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When Pope Francis told a gathering of female heads of religious orders this month that he will create an “official commission” to examine whether women can be deacons, it reignited a debate in the church over the ordination of women.

But that is already a settled question. “Women in the Church must be valued,” the pope told an interviewer in December 2013, “not ‘clericalized.’ ” By Francis’s lights, laypeople can remain active in the faith without being ordained. But when it comes to certain areas of the church’s ministry, men and women of the cloth are better suited for the flock’s needs.

The decline of clerics in leadership roles at the church’s institutes of higher learning, for example, is a disturbing trend.

Last week, Loyola University Chicago tapped Jo Ann Rooney to be its first lay president in its 146-year history. The nation’s oldest Catholic university, Georgetown, has had a lay president since 2001. The University of Detroit Mercy hasn’t had a priest at the helm since 2011. DePaul, the largest Catholic university in the country, predicted the last priest will retire by 2030 and “lay leaders will assume the mantle of [the university’s] religious character.”

But it’s not clear laypeople have what it takes to protect that identity. When President Barack Obama visited Georgetown in April 2009, the university complied with a White House request to cover a symbol of the name of Jesus. College campuses are already too secular; leadership doesn’t need to be, too.

Some clerics have contributed to the secularization of their schools, to be sure, but there is something historically holy about having a clerical collar in the president’s office. Thomas Woods wrote in “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” how the “papacy played a central if not exclusive role in the establishment and encouragement of the universities.”

University trustees might pray over that the next time they consider a layperson for a position of leadership.

nhahn@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @NGHahn3

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