The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Faculty
From the issue dated June 30, 2006

Bully Pulpit

Patrick Reilly uses his Cardinal Newman Society to denounce Catholic colleges and some of their professors for not being 'Catholic enough'

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The nerve center of the Cardinal Newman Society is a storefront in a run-down strip mall, next to an embroidery shop and a beauty salon called "Hair I Am." Inside, a handful of 20-somethings peck away at computers amid folding tables and boxes of files. The only nods to decor are a couple of Oriental rugs, a crucifix, and photographs of Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II.

From these humble headquarters the organization sends out "news alerts" castigating Roman Catholic colleges for not adhering to church doctrine. The society, according to a fund-raising letter, is committed to "removing the stain of heresy and dissent" at Catholic colleges and getting rid of the "second-rate and fraudulent theologians" who "poison the faith of their students."

In the letter, the society compares itself to Jesus Christ throwing the "moneylenders and hypocrites" out of the temple. It promises that the organization will mount an "all-out blitz" to "make our Catholic colleges Catholic again."

The blitz has already begun. In the past few years, the Cardinal Newman Society has grown louder in its denunciations and has seen its donations skyrocket. The society is adept at attracting news coverage with its often inflammatory rhetoric. (A search of the Nexis database shows that it has been mentioned hundreds of times in newspapers and magazines.) Once little more than a paper organization with a shoestring budget, the society now has almost 20,000 members and expects to collect nearly $1-million from them this year. It has stoked a feeling among many Catholics that church-affiliated colleges have lost their way.

The society has also made plenty of enemies, who object to its aggressive tactics and habit of going after individual professors. Some have called its mission a witch hunt; one Jesuit scholar who was singled out by the society called it "the Christian Taliban."

The man behind the society, Patrick Reilly, a 36-year-old self-described introvert, believes that his mission is inspired by God. But will Mr. Reilly's campaign to rescue Catholic higher education do more damage than good?

Making of an Advocate

Patrick Reilly is an unlikely firebrand. He is soft-spoken and hates being the center of attention. He grew up in a Catholic family that was not particularly strict about its faith. An aspiring journalist at Fordham University, a Jesuit institution in New York, Mr. Reilly was editor of the student newspaper in 1990. He wrote columns railing against the administration for decisions like officially recognizing a pro-choice student group. He became well known on the campus for his strong views.

Well known, of course, does not always mean well liked: Many of his fellow student journalists — rarely the most conservative bunch on any campus — disagreed with him. His opposition to official recognition for a gay-and-lesbian student group didn't win him many friends, either.

Along the way the would-be journalist found that he enjoyed advocacy more than observation. And the shy student discovered that he enjoyed stirring up trouble.

After graduating from Fordham, Mr. Reilly received a master's degree in public administration from American University, in Washington, D.C. There he became chairman of American Collegians for Life and learned firsthand about operating a nonprofit organization. In 1993 he and a few friends founded the Cardinal Newman Society. In those early years, it wasn't much of a "society." Even now some scoff at the grandiose moniker, which has nothing to do with the Catholic-ministry centers on college campuses that also bear the 19th-century theologian's name.

For most of its history, the society has existed primarily as letterhead. No meetings, no office, no employees. And yet it became widely known early on for its criticisms of colleges that Mr. Reilly believed strayed too far from Vatican doctrine. The society was particularly vocal about Ex corde Ecclesiae, a 1990 statement issued by Pope John Paul II. Ex corde Ecclesiae, which means "out of the heart of the church," sought to strengthen the religious identity of Catholic colleges. Its most talked-about provision requires that Catholic theologians receive a mandatum from the local bishop attesting that what they taught was approved by the church.

The papal statement was especially meaningful to Mr. Reilly, who was still at Fordham when it was issued. He was already embroiled in debates over Catholic doctrine, and it seemed to him as if the pope was taking his side. "I was like, 'Everyone disagrees with me, but the pope agrees with me,'" he says. "That changed everything."

Manna From Heaven

By 2002, though, the Cardinal Newman Society seemed to be faltering. Mr. Reilly was working full time for the Capital Research Center, which studies nonprofit groups, and running his organization at night and on the weekends. He also had a family (currently four children and one on the way). It was all too much. In order to survive, he decided, the society would have to grow.

One of its directors, L. Brent Bozell III, suggested using a direct-mail marketing company. Mr. Bozell, a syndicated columnist, is founder and president of the Media Research Center, a conservative media-watchdog group. (Several requests for an interview with Mr. Bozell went unanswered.)

At first, according to Mr. Reilly, the direct-mail company didn't think Catholic higher education was "red-meat enough" for that kind of marketing. It thought people would yawn.

In fact, direct mail was a big success. Since starting the marketing campaign, the society has grown from 3,000 members to nearly 20,000 (a member is someone who donates at least $25 a year). Annual donations have risen from $30,000 a few years ago to close to $1-million this year. It also attracted a handful of donors willing to write $25,000 checks.

Mr. Reilly quit his day job. He now has seven employees.

The fund-raising letters that are responsible for this influx of cash are replete with exclamation points, underlining, and bold-faced type — sometimes all at once. They shout about how heretics and dissidents are ruining Catholic higher education. "And the Cardinal Newman Society needs your financial support to compile absolutely airtight documentation on every dissident theologian in the country," one letter says.

Another calls it a "scandal" that professors who are pro-choice are allowed to teach at Catholic colleges: "[We] can't allow ourselves to be fooled. A great many of these 'teachers' are malicious, and their rebellion is deliberate and intentional." The letter continues, "They use their positions at Catholic universities and colleges to undermine Catholic tradition and advance their own secular agenda."

But the letters, along with the "alerts" sent frequently to reporters, go a step further: They single out professors who the society believes are out of line with Catholic teaching and should be removed. That tactic has, not surprisingly, rubbed a lot of professors the wrong way — especially those in the cross hairs.

The Targets

The Rev. John J. Paris, for example.

Father Paris, a professor of bioethics at Boston College, was one of five professors named by the Cardinal Newman Society in a news release titled "Professors vs. Schiavo." This was during the heat of the debate over whether Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state, should have her feeding tube removed. The five professors were among the bioethicists who signed an amicus brief supporting Ms. Schiavo's husband's right to remove the tube.

"It is frightening that our Catholic institutions and their employees could bear responsibility for this woman's horrible death by starvation," Mr. Reilly is quoted as saying in the news release.

Almost two years later, Father Paris still sounds angry when asked about that comment. "What I did was preach what the church has preached about end-of-life care for 450 years," he says.

The professor has no kind words for Mr. Reilly: "I think he is a fraud, a charlatan, and a snake-oil salesman." As for the society, Father Paris says it's about nothing more than "whipping up right-wing types to open their checkbooks."

Charles H. Baron was also on the list. Mr. Baron, a professor of law at Boston College, says he felt "blindsided" by the accusation that he was somehow culpable in Ms. Schiavo's death. But he also felt strangely honored. "It was sort of like being on Nixon's enemies list," he says.

Not everyone who has been singled out by the society even knows about it. Darcia Narvaez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, earned a spot on the society's list of Catholic-college employees who donated to John Kerry's presidential campaign. The society is critical of what it calls "pro-abortion" politicians like Mr. Kerry and those who support them.

Ms. Narvaez, who also directs Notre Dame's Center for Ethical Education, didn't know she was on the list until a reporter told her. "It's important to have a conversation about what Catholic identity means," she says in response. "If you think that being a Christian or a moral person has to do with a set of beliefs that you apply like a rubber stamp, that's a very narrow view."

The society is also critical of "homosexual themed" events on Catholic campuses, like a conference hosted last fall by Santa Clara University. The conference, called "Out There," explored topics such as "Can I Be Gay and Catholic?"

This was not the first time that Santa Clara had been criticized by the group. "They play into people who have one view of Catholicism," says the Rev. Paul Locatelli, president of Santa Clara. "If it has anything to do with homosexuality, then it's negative."

Whenever Santa Clara finds itself in the Cardinal Newman Society's sights, Father Locatelli says he receives e-mail messages and postcards from its supporters. "They're a self-appointed group of vigilantes," he says. "If John Henry Newman were alive, he would ask them to remove his name."

A Useful Role?

Perhaps the harshest critique of Mr. Reilly has come from the Bishops' and Presidents' Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This year it sent a letter to the 10 bishops listed as "ecclesiastical advisers" to the Cardinal Newman Society. Some of them had not spoken with Mr. Reilly in years. The letter called the organization "often aggressive, inaccurate, or lacking in balance" and Mr. Reilly's methods "often objectionable in tone and substance." It suggested that the bishops resign from the advisory board.

Soon after, three of them did. The society has since disbanded the board. Mr. Reilly says he was disappointed by the committee's letter — and particularly upset at being called "inaccurate," which he says is unfair. He plans to put together a new advisory board, this time made up of lay people, not bishops.

Although it has plenty of critics, the society also has its share of supporters in higher education. The Rev. Earl A. Weis, a professor emeritus of theology at Loyola University Chicago, is not involved directly with the group but applauds its efforts. "I think the goals of the Cardinal Newman Society, which are to heighten the Catholic dimension of colleges, are very admirable," he says, "and I hope they succeed."

Likewise, Bernard Dobranski, president and dean of the law school at Ave Maria University, says he supports Mr. Reilly's aims. "I know there are people who are unhappy with the criticisms leveled by the society, but I think it's a useful role, and it's a reminder that there are standards that we should adhere to," he says.

The Rev. Joseph A. O'Hare has a long history with Mr. Reilly. Father O'Hare, who was president of Fordham when Mr. Reilly was an undergraduate, is now an associate editor of America magazine, a Catholic weekly that has been critical of the Cardinal Newman Society. "He's a man with a cause," Father O'Hare says of the group's founder. "I think his heart's in the right place, but his understanding of a university is extremely narrow and stunted."

Mr. Reilly is accustomed to the criticism. What annoys him most is that the focus is on the society's tactics and tone rather than its message. "There are people who disagree with our arguments, and so there ought to be a reaction," he says. "What bothers me is that none of the reactions have taken on the issues."

And while he is often taken to task for focusing on the negative, Mr. Reilly argues that that is his role — and that no one else is doing it.

Still, he flinches when reminded of the letter calling professors heretics and he says he now wonders whether the Schiavo news release was a mistake. "In hindsight, I wish we hadn't hit that issue so hard," he says. "And the reason is, there is some nuance there."

With its recent donation windfall, the society will move to larger, more impressive digs here in Manassas and hire more staff members. Mr. Reilly foresees less emphasis on strongly worded "news alerts" and more on new programs, like sponsoring campus groups that would encourage undergraduates to study Catholic doctrine. That will allow the society, he says, to bypass professors and administrations and speak directly to those he cares about the most: students. He and his staff are at work on a guide for students and parents to Catholic colleges that should be published next year. Mr. Reilly says the guide will include all Catholic colleges and will focus on what the society sees as both their positive and negative qualities.

It's not often that colleges will admit that they did — or did not — do something because of an outside pressure group. The Cardinal Newman Society's unrelenting campaign against the play The Vagina Monologues, which Mr. Reilly says contradicts Catholic values, seems to have led some Catholic colleges to cancel performances. And the society's consistent drumbeat against pro-choice commencement speakers has undoubtedly made Catholic colleges think twice about whom they invite. "I honestly wish that our greatest impact on these schools wasn't the bludgeon factor," says Mr. Reilly. But, he argues, "you have to go to the extremes with these things sometimes."


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