US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Do Catholic universities make the grade?

By Richard Yanikoski | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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.