When Dominican Sister Barbara Reid took over as president of Catholic Theological Union on Jan. 1, she was heralded as the first female president of the Hyde Park school, which was founded in 1968 when three men’s religious communities combined their theology programs.
Sister Barbara, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been a member of CTU’s faculty since 1988 and served for nine years as vice president and academic dean. She is a widely respected biblical scholar, especially for her work in feminist biblical interpretation.
“‘I’ve been here at CTU so long and I love it so much, it is a labor of love,” said Sister Barbara, who last served as vice president and dean in 2018. “When I became dean it was rather a steep learning curve. After nine years, I know quite well what goes on in the president’s office as well as in the vice president’s office.”
Sister Barbara, 67, will lead an institution that faces the same challenges faced by most small Catholic institutions of higher learning, said Augustinian Father James Halstead, who chairs the board of trustees. The school must work to keep its enrollment up and its budget balanced at a time when it is unable to hold in-person classes.
Sister Barbara agreed that COVID-19 has presented multifaceted challenges, but it also has offered an opportunity.
“Almost all our faculty were able to and had experience teaching online before the pandemic hit,” she said. “Our students have reported a very high degree of satisfaction. But I won’t deny that it’s very challenging for all of us, faculty, staff and students. The ability to see each other face to face, the casual encounters between classes … we all miss that very much. The question we have to address is what will come next when the pandemic subsides? What can we hold onto and keep from this experience?”
More classes will be offered in three different ways, she said. That is, some students will be in the classroom, others will attend class with them by videoconference, and still others will watch and listen to recorded lectures.
Doing that will allow CTU to reach students around the country and the world who might not be able to come to Chicago to study, and might not have other access to the theological resources at CTU, Sister Barbara said.
“We’ll be able to extend our reach into areas we haven’t been able to before,” she said, noting that it is already happening. “This past fall, we had 20 sisters participate in a course on religious life from Zambia.”
That’s especially important for CTU, which has welcomed students from more than 40 countries. Under current conditions, students from many other countries cannot travel to the United States for school.
One trend that has affected CTU greatly is the decline in students who are coming from both men’s and women’s religious communities, Sister Barbara said. Over the years, the school has been forming and educating more laypeople for work in ministry.
“Our mission never changes,” Sister Barbara said. “The mission we have is to prepare effective ministers for the church, ready to witness to the Gospel of justice, love and peace. But it’s a very different world and church from 1968, when CTU was founded. Our job is constantly to discern what the church needs now.”
Halstead said Sister Barbara’s love for the institution was clear to the search committee and the board of trustees. The group also has great respect for her scholarship, and her work ethic.
“First of all, she’s smart,” he said. “Second of all, she’s tenacious. She has a great work ethic. She has displayed to me the ability to listen to people who have other perspectives and to adapt strategies to work with them. She can make partnerships and alliances with other schools. She can work with other professionals in building alliances that are mutually beneficial.”
Sister Barbara said CTU will maintain its longstanding commitment to working with its ecumenical and interreligious partners, modeling the kind of dialogue that helps each of the participants understand their own tradition better.
“Dialogue is so necessary, and reconciliation and peace-building,” Sister Barbara said. “We think it’s very important to learn, in addition to Scripture and theology, how to engage that in pastoral practice and transform our broken world.”
Halstead acknowledged that naming a woman religious as president was a significant move. After the former president, Viatorian Father Mark Francis, announced his intention to retire, school leaders contacted canon lawyers at the Archdiocese of Chicago to find out if they were allowed to name anyone other than a priest to the position.
The answer, Halstead said, was yes, because CTU is technically a school of ministry and not a seminary.
The board then reached out to the provincials of the now 24 men’s religious communities who form the corporation that owns the school and asked what they thought.
The answer was that a member of a religious community — man or woman — would be fine. But probably not a diocesan priest, and certainly not a layperson who is not a member of a religious community.
“We religious can be a little bit clannish,” Halstead said.
In another way, he said, naming a woman as president should come as no surprise.
“It’s about time,” he said.
For her part, Sister Barbara said, Pope Francis has spoken against clericalism and in favor of greater inclusion of women in the leadership of the church. Almost since its inception, CTU has had women and men studying together in the same classes rather than segregating men preparing for ordination.
“They’re going to be working with women all their lives, so we’re very committed to having all our students study together in the same classes,” she said. “It’s such a great boon that our seminarians are learning from the women in their classes and from their women professors. All of us are working together for the same goal.”