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TROUBLE at the University of Dallas? Print E-mail
By Patrick Fagan   
Thursday, 03 March 2011

DEPENDING on how the Board of the University of Dallas votes tonight I (proud father of five UD alumni children) may well be telling folks: “Don’t send your kids to UD. It used to be great but now is a danger to their faith.” At issue is the introduction of a curriculum of the School of Ministry for undergraduates.
 
In a newly released promotional video for the University of Dallas, the new president Thomas Keefe states unequivocally, “There isn’t an institution that compares to the University of Dallas in its fidelity to the Church and its academic rigor.” How brave he is in keeping it so will be clear tonight at the Board meeting.
 
The UD theology department gives undergraduates the real goods – the full faith and orthodoxy. Yet UD is poised to offer a new undergraduate major in pastoral theology next fall to be taught by the School of Ministry, not the current theology department. Unlike theology and the rest of UD’s departments, this school is not well known and has had a rather separated existence, but is now about to become part of the UD mainstream.
 
Before voting the Board should conduct an open inquiry into the School of Ministry and, if it wants to retain the affections of its “faithful” Catholic base, make sure all faculty are behind the Church in all its teachings without equivocation. (Undergrads need clear doctrine, professional theologians can explore the edges.)
 
Take, for instance, Professor Jerome Walsh, who is currently teaching an Old Testament course to School of Ministry graduate students. Walsh’s interests in the Old Testament include publication of a lengthy analysis of Leviticus in which he claims that Israel’s holy law only ever meant to condemn the completed act of sodomy and that “other forms of male–male sexual encounter, encompassing the whole range of physical expressions of affection that do not entail penetration, are not envisaged in these laws” (see p. 209, warning: graphic content). Will this be taught to undergraduates? 
 
Another cause for concern is Sr. Dorothy Joanitis, O.P., who has openly advocated for optional celibacy for priests, as well as for female ordination. While her SOM colleague Dr. Marti Jewell thinks lifting the ban on celibacy is a legitimate option, Sister Joanitis goes even further, presenting to a synod of bishops the following: “To alleviate the injustices imposed upon the People of God, we offer these practical solutions to you, the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. . . .allow women to be ordained” (blog link; the original website has been taken down). Like Prof. Walsh, Sister Joanitis appears to have an interest in weakening the Church’s teachings on homosexual acts, defending Eucharistic ministers who “question a church teaching they see as justifying violence against their son and other homosexuals” and in her piece nominates Bishop Gumbleton as the authority on good conscience in regard to homosexual acts, while rejecting then-Cardinal Ratzinger. [Deleted at the author’s request. We regret the error. *See Patrick Fagan’s note below.]
 
Another SOM faculty member and a former Call to Action member, Dr. Scott Opperman, seems to be of the same mind. On a website designed to encourage new vocations, he co-wrote that “[r]eligious women and men aren't oddities; they mirror the rest of the church they serve: there are introverts and extroverts, tall and short, old and young, straight and gay, obese and skinny, crass and pious, humorous and serious, and everything in between.” Does this pattern of dissent carry over into the classroom?
 
Dr. Opperman taught Moral Theology last fall. His syllabus included only two required texts. The first is Richard Gula’s Reason Informed by Faith. Gula is a public advocate for euthanasia. The book is a prolonged defense of proportionalism, which denies the existence of intrinsically evil acts. Gula derides the Church’s teachings on these acts as “classicist moral viewpoints” (p. 36). He wants his readers – Opperman’s students – to  disagree with the Catholic Catechism’s teachings on fornication, homoeroticism, direct killing of the innocent, contraceptive intercourse, and the like. The book asks readers – again, Opperman’s students – leading questions, ones that lead to serious error: 
Take the case of the married couple who have all the children for whom they can care in a reasonable way. They cannot enlarge their family without compromising the well-being of their present children. At the same time, the couple feels that fairly regular sexual expression is necessary for the growth and development of their marriage. They do not feel that they can respond adequately to both values and follow the proscription of contraception in Humanae Vitae. What do they do? (p. 290)
The answer to Richard Gula’s leading question is provided by Opperman’s second required text, again by Richard Gula, this time his more applied Just Ministry. Gula’s answer to Gula’s question: “Pastoral moral guidance is the art of the possible. That is to say, it focuses on the person and what that person can do based on his or her capacity of knowledge, freedom, and emotion to appreciate and choose moral values enshrined in moral standards” (p. 231). Students in Opperman’s Moral Theology class learn the moral world according to Gula: “[W]e are not to require a particular obligation in practice, however justifiable it may be theoretically, if the person, for good reason, cannot perform it. While everyone is required to do what he or she can, no one is ever required to do what is beyond his or her reach” (Just Ministry, p. 234). Given that he holds no act is intrinsically evil, then no act is always wrong. Therefore, all acts are permitted: it just depends on your situation.
 
And Dr. Opermann is not the only School of Ministry teacher limiting his students to the study of error and dissent. Mr. James McGill’s 2010 ecclesiology course required only one book, entitled The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism. Most will recognize its author: the very liberal theologian, Fr. Richard McBrien was long-time chair of the Notre Dame theology department who recently added to his errors by opposing Eucharistic adoration. Why is this School of Ministry using McBrien as a sole required text?
 
This disturbing pattern has not gone unnoticed. In fact, the SOM has already raised eyebrows at UD and among the alumni for having invited questionable speakers like Gordon Greer, who sees no problem with ordaining homosexual priests. This past fall at its annual lecture, SOM brought Sister Barbara Reid, O.P., to campus. Her presentation was considered “disturbing” by theology faculty. A look at page one of Sister Reid’s book on Amazon seems to show that, like SOM professor Sr. Joanitis, Reid advocates female priests and deacons: “It is my hope that this book will help both women and men, particularly those who preach and teach the Scriptures, to do so in a way that will promote a Church of equal disciples, where gender differences would no longer determine ministerial roles.” Reid’s erroneous opinions were immediately challenged on campus. The SOM faculty that invited her seems openly in support of her agenda, which is not at all in accord with the fidelity for which UD is known.
 
Dean Brian Schmisek has been responsible for the SOM since its beginning. However, in an interview with the National Catholic Register, admits: 
No formal system exists at the School of Ministry for ensuring that faculty members teach in accord with the magisterium. Instead, Schmisek says, a rigorous pre-hire screening process weeds out professors who would compromise the school’s authentic Catholic identity. “We do a pretty excellent job of fulfilling the mandate of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” he says.
 
Dean Schmisek himself, however, is not someone I would want teaching the Faith to my children. His book the Apostle’s Creed, to my lay mind, must be exactly the sort of scholarship that prompted Pope Benedict to write Jesus of Nazareth. It seems to me to be much closer to the Jesus Seminar than to an inspiring affirmation of the Faith.
 
What is a rigorous prescreening process to Dean Schmisek seems like a net with very large holes in it to me.
 
It is beyond my competence to answer the questions raised here. But these are disturbing issues should be studied before the Board votes. If I am wrong no harm is done. If I am right in being concerned much harm is prevented.
 
Should the Board vote to go ahead without such prudent oversight being exercised I and many like me will be telling like-minded parents to send their children elsewhere. Their faith is too precious to entrust to faculty such as above. And there are now a number of wonderful schools vying to replace the University of Dallas as the best Catholic university in the country. May this disaster be averted.

*Author’s correction: In the rush to get the word out at the last minute, I made a grievous error in misquoting Sr. Dorothy Jonaitis OP in the original version of this Commentary. Sister clearly has difficulties with the Church’s decisions and teaching on celibacy and the pope’s pronouncements on the impossibility of the ordination of women, and I would not want her teaching my children. But she did not say what I attributed to her about homosexuality.


Patrick Fagan is director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI) at Family Research Council whose project, Mapping America, charts these outcomes regularly.

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