The Other Catholic Higher Education
Since most Catholic colleges won't do their job, bring the faith to secular schools.


Today’s young people are not much to blame. They see that Wall Street philosophy firms are not paying much these days (or any days), and they do not want to be unemployed poets. Of course the benefits of a genuine Catholic education lie elsewhere than in the job market, but they are largely invisible and long-term. Furthermore, acquiring a real education of any sort is very hard work. Who would be such a chump as to pay a premium for the privilege? When all you can get at a “Catholic” school is some pious platitudes wrapped around the same product that is discounted elsewhere, a savvy shopper makes the easy call.

The truth is and has always been that demand for Catholic education has to be stimulated from the top down. The challenge is that people who scarcely grasp a product’s benefits must be persuaded to buy it at a high price. This is not impossible. The history of advertising shows that people can be persuaded to pay for products they had not wanted and that do them no real good. (Remember Pet Rocks?) In the case of Catholic education, people — kids and their parents and potential donors — have to be persuaded by credible spokesmen that the Catholic faith, which they should hold dear, requires a major investment for its transmission and flourishing. This sales job calls for exertion and authoritative testimony to a subtle but unsurpassably valuable payoff.

It is not going to happen. Some of yesterday’s promotional tools are (thankfully) no longer in use. Young women are not “finished” any more; the best colleges no longer discriminate against Catholic applicants; bishops no longer preach against, much less forbid attendance at, non-Catholic colleges. (Justly so, given the sorry state of today’s “Catholic” colleges.) Lamentable but no less consequential is the waning of “feeder” parochial high schools, and the whole cultural devaluation of religious education for anyone who is not going into specifically religious work. And, as I said, the competition from cheaper public institutions is fierce.

The flagship Catholic institutions could arrest (up to a point) this decline in demand. Notre Dame and Georgetown could flourish today as bastions of a genuinely Catholic education. Their large, loyal, and generous alumni base protects them financially. They do not compete with public universities, at least not nearly as intensely and precariously as do the vast majority of Catholic institutions. If these leadership schools preached the gospel of Catholic education in and out of season, they could stimulate demand for it all the way down the academic food chain. High-school seniors denied admission to Notre Dame would still want what Notre Dame has to offer, and would likely seek it at another Catholic institution.

But the leadership schools have not stepped up to the plate. For the full story about Notre Dame, you should read my colleague Charlie Rice’s candid and powerful new book, What Happened to Notre Dame? Rice has taught at Notre Dame for almost 40 years and has long been an affectionate but acute critic of the school’s secular drift. His key point is expressed succinctly by Notre Dame philosophy professor Alfred Freddoso. In his introduction to Rice’s book, Freddoso writes that Notre Dame “is a university as universities go these days, and it is in some obvious sense Catholic. What it is not — and has not been since I have been here — is a Catholic university, i.e., an institution of higher learning where the Catholic faith pervades and enriches, and is itself enriched by, the intellectual life on campus.” Freddoso observes that “Notre Dame today is something like a public school in a Catholic neighborhood.”

The heart of a Catholic university — of any university — is its intellectual life: most importantly, the teaching and learning within its classrooms, and then the research and publishing of its faculty. If the truths of the Catholic faith do not suffuse these endeavors, the university simply is not Catholic. The difference between Notre Dame and other industry leaders (such as Georgetown and Boston College) lies in the comparative quality of the “Catholic neighborhood.” At Notre Dame, it is good.

Encouragingly, a handful of small colleges have kept the faith. Among them is Belmont Abbey College, of Charlotte, N.C., under the courageous leadership of its president, Bill Thierfelder, and its chief academic officer, Ann Carson Daley. Saint Vincent’s College, of Latrobe, Pa., is also on track, under the direction of Jim Towey (formerly President Bush’s assistant for faith-based social services and, for many years prior to that, legal counsel to Mother Teresa). The leadership team at Mount Saint Mary’s, in Emmitsburg, Md., is very strongly committed to its Catholic character, as is that at Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kans., where Stephen Minnis is president. These and the few other genuinely Catholic schools should be cherished, supported, and patronized. But they are a tiny slice of the whole pie of American higher education. And they are not likely to multiply.

We need a new paradigm for delivering Catholic higher education. It is time to go where the Catholic students are. More than 80 percent of them attend non-Catholic institutions, where the Church’s mission has long been limited to pastoral care: On campus or at nearby Newman Centers students attend Mass, go to confession, and meet other Catholics. We must ratchet this menu of options up — way up — to include serious and sustained intellectual formation. The goal should be to establish, at or near every college with a substantial Catholic student population, a free-standing center devoted to intellectual formation, to the cultivation of the Catholic mind.

This is the other Catholic higher education.

Gerard V. Bradley is professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, and a former president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.