The Catholic University In Crisis
The Catholic university is one of the most important and influential organs
in the life of the Church. There, the Church educates her future leaders
in light of the faith and inculcates in them a sense of apostolate and,
hopefully, vocation. This is where the Church engages the culture
intellectually. As such, the Catholic university is hugely significant
in the movement to evangelize the culture and transform it into a culture
of life. As the Holy Father says in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “Catholic
universities are called to continuous renewal, both as ‘universities’ and
as ‘Catholic.’ For what is at stake is the very meaning of scientific
and technological research, of social life and of culture, but, on an even
more profound level, what is at stake is the very meaning of the human person.”
No one is more concerned with the transmission of the authentic meaning
of the human person than are those gathered at this conference. It is,
therefore, necessary to attend to the state of the Catholic university today.
Most Catholics know that our Catholic colleges are not what they once
were, but those same Catholics are often unaware of how urgently renewal
is needed. Without an immediate rededication to the spiritual as well
as the academic development of students, the faith of another generation
is at stake.
Catholic identity discussions today center around the mandatum for theologians
and issues of institutional fidelity to the Church. But despite their
importance, Catholic identity and the reasons for the mandatum are awfully
abstract ideas, and sometimes the debate and confusion over these abstract
ideas obscure the urgent and pronounced problems that exist in today’s American
Catholic colleges and universities.
The bottom line is that students at Catholic colleges tend to emerge from
those colleges less devout, practicing their faith less, and believing less
that the Church teaches. For example, support for legalized abortion
among Catholic colleges students increased shockingly from 40.4% to 58.5%.
As part of the powerful secularizing trend in Catholic higher education
since the 1960s, Catholic universities have largely descended into a spirit
of fideism. That is, while claiming to profess the truths of the Catholic
faith, Catholic universities actively avoid “imposing” that faith on their
own institutional functions. They have adopted a secular understanding
of the relationship between faith and reason. To a large extent, they
have preferred a religious studies model of religious education over that
of theology. Theology is essentially ecclesial in character and takes
the teachings of the Magisterium as its data and first principles, whereas
religious studies is an anthropological study of religion.
Other departments in the Catholic university, especially the natural sciences,
no longer, for the most part, see themselves as having any sort of relationship
to the faith. Student life policies at many Catholic universities
are indistinguishable from those of secular universities. Health Centers,
in order to avoid being judgmental refuse to label any reproductive choices
as immoral, including abortion and contraception. A few colleges even
refer students to Planned Parenthood. A vanishingly small amount of
Catholic colleges offer programs to encourage chastity among students.
In order to receive government funding, many universities have dissociated
themselves from their religious orders (a move that many legal scholars
now judge was unnecessary and imprudent). So, most Catholic universities
are owned and governed by a lay board of governors or trustees. So,
they lack any sort of official ties to the Church.
There have been hopeful signs, though. University administrators,
for the most part, see that American Catholic higher education has problems
and see the strengthening of Catholic identity as the major question to be
answered in the early part of this century. The problem is getting them
to define Catholic identity in the same way that the Catholic Church defines
Catholic identity. So far in the debate about Catholic identity, there
have been only two viewpoints heard: the American Catholic hierarchy and
the faculties and administrations of American Catholic universities.
That discussion has gone something like this: Ex Corde Ecclesiae
is released, followed by an outcry from theologians and university administrations.
The U.S. Catholic bishops listen sympathetically to protests that Ex Corde
violates academic freedom. Then, they release a draft of norms to implement
Ex Corde seemingly designed to placate the apoplectic Catholic
intelligentsia, but the norms are so vague about who implements Ex Corde
and how it should be implemented that they might as well not have released
anything. Unsurprisingly, Rome shoots down the norms. The intelligentsia
become even more disgruntled. So, the U.S. Bishops release an implementation
document that the Holy See can finally approve. The Catholic intelligentsia,
especially theologians, cry foul and claim the pope wants to squelch academic
freedom. So, most bishops in the U.S. decide to placate the schismatic
theologians again and declare that the most controversial part of Ex
Corde, the requirement that all theologians have a mandate from the
local bishop to teach Catholic theology, will be a private matter between
the bishop and the theologian. The rest of the document has received
hardly a glance since the norms came out.
Perhaps you may have noticed what is conspicuously missing from the whole
process: any sort of serious appraisal of the interest of the Catholic student.
Both the U.S. bishops and the faculties and administrations of Catholic universities
have altogether ignored this most fundamentally important piece of the puzzle,
acting as if the university is simply a community of scholars with no end
other than their own intellectual edification. Certainly there has
been no talk of the responsibilities that both the Bishops, as teachers of
the faith, and the universities, as Catholic educational institutions, have
to Catholic students.
If Catholic universities were merely research institutes or think tanks,
the exclusion of the student’s perspective makes sense. They are not,
though. Both the proximate and the final end of activity in the university
is the education of students.
The right to academic freedom is a vitally important part of university
life, as the pope declares consistently throughout Ex Corde.
But, because the education of students is the most fundamental end of university
activity, the right of academic freedom must be limited. The right
to academic freedom may be exercised only so far as the right of the student
to be educated in the truth is respected. In the case of the theologian,
he or she may exercise the right to academic freedom so far as the right
of the student to be educated in the true teachings of the Church is recognized.
Theology (or religious studies) departments are free to pursue almost whatever
course of study they find fitting as long as, at a Catholic university,
they honestly teach the authentic Catholic faith when they say they are
teaching Catholic theology. If they find this distasteful, they are
then free to renounce the inaccurate adjective, “Catholic.” They are
not free to define Catholic faith for themselves, in violation of the Bishop’s
canonical right and duty to teach the faith and the right of the student
to receive instruction in the authentic teachings of the Church at a Catholic
Of course, there are other compelling arguments against absolute academic
freedom, the best of which are outlined briefly in Ex Corde and fleshed
out significantly in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Instruction
on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian and even further unpacked
in Cardinal Ratzinger’s essay, The Nature and Mission of Theology.
The First Buds of a New Springtime at Catholic Universities
It has been frustrating for me and the rest of the members of the advisory
board that has created the Association of Students at Catholic Colleges
that university administrations and faculties are interested in selfishly
protecting their own rights and uninterested in the rights of us faithful
Catholics who, in choosing to attend Catholic colleges, expect an honest
education in the faith, opportunities for genuinely Catholic service to those
in need, and a campus culture that supports the living out of the life of
In the last few years at Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington), I have
worked with many of my fellow students and with an administration that is
supportive of the aims of Ex Corde to build the kind of campus culture
of life envisioned by the Holy Father. We have accomplished an astonishing
amount in a few short years. There has been a palpable shift in the
campus culture. Mass attendance is way up, perhaps as much as an astonishing
250%, including and especially daily Mass, there are dozens of Bible studies,
a wide array of new faith-based clubs that have emerged and continue to
emerge, a Catholic fellowship group, weekly Eucharistic adoration, Rosary
groups, the exponential growth of Gonzaga Right to Life, a full RCIA class,
the proposed development of a St. Vincent de Paul Society conference group
on campus, and much more.
This Catholic mini-Renaissance is, I hope, a small prelude and pre-figuration
of what the pope has been calling for when he speaks of the “New Springtime.”
Being fairly isolated in Eastern Washington, we at Gonzaga, at least among
the students, thought that what we were doing at Gonzaga was pretty much
unique. That changed when I started my job for the summer, an internship
at the Cardinal Newman Society. As I was familiarizing myself with
the various activities of the Cardinal Newman Society, I kept coming across
small signs of similar renaissances at other Catholic universities.
The most interesting thing to me at that point was that these renaissances
were happening at fairly diverse campuses. They were happening, for
example, at small places like Benedictine College in Kansas and St. Mary’s
College of Ave Maria Unviersity in Michigan, at medium-sized campuses like
Gonzaga in Washington state and Desales University in Pennsylvania, and at
very large campuses like Notre Dame.
Finally, I came to an article written about three years ago about the revitalization
of Catholic culture at Notre Dame, which, as I understand, is not a small
thing at all. This article was really the first in-depth account of
a Catholic revitalization at a university I had read, and I was astonished
at how similar many of the initiatives at Notre Dame were to those we were
working on at Gonzaga. At the same time, there were initiatives at
Notre Dame that we at Gonzaga had not thought about, but which I had a feeling
could be fairly easily tried at Gonzaga.
What struck me about most of these goings-on, though, was that they were
largely student-initiated and student-maintained, with varying degrees of
assistance or hostility from the faculty and administration. Right
after I read the article about Notre Dame, I got up from my chair, went into
the office of my boss, Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society,
and said something like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were some kind of
organization out there to link and support all of these grass-roots Catholics
activities at these colleges?”
At a small, fairly young organization like the Cardinal Newman Society,
it’s always pretty dangerous to air an idea about a new project. His
answer was something along the lines of, “Yeah. Go for it.” Then,
reading through Ex Corde itself, I found this line that seems to precisely
address the project of the ASCC: “Various associations or movements of spiritual
and apostolic life, especially those developed specifically for students,
can be of great assistance in the developing the pastoral aspects of university
life.” (ECE 42)
The Proper Role of the Student at a Catholic University
A natural question at this point is: What is the proper role of a student
at today’s Catholic universities in light of the legion of problems I have
outlined briefly? The student goes to school in order to be educated.
At best, the proposition that students have some sort of positive role to
play in the renewal of Catholic higher education seems tenuous. Students
have neither the teaching authority of the episcopal office nor the authority
that comes from expertise and greater knowledge possessed by university
faculty members and administrators.
Nevertheless, the student has the right to expect certain things when attended
a university calling itself Catholic. Among others, that student has
the right not to be deprived of the truths of the faith through distortions.
In essence, the Catholic student has the right not to be scandalized.
If such a situation exists, as it very often does, then the student has the
right to petition the Church, as all of the faithful do, and to demand correction
by the university.
Further, the Catholic student necessarily has the right to engage in Christian
apostolate. Because all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ
by virtue of their baptism, they also share in the teaching authority of
the Church. As Dominican Father Michael Sweeney says in his essay reflection
on the importance of the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation Christifideles
Laici: “Each Christian has authority to speak for the whole Church in
presenting Christ to the world, and each Christian is called to exercise
authority for the sake and mission of the Church.” He continues:
Christ has conferred upon you — through baptism and anointing
— the authority to teach the world about Him. You have the authority
to speak in His name. But you have also been given the power to do
so. In other words, when you speak to others about Christ, the Holy
Spirit will move the hearts of others to hear you — exactly, that is, to
the degree that you really do speak with and for the Church. The result
is that the person will respond, not simply to you, but to Christ speaking
In other words, the faithful Catholic, including students, teach with authority
when they proclaim Christ while in communion with the Church.
Christifideles Laici is a treasure trove for Catholics.
The Second Vatican Council was much less about saying Mass in the vernacular
than it was, perhaps most significantly among other things, an unprecedented
emphasis on and theological development of lay vocation. Christifideles
Laici is the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation on lay vocation written
in the authentic spirit of Vatican II. Catholic students benefit from
this wisdom as much as the rest of the faithful.
In Christifideles Laici, the Holy Father defines the vocation
of the lay faithful as being to “seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in
temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God” (CL
9). In this context, lay Catholic share in Christ’s mission as priest,
prophet and king. Lay Catholics are to offer themselves as sacrifices
in their daily lives and work, to proclaim Christ, and to spread His kingdom
through the world and through time. (CL 14)
Put simply, the mission of the Association of Students at Catholic Colleges
is to help Catholic students live their lay vocations at Catholic colleges
and to help make them aware of the power and authority they share in by
virtue of their baptism. Because that power and authority come from
being in communion with the Church, we also insist that our members be entirely
faithful to the Catholic faith as it comes to us through the Magisterium
of the Church.
The Association Itself
The ASCC’s mission statement reads: “The Cardinal Newman Society’s national
association of students, the Association of Students at Catholic Colleges
(ASCC) is designed to serve students at Catholic colleges and universities
interested in preserving and building up the Catholic identity at their
schools through a variety of means. The organization assists in fostering
collaboration among existing groups and individual students at Catholic
institutions throughout the country and acts to help students found groups
concerned with living the Catholic faith in a way that is faithful to the
Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and guided by the Apostolic Constitution
on Higher Education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”
Because of the roughly fifty year process of secularization, especially
intensive in the seventies through the nineties, Catholic universities, for
the most part, fail spectacularly to live up to their institutional commitments
to the Church. The personnel on the faculties, in the administration,
and on the boards of trustees are largely uninterested for the pope’s call
for a New Evangelization and the creation of the culture of life.
Because of the consequences of tenure among faculty members and the fact
that most universities have dissociated legally and officially from their
religious orders (including Notre Dame), there is simply no way juridically
to force universities to live out their Catholic mission faithfully.
The bishops have, thus far, shown an alarming reluctance to stand up for
the faith scandalized terribly at American Catholic universities.
Instead, the prefer to abandon their obligations to the faithful Catholics
working at those universities and attending them as students in favor of
placating schismatic theologians and university administrators who have,
thus far, shown themselves to be completely unwilling to teach the faith
Because they consider, strangely, the bishops and the governors of the
Church to be, somehow, an outside element in relation to the operation of
the Catholic university, which stands in opposition to the understanding
of the Church, which is that the Catholic university is “born from the heart
of the Church,” (ECE 1), most faculties and administrations have
not made the reforms called for by the Holy Father. I suspect that
they will not reform if the only impetus to renewal comes from an element
they consider to be “outside.”
This is where the ASCC comes in. Our strategy is to change the campus
culture first. Out of that renewed, inspired culture, the students
themselves will demand that their university lives up to its moral and, frankly,
fiduciary responsibility to be Catholic. So, the ASCC will launch projects
designed to strengthen the Catholic identity and the culture of life on campus.
In Ex Corde, the Holy Father lists four essential characteristics
a Catholic university must have. These are:
“A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university
community as such; A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic
faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to
contribute by its own research; Fidelity to the Christian message as it
comes to us though the Church; An institutional commitment to the service
of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent
goal which gives meaning to life.” (ECE 17) The ASCC hopes to
serve the Church by strengthening the Catholic identity of Her universities,
especially in these four critical areas.
The main foci of the ASCC are to link and support already existing student
initiatives on campus and to help students start initiatives on campus that
help to strengthen the Catholic identity of the school. I have, therefore,
structured the organization into departments that deal with the types of
clubs found on campuses. They are:
1. Pro-life activities: Most Catholic colleges have a pro-life
club on campus. There are particularly active pro-life clubs worthy
of emulation at schools like Franciscan University at Steubenville and Gonzaga
2. Prayer and Devotions: This department will promote a variety
of activites, from Eucharistic Adoration, to Rosary groups, to various initiatives
to establish and educate about Catholic devotional practices and the life
of prayer. One of the most acute regrets of many young Catholics is
that they have not been introduced to the incredible depth and breadth of
Catholic prayer life. This department will try to promote various
traditional Catholic prayers like the Angelus, the Divine Mercy Chaplet,
the Novena, etc. Many of the small, consciously orthodox colleges like
Thomas Aquinas College and Ave Maria University feature an exceptional devotional
3. Evangelism, apologetics, and Catechetics: The vast
majority of Catholics at Catholic universities around the country are either
badly catechized or not catechized at all. There is, therefore, a
great need for this sort of activity at college. So, this department
is concerned with students who want to learn the faith, how to defend it,
and how to transmit it. There are excellent programs in this vein
at Marquette University and at St. Louis University.
4. Bible Studies: This one goes without saying.
Holy Scripture has been and will continue to be an unending source of inspiration
for Christians. Whatever we can do to promote the study of the Bible,
we will try to do. I am aware of good Bible Study programs at the
Unviersity of Dallas and at Notre Dame.
5. Retreats: For many students, a huge part of their spiritual
development at college happens through the retreats program. These
are usually, but not always, put on by the campus ministry office, led by
university staff, but crewed by students. As the crew, students have
influence on how the retreat is organized. Because of the disproportionately
large influence retreats have on students compared to the time spent at the
retreat, it is very important that the student have a well-formed retreat.
This department is dedicated to the dissemination of ideas about what works
and what doesn’t on retreats. I am aware of excellent retreat programs
at Gonzaga University and at Notre Dame.
6. Catholic Fellowship: At many universities, the campus
culture is not conducive to a genuinely Catholic culture. So, it is
necessary sometimes to create a group specifically for the development of
Catholic fellowship. The model we will use for this department is
the program I helped developed at Gonzaga University, the Newman-Stein Fellowship.,
which combines elements of most of the other departments.
7. Student Liturgies: Frequently, students are given
a large role in the planning and the carrying out of liturgies on campus.
This department will serve those students active in student liturgies.
8. Service: Too often service programs at Catholic universities
are divorced form their foundation in the faith. This department will
seek to assist and create service programs interested in doing the works
of mercy. Benedictine College and Xavier University (Cincinnati, Ohio)
both have strong Catholic service programs.
9. Student Publications: Anti-Catholic media bias is not confined
to major press outlets. It has also crept into many publications at
Catholic universities, including here at Notre Dame. This department
will work hand in hand with the Cardinal Newman Society’s Campus Media Project
to found and support alternative Catholic newspapers or official student
papers with strong commitments to the faith. Excellent Catholic newspapers
exist at Boston College and Georgetown University.
10. Women’s Issues: Among the strongest anti-Catholic forces
at Catholic universities are the Women’s Studies programs, which have, for
the most part, bought into a postmodern, secular view of the woman.
This department is dedicated to helping students interested in the Church’s
beautiful, authentically liberating message about what it means to be a
woman. Along with the Men’s Issues department, one of the projects
of this department will be the promotion of the Holy Father’s theology of
the body. This department will also actively promote vocations to
the religious life.
11. Men’s Issues: This department will be devoted to
assisting students and student groups interested in promoting and living what
it means to be a Catholic man. It will assist the Women’s Issues department
as explained and promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
12. Faculty/Administration Relations: As many students have
found, dealing with administrations and faculties, both those that are hostile
and those that are friendly, is a challenging task at best. This department
focuses ways to work with faculties and administrations.
In addition to the departments of the student association, the ASCC also
has planned several projects to further its mission. They are:
- The Student Handbook, which provides an introduction
to the Cardinal Newman Society, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and the thought
of John Henry Cardinal Newman. It also provides guidance on how to establish
a club on campus, suggestions for officers, how to write a constitution,
and a few suggested activities. It also includes a list of organizations
with missions friendly to that of the student association which students
can contact for resources.
- The Speakers Bureau, which consists of an extensive
list of speakers who address topics relevant to students at Catholic colleges
along with contact info, suggested honoraria, and an outline for a speaker’s
contract. At present, the speakers list includes over 80 high-profile
- The Annual Conference is held upon the conclusion of
the Cardinal Newman Society’s annual conference, the ASCC’s conference will
address issues specifically relevant for students. It will provide a
basis in theory, nuts and bolts training, and time for fellowship and networking.
The first conference was held on November 10, 2002, in Washington, D.C.
- The Web Site will be the depository for information
accessible by the general public, including a speaker’s list, essays and
articles dealing with Catholic higher education, links to organizations
with missions friendly to the goals of the ASCC, and tools for networking
among students and student organizations, including a bulletin board system,
a weblog, and a list of various groups at Catholic colleges and universities
working to renew Catholic culture and their activities.
The Association is still very young. The theory is in place, but
we still have to hammer out, concretely, we will go about performing our
mission. Someone once said that the Christian should pray as if everything
depended on God and to work as if everything depended on him or her.
That’s what we plan on doing. So, please pray for us. I would
be grateful if you would join me in beseeching the Blessed Mother of Our
Lord for her intercession on behalf of the ASCC.
Hail Mary . . .