75 percent of all St. Mike's students will participate in at least one MOVE program by the time they graduate; many will do five or six. Such numbers are among the highest rates of volunteerism of any college or university -- religious or secular -- in the nation.

MOVE, she says, is seen by many on campus as a fundamental aspect of the college's Catholic mission, even for students who aren't religious. "Some of our volunteers are not Catholic, don't want to be Catholic, and don't want anything to do with organized religion," she says.

One student laments that it sometimes feels as though the Church only takes notice when students fall out of line. A few years ago, for example, an editorial in the student newspaper, The Defender, extolling the virtues of masturbation, caused quite an uproar. That same year, the Student Global AIDS Campaign made waves with the bishop when it tried to distribute condoms on campus.

Neither the campus women's center nor the student health center offers condoms, birth control or advice on terminating pregnancies. The health center waiting room has information about surviving winter, maintaining a healthy body image, and eating right, but nothing on avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.

But Tyronne Walker, the outgoing Student Association president, says that while the condom campaign generated controversy, it also sparked a healthy dialogue. "There was a renewed focus on educating students around sexual behavior and pointing them in other directions where they can keep themselves safe," Walker says. "That's what's great about this institution. It's not an all-or-nothing thing."

Walker also sees the dialogue about the college's Catholic identity as a good thing. "We don't feel like we're out of line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. We pride ourselves on being a world-class institution that's respectful and welcoming to all," Walker says. "That's in line with the Edmundite tradition, and it's in line with the Bible and Jesus' teachings."


Some St. Michael's faculty members are reluctant to speak publicly about the school's religious self-inquiry. But their off-the-record comments sound common themes: concerns about preserving academic freedom and integrity, maintaining a hiring policy that blends the school's Catholic mission with its goal of academic excellence, and promoting the college's small-c "catholic" nature -- that is, its broad-minded, diverse and liberal sympathies.

"Certainly, there are concerns," says Zsuzsanna Kadas, a mathematics professor and moderator of the Faculty Assembly. "But there's also a feeling that the character of St. Michael's College is shaped by the Edmundite tradition of openness and concern for social justice. We can integrate academic freedom and excellence with an appreciation for Catholic character."

Clearly, St. Michael's academic stature is rising, and most faculty members say that can't be compromised. In 2004, the college received a Phi Beta Kappa charter, one of only four Catholic colleges in New England -- and only 20 nationwide -- to do so. "This year, we've had the largest and brightest first-year class we've ever had. That tells us that we've moved to a very different level than we were 20 years ago," boasts Edward Mahoney, chair of the Religious Studies Department. "But we're also at a point of saying it's not without a price -- sometimes -- in terms of mission."

David Mindich, who chairs the Journalism Department, says he has faith that the faculty and administration will be able to balance the school's Catholic and academic missions. Mindich, who is Jewish, has been at St. Mike's for 10 years and says he has always felt welcomed and accepted there.

He describes his experience on the Colchester campus with a reference to Brandeis University, which he attended as an undergraduate. There, the campus features three chapels: one Jewish, one Catholic and one Protestant. The buildings are adjacent to one another, but are far enough apart so that the shadow of one never falls on either of the others.

"That is the guiding metaphor for this place, that we have academic freedom, we have diversity, and we have a strong sense of the Catholic mission," Mindich says. "The question is, how can those three elements still thrive and not be overshadowed by any of the others?"