Who Owns Catholic Education?

I am getting more than tired of hearing that “Catholic education” is an oxymoron. It used to be you only heard this as a snide remark passed along by an aficionado of another “kind” of school—a private non-sectarian school, or a land grant university. Catholics, you see, were so afraid of creeping secularism (read modernism in some eras) that they had to teach religion in every subject—in mathematics, in biology, in history. It went without saying that free intellectual thought was not permitted; these captured Catholics might find out the world is round!

Well, of course that is, and always was, hogwash. There were classroom zealots, to be sure, but the reason for Catholic education, especially Catholic higher education, was to allow people to gain knowledge without having constantly to defend their faith in the process.

Somewhere along the way “educated” Catholics became very embarrassed about the “Catholic ghettos” they saw themselves in. As professors at Catholic colleges and universities, they were dealing with “cultural Catholics,” the so-called meat and potatoes trade they so despised. They were not running universities, they reasoned, because they were so terribly constrained by the cultural and religious surroundings of Catholic schools. They needed to broaden their environments; this was, after all, a pluralistic society.

Enter the state. Realistically speaking, there was always a need (and perhaps a right) for Catholic educational institutions to receive certain forms of public assistance. They were, after all, performing a public function which was otherwise partly or wholly state-supported in public institutions. As baby boomers packed the cheaper state seats, private schools argued rather convincingly that subvention of state university education, sometimes to the tune of as much as 300% over tuition, was siphoning off the private schools’ potential clientele. Tuition was, say, $1000 at the state school, and $4000 at the private school. But the cost of educating the individual was at least the same.

The theoretical deal was struck. Tuition remained, say, $1000 at the state school with the $3000 hidden cost picked up by the state, and $4000 at the private school, with various aid packages, either to the student or directly to the school, to offset the higher tuition. Generally speaking, it cost the state about $3000 per student per year at a state school, and about $1000 per student per year at a private school. Various mixes were put in place in different states across the country, independent of Federal aid, which was offered to all students, no matter their scholastic affiliation.

But somebody forgot about the strings. In some states, the school in question had to declare itself free of all ecclesial ties in order to receive this much-touted “state aid,” lest Constitutional lawyers descend upon it waiving the Establishment Clause. Catholic schools were turned over to “lay boards” and disclaimers began to appear in catalogues. Members of religious orders found their honorifics dropped in faculty listings and official mailings. Crucifixes disappeared from classroom walls, statues mysteriously turned up in basements, even chapel space shrank or disappeared entirely, or turned into multi-purpose non-denominational “worship rooms.”

Could this have been avoided? Probably not. Catholic institutions, faced with the sudden departures of large numbers of clerical and religious professors, found out that replacement faculty wanted real salaries, and they were not about to donate a percentage back to the institution or to the religious order which founded it. It was, quite simply, a case of having to take the state money or close. Those in the foundering ships chose not to sink. Some did try to make it without state funding, and the majority of them are now history.

Why did they who took state funding not challenge its requirements? If it is legitimate for the state to subvent the secular functions of a religious institution, is it also legitimate for the state to limit the religious institution’s separate religious functions? Mathematics classes do not consist of figuring the square root of rosary beads, but the Catholic institution can, and should, retain the right to fire those who mock its tradition or who teach non-magisterial information as if it were officially proclaimed. And the American Association of University Professors agrees with that.

So who is constraining the Catholic colleges? Should they have stood up to the state and told it to keep its money—and take their students? Maybe. If we have learned nothing else, we ought to have learned that it is sometimes better to stand up to the demands of the state when it tries to tell a religious institution how to provide the secular services it has subcontracted for.

Otherwise, we might just find ourselves in non-compliance for not hiring this or that interest group, even if their interest is specifically extra-Catholic.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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