Killing the Spirit? Problems of Conformity, Anti-intellectualism and Loss of Mission at Alternative Catholic Colleges

All the formulas, all the precautions of orthodoxy, all the scruples of literal conformity, all barriers, in a word, are powerless to safeguard the purity of the faith. If the spirit should be lacking, dogma becomes no more than myth and the Church no more than a party.

Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith

Over the past 20 years, a handful of small Catholic colleges have been founded in America whose purpose has been to provide an alternative to the mainstream Catholic university. The need for an alternative arose out of a conviction that Catholic higher education had, in the post-Vatican II period, lost its “Catholicity.” The major Catholic universities seemed to be anxious to downplay their theological identity; both academically and morally these institutions increasingly resembled their secular counterparts.

The alternative colleges were established to restore Catholic orthodoxy to the curriculum and enhance the spiritual lives of their students. They were intended to be centers of excellence, saturated with courses in theology and the humanities, founded on the Great Books. They were to have a prophetic role in calling Americans to return to the essence of Catholic education. Invoking the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the educational theory of John Henry Newman, they sought to achieve the integration of mind and spirit which characterized medieval Christendom.

In the light of the anti-Roman attitude in the mainstream universities, populated by liberal theologians parading their radical agendas under the banner of “academic freedom,” the alternative colleges have had ample justification for their mission. Small Davids amidst an army of Goliaths, they fight against the odds and the spirit of the age. To many parents and concerned Catholics, their existence has been, and continues to be, a cause for hope.

When my wife and I were invited, some years ago, to teach at one of the alternative colleges, we were delighted to accept. The opportunity to teach at an institution which was committed both to academic excellence and to a strong spiritual life was an exciting prospect. We imagined that there would be a marvelous esprit de corps on campus, a confidence in the Faith that would enable students and faculty alike to explore the great questions freely and energetically.

Of course, we knew that the college was not a paradise. We were aware that in the year before our arrival the college had gone through a bitter civil war that had made life miserable for everyone. The battles, we realized, were not mere clashes of personality, but ideological struggles in which each side claimed to be more orthodox than the other. But such was our enthusiasm that we were not deterred from coming. We were given assurances that such wranglings were soon to be a thing of the past.

For three years I served as a full-time assistant professor. I participated fully in the life of the institution and spent a great deal of my time with students outside of the classroom. My wife also taught part-time and worked in an administrative position. Our greatest joy was in teaching itself, but we also wanted to know and care for our students as individuals.

We were not at the college for long before we encountered many examples of the same dissension, suspicion, and theological strife that had marked the recent “civil war” on campus. At first, we feared that our apprehensions about the college were personal and idiosyncratic. But, after a time, it became clear that our concerns and fears were not unique: many students, faculty, and alumni shared our distress.

Maintaining balance in an ideological age is an arduous task; it is all too easy to be pulled toward the extremes of left or right. The particular danger of the alternative college, we came to realize, is a descent into what could be called Catholic fundamentalism, a narrow and rigid caricature of orthodoxy. This was a lesson we learned reluctantly, but which our experiences at the college burned deeply in our hearts and minds.

It is time for those of us who want authentic reform in Catholic education to face the problems which threaten to vitiate the mission of the alternative college. If we do not have the courage and honesty to criticize the institutions which are ostensibly on our side, we will lose a crucial opportunity to turn back the tide of secularism and academic decadence.

I want to make it clear at the outset that I still believe in the mission of the alternative college. Moreover, I recognize that there are many qualifications that have to be made in this sort of critique: some colleges are healthier than others, and even in the most dysfunctional college there are many fine, hard-working students, faculty, and administrators. But the dangers that plague the alternative college are endemic to conservative institutions and are present to some degree in nearly all of them. The case needs to be made, even at the risk of making generalizations that cannot account for every shading and exception. Though I have also spoken with faculty from the other alternative colleges and taught transfer students from those schools, I will restrict my evidence in this essay to the college where I taught.

Unfortunately, there is a tragic asymmetry in such institutions that hampers constructive change. Whereas the self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy tend to be politically active—signing petitions, complaining directly to parents and administrators—those who hold a less rigid point of view deliberately refrain from divisive public controversy. While there is spiritual wisdom in this restraint, it has the unfortunate effect of muting the very individuals whose voices ought to be heard. Ironically, this syndrome is almost identical to the “political correctness” debate raging in our universities.

Of course, in such small, enclosed environments, the “fishbowl syndrome” plays a role in rancorous internal disputes: oxygen can be in short supply and the water gets dirty rather quickly. But the problems afflicting the alternative colleges are ultimately spiritual and intellectual; they arise from an ideology which constricts the fullness of the Catholic faith. At stake is the future health of the Church in America.

Growing Pains and Identity Crises

“To push piety to the point of superstition,” said Pascal, “is to destroy it.” To push orthodoxy to the point of religious purism is also to destroy it.

Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith

The alternative Catholic colleges were launched in the 1970s as a reaction on the part of conservatives to the social and moral excesses of the 1960s and the rapid liberalization of the Church after Vatican II. What concerns me here is not the validity of their analysis but the social context out of which these schools grew.

Traditionalist Catholics were traumatized by the changes following the Council; in many ways they have not yet recovered from the shock. Accused of triumphalism for years, they soon suffered under a liberal triumphalism that left their spiritual and emotional needs unmet. Not only had their shepherds abandoned them, but the same shepherds often seemed to turn around and beat them with their crooks.

This sense of abandonment bred a growing alienation from authority (and included some outright criticism of the pontificate of Paul VI), as well as a resentment of mainstream institutions. Not only were such institutions as the major Catholic universities subject to criticism: even the parish and the diocese could be considered hostile territory, to be bypassed in one way or another.

Concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast, rooted in large ethnic families, the traditionalists started their own organizations and magazines. The next step was an academic system that preserved Catholic teachings and traditional piety: thus the rise of Catholic homeschooling and the alternative colleges.

It was precisely this traditionalist community that provided the cohesion needed to supply the students and the funding necessary to begin a venture as ambitious as the founding of a college.

This has turned out to be a mixed blessing. While there is much to be said for the earnestness and faithfulness of the traditionalists, their persistent tendency is to fall into a Catholic version of fundamentalism, characterized by puritanism, an Us vs. Them attitude, and a fear of diversity. Anyone who does not hold the strict party line is in danger of being labeled a liberal.

Like the Protestants, the traditionalists suffer from the scourge of sectarianism. The very claim that the alternative college is the only authentic form of Catholic education can easily degenerate into the Jansenist conviction that the “true Church” consists of one particular group which preserves the purity of the faith. Hence on these campuses there is an intense pressure to conform. An atmosphere of self-consciousness and suspicion is common, as is the infighting that frays nerves and causes epidemics of scruples.

For example, at the college where I taught, the expansion of the student population brought increasing tensions. The pool of traditionalist students was no longer sufficient to fill the dormitories and faculty offices. Students who came from families that were more assimilated to current culture soon found that they were considered worldly and scorned for their failure to practice the proper forms of piety. The same was true of a number of faculty members, particularly those of a younger generation. In such closed environments, rumor and gossip can become suffocating.

As the generation of parents who came to maturity before Vatican II begins to pass, the traditionalist constituency will no longer be capable of supporting the alternative colleges. If for no other reason than that of self-preservation, these schools will have to open themselves up to a broader range of expressions of Catholic piety and culture. Such a process of aggiornamento can be achieved without any sacrifice of the orthodoxy or intellectual character of the alternative colleges.

Banning the Beach Boys

No longer to believe, in fact, in the assimilating and transforming power of Christianity; to divert the exercise of Christian prudence so as to make of it an entirely negative and defensive prudential system: such is one of the most fatal forms of lack of faith. It is to believe no longer, in fact, in Christian vitality. It is to refuse confidence in the Holy Spirit. It is to justify as if on principle those who think that Christianity has grown old for good.

Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith

Just about everyone agrees that the college environment requires some controls and a certain amount of sheltering. The question is: how much? Students are still growing up and need to internalize rules and modes of conduct before they go out into the world and make their own decisions. On the other hand, they also need a certain amount of freedom in which to undertake this process.

Unfortunately, instead of being somewhat porous, allowing for some adult influences into students’ lives, the alternative college prefers a nearly air-tight isolation. In this it is only carrying further the fears and concerns of protective parents who are repulsed by the sexual and moral anarchy on most campuses. As the father of two daughters I find this concern eminently understandable, but I do not believe it can be extended beyond a certain point. Most parents learn that too tight a leash tends either to choke—or break.

Here are some examples of the regulations from the college where I taught.

The PDA Ban. There is a ban on all public displays of affection (PDA) on campus; this includes not only necking but even holding hands. In fact, one romantic young couple was verbally castigated by a fellow student for gazing into each other’s eyes too intently.

The result of this repression of all physical signs of affection is to make romantic relationships furtive and self-conscious. While it is true that college students’ hormones are active and near occasions of sin are many, the PDA ban merely adds to an environment where attacks of scruples can be debilitating.

In this, as in all such bans, the assumption is that lack of experience is better than the challenges of real experience. One might call this the “Ostrich Complex”: at the first sight of a real moral challenge, stick your head in the sand. Instead of promoting virtue, these bans encourage emotional retardation.

The Rock Ban. I am not a defender of rock music as a high form of culture, but neither do I believe it to be the devil’s own instrument to lead youth astray. Though rock music at campus functions was not originally banned at my college, it eventually was. At one point, a college administrator actually spent hours listening to various albums in order to draw up an Index of Forbidden Music.

The crisis which precipitated the ban arose when the fight over rock music amongst the students reached an almost hysterical pitch. The Dean of Student Affairs at the time came upon a group of students in the college chapel openly calling on God to destroy their enemies. At that point, he imposed the ban in order to put an end to the wrangling.

The enforcement of this ban is arbitrary. For some reason, music from the 1950s is considered legitimate, but as soon as one comes to the year 1960 and the Beach Boys, the songs become irremediably decadent. As to styles of dance, the polka and the jitterbug are acceptable; any free style dance is not.

The Miniskirt Ban. The rules surrounding feminine modesty are much vaguer, but unwritten laws can be more oppressive than those in the handbook. A couple years ago, a number of students circulated a petition which sought the banning of miniskirts. Though there were only a small number of girls wearing skirts and dresses a couple of inches above the knee (hardly fitting the definition of miniskirts in the real world), this became a Big Issue. When the Dean of Women tried to stress that the principle of modesty was more important than the relation of a hemline to the kneecaps, she was considered by some to be condoning promiscuity.

I have heard from some of the girls that if they prefer to date different boys, instead of going steady, they are accused of “playing around.” It was only when I arrived at this college that I began to believe there was such a thing as sexism.

The problem with these restrictive rules is that they foster a spirit of Pharisaism among the students. They tend to reinforce the kind of judgmentalism that is far more concerned with the splinter in a brother’s eye than the plank in one’s own. An enormous amount of emotional energy is drained from the students’ lives because of this, distracting them from their studies and distorting their understanding of Christian behavior.

What Johnny Doesn’t Learn Can’t Hurt Him

Christian thought is to be found nowhere in an isolated state. It does not have the objective subsistence of doctrine. It can only come into being by the intellectual effort of the Christian, and the intellectual effort provided for us by our Fathers does not dispense us from an analogous effort. For thought cannot be hoarded. It is something alive and it quickly becomes rigid, sclerotic, and dies.

Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith

Perhaps the most significant tension within the alternative college is over the nature of education itself. Though publicly these schools tend to laud Newman’s “philosophical habit of mind,” in practice they are closer to Dickens’s Gradgrind (“Just the facts, ma’am”). In other words, students get the impression that they are going to spend four years stocking up on the Truth, which consists of a body of doctrines and propositions (or even “great books”). The emphasis is on acquiring correct opinions, not on learning how to think more clearly and imagine more deeply.

A substantial percentage of these young men and women think of the alternative college as a munitions depot: when they emerge, they will be laden with “smart bombs” that they can fire at the heretics and pagans. All too often, they start by shooting them at each other.

Of all the pitfalls that threaten the alternative college, this tendency to reduce a liberal education to catechetics and apologetics is the most pernicious and damaging. It substitutes memorization for intelligence, formulas for imagination, letter for spirit. It seeks not to converse with the world, but to impose its abstractions upon it. Those who emerge from this type of education will know how to speak only in soliloquy, never in dialogue; they will preach to the choir, while the congregation leaves the church.

One way to think about this problem is in terms of the relationship between Nature and Grace. The tradition of Catholic thought has been that the order of Nature must be respected and studied closely. Grace does not bypass or eliminate Nature, but perfects it. The temptation in conservative religious groups is to substitute Grace for Nature, to assert dogmas and propositions in the abstract without exploring their human context. Ironically, this is an intellectual shortcut, the equivalent to looking up the answers at the back of the book.

One particularly disturbing example of this came to my attention as I listened to some students studying for a test. In the manner of a litany, one student would call out some modern school of thought (Marxism, positivism, existentialism), while the other would dismiss it in one or two words as “atheistic” or “humanistic.” Apparently that was all that was needed to answer the questions correctly. They had no sense of the immense drama and tragedy of the modern era, of the partial truths and profound insights that lie within systems of thought deemed anti-Catholic. Sadly, I came across this mentality again and again.

Even academic programs based on the “Great Books” fall prey to this tendency toward disembodied abstractions. Russell Hittinger, in an essay in The Christian Writer (Ignatius), writes: “The notion of a great books program can be a conservative smorgasbord—a bag of nouns without the rest of the cultural grammar. . . . A set of ideas or books, without an historical and a cultural context, is neither conservative nor, for that matter, coherent.” I have met graduates of Great Books schools who can speak eloquently in Aristotelian philosophical categories, but who are almost incapable of relating those terms to the specific dilemmas of the real world.

Then there is phenomenon of censorship (another concept I considered a liberal cant phrase until I came to this college). I found that there were students and faculty members as well who subscribed to the notion that “what Johnny doesn’t learn can’t hurt him.” The idea seemed to be that exposing students to “false” material was both a waste of time and a source of temptation best avoided altogether. Naturally, this came up most frequently in matters of sexuality and the body.

For instance, an English professor had included the much-anthologized short story “A & P,” by John Updike in her syllabus. A beautifully written tale of a boy’s initiation into manhood, “A & P” became the source of heated controversy in the class. The reason: the boy in the story looks at a girl and sees her small breasts as a pair of ice cream cones. When the professor tried to defend the story, a student responded by saying that they should only read texts that the Blessed Virgin Mary would have read.

When I taught a D.H. Lawrence novel in an upper division English class, a couple members of the college’s board of trustees considered trying to prevent me from doing so. Despite the fact that there was no sexually explicit material in the Lawrence novel I taught, Lawrence’s espousal of sexual freedom was enough to evoke this attempt at censorship. The trustees never inquired about how and why I wanted to teach Lawrence. In this case, I am happy to say, the issue never reached the board, and the administration was prepared to support me.

But a professor of theology did not meet with the same kind of backing. He had spent some time explaining to his class that sexual metaphors were frequently employed by the writers of the Old Testament to evoke spiritual meaning. In particular, he noted that the image of circumcision was a central symbol for the Covenant. The objection to this was that mentioning circumcision required the students to form an image of a man’s penis in their minds. After several students complained, the theology professor was criticized by his superior and told not to continue that line of teaching.

When academic rigor and the spirit of inquiry are suppressed by appeals to piety and orthodoxy, the essence of Catholic education is lost. More often than not, the alternative college is producing not Catholic leaders, but sectarian followers.

Examining the Product

Lack of personality does not constitute the traditional mind, any more than lack of initiative constitutes obedience, or lack of invention, reason.

Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith

One criterion for evaluating the health of the alternative colleges is to examine their products—that is, the students who graduate and go out into the world. Admittedly, since these colleges were only founded within the last twenty years, their alumni are still young. But there are a few trends that have begun to emerge and are worth pondering.

Perhaps the most revealing is that alumni of alternative colleges often huddle together in tight and insular groups. A common occurrence is for as many as six or more alumni to congregate in a single company, or to become teachers in a parochial school run by a conservative pastor. They almost always marry and socialize within their group.

Certainly the transition from college into the world is difficult; a percentage of graduates do tend to cling to each other, even remaining in physical proximity to their alma mater. One could even make a case that such clusterings are examples of true Catholic community. But according to my observations, the real reason for such enclaves is that these alumni do not feel willing or able to integrate themselves into the larger world. The “fortress mentality” which they picked up in the alternative college continues to dominate their thinking. Thus they miss the opportunity to become true apostles, unafraid to consort with publicans and sinners.

The emphasis on apologetics at the alternative college has the effect of inducing many students to take jobs which enable them to carry on their crusades. Inevitably, they become politicized creatures, working as drones in Washington think tanks or teaching at alternative elementary and secondary schools.

The distressing thing about this is that little lasting change can be effected in Church and society at the political level. Ultimately, politics is an epiphenomenon of culture. And culture is shaped by ideas, religious visions, and the imagination—all of which require major investments in the development of mind and heart. The alternative college produces many foot soldiers to fight in the trenches, but almost no officers who understand the larger contexts of the war.

Indeed, I have been approached by a number of students who have felt that they were given little or no encouragement to pursue graduate studies. The picture their professors painted of the mainstream institutions—including graduate education—is of such corruption and decadence that they feel little inclination to pursue higher degrees. And so the pattern of isolation is perpetuated.

Recovering the Mission

Orthodoxy: the most necessary and the least adequate thing in the world. (I mean, from the point of view of faith, and in so far as faith itself in concerned.)

Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith

The painful truth is that the actual performance of the alternative college has, with few exceptions, fallen far short of the ideal. Instead of a balanced atmosphere reflecting the true spirit of Vatican II, more often than not these campuses are pervaded by puritanism and triumphalism. Rather than instilling in students what Cardinal Newman called the “philosophical habit of mind,” these schools tend to reduce liberal education to the rote memorization of the catechism. Rather than enabling students to move confidently into the world, the alternative colleges frequently act like over-protective parents, retarding the maturation process and leaving young people unprepared for entry into the larger world.

The mission of the alternative Catholic college—to provide a first class traditional liberal arts education and to enhance the students’ spiritual lives—is both valid and necessary. As long as the church in America continues to be plagued by moral and intellectual anarchy, it is vital that orthodoxy should be revealed as the powerful, creative, and highly “relevant” expression of Catholic faith. The alternative college ought to play a central role in the development of this faith which is “ever ancient, ever new.”

But when the idea of orthodoxy descends into fundamentalism, the alternative college becomes dysfunctional, torn by internal wrangling, serving only to widen, rather than mend, the tears in the fabric of the Church. The traditionalist temptation to enforce uniformity in piety, intellect, and lifestyle must give way to a willingness to allow diversity. In short, there is such a thing as legitimate pluralism within the Church.

Unless there is courageous and determined leadership at the alternative colleges, these internecine struggles will continue. Those who suffer most will be the students.

I have often heard it said that the Eleventh Commandment is: “Never criticize your own party.” And yet, unless we are willing to risk the pain and embarrassment of self-criticism, our efforts will be compromised and unavailing. Above all, the alternative Catholic college requires more scrutiny—from parents especially, but also from prospective students, alumni, and professional educators. It is precisely those who tend to shy away from controversy who must make their disappointment and concern known. Like any institution, the alternative college must respond to the needs and wishes of its constituency.

The alternative colleges are young plantings that have suffered to a great extent because of the stormy ideological climate in which we live. But reform and renewal are possible. We owe that to our children.


  • Gregory Wolfe

    Gregory Wolfe is a writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. Both as a thinker and institution-builder, he has been a pioneer in the resurgence of interest in the relationship between art and religion—a resurgence that has had widespread impact both on religious communities and the public square. As an advocate for and exemplar of the tradition of Christian Humanism, Wolfe has established a reputation as an independent, non-ideological thinker—part gadfly, part peacemaker.

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