The Case for Catholic Studies


Once upon a time, Catholic parents sent their sons and daughters off to a Catholic college confident that their children would receive a sound Catholic education. They expected their offspring to return home in four years not only with professional skills and greater knowledge of science, art, and culture but with a deepened understanding of and appreciation for their Catholic faith. Some parents still expect this as they wave a tearful goodbye and take out their checkbook to make the first of many hefty tuition payments.

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Some of those parents are disappointed.

Their sons and daughters may land good jobs or gain a place in medical or law school, but they seem to have no greater knowledge of Catholicism than they had in high school. They may, in fact, evince a dismissive or even contemptuous attitude toward their childhood faith and make it clear that they don’t intend to practice it. Indeed, some students are unaware that their college is Catholic until they’re preparing to graduate, so well had the Catholic character of the school managed to conceal itself.

Now, however, at an increasing number of Catholic colleges and universities, students are discovering an opportunity to study the doctrines and history of the Church, as well as to encounter its expression in art, architecture, literature, and music. They learn about outstanding exemplars of lived Catholicism, both past and present, and are even able to attend lectures given by some of them.

All of this is the result of a burgeoning movement over the past fifteen years to introduce a program of Catholic studies at Catholic colleges and universities. Such programs are elective, so students aren’t required to take any of the courses. They can, however, take one or more as electives and use them to fulfill general graduation requirements. Many of the programs offer a concentration or minor (the terms are roughly synonymous), usually requiring about six courses. A few institutions offer a major or a Master’s degree. Almost all of them are interdisciplinary — that is, they involve courses from such departments as history, English, comparative literature, art, music, and sociology, as well as theology, philosophy, and religious studies. Courses range from “20th-Century Catholic Fiction” to “Catholic Social Tradition,” “Saints,” “Science and Christian Theology,” and “The History of Christian Art and Architecture.”

In addition to standard academic coursework, many of the programs offer lecture series, workshops, and opportunities for service. At St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minnesota, one spinoff of the program has been the formation of a Catholic Studies Club, where students interested in Catholic studies can socialize, meet for informal lunches, and go on field trips.

The fact that most Catholic studies programs are at Catholic institutions rather than at secular schools strikes many people as odd. Why, after all, should a Catholic college need a separate Catholic studies program? Isn’t the whole institution supposed to be about Catholic studies? Nino Langiulli, writing in the December 1998 New Oxford Review, is skeptical of the idea:

A place set apart for Catholic Studies in a Catholic school is an anomaly. At Harvard, Berkeley, or Michigan State it might make sense, although in some respects it might be patronizing. But the idea of Catholic Studies at Georgetown, Notre Dame, or the Catholic University of America carries the scent of resignation at best or betrayal at worst.

That’s a pretty strong indictment. What justification can there possibly be for having a special program for Catholic studies at a Catholic university? The answer to this question is inseparable from the history of American Catholic higher education during the past 50 years.

Losing Their Faith

In 1955 Monsignor John Tracy Ellis asked why there was so little first-rate scholarship coming out of American Catholic colleges and universities. This initiated a self-critical era in Catholic higher education. Efforts were made to professionalize and upgrade faculties and, in general, to conform to the standards of the secular academy. Many non-Catholic faculty members were hired in an attempt to recruit the best and brightest scholars from top graduate schools.

At the same time, declining enrollment and a higher proportion of lay faculty members created severe financial difficulties at many schools. A significant factor in their ability to get much-needed government funding was their success at downplaying the religious and sectarian nature of their institutions. Many mission statements were written or rewritten to deemphasize Roman Catholicism in favor of terms like “humanistic,” “liberal arts,” or “classical.” A special invitation was extended to students and scholars of all faiths or no faith. Often the charism of the sponsoring religious order, rather than Catholicism itself, was stressed: The term “Jesuit,” for example, was seen as less threatening than “Catholic.” (A complete account of these developments is given in Philip Gleason’s article, “A Half-Century of Change in Catholic Higher Education” in the winter 2001 issue of U.S. Catholic Historian and in his book Contending with Modernity from Oxford University Press.)

Eventually, however, some of the faculty and administrators at these institutions became distressed at the loss of a strong Catholic character. In 1990 the Vatican issued the document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encouraging Catholic colleges and universities to maintain a close tie to the institutional Church and requiring Catholic professors of theology to obtain a mandatum from their bishop. As the debate about the mandatum and its effect on academic freedom began to heat up, the establishment of a separate program of Catholic studies within the college or university seemed to be a way of enhancing Catholic identity and offering students a chance to explore their own religious tradition. After all, weren’t programs in black studies, women’s studies, Hispanic studies, Jewish studies — even gay/lesbian studies — common features of curricula across the country? If students were encouraged to study their ethnic group or gender, why shouldn’t Catholic students have an opportunity to learn about the roots of their faith?

A New Catholic Identity

Two terms that repeatedly occur in the literature about these programs and in the discourse of their directors are “mission” and “larger Catholic community.” A reexamination of the Catholic university’s mission was central in the development of most of these programs. When accrediting agencies asked what was meant by certain parts of the school’s mission statement, administrators were forced to admit that the school was no longer fulfilling its Catholic mission. The Catholic studies programs are an attempt to redress that deficiency. Today, those responsible for the programs stress their desire to serve the larger Catholic community as well as their own students. Lectures, exhibits, symposia, workshops, as well as classes open to the public are ways of helping Catholics in the area discover the richness of their religious heritage.

These new Catholic studies programs do not please everyone. Some Catholics are ambivalent, if not actually hostile. They worry that having a separate program for Catholic studies will marginalize the faith, which should infuse the whole university. They worry that it will come to be seen as one more faddish “culture studies” experiment staffed by eccentrics and extremists. Furthermore, they fear that administrators at Catholic institutions are attempting to pacify and disarm those who are agitating for a stronger Catholic presence on campus. Apart from the programs themselves, these critics say, the rest of the university continues on its secular path.

The question of how these programs are being staffed is also a major concern. Ironically, Catholic studies programs are plagued with the same controversial hiring policies that have made Catholic colleges and universities less Catholic. Any attempt to apply a litmus test for orthodoxy is sure to bring howls of protest from many faculty, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Many scholars — like the late-Monika Hellwig and Francis Fiorenza — identify themselves as Catholic but disagree with a number of Church teachings. Others articulate a traditional, orthodox point of view to counter these dissenting voices that have held sway in academia in recent years.

Another concern is that the programs are too dilettantish, that their interdisciplinary nature leads to a kind of smorgasbord experience, where things are tasted only in small bits. Some professors have become disillusioned with interdisciplinary courses or programs — not only in Catholic studies but in all areas of learning. Originally enthusiastic about such programs in the 1970s and 1980s, they have concluded that depth is sacrificed for breadth and that coherence suffers when subjects are studied without some chronological, sequential, or logical order. Yet another objection to Catholic studies is that most are completely voluntary. Students must elect to take them, so except for those occasional students who need an elective in a certain time slot and find that a Catholic studies course is the only one open, only students who are already motivated to learn about Catholicism will sign up. The old problem remains: Many students at Catholic colleges and universities will still graduate without ever having encountered Catholicism in the classroom.

Then there are the arguments of non-Catholic, non-Christian, and secular people who say that such programs are too sectarian. These critics equate Catholic studies with catechesis and proselytizing, insisting that such projects have no place in a genuine university. Even some Catholic faculty share these sentiments and see Catholic studies programs as a deplorable attempt to return to the “Catholic ghetto.”

There is no denying the cogency of some of these arguments; still, much can be said in favor of Catholic studies programs. No matter how or why Catholic colleges and universities became so secularized, it has happened. Many of them have largely non-Catholic faculty, and the pressures to conform to the standards of secular academia are not going to go away. Given the anxiety and hostility generated by Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a realist may have to admit that this is the best we can do for now. Catholic studies provides a way back into our own schools.

It’s sometimes said about today’s Catholic colleges and universities that it’s still possible to get a Catholic education in them if you happen to take certain courses with particular professors, get involved in certain activities, and avail yourself of particular speakers or symposia. In the past, however, one could only discover these opportunities in a haphazard and serendipitous fashion. Catholic studies programs are a way of making this network visible, thus enabling students who want a Catholic education to pursue it in a clear and systematic way. Furthermore, the fact that the program is described in the college catalogue may in itself serve to stimulate interest in a student who may not have ever thought about studying Catholicism.

In terms of attracting students, the interdisciplinary nature of the programs is an asset. Seeing courses cross-listed with philosophy, literature, music, art, history, and sociology will certainly enhance the program’s appeal, dispelling the notion that the study of Catholicism requires a series of boring religion classes. Such an approach will demonstrate that Catholicism is a vibrant, dynamic, and organic human phenomenon that affects all aspects of life and isn’t to be circumscribed in a little box labeled “religious studies” or “theology.”

Since most of these programs are elective, many students will never take these classes, but those who do will be motivated. Is it better to have a few classes of interested and enthusiastic students than dozens of classes of bored and apathetic students resentful of having to take another requirement? Furthermore, if these classes were required, it would be impossible to find enough staff with the enthusiasm, expertise, and commitment to teach them well.

As for a return to the “Catholic ghetto,” the use of this term is problematic because the word “ghetto” carries with it so many negative connotations: poverty, op­pression, limitation, and despair. Yet closing ranks with others who share our convictions and values can sometimes nurture, sustain, and energize us. As Miroslav Volf has written about ethnic identity, “Without boundaries… all the culturally rich textures of human lives (including particular languages) would eventually be lost, and the result would be not an increase in humanity but its diminishment” (“How Can You Be Croation?” in Books & Culture, January/February 2001). The Catholic studies model would allow students to move temporarily into a bracketed space where they could speak the language, read the stories, gaze at the images, and ponder the doctrines of Catholicism. Refreshed by the deep wellsprings of their own tradition, they would have more to give in their interactions with the larger world.

A New Paradigm

Catholic colleges and universities were founded to enable young Catholics to pursue higher education and at the same time deepen their understanding of the faith. When most of these colleges were created, their students came to them already well catechized, and many came from a strongly supportive Catholic community. Though the larger society had strains of anti-Catholicism, it was publicly Christian and strongly supportive of Christian moral values. Today, circumstances are very different, but the need to inculcate in our young people a knowledge and love of Catholicism is the same. A healthy realism forces us to recognize that given the reality of higher education today, Catholic studies programs may be the best way of fulfilling these goals.


This article originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of Crisis Magazine.


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