Shortchanging Catholic College Students

If you have not yet come across Fr. Richard John Neuhaus's article "A University of a Particular Kind" in the April edition of First Things, try to get your hands on it. I recommend it highly. Neuhaus has drawn the line in the sand for the administrators of our modern Catholic colleges who are transforming their schools into carbon copies of the country's secular universities.

We know what the secularizers of Catholic colleges would say, if someone could persuade them to respond to Neuhaus. They would tell us they are in pursuit of academic excellence and intellectual honesty, and that being "restricted" by Church-defined teachings would hinder their academic freedom. This was the logic behind the so-called Land O' Lakes Statement in 1967, with which a number of Catholic universities stated openly that they were not accountable to any authority beyond the university community.

The question is whether there is merit to that position. Neuhaus doesn't think so. He makes clear that there has to be something else going on. Why? Because maintaining a college's Catholic character does not limit a university's search for academic excellence. It enhances it.

Neuhaus: "Let me put it bluntly. A student at a Christian university who has not encountered the proposal of the Christian intellectual tradition — from Paul to Augustine, from Irenaeus to Dante, Aquinas, Luther, Milton, and moderns such as Lewis and Polanyi, along with those who have challenged and now challenge that tradition — such a student has been grievously short-changed in his or her university education."

 Re-read that sentence. Neuhaus is not calling for what some call the "seminary model" of a college, one where students are forced to learn by rote a strict and formulaic litany of catechism maxims and where ideas contrary to Church teachings are censored. He wants the students at Catholic colleges to be aware that serious-minded dissenters exist. But he also wants the students to be aware of what these dissenters are dissenting from. A Catholic college has a patrimony to preserve. Why else call itself Catholic? Why else would a Catholic family choose a Catholic college?

Neuhaus is too polite to say this but I will: One cannot help but get the impression that the people who run our modern Catholic colleges are either unaware of the glories of the Catholic intellectual tradition that Neuhaus describes — or are actually hostile to it, without being honest enough to say so openly for fear of turning away the Catholic parents of prospective students, whose checkbooks keep their universities in business.

What other reason would there be for a modern professor or university administrator not to applaud Neuhaus' assertion that the "task of the university is to form and inform minds by arousing curiosity about, as Matthew Arnold put it, the best that has been thought and said. The goal of the Christian university is to arouse and direct such curiosity about the unparalleled synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem, of faith and reason, that is the Christian intellectual tradition. Faith and reason, John Paul said in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, are the two wings by which the mind rises toward wisdom."

The new left Marxists and deconstructionists who control the countries' secular universities would respond to Neuhaus openly and candidly. They would reply that the "synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem" that Neuhaus extols is precisely what they seek to liberate us from. They saw Pope John Paul II as a voice from our benighted past. They prefer Jacques Derrida to C.S. Lewis, Freud to St. Augustine. What we are left to ponder is how many people employed by Catholic colleges are on the same side as the secular humanists, but who put up a different front, much as they don their clerical collars on parents' weekends or for pictures for their school's admissions brochures.

Neuhaus refers to John Paul II's encyclical Redemptoris Missio to deal with the charge that a university with a forthright Catholic mission would be a contradiction in terms; that such an identity would close the door to honest scholarly inquiry and "impose" its religious views on its faculty and student body. "The Church imposes nothing. She only proposes," wrote John Paul. Neuhaus adds: "A Christian university is a profoundly humanistic university that embraces, far beyond what are called the humanities, all knowledge of the three transcendentals — the good, the true, and the beautiful."

Precisely. A Catholic university, proud of its heritage, will not offer its students less knowledge. It will offer more, a far richer education. Permit me a personal anecdote to make the point. I went to both private and public graduate schools, after getting my undergraduate degree and master's degree from Catholic universities. I went on to teach in a public high school for over 30 years. I had some very bright and well-read colleagues over the years. But what always struck me was how much more I learned in my Catholic education than they did at some very prestigious secular schools, including Harvard, Brandeis, and Columbia.

My Catholic college education in the 1960s made me familiar with the same writers and theorists as my colleagues. I knew as much, for example, about Marx, Nietzsche, John Dewey, William James, Freud, behaviorism and logical positivism as they did. But I had also been introduced to a wealth of knowledge about which my colleagues knew virtually nothing: St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Maritian, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Courtney Murray, for starters.

I am not exaggerating for emphasis: I think that, even if I were a secular humanist in the full sense of the term, I would hold that my Catholic education gave me a fuller and richer understanding of the intellectual heritage of Europe and the United States than my colleagues possessed. The question is why so many of the people in charge of our modern Catholic colleges seem to prefer the shallower education of my non-Catholic colleagues over what Neuhaus calls "the high adventure of the Christian intellectual tradition — a tradition ever so much richer than the reductionist Enlightenment embraced by schools that claim to be universities pure and simple."

That choice just doesn't make sense. Unless, I repeat, they are either ignorant of the Catholic tradition or hostile to it. Either case would be a sad state of affairs.

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  • Guest

    I am afraid it is much worse than this. Students from Catholic schools are not just ignorant about Catholic thinking but they are not aware they are ignorant. They think they know the Catholic intellectual tradition but they know only a caricature. They invariably have a negative view of the church because they are taught that Jerusalem and Athens are in conflict. Rather than being taught that the church has embraced both faith and reason they are taught reason is the solid thing you get in school and faith is the emotional crutch from church that doesn't really belong in a rational discussion. So what students end up with is really anti-evangelism. That is making it harder for them to truly understand and practice their faith.

    You are much better off with a non-Catholic school. They tend to be much less insulting towards the Catholic church. Also, students don't look to secular professors to know about the church. In Catholic schools you will run into many priests who absolutely hate the church. They teach a warped view of Catholicism that really makes it sound pathetic. How is a student to know that what he is being taught is not the true faith? I would much rather they know they are unaware of their faith. That way they might read a few books to try and fill that gap. If they pick some othodox writers it might turn them into good thinking Catholics.

  • Guest

    Randy Gritter wrote: "You are much better off with a non-Catholic school. They tend to be much less insulting towards the Catholic church. Also, students don't look to secular professors to know about the church."

    So then how will we give our children the full richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  If not in a Catholic University, where will they learn about St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Milton, Jacques Maritian, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Courtney Murray, C.S. Lewis and the rest? And where will they learn about all those who have challenged and now challenge that tradition?

    I have a very simple first step — a requirement for every undergraduate to take at least two sememsters of theology and philosophy. [I am assuming the school has sought and received the mandatum, of course, so perhaps this is a second step]

    As bad as things are in Catholic universities, we cannot simply give up the ship.  That is a bad thing, too.

  • Guest

    Next month our youngest child graduates from a Catholic university.  At that time, all of our children will have graduated from Catholic universities, after 12 years of Catholic elementary and secondary schools.  We have been exposed to both Jesuit and Holy Cross universities across the country.  It is my opinion and observation that the universities have not been distinguishable from secular schools in any significant feature. All of them have required theology, but that is no guarantee that the theology taught is in conformance with the Magesterium.  In fact, the theology taught at one Catholic university was (my opinion) a key element in the loss of faith of one of our children.

    The elementary and secondary schools were better than the universities but perhaps did not provide enough grounding — had they, perhaps shaky theology at the universities would not have been as much of an issue.

    I agree, we can't give up the ship — but we do need to be vigilant and insistent that ship sail in full accord and conformance with true Catholic teaching.

  • Guest

    So then how will we give our children the full richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  If not in a Catholic University, where will they learn about St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Milton, Jacques Maritian, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Courtney Murray, C.S. Lewis and the rest? And where will they learn about all those who have challenged and now challenge that tradition?

    The reality is there are very few schools teaching this stuff. What I know I learned on my own. People can do that but the depth is limited. There are a few small schools that are still orthodox. Most of the big Catholic schools don't have a clue about the Catholic intellectual tradition. Making them teach more courses won't help. They can't teach it because they don't understand it. They think they are experts but their thinking is so far removed from the tradition of the church there is little you want to learn from them. Unless the culture there changes and the professors start to know and love the Catholic intellectual tradition teaching theology will do more harm than good.

    I do like what Pope Benedict is doing. He is proposing a synthesis between modern liberal theology and Catholic tradition. That is to not reject the way most Catholic theologians aproach scipture and tradition but to form it and inform it with the larger picture of God's revelation. I havn't read his new book yet but it sound like it will be an example of how to do that. Not to dismiss all their brilliant analysis but to invite them to use it in the service of the truths we know by faith. It is an interesting approach. One real advantage of having a respected theologian as pope.


  • Guest

    Let us mention the great options already available, if only few in number and small in capacity: Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, Magdalene, University of Dallas, Wyoming Catholic College, Thomas More, et al.  I will "dissent" from this website provider about the true catholicity of some aspects of Ave Maria after some personal involvement and dissappointment, as recent events with Fr. Fessio have shown.  Nevertheless, good Catholic colleges exist in the US – we simply have to be willing to sacrifice, especially financially, to help these get off the ground, so to speak.

  • Guest

    It makes one reflect on the reason for even having Catholic colleges and universities in the first place.

  • Guest

    I graduated 3 years ago with my bachelor's from a public university.  The Newman Center was my spiritual and social hub for the entire time I was there.  I attended various programs and met the young women with whom I shared apartments.  I was even a student worker there for almost half of my undergrad degree.

    Between what was offered at the Newman Center (for example, a Bible Study led by a wonderful priest assigned as our chaplain) and what we were encouraged to organize at Newman on our own (for example, a study of the "Beginning Apologetics" series), I came out with a good, solid Catholic background.  I may not have read many of the great Catholic thinkers in-depth, though we certainly touched on some of them.

    This background continues to serve me, most importantly because I have learned how to grow in my faith and develop my theological knowledge.  I have learned to ask questions, and how to compare those answers to what the magisterium teaches.  Something doesn't jive?  I go back, in prayer, to the Catechism, Scripture, or (most likely) a person whose philosophical and theological background I know to be sound.

    I chose a public university because I refused to spend the extra thousands of dollars at a Catholic school that wouldn't help my faith.  Looking back, I am sure I made the decision that God called me to make.  But, I also have friends who attended the Catholic university in town, and they made it through, too.  Sure, they had to tap into the almost underground network to find out ahead of time which professors to take…and to avoid.  But they navigated it well, by God's grace.  I am now a graduate student at that University, and I have seen improvements in the theology Department and the Campus Ministry Office (they've had a solid philosophy department for a while).  I think these improvements are due, in part, to students who refuse to take watered-down or slanted theology.

    I guess what I'm saying is "DON'T ABANDONED SHIP!!!"  Keep working to improve – we must always do that.  But don't forget our Captain; just be thankful He works within the midst of the mediocrity, particularly those who refuse to remain mediocre (who don’t want to be "spit out").

    Continue to work to improve.  Trust in Him.  He's bigger than all of this.

  • Guest

    Bishop Sheen counselled his relatives to send their children to a public university,rather than a Catholic one, so that they didn't lose their faith — he evidently saw the signs of the times. The late Cardinal Suenans ( appointed by our late Pope John the Great as counsel to the charismatic movement ) stated that ecumenism would not come through come through dialogue, but rather on our knees. St Thomas stated that if evil was not confronted from the start, it would become so complex that we would need Divine intervention. Divine Mercy Sunday is approaching –let's all call on His Mercy.

  • Guest

    As a recent alumna of the University of Dallas, I agree entirely that it is an excellent option.  Two semesters of theology and four of philosophy were required for graduation in any major (as part of a very complete core curriculum) and every professor I had during these six courses did an admirable job of presenting many different positions and the arguments for and against each.  As one theology professor reminded us continually, "when you come into this class, don't leave your brain at the door".

  • Guest

    The landscape is changing. It's time to raise and nurture the newly hatched orthodox catholic schools and make chicken soup of the old liberal cesspools, from Boston to Baltimore.  They're not worth fixing.


  • Guest

    Those who condemn catholic colleges are seeing only caricatures and are making sweeping generalizations about these schools based upon these caricatures.  The truth is somewhere in the middle and thats why I say don't give up on catholic colleges; You don't know whats going on in the inside.

    Whould it surprise you that the arguments made by Neuhaus are EXACTLY the arguments made in "The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom" by Michael Buckley. A text used by some Jesuit schools with faculty, department chairs, and Deans to engage them in dialog regarding the importance of Jesuit/Catholic identity? Would it surprise you that the president of Notre dame in his address to the faculty last Fall called for a renewed emphasis on catholic identity and service to the Church?

    As a practicing Catholic and professor at Saint Louis University (a Jesuit University), I am pleased to report good Mass attendance at 10:00 p.m. Masses that are held in at least one dorm each night during the week ( I attend occaisionaly after a late class) and a packed gothic campus church on Sundays with full reverent participation in the liturgy that puts my own parish liturgy to shame (I happened to attend Mass there two weeks ago). 

    You see what you want to see at major Catholic universities.  If you want to see them as catholic universities, the signs are evident!  If you want to see them as dissenting, secular-progressive institutions, you can see them as such.  However, these are the institutions where the fullness of the faith runs head-on with the hedonism, materialism, and secular-progressivism of the world and holds its own!  This is where the faith is in action and challenging the marketplace of ideas in the larger culture.

    P.S. When I attended Mass at the campus church I couldn't help noting that there were 38 preparing for entry into the Church at easter, far more than the 6 that are entering at my parish Church.  When faith encounters the world, the world changes!


  • Guest

    I agree there is good even at Catholic colleges which get attention for heterodoxy.  But it is incumbent on the faithful to be aware of what silliness is being taught at institutions bearing a Catholic identity.

    I would offer that the Truth is not somewhere in the middle, the Truth is Jesus Christ!

    This is not condemnation, but accountability.  It causes confusion when a Catholic institution celebrates and honors high profile supporters of intrinsic evil. It causes confusion when a priest teaches that Jesus is not God, but the son of God [I am not making this up].

    Mass attendance at college is good, but it simply raises the stakes — there are many young people being formed in their faith in these schools. If they are being fed error as truth, then high Mass attendance is meaningless. They must be fed the rich fulness of the Faith — the meat and potatoes!

    I have eight children.  I would rather they go to a government school and have to defend their faith than go to a Catholic school and lose it under the tutelage of people misrepresenting the Church. That, by the way, is what Bishop Sheen said, he did not say he would not send his nieces and enphews to Catholic schools at all.

    And the schools need to know that there are Catholic parents out here who are not going to simply write checks to send their children to schools with "Catholic" in thier name if they do not offer a Catholic education.

    I am hopeful.  And I am watching and reading carefully.

  • Guest

    Unless you have the means….


    4 boys at a Catholic university = about 320,000


    4 boys at state college = about 80,000



  • Guest

    I read this article and have to say that, colleges are not the only problem these days. Private Catholic High Schools, although they may teach correctly, alot of the children that come up through these schools are the worst ones when it comes to something like alcohol. We also need to work on character formation in these schools and WHY we believe something, not just WHAT we believe.


    I, myslef, attend a new Catholic College in the state of GA called Southern Catholic College. I am a sophmore and part of the first class slated to graduate in 2009.

    The reason that I chose this school was for it's adherence to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document in which the Holy See clearly explained what characteristics a truely Catholic College should have. Even our Theology professor has the mandatum in order to truely teach the Catholic faith.


    Did I mention this is a lay run college?


    I just wanted to point out the fact that there are some people, our founder for instance, that have seen the need for true Catholic Colleges and is working dilegently to fill that need. And there are students willing to adhere to the teachings and guidence of Rome.