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The Catholic Identity Of Catholic Colleges

December 9, 2014 Frontpage No Comments


The ascendant liberalism at modern Catholic colleges is a problem that has perplexed parents with traditional Catholic beliefs for decades now. Bishop Sheen went so far as to recommend that Catholic parents steer their children toward state and private colleges rather than Catholic institutions, contending it would be better to have their faith ignored at a secular college than actively undermined by liberal Catholic professors at a Catholic college.
Not everyone agrees with Sheen. I can remember an exchange on this topic in Triumph magazine back in the 1970s. I can’t recall who it was who disagreed with Sheen’s position, but his point was that even a Catholic college with a theology and philosophy department dominated by liberation theologians was a better choice than a secular college. The writer in question contended that the odds were good that a student would be able to find at least a few professors loyal to the Church at liberal Catholic colleges to help them grow in their faith, something not likely at secular colleges. Beyond that, he felt that spending four years in a Catholic atmosphere of available daily Masses, and the trappings of stained-glass windows and statues of the saints would have a favorable influence on the spiritual life of young people of college age.
My own view? I went back on forth on the question, but I did send my daughter in the 1990s to a Jesuit college that I knew was far more liberal than the Jesuit college I attended in the 1960s. She learned little about Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Maritain while in attendance, but I did not regret my decision. I am convinced that the Catholic cultural environment in which she was immersed was a healthy influence on her spiritual growth.
I was recently surprised to discover that there are professors at Catholic colleges these days who ponder this very issue, who worry about what it will mean if the Catholic identity of their institutions is lost. An article in Commonweal on October 22 ( by Bernard G. Prusak, an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (founded in 1946 by the Congregation of Holy Cross from the University of Notre Dame), is an example.
Prusak begins by reacting to an article in the October 17 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education by Beth McMurtrie, entitled, “Catholic Colleges Greet an Unchurched Generation.” McMurtrie writes of the decline of the “pipeline that once fed Catholic colleges” brought on by the shrinking “Catholic secondary-school enrollments . . . since 1970” and of the challenge that Catholic colleges face as a result, when “more and more students and faculty alike profess no religious affiliation.”
She is concerned about how these Catholic institutions of higher learning will connect “their religious mission to topics of broad interest, like developing a meaningful philosophy of life or pursuing social justice” when their student bodies “feel little affiliation with Catholicism” and identify themselves as “nones” when asked to list their religious affiliation. McMurtrie’s answer is to promote discussions not specifically Catholic in nature, but nonetheless with a generally Christian focus, on topics “that can relate to values, solidarity, preferential protection of the poor, concern for the common good, and so forth.”
Prusak appreciates McMurtrie’s problem. He writes: “I teach a course in business ethics. A business ethics course at a Catholic school surely should communicate Catholic values, and mine does! These values, however, can hardly be taken for granted when the students don’t share or know what to do with the underlying beliefs. Yes, this means that they need to be educated, but honestly often the most that can be hoped for, from a single course at least, is that the ‘unchurched’ or ‘nones’ come to understand a bit better the Catholic lens on the world just as, after my course, they understand a bit better how to see things through a Kantian’s eyes or a utilitarian’s or Milton Friedman’s.”
There is another way to deal with the problem Prusak faces: Catholic colleges can go out of their way to make sure that their student bodies are substantially Catholic, and therefore equipped to discuss, in Prusak’s words, “what to do with underlying beliefs.” The University of Notre Dame takes that path, in a way I was not aware of before reading Prusak’s article. Prusak writes, “Notre Dame’s answer has been to mandate that some 80 percent of its undergraduate student body be Catholic.”
Prusak does not object to this policy, but wonders if “most other Catholic colleges and universities have the number of applicants to initiate this practice even they wanted to do so.” Prusak’s point is that Notre Dame’s applicants are likely to be 80 percent Catholic to begin with, when that will not always be the case for other Catholic colleges. There is also the question of whether an 80 percent Catholic student body these days will be Catholic in name only, even if they are graduates of Catholic high schools. The religious training at modern Catholic high schools cannot be assumed to be comparable to that of the past.
Prusak concludes with the following: “For the great majority of Catholic institutions, much greater creativity with our core curricula, professional programs, and student life is the pressing order of the day. I can’t help but think, though, that our hope here has to be tempered by acknowledgment of the magnitude of the challenge.”
On another topic: the ongoing struggle over Common Core. For those who are tempted to despair over the challenge of stopping this effort by the federal government to regulate what is taught in our local schools, there is some good news. Kristin DeCarr reports on the website Education News ( on November 11 that “a bill that would halt the use of the Common Core in Ohio won approval from committee and is on its way to a vote from the full House. The Ohio House Rules and Reference Committee voted true to their party lines on House Bill 597, with all the Republicans voting for the bill and both Democrats voting against it. In the end, the bill passed 7-2.”
This does not mean there will be an easy path to ending Common Core in the state, but that there is a fighting chance. According to DeCarr, “Rep. Tracy Maxwell Heard said ‘she is not sure there are enough votes in the House as a whole to overturn Common Core.’ The bill needs the support of 50 Republican members of the caucus to make the full House vote. ‘If we don’t think we have the votes to pass it, we won’t bring it to the floor,’ said Chairman Matt Huffman. Huffman said if the current bill fails, he believes it will be debated again in the next legislature.”

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