The Catholic University: A Call for Integrity

"If the transfer in the last generation of a large number of Catholic universities to lay ownership means that they are now secular universities, which is sometimes argued by people both within Catholic universities and others outside them, then I would respectfully thank you for supper and ask to be excused."
From Be Prepared to Give an Account by Francis Cardinal George
(October 20, 1997 address at Georgetown University)

Few things have caused more pain to parents than what happened when they sent their child to a Catholic university. They sacrificed for years hoping their son or daughter would receive solid intellectual grounding in the faith. Instead he came home confused. Rather than having his faith clarified, it seems like he had odd misunderstandings about Catholic teaching. To make matters worse, poor presentation appeared to have been blended with a vague hostility to the Church for being "narrow" or "homophobic" or "anti-woman" or whatever.

Recently I talked to a parent whose daughter had gone through sixteen years of Catholic education. Thanks to that education she could look forward to a great career. And she had a nice boyfriend who also went to Catholic schools. What upset the mom was that instead of talking about a wedding, they were looking for an apartment where they could start living together. When she brought up the moral question, her daughter corrected her saying if they were in love, it was OK.

Given our society's easy acceptance of "living together," it is somewhat possible to understand that girl's confusion. Still why was that aspect of our culture not challenged at a Catholic university? Even more amazing to me is that the basics of doctrine have eluded so many Catholic university graduates. In discussing a particular Church teaching, I once remarked to one such graduate, "Of course, Jesus did found the Catholic Church..." He was shocked, not because he was aware of possible historical difficulties, but because it seemed so narrow. "Then why be Catholic?" I asked. He could only give a vague response, "I guess it's my culture..." (At least he did not say that he stayed because hoped to see the Church change uncomfortable doctrines, though I have heard that also from Catholic university graduates.)

Those were reactions from young people who still had a certain openness to the faith. I have seen other young people, who once were enthusiastic about their faith, turn bitter at a Catholic university. Is it just the process of growing up? Perhaps partly, but we also need to understand the great change that has taken place in Catholic centers for higher learning. Nothing could more dramatically illustrate that change than comparing two views of the nature of the Catholic university. the first is from Cardinal Newman's The Idea of a University:

"If the Catholic Faith is true, a University cannot
exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot
teach Universal Knowledge if it does not teach
Catholic theology. But still, though it had ever so
many theological Chairs, that would not suffice to
make it a Catholic University; for theology would be
included in its teaching only as a branch of
knowledge. Hence a direct and active
jurisdiction of the Church over it and in it is
necessary, lest it should become the rival of the
Church with the community at large in those
theological matters which to the Church are
exclusively committed--acting a the representative
of the intellect, as the Church is the
representative of the religious principle."

Obviously Newman would give the final word in the theology to the Magisterium, that is the bishops in union with the Holy Father. A much different view is presented by Fr. Richard McBrien, who can fairly be taken as a spokeman for the prevailing attitude:

"The idea of even suggesting any kind of oversight
by non-academic operations of a university--Catholic
or not--is odious to anybody in an academic
institution. I'm not saying we're above criticism.
but I want the criticism to come from people with
the credentials to criticize. Bishops should be
welcome on a Catholic-university campus. Give them
tickets to ball games. Let them say mass, bring
them to graduation. Let them sit on the stage. But
there should be nothing beyond that. They should
have nothing to say about the internnal academic
affairs of the university or any faculty member
thereof." (Chronicles of Higher Education,
Nov 22, 1996, p.A8.)

These two quotes were cited by Charles E. Rice who is professor of law at Notre Dame, where Fr. McBrien is chairman of the Theology Department. Professor Rice describes the "Decline and Fall of the Catholic University" in an article with the evocative title Esau's Bargain. You will remember that Esau was the one who cared so little for his birthright that he sold it for a bowl of pottage (Gen 25:29).

Professor Rice's article can be found in the latest issue (July-Aug 1997) of Catholic Dossier which is devoted to the Catholic Universities. The articles in that issue describe how those institutions have blocked Church authority, but have welcomed the much more pervasive interference which comes from accepting government aid. Like Odyseus they could not resist the siren song of our secular culture. But unlike him they refused any restraints which would have kept them from turning the ship off course.

The picture is not totally bleak. There are a few Catholic universities who have kept a steady course, often at the cost of being marginalized. Yet to them we must turn if we are looking for educated Catholic leaders. I have met graduates from institutions like Christendom College. It was wonderful to talk with young adults who not only were enthused about their faith, but able to explain it clearly and cogently defend it. They are indeed the hope for a genuine renewal in our Church. They also expose the myth (cop out?) that "losing ones faith" is a natural part of "growing up."


Footnote: Some who read read this article (and the one about dissent) might conclude I have an animus against Fr. McBrien. I want to be clear that I know him only by his writings. Perhaps a parable would clarify my feelings.

Suppose I am so convinced that Nissan is the best car that I purchase a dealership. I regularly attend the association of Nissan dealers to talk about how to promote our car. Things are going great until one day a dealer decides make an extra profit. He has received a used Yugo for a trade-in. He thinks the Yugo is just fine, but in order to sell it a bit quicker, he replaces its emblem with the Nissan one. All the dealers consider that the fraud will quickly be uncovered. But it is not, and pretty soon others jump on the bandwagon. When we try to protest, it turns out we are denounced. "You are a bunch of uptight authoritarians. You are denying us our right to free expression. Who are you to say what a Nissan is anyway? What are you guys--Slavophobic or something?"


A letter from Joe on this topic.

To understand the difference between watered down Christianity (dissent) and its full-bodied version (orthodoxy) see my review of Flawed Expectations.

An agnostic who understands the Church better than some Catholics do

Dissent: An attempt to have your cake and eat it too?

Does Dogma Divide?

Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History

Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church

Germaine Greer on Birth Control


Archdiocese of Denver - Welcome



Catholic colleges and Catholic confusions


by George Weigel
March 26, 2003

Catholic high school seniors and parents facing the difficult choice of where-to-go-to-college didn’t have their lives made any easier on March 6, when the New York Times published a story indicating that Catholic colleges can be bad for your intellectual, moral, and spiritual health.

The sample used by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA wasn’t perfect by any means, but even granting that the results should be disturbing. At the 38 Catholic colleges surveyed, 37.9% of Catholic freshmen said in 1997 said that abortion should be legal; four years later, as seniors, 51.7% supported legal abortion. As freshmen on Catholic campuses in 1997, only 27.5% of the Catholics surveyed said that premarital sex was “all right” for people who “really like each other;” as seniors, four years into Catholic higher education, 48% thought that premarital sex was just dandy. The survey was skewed toward what one of the researchers called “highly selective Catholic schools,” which in fact makes matters worse: the rot seems deepest at schools that claim to be the best.

Lecturing at Boston College this past December on today’s Catholic crisis of sexual scandal and episcopal misgovernance, I caused something of a campus stir (primarily among middle-aged faculty members, including Jesuits) with this assertion: “...Catholic universities and colleges where the Catholic sexual ethic is treated intellectually as a curious medieval artifact, and where the Church’s sexual ethic has no discernible place in the ordering of college life, are not Catholic universities and colleges where we can expect adequate analyses of the Catholic crisis of 2002, or adequate prescriptions for genuinely Catholic reform in the 21st century to emerge.” To which I would now add: “Nor can we expect such colleges and universities to produce thoughtful, committed Catholics, capable of challenging the debonair nihilism that shapes so much of American high culture these days.”

But would that bother the leaders of contemporary Catholic higher education? Many, surely, but not all. Take, for example, the response of Dr. Monika Hellwig, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, to the striking statistics I just cited; Dr. Hellwig told the Times, “Students look at movies, at their friends, at their families, at everything around them, and that doesn’t mean Catholic colleges are failing. The question is whether the task of higher education in our pluralistic, changing society is to lock students into rules -- even rules I agree with -- or to teach them critical thinking.”

No, that’s not the question.

Students hardly need “critical thinking” to treat sex as just another contact sport; critical thinking -- and courage -- are what’s needed to break free of the world of sexual self-indulgence portrayed in Abercrombie & Fitch ads, on MTV, in the lyrics of pop songs, and in so many other aspects today’s youth culture. And while it seems absurd to remind a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America of the rudiments of Moral Theology 101, Catholic moral theology, properly taught, doesn’t “lock students into rules;” it introduces students to a compelling understanding of human goods and virtues from which “the rules” emerge naturally as the rails along which to lead a life worthy of one’s baptismal dignity and eternal destiny.

Parents are being asked to pay anywhere from $100,000.00 to $160,000.00 for four years of Catholic higher education. Surely they have a right to expect that their children won’t be turned into cynical pagans as a result. And surely those parents have a responsibility to investigate the degree to which Catholic truth shapes Catholic life at any campus to which they’re thinking of sending a son or daughter.

Donors are being asked for millions of dollars to endow chairs of Catholic theology and Catholic studies on Catholic campuses. Surely they should insist that what happens in the name of “Catholic theology” and “Catholic studies” bears some resemblance to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

And to those who are, at this juncture, screaming “What about academic freedom?” I would simply ask, “What about consumer fraud?” If some Catholic colleges and universities have become venues in which Catholic students stop thinking and living like Catholics, something is desperately awry. Boilerplate appeals to life in a “pluralistic society” cannot change that fact.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: (303) 715-3123.