Do Catholic universities make the grade?

We all love to cheer for Catholic colleges and universities, but it takes more than one way of being a Catholic university to educate today’s students.

How Catholic should a Catholic university be? “As Catholic as possible” is the proper answer, but what that means will vary from institution to institution. Consider these different approaches: The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire educates a small number of highly committed Catholics and requires everyone to spend a semester in Rome. In contrast, Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, the most Protestant state in the nation, serves students from diverse religious backgrounds and seeks to educate all of them in the Catholic and Benedictine traditions. Christendom College in Virginia requires all professors to be Catholic, and each must make an annual profession of faith to the diocesan bishop. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana, on the other hand, requires all professors to be exceptional scholars in their field and strives for a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals, but it imposes no creedal tests.

As these examples reveal, Catholic colleges and universities manifest their Catholic identity in very different ways, depending upon their founding charism, mission, resources, sponsorship, size, and student body. Yet each is Catholic and adds to the church’s mission in unique ways.

In Catholic Higher Education (Oxford University Press), Melanie M. Morey and Father John J. Piderit, S.J. identify four models of Catholic higher education, each representing distinctive rather than mutually exclusive points of emphasis.

Immersion colleges serve only staunchly Catholic students, who are required to take at least four courses in Catholic theology and philosophy. Campus life is infused with Catholic moral teaching, sacramental opportunities, and spiritual vitality. Faculty are all or overwhelmingly Catholic. Most institutions in this category are relatively small and located outside urban areas, such as Southern Catholic College in Georgia. With nearly 2,000 undergraduate students, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio is considerably larger than the typical immersion college.

Persuasion schools seek to instill in all students, Catholics and others, “a certain religious maturity in knowledge of the Catholic faith.” Required Catholic courses number about half of what is expected in immersion schools. Persuasion universities provide Catholic worship services and activities, but participation is encouraged rather than expected. Catholic professors are actively recruited but do not necessarily predominate. This type of institution is the most common and includes, for example, Villanova University in Pennsylvania and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Diaspora universities, often located in inner cities or in predominantly non-Catholic regions, serve a student body in which Catholics are a minority—although Catholics are actively recruited. These institutions encourage but seldom require students to take courses on Catholic teaching. Catholicism anchors the institution’s character and provides a clear guide to activities and policies, while a predominantly non-Catholic faculty strives to blend Catholic teaching with interreligious sensitivity. DePaul University in Chicago is the most prominent of the diaspora institutions.

Cohort universities attract academically distinguished students who as graduates are expected to exercise considerable social influence in promoting viewpoints informed by Catholic teaching. Among an internationally distinguished faculty and student body, Catholics are well represented but typically are in a minority. Students usually are not required to take Catholic courses but may do so. Catholic students, who form a “cohort” at such institutions, are given generous resources to strengthen and express their Catholic faith outside the classroom. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is the most prominent of the cohort institutions.

There also are many other types of institutional distinctions. Some Catholic universities, such as Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, have on-campus seminaries, while most others do not. Nine Catholic colleges are diocesan institutions, such as Loras College in Iowa, while most others are sponsored by religious orders and a few are governed by lay incorporators.

All this variety, while unsettling to some people, helps to address the complex and seemingly endless needs of the church in secular society. Across-the-board uniformity among Catholic colleges and universities would diminish rather than enhance the church’s impact in the world. In part for this reason, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ex Corde Ecclesiae guarantees a generous degree of autonomy to institutions.

Some critics urge Catholic families to walk away from Catholic institutions that serve significant numbers of non-Catholics, that allow any notable presence of non-Catholic or secular voices, or that invite controversial speakers or artists to campus. The core of this strategy is to purge Catholic institutions of distracting influences, leaving as “authentically Catholic” only institutions of the immersion variety. However, if immersion colleges continue to serve only ardent Catholics (who constitute a minority of all Catholics), who is to teach and inspire all the others?

Fortunately more than 200 other Catholic institutions take up the complex challenges of educating a broad range of Catholic students, including those who come from families where knowledge and practice of the Catholic faith are weak. In such institutions, leadership and inspiration are possible, but control is not. So, to paraphrase one of Jesus’ parables, most Catholic colleges gamely work at growing intellectual and Catholic wheat in the midst of the world’s weeds, even when society’s spiritual soil is parched. The work of these Catholic colleges and universities has an almost missionary or prophetic quality to it—requiring respect, sensitivity, patience, love, and acknowledgement of freedom of conscience. These Catholic institutions contribute profoundly—if not always perfectly—to fulfilling Jesus’ instruction to go out into the world to spread the Good News.

Most families and their college students have only a limited understanding of what makes a college or university meaningfully or distinctively Catholic. Research suggests that relatively few even give the matter much thought. Only one in every six Catholics now in college attends a Catholic institution, and of these only 10 to 15 percent considered “the religious affiliation/orientation of the college” as a “very important” influence in their decision to attend a particular Catholic institution. Ranking considerably higher are factors relating to an institution’s academic reputation, proximity to home, affordability, and size.

The qualities that unite the nation’s 220-plus Catholic colleges and universities tend to reflect their common spiritual origin. Pope John Paul II, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, wrote that the fundamental responsibility of a Catholic university is “to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.” He added that every Catholic university must exhibit four essential characteristics: Christian inspiration, research and reflection in the light of the Catholic faith, fidelity to the Christian message, and an institutional commitment to service. In addition the Holy See and the U.S. bishops have itemized specific ways in which universities should institutionalize their Catholic identity.

Catholics have a right to expect that the Catholic faith will hold a privileged position at Catholic schools and that church teachings will be taught. They should be lively centers for the pursuit of all truth, where Catholics and others are prepared for leadership in a wide range of professions and occupations, and where ethical decisions, virtuous behavior, and Christian faith are modeled. Catholic universities also should apply their expertise to solving societal problems and to advancing justice and peace. And, of course, they should be Christian communities where prayer, sacraments, and spiritual development are integral.

Today’s Catholic colleges and universities, diverse in many respects, are working to strengthen their Catholic mission and their service to the church. One indicator of success is that these institutions, which educate only one sixth of the nation’s Catholic college students, taught 42 percent of all the men ordained as priests last year. May God continue to bless our schools, and may more Catholic families support them.

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If I were going to college today, I would or would not choose a Catholic college because...

I would choose a Catholic college because of its emphasis on mission and service.
James C. Gorman
Boston, Mass.

I wouldn’t choose a college just because it was or wasn’t Catholic. Academics would come first. But if I could do it again, I’d attend the University of Notre Dame. I love the Fightin’ Irish!
Carole O’Connell
Easton, Pa

I am a product of a Georgetown education, so I suspect I am biased. My education—not only in nursing but in my faith—still plays a great role in how I live my life. I would not hesitate to choose a Catholic college today.
Carol Maleska
Hebron, N.H.

I would choose a Catholic college because I would feel “at home.” Familiarity, rather than confrontation, enhances the learning process.
Mary Frances Reavey
Somerset, N.J.

I attended public university. The diversity of thought there helped me understand other cultures and traditions and appreciate my own Catholic tradition more in the process.
Andrew A. Pecoraro
North Palm Beach, Fla.

I would choose a Catholic college because it wouldn’t occur to me to do otherwise. However, all of my seven children refused to even consider a Catholic college because they thought my husband and I were brainwashed!
Jeanne M. Wolf
Baltimore, Md.

I would rather attend a secular college with a good, vibrant student parish than a college that is Catholic in name only.
Cheri Reno
Bowie, Md.

I would choose a Catholic college that is presenting and living the vision of Vatican II.
Dee Butler
Montrose, Pa.

I wouldn’t. The nature of the contemporary church—its exclusion of women and gay people, its secretive and undemocratic processes, its rigidity, and its belief in illogical ideas such as the infallibility of the pope—means that any institution under its control will be deeply flawed.
Name withheld
Silver Spring, Md.

I probably couldn’t afford it.
Stephanie Paquette
Indianapolis, Ind.

In order for a college to be considered Catholic, I think it must...

Provide an atmosphere that encourages the altruism and idealism of young adults by stressing the human need for spirituality and offering many Catholic responses to that need.
Joseph J. Roach
Flushing, N.Y.

Have fidelity to the faith be at the heart of its mission. There should be visual reminders of Catholicism in art and, where appropriate, classes should discuss how a Catholic viewpoint or teaching impacts the topic at hand. There should be ample opportunities for students to receive sacraments and engage in service activities.
Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur
Springfield, Mass.

Strictly adhere to Catholic teachings under the authority of the local bishop and Rome.
Robert E. Casey
Indianapolis, Ind.

Offer Catholic teachings and yet be open to the beliefs of others. As well as teaching and practicing Catholicism, we must be good listeners.
Tom Ivory
Martinsburg, W.V.

Have a predominantly Catholic staff, including clergy and religious; have required theology courses; offer weekly (if not daily) liturgy and observe all holy days; provide and encourage community service projects; provide Catholic chaplains and counseling; and have a strong affiliation with the local parish/diocese.
Mary Pascal
Massapequa, N.Y.

Instill values that include justice, equality, maturity, wisdom. They should develop ethics, not just how to succeed in a secular society.
David Chamberlain
Park Ridge, N.J.

If no one told me I was attending a Catholic college, I should be able to tell.
Daisy S. Crump
Wilson, N.C.

The biggest challenge facing Catholic colleges and universities today is?.?.?.

Secularism and an inane tolerance of “anything goes” behavior.
Patricia A. Reynolds
Conneaut Lake, Pa.

Finding balance between maintaining and teaching Catholic values while providing a rigorous academic environment to include exposure to other ideas and teaching critical thinking.
Donna Davis
Fairfax Station, Va.

The distrust and dismissal of the views of the hierarchy as a result of the mishandling of the pedophilia cases.
Patricia O. Cowan
Brevard, N.C.

Achieving academic freedom in view of the Vatican’s tendency to quash legitimate dissent—even from faithful and well-educated scholars.
Cynthia Marcelais
Sanford, N.C.

Relativism and political correctness.
Name withheld
Bronx, N.Y.

The cost! We could not afford anything beyond state schools, and that, only with aid and jobs available.
Leonore Lambert
East Aurora, N.Y.

The most important thing Catholic universities offer their students, the church, and society today is...

The development of an informed conscience.
Marge Tuthill
Narragansett, R.I.

Educating students in critical thinking and the call to civic engagement in order to solve pressing social problems and advance justice and peace.
Jean Sammon
Washington, D.C.

A “Godlike” atmosphere. Some students go to college after 12 years of Catholic teaching and forget all they knew about God.
Sharon Fileccia
Mullica Hill, N.J.

How to live a life following the moral beliefs of the church (the pope).
Name withheld
Cincinnati, Ohio

The opportunity to learn about and understand Catholic teachings and how to make them relevant to everyday life.
June Livesey
Columbus, Ga.

A place in which young people can explore and hopefully deepen their faith, where they can safely and openly struggle with their doubts and concerns about Catholicism, and where they can find a community that will support them throughout their lives.
Suzanne Endruschat
Boca Raton, Fla.

General Comments
Catholic colleges must be willing to explore and expand on truth, be that “Catholic” or otherwise. The bishops and popes do not have the market on truth. Just ask Copernicus or Galileo.
Name withheld
Newtown, Pa.

I graduated from an immersion college 50 years ago. An experience in a persuasion or diaspora model would have given me better preparation for life.
Mary Hepburn Burdo
Dummerston, Vt.

I am bothered by the attitude and assumption of many Catholics that Catholic always means superior and that a graduate of a Catholic college is above and beyond graduates of other colleges.
Edith McManus
Concord, N.C.

With the collapse of the Catholic elementary school system (especially in the Northeast), it will be harder and harder to make the case for Catholic universities.
Mark Mambretti
Buffalo, N.Y.

We don’t need elitist or reactionary bastions of the faith. We need vibrant, faithful, and relevant Catholic universities to help us grow in our faith and to be good citizens and Christians.
Name withheld
Rochester, N.Y.

When our daughter was looking at colleges, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh had everything she was looking for. But in the end, the show-stopper was the cost—we could not justify having her come out of college with nearly $100,000 of debt. She is a junior at a state school now and doing well. She does not attend church, and I can’t help but wonder if being at Duquesne might have helped her stay closer to the church.
Name withheld
Aliouippa, Pa.

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