commentary

What makes a college Catholic?

Posted:

Notre Dame Professor Holy Cross Father Wilson W. Miscamble, probing the identity of Catholic colleges, raises the question: “Should a Catholic institution of higher learning make every effort to recruit Catholic teachers for its faculty?” (The Faculty Problem, America Magazine, September 10, 2007).

The mission statement of Notre Dame University, drawing upon the encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesiae, declares that the school’s Catholic identity “depends on the continuing presence” of a Catholic majority of the faculty. Yet, 53 percent of Notre Dame’s faculty is non-Catholic. Some are Catholic in name only. This situation exists also at other Catholic colleges.

At one time, Catholic higher education was staffed overwhelmingly by priest-religious faculty. The number of lay-faculty could be counted on one hand. Now the lay-faculty predominates. Indeed, at huge Catholic colleges, a student may never meet up with or be taught by a priest-religious professor.

Historically, there is valid reason for this. Aside from specifically church purposes, Catholic colleges were started and very largely run to protect the faith and morals of Catholic young men and women. Holy Cross Father Leo R. Ward, in his book, “New Life in Catholic Schools,” insisted that this was the prime purpose of Catholic education.

Historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis and Jesuit Father Gustave Weigel disagreed. They bemoaned the dearth of Catholic intellectuals and looked askance the meager research and lean literary output of Catholic college academics. Their criticism rang true. But in those early days, bishops and founders of colleges felt that they were in no position to strive for intellectual objectives for which they had neither the means nor the ability to attain. Character formation was what mattered most.

The problem of intellectual proficiency and productivity was exacerbated by the large number of the priest-religious on the faculty who had little or no training in the subjects they taught. Their education was narrow. Having mastered the modicum of philosophy and theology required for ordination, they could boast of knowledge in scarcely any other area. A small number, by dint of determination and steady study, became scholars and teachers of quality. The majority, however, remained mentally uncurious, aesthetically obtuse, with few academic ideals and little respect for the world of ideas.

In the old days, college teaching for priests was a low priority; it was of secondary interest. Of necessity, priest-professors were called upon to perform many parochial activities. They shouldered spiritual duties on week-ends, holidays and vacation periods. They were assigned as rectors and prefects in residence halls, moderators of campus clubs and preachers of retreats. Because teaching was considered to be incidental to the more important work of the ministry, class preparation was poor, instruction became perfunctory and devotion to study practically non-existent. Little time was left for the development of the skilled professionalism required in an intellectual apostolate. The missionary aspect of the countryside prevented the entertainment of such a thought.

Notwithstanding, these strictures, Orestes Brownson maintained that the growth of the Catholic college in his day was due to the “skill, ability, and energy of dedicated priest-religious teachers.” And note: the faults of Catholic academe, generations ago, were also, by and large, the faults of non-Catholic colleges and universities.

In time, leaders of Catholic higher education became convinced that the religious and moral aim of the college was proper but insufficient. It did not do justice to the training of the mind which is the major objective of all schooling. Educators worked mightily to counter the anti-intellectualism prevailing in the primitive era of Catholic colleges. And they succeeded. Today, better Catholic colleges, even if they renounced their Catholic identity, would still flourish simply because they have achieved an academic excellence on par with the best secular universities.

But at what cost? Catholic higher education has diversified to the point of diluting or losing its Catholic identity. Philosophy and theology have been “dumbed down” to a marginal role in the hierarchy of academic respectability, the Magisterium of the church has been compromised, the curriculum has degenerated into a mishmash of questionable concentrations, way-out subjects proliferate, non-Catholic and nominal Catholic faculty members have multiplied. Holy Cross Father James T. Burchell in his study, “The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches” trenchantly chronicles this transition from sacred to secular education at Christian colleges.

In this context, the necessity of Catholic teachers to insure the identity of the Catholic college becomes crucial. Undoubtedly, the primary motive of any professor is to teach his subject. He is a teacher, not a preacher; he is not out to make proselytes; he does not “drag-in” religion where it is not relevant. But the religion of the teacher does contribute to an interpretation of what is taught; it deepens a student’s understanding of a subject’s ultimate significance. Making the hydrogen bomb is a matter of science; deciding where and when to use it is a matter of ethics and religion.

The committed Catholic professor looks upon Catholicism not simply as a set of formulas or a series of propositions, but as a culture. In a thousand imperceptible ways, the Catholic faith imparts an attitude towards life as a whole. Within a truly Catholic college, Christ-centered culture is the supreme integrating principle from which proceeds all activity. To grow in Christian culture within a Catholic atmosphere, a student needs the guidance of faculty who share it with him.

There are four ways the religious perspective of the teacher contributes to a broader and deeper interpretation of his field of study. First of all it helps him to give due weight to the religious facts relevant in his discipline. Second, it enables the teacher to recognize the limitations of the method used in his field. Third, it profoundly affects the interpretation of facts. Fourth, the religious perspective of the teacher is often expressed more effectively through his personal qualities and attitudes than through anything he says.

The issue of faculty composition in Catholic higher education needs confronting. What happens in Catholic colleges affects the progress of the Catholic Church in America. If the moral breakdown and spiritual crisis of our times are not to destroy Western civilization, if the secularism which has dominated higher education is not to rob our American democracy of its higher meaning and to stunt and dehumanize the lives of our children and their children, religious faith must be renewed and made an essential part of college teaching.

The task faces leaders of Catholic higher education.

Father Lennon is a resident of St. Thomas Aquinas Priory, Providence College.