Politics & Policy

The Other Catholic Higher Education

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

There are about 225 Catholic colleges and universities listed in The Official Catholic Directory. More than a hundred others have gone out of business over the last generation. I am confident that scores more will disappear — close their doors, merge, or officially declare themselves to be secular — over the next couple of decades. And even among today’s 225 institutions, most are no more than nominally Catholic. That will not change in the coming years.

This remarkable institutional meltdown is mightily affecting the Church. At precisely the time of life when young people are shedding their childlike faith and need to develop a mature, more critical, but more profound adult commitment, they leave home and encounter a brave new world of ideas and experiences untethered to Catholicism.

The meltdown also affects America. The intellectual formation of the nation’s 65 million Catholics has a profound influence on our culture and our politics. It is therefore worth asking: What happened to America’s Catholic colleges and universities? And what’s next?

Is it a simple case of supply contracting to match a shrinking demand? Not really. In this case, there has been a more complex, and largely reverse, dialectic. The reason is that demand for this particular good — a genuine Catholic education — must be stimulated by suppliers, in league with other Catholic authority figures. Unlike food and clothing and health care, this product satisfies no natural need. Nor does it respond to some culturally contingent requirement, as do cell phones or a bachelor’s degree from some — any — accredited institution. A genuine Catholic education is more like an orchid: Both its beauty and people’s appreciation of it must be assiduously cultivated. So when the supply of Catholic education plummeted in the late 1960s, so did demand. Many suppliers went out of business. That further decreased demand, so more suppliers quit. Four decades of this, and production of genuine Catholic education is a now a fringe, boutique enterprise.

It didn’t have to happen. America’s Catholic higher-education complex should have taken off when the baby boomers came of age. There were already hundreds of schools, and the mid-1960s brought a teeming cohort of potential patrons. Moreover, unlike most of their parents, these boomers were destined for college. Tragically, instead of reaping the reward of this bounty, the colleges began to shed their Catholic character — for a mix of reasons, good, misguided but understandable, and just plain bad.

One good reason has to do with the fact that dozens of these colleges were little more than finishing schools for better-off Catholic girls. Given that many of the top colleges, Catholic and not, were still male-only, and that these girls were mostly destined by cultural fate to be homemakers, the decent liberal education they received was perhaps suited to them. But when women began to look at college the way men do, and when they became admissible at all the best schools, it was lights out for the finishing schools. Some tried to adapt to the new ethos; few succeeded.

A misguided but understandable reason was money. In the late 1960s, many Catholic schools rapidly secularized for fear that the government money they thought they needed (in the form of scholarships and other grants) would be denied to “sectarian” institutions. The Supreme Court laid this fear to rest in decisions announced in the mid-1970s, but by then the schools were pretty far gone. Another misguided reason was faulty theology. Jesuit colleges in particular were captured by an alleged “spirit of Vatican II.” This wind blew them to the belief that a true Catholic education was one immersed in the nitty-gritty of contemporary thought and praxis. But since the contemporary world was largely pagan, so was the effect upon the colleges.

A just plain bad reason was rejection of the Catholic faith. Catholic intellectuals (among other Catholics) rebelled against the truths of Catholicism beginning in the 1960s. Many declared themselves no longer Catholic; others settled into permanent dissent. The ones in charge of colleges took their institutions with them.

The vast majority of America’s Catholic colleges and universities today are small, academically undistinguished, and struggling to make ends meet. They subsist — barely — on tuition income. They no longer have a market to themselves. Instead they compete with the whole array of private colleges and cheaper — much cheaper — public ones. They are losing ground. Today few college-age Catholics wish to be formed intellectually according to the truths of the faith. Few wish to be intellectually formed at all. They attend college for the same reason most kids do: to get a degree that will help them get a better job. How many 18-year-olds really understand the great intrinsic (that is, non-instrumental) value of a liberal education? How many grasp the sublime value of a distinctively Catholic liberal education?

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.

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