The State of Catholic Higher Education

The Notre Dame commencement scandal was of such crucial significance to the Church and the renewal of Catholic higher education that it dominated much of the summer. But as students complete their first full month of studies and my colleagues at the Cardinal Newman Society wrap up the second edition of our Catholic college guide, it’s a relief to focus attention on the very best of Catholic higher education.
But the reality is that the crisis in Catholic higher education is far from over. Generally, but certainly not always, families seeking a Catholic education outside the colleges identified in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College will discover a sad state of affairs.

Most Catholic colleges have secularized considerably over the past 40 years, such that anyone who attended these colleges in the 1960s or earlier would scarcely recognize them today. It is no surprise that more than half the colleges in The Newman Guide were established after 1970, most in reaction to the rapid decline of faithful Catholic education in this country.
The good news is that a nationwide renewal of Catholic higher education is underway, and scandals like the Notre Dame commencement honors have only helped mobilize support for significant reform. Not only are new, faithful Catholic colleges springing up — bishops, religious orders, and lay leaders are planning to establish several more in the next decade — but nearly every Catholic college in the United States has increased attention to its core mission. Families who are seeking a Catholic college should know about these trends. A basic understanding of the state of Catholic higher education today is valuable not only as a precaution, but also as confirmation of the great treasures we have in faithful Catholic colleges.

Notwithstanding the great strides the Church is making with regard to Catholic higher education, at many typical Catholic colleges students will find:

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  • a significant number of faculty who may appreciate theology, philosophy, and the arts as useful for presenting ideas and critiquing others’ ideas, but who reject any claim to truth outside the natural sciences; 
  • a curriculum featuring a broad course selection with some required courses but no integrated core and little exposure to the Catholic intellectual tradition, unless the student majors in philosophy or theology and actively seeks appropriate courses; 
  • a religious studies or theology department including faculty who dissent from Catholic teaching and offering courses with no clear indication of whether they are genuine Catholic theology courses; 
  • a faculty with a significant portion (sometimes a large majority) of non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics, often including actively homosexual and dissenting professors; 
  • guest lecturers, often with a decidedly liberal-progressive point of view, including pro-abortion politicians and others whose public actions and statements oppose Catholic moral teaching; 
  • a campus ministry that is generally weak and understaffed, minimizes catechesis and spiritual formation, and often plays loosely with Catholic teaching and the liturgy of the Mass — which is attended by a minority of Catholic students; 
  • student clubs that oppose Catholic teaching, usually on abortion or homosexuality, and few (if any) that provide opportunities for spiritual growth; 
  • coed residence halls with some restrictions that are generally ineffective in discouraging premarital sexual activity and alcohol abuse; and 
  • campus health and counseling services that are under no obligation to support Catholic moral teaching. 
This is a list of the more common concerns. There are more unusual and appalling problems, both at large universities and at small, seemingly traditional Catholic colleges. These include approved internships with abortion advocacy groups, homosexual film festivals, awards to gay-marriage advocates, lectures by embryonic stem cell researchers and pro-abortion activists, professors who publicly attack the Vatican and Catholic moral teachings, etc. Once the door is opened, there is no telling what might come in — or out.
For several centuries, fidelity to the Church was largely taken for granted at Catholic colleges and universities. But the secularization of Catholic colleges in the United States transpired quickly in the span of a few decades.
It was the turmoil of the 1960s and the aftermath of Vatican II that threw into disarray the Catholic culture in the United States, of which college campuses were a microcosm. The G.I. Bill, other financial aid programs, and new taxpayer funding for public universities enticed growing numbers of Catholic students to forego Catholic education. Meanwhile, the aid programs brought increasing numbers of non-Catholic students to Catholic colleges, which also began to hire increasing numbers of non-Catholic faculty.
Soon Catholic colleges were faced with an identity crisis. Competition for students and a desire for greater acceptance by secular colleges led 26 American college officials, scholars, and bishops in 1967 to produce the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” It publicly declared Catholic colleges’ independence from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”
The aftermath was shameful. Bowing to the anti-authoritarian movement of the 1960s and the interests of increasing numbers of non-Catholic students and faculty, most Catholic colleges watered down their emphasis on Catholic identity and their expectations for moral behavior. Fearful that courts would restrict government funding to faith-based colleges — a fear that never materialized on the federal level — college officials removed crucifixes from the classroom walls and reorganized under boards of trustees outside Church control. Conforming to secular academia, they whittled away at their core curricula and focused on preparing students for successful careers.
The resulting problems at Catholic colleges can largely be summed up into two categories:
First, Catholic colleges embraced a distorted definition of “academic freedom” such that it is difficult to imagine what offensive speech or perverse activity might not be protected by it, so long as the ever-changing priorities of political correctness are not violated.
Second, most Catholic colleges have abandoned responsibility for students’ moral, social, and spiritual development. The operating principle for most American colleges was once in loco parentis; today, colleges provide campus facilities, support services, and some programming for students, but most without clear objectives for personal growth or moral standards to define a Catholic campus culture.
It seems this very damaging period may have reached a turning point. Pope John Paul II brought clarity to the situation and helped slow the momentum of secularization — perhaps even reversed the trend. Pope Benedict XVI has contributed a vision for Catholic higher education that reminds college leaders of the great task to which they are called.
The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law created a new section for Catholic colleges, including the requirement that any Catholic theology professor must have a mandatum (or “mandate”) from the local bishop, affirming that the professor will teach within the full communion of the Catholic Church. Students now have reasonable assurance of the orthodoxy of theology professors at colleges that require the mandatum or that at least strive to hire theology professors who are obvious candidates for the mandatum.
In 1990, Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, by which he defined what constitutes Catholic identity at Catholic colleges. More than a statement of principle, the constitution’s General Norms are binding on Catholic colleges as an application of Canon Law. Ex Corde Ecclesiae gives each local bishop the legal authority and responsibility to declare a college “Catholic” — or, in the case of a persistently wayward college, to remove the Catholic label. It requires that every “official action or commitment of the [college] is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.” Catholic professors are “to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching.”
The results have been encouraging. Even though compliance with Ex Corde Ecclesiae varies widely, most Catholic colleges are taking steps in a positive direction. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which once argued that Ex Corde Ecclesiae is unworkable in the United States, now pledges to implement it. Many U.S. bishops are pushing quietly for reform, and in more than a few instances have publicly decried scandal on Catholic campuses. Lay Catholics have also urged reform through local efforts and alumni organizations.
The unity of faith and reason continues to be a key theme for Benedict, who — like his predecessor — is a scholar with great appreciation for Catholic higher education. In April 2009, he addressed Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., calling on them to confront the contemporary “crisis of truth” that is rooted in a “crisis of faith.”
“Are we ready to commit our entire self — intellect and will, mind and heart — to God?” the Holy Father asked. “Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.”
Benedict also affirmed “the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”
Guided by the wisdom and faithful vision of the Vatican and America’s bishops, the renewal of Catholic higher education is slowly becoming reality. But it will take many years, or even decades, to reach completion.
In the meantime, one of the most exciting developments in the Church today is the establishment of new, faithful Catholic colleges. The 1970s gave rise to Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College, and others that have since built strong and well-deserved reputations. We are now in the midst of a new wave of colleges, with plans underway for several more in the coming years.
Each of the new colleges is unique and offers something special to Catholic families: one concentrates on the increasingly important New Media, three serve the rapidly growing Catholic population in the South, one emphasizes the outdoors and stewardship of nature, and more. Finding one’s niche at a good Catholic college is becoming much easier.
Also exciting are the colleges that have maintained or restored their Catholic identity despite prevailing trends in the opposite direction. More are joining this group, and they deserve praise for their heroism, often amid much scorn from faculty and officials at other Catholic colleges. Students at these colleges should be prepared to find occasional remnants of a period when Catholic identity was not a top priority, but they will also find genuine role models who are successfully fighting the tide of secularization.
Many of the colleges in The Newman Guide provide an outstanding education in the Catholic intellectual tradition by means of either studying the Great Books of Western culture or a core curriculum that coherently integrates the traditional liberal arts disciplines. These point to a renaissance of traditional Catholic education, an encouraging development.
What makes these colleges different from largely secularized Catholic colleges? A few examples:
  • Instead of graduating students with no substantial exposure to the Catholic intellectual tradition, these colleges generally have a strong core curriculum or several requirements to study faithful Catholic theology and philosophy. 
  • Whereas most Catholic colleges gamble on the maturity of students to refrain from sexual activity, The Newman Guide colleges set clear expectations for moral behavior with same-sex residence halls or visitation policies that are strictly enforced. For example, the Franciscan University of Steubenville pioneered an innovative “household” program that encourages students to support their peers in healthy Christian lifestyles. 
  • Many large Catholic universities frequently host lecturers who publicly oppose Catholic teaching on key moral issues; sometimes these universities bestow public honors on such speakers, a scandal that the U.S. bishops have strongly opposed. The Newman Guide colleges, however, recognize the message that this sends to students about the clarity and seriousness of Catholic teaching. At these colleges, students are mostly if not always exposed to the best minds of the Catholic Church and others who share our moral standards. 
Catholic families, then — and others who are attracted to the benefits of a Catholic education — have a healthy variety of opportunities for a college education that is steeped in the Catholic intellectual tradition while offering a moral campus environment. These colleges comprise an assortment of charisms, academic offerings, numbers of students, locations, extracurricular programs, and more. And for future students, the numbers of faithful Catholic colleges and undergraduate study options are increasing.

The renewal of historically Catholic colleges, which built their reputations upon the dedication of faithful Catholic leaders and faculty, is essential. Prayers and support for renewal will have an important impact.

But today we can already be thankful for the rising tide of Catholic higher education that Cardinal Newman so fervently hoped for: “This is our hour, whatever be its duration, the hour for great hopes, great schemes, great efforts, great beginnings . . . to recommence the age of Universities.”



  • Patrick J. Reilly

    Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

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