Keeping the “Catholic” in Catholic Colleges

Many Catholics in the United States and Canada are concerned about the future of our colleges and universities. They know that many of them have ceased being Catholic in any real sense — though they may retain an honorable religious name — and that most of the others are succumbing to a greater or lesser degree to secularizing trends. A few have recovered their Catholic character and a few others have recently appeared which likewise profess Catholicism openly loyal to the Magisterium. Can we save those in the middle?

The answer is “no” unless a definite plan is formulated, adopted, and followed. But the situation is not promising. For example, the first pastoral letter ever issued on higher Educa­tion by the Bishops of the United States (“Catholic Higher Education and the Church’s Pastoral Mission,” Origins, 10 [1980-81], 379-384) seems to have sunk without a ripple. Similarly the report of a committee of the American Catholic Philosophical Association (“The Secularization of Western Culture and the Catholic College and University,” Current Issues in Catholic Higher Education, 2 [1981-82], 7-23) seems to have had absolutely no effect. One problem is that these documents, while they say much that is good, omit or gloss over the easiest and surest answer to the problem: hire good Catholic professors.

I have studied and taught in both Catholic and secular in­stitutions, and have visited others. All I have seen confirms my convictions that in a Catholic institution the best role model and the most efficacious religious educator is a good Catholic professor. This is for me a truism, and one verified by ex­perience. Yet many Catholic administrators still vehemently resist the principle of hiring good Catholics. Discussion or analysis does not seem to shake their faith in what are actually weak defenses that gain their strength only from the regularity with which they are advanced. Here are ten common arguments with my own observations on them.

1. We couldn’t discontinue the contracts of a large number of people, many of whom have tenure.

Answer. There is a difference between hiring and firing. We are not concerned here with completely undoing the past, which is impossible, but of starting now to build for the future. There are obvious moral obligations to our present staff that will understandably be afraid of being let go. The fear for job security is a difficulty that must be removed at the start, or emotion will fatally becloud reason.

2. I know many Catholics whom I wouldn’t want on the faculty.

Answer. Despite its patent foolishness, this is a frequently used argument. No one suggests that faculty are to be hired on the basis of their Catholicity alone. The principle is that, in addition to being competent teachers, in addition to being con­genial and hard working, faculty members should be good Catholics.

3. No one can say whether a person is a good Catholic.

Answer. This statement can be interpreted in two ways. It may want to say that the Catholic faith is so amorphous that practically anyone calling himself a Catholic must qualify as a good one. What an institution needs then is an objective criterion, and an effective one is at hand: does it wish to be loyal to the Church’s Magisterium? If so, the understanding of the faith is clear enough. If not, the very notion of a test of Catholicity has been abandoned, and the institution can only end up being of disservice to the Church. The second meaning of the statement is that a person’s faith and religious practice cannot be determined. But this is simply erroneous; it is as easy, or as difficult, as to learn what a person’s teaching com­petence is. A diligent inquiry may be required in either case, but it is equally possible in both.

4. Seeking information of this type is illegal.

Answer. Legal matters can be settled by consulting a competent lawyer. And consultation shows that such information may be asked for. Federal, state, and provincial laws ac­tually allow religious educational institutions to use religious faith and practice as a criterion in appointments as long as the criterion is publicly stated. It is therefore as alarming as it is revelatory to see Catholic colleges advertising without reference to their religious commitment or even claiming that they hire without discrimination as to creed.

5. At our particular institution we have accepted state aid and have given up the right to prefer Catholics.

Answer. It would be better to refuse the state aid and save the nature of your institution.

6. There are some wonderful people on our faculty who are not Catholics. They are good teachers, congenial, and dedicated to the purpose of the institution.

Answer. We all know such persons and are thankful for them, but we may not argue by exceptions. We should strive to obtain the ideal professor. If he is not available in a given case, we have to approximate to the ideal as much as we can. In most cases this will still result in appointing someone who is a good Catholic, though it may be that a devout Protestant Christian would be hired.

7. We shouldn’t live in a ghetto.

Answer. This is a slogan that is always used. There are two replies to it. The first is that no ghetto could survive in the modern world, even if it wanted to. Students see TV and films, read newspapers and magazines, and meet every kind of per­son. This leads to the real reply to this statement, that in another sense we do want a “ghetto,” an oasis where Catholics can be Catholics and where the faith can be express­ed, discussed, and developed. Only in this way will they be able to remain committed Christians in a secular world.

8. The Church wants its institutions to be ecumenical.

Answer. That is correct. But true ecumenism is an at­titude of understanding joined to charity, not of indifferentism. In a Catholic it requires a thorough knowledge of his faith. To turn out graduates who do not know their own religious tradi­tion is to be anti-ecumenical at the most fundamental level. The ecumenical orientation of our colleges would be better ex­pressed by dialogue with other religious institutions, not by confusion at home. Furthermore, faculty hired today will often be on staff for thirty or forty years. An institution could easily become more “ecumenical” than Catholic.

9. Hiring good Catholics is all right for the theology department, but it is not necessary for other departments.

Answer. This admits the basic principle where it counts most. If only our colleges would hire, for their theology departments, good Catholics loyal to the Magisterium! Then we could more readily admit that other departments also can contribute to a Catholic education. By presenting their subject in a framework strengthened by faith, they deepen knowledge. A Catholic college should use all its resources. And, what type of person can best help in this? An agnostic? Rare is the department today that even raises the question.

10. To follow this principle in hiring would be insular and intolerant.

Answer. A Catholic college has a definite aim. To achieve any aim requires the appropriate means. The Catholic College cannot achieve its aim without hiring good Catholics, any more than a French-speaking college could attain its goal without hiring French-speaking professors. A Catholic college need not apologize for preferring Catholics any more than a French-speaking college for preferring faculty who speak the students’ language.


  • Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B

    Rev. Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B., was born in England in 1922, but moved to Canada when he was four. He grew up in Hamilton. In 1940 he attended St. Michael’s College, Toronto and entered the Basilian Novitiate a year later. He was ordained in 1947. He spent most of his life in academia and became an expert on Thomas Aquinas. Fr. Kennedy taught psychology and philosophy at St. Michael’s College Toronto, was president of Assumption University in Windsor, Ont., and president of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon. In 1982, he became the Dean of Philosophy at the Centre for Thomistic Studies in Houston, Texas. He passed away in 2010.

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