How Catholic Schools Lose Their Identity

Faced with a declining population, decreasing tax revenues, underfunded schools, and no money to clean up a toxic environmental hazard, the town of Black Hawk, Colorado, voted to legalize gambling. As Newsweek reported back in 1994, the citizens of Black Hawk thought the legalization of gambling would solve their problems. Alderman Herb Bowle, for example, believed that the introduction of gambling would bring “jobs, lower taxes, and money to fix up this town.” And in fact, it did. After gambling arrived, the town was awash in cash, the schools were well funded, the hazard was removed, and unemployment was no longer a worry.

But in the process, Black Hawk also realized that gambling comes at a cost: “crime and congestion now plague this peaceful mountain town,” Newsweek reported. Assault, drunkenness, criminal mischief, public urination—crimes that never used to be a problem in this town—became commonplace. “We thought we’d studied the problem thoroughly,” a retired grade-school teacher lamented. “I don’t think we’d studied it enough.” In the end, more than two-thirds of the original inhabitants of the town moved out, disgusted with the moral corruption of the town they no longer recognized. And for those who stayed? “I’m making a good salary, better than I ever did,” stated city clerk Penny Round. “[But] I wouldn’t wish this on anybody’s town.”

The lessons of Black Hawk extend beyond the politics of legalizing gambling. Reflecting upon the general demise of Catholic colleges in America, one cannot help but see poignant parallels between the tragic decision made by these Colorado citizens and the devil’s bargain struck by virtually every major Catholic college in America.

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There are, of course, many causes for the demise of Catholic higher education in America, including the general decline in religious belief and the increased cost of private education. And without succumbing to hysteria, one must admit that there are academics, usually cultural Marxists, who hate the Catholic Church and, once hired, become a cancer within such institutions. Yet, chief among all these causes is most probably the Black Hawk compromise—the willingness to do anything to preserve one’s existence, even doing so at the cost of losing one’s very identity.

In order to fulfill their mission, administrators, boards of directors, and faculty of Catholic colleges have no choice but to balance two goods: 1) presenting the Catholic intellectual tradition and providing opportunities to foster student faith and virtue, and 2) paying all the college’s bills. As the CFOs and accountants like to say, “No margin, no mission.”

Yet these two goods are not on a par. A Catholic college does not present the Catholic intellectual tradition and foster student faith and virtue to pay its bills; it pays its bills to present the Catholic intellectual tradition and foster student faith and virtue. This is what distinguishes it from an airline or a theatre, which also must fill seats to survive.

Keeping these two goods in their proper perspective is extraordinarily difficult and requires heroic virtue. The faculty and students want their school to top the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and parents who pay $45,000 in tuition, not to mention room and board, are banking on their children securing lucrative work as a result of their investment. Nor is any administrator ever fired over an abundance of applicants, a championship basketball team, or breaking ground with a new athletic center. But if you institute policies that protect or further the Catholic character of the college or defend a Catholic faculty member who is being slandered and threatened by students or faculty, you risk ostracism and persecution, not to mention losing your job.

Unfortunately, in the last three decades, the need to fill the seats of Catholic colleges has invariably led to the same predictable and tragic rationalization: “If we don’t have a world-class athletic facility, Ivy League trained faculty, winning sports teams, a thriving business school, shiny new buildings, first-class dining, and an on-campus pub, we are going to lose out on admissions to our competition. And our rankings will suffer. But if we provide these amenities, we will increase admissions and be able to present the Catholic message to a much wider audience than otherwise would have been possible.”

The allure of this Siren call is nearly irresistible. But in the words of the retired school teacher, “We thought we’d studied the problem thoroughly….  I don’t think we’d studied it enough.”

Nearly every Catholic college in American has made the Black Hawk trade-off, and the result is always the same: A nominally Catholic college with virtually no (or a few token) Catholic faculty teaching virtually no Catholic philosophy or theology, championing the “pastoral” (read “unprincipled”) care of the students, while offering plenty of opportunities for “social justice” and “celebrations of diversity.” The Catholic history of the school, or perhaps its Catholic “spirit,” will be championed in the school’s marketing materials, but that history and spirit will play little to no role in the daily lives of the students. The school will, in all essentials, be indistinguishable from a secular college with a healthy Newman Center or St. Thomas More Society. Indeed, in some ways it will be worse. Catholics at Harvard know they are on enemy soil; scandal, properly understood, is logically impossible there.

But the buildings are beautiful, the athletic center is fashionable, the sports teams are winning, and the applications are pouring in. As with Black Hawk, it became necessary to destroy the Catholic college to save it.

The good news is that many smaller or recently opened Catholic colleges have apparently learned the lessons of Black Hawk. Colleges such as Thomas Aquinas College, Wyoming Catholic, and Christendom have fulfilled their Catholic mission while filling their seats by charging approximately half the tuition of more established “Catholic” colleges. They know who they are, and they do not pretend or desire to be Harvard or Planet Fitness. They have preserved their identity but at a deliberate cost, viz., by jeopardizing their standing in the world and even the job prospects of their graduates. These schools are “scary” or “reactionary Catholic,” we are told, and parents better beware if they want to soil their children’s job prospects or pedigree by associating with such places.

But in the final analysis, the way of these Catholic colleges is the only way to fill seats while meeting a Catholic college’s mission: Remain small, rigorously screen all hires (especially faculty), refuse to transform your campus into a teenage amusement park, forsake the desire for prestige, and let U.S. News and World Report be damned. In other words, refuse the Black Hawk compromise as if your existence depended upon it.


  • Andrew J. Peach

    Andrew J. Peach, J.D., Ph.D., is a former philosophy professor and current attorney. He is the co-author of An Introduction to Catholic Ethics, a text used in Catholic high schools across the United States, and has published articles in numerous journals, including The Thomist, Philosophical Investigations, First Things, Journal of the History of Philosophy, and International Philosophical Quarterly. He and his wife Kathryn live in Wilmington, Delaware, with their four children.

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