Graduate students at Catholic universities need faith formation, too

Photo by Gregory Hayes on Unsplash

Debates over religious identity at Catholic universities seem an unending feature of the church’s higher education mission, igniting like brush fires in a dry field with unerring frequency.

One such fire was ignited in 2016 by the resignation of Anthony Esolen, an accomplished literature professor at the Dominican-led Providence College in Rhode Island. Mr. Esolen has been an advocate for a traditional Catholic curriculum and an outspoken critic of the diversity curricula that are now a feature of most Catholic universities, including at Providence. He took a teaching position at the tiny St. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire because they offer a Catholic classical education, emphasizing Thomas Aquinas.

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In an article by Anne Hendershott in City Journal, entitled, Taking the Catholic out of Catholic Universities,” we see the tiresome rehashing of the binary Catholic-identity argument: Students at Catholic universities take either a series of traditional Catholic classes or they are free to cruise the “religious landscape” in an undirected core curriculum. In the latter instance, students fulfill a minimal theological requirement with classes on Rastafarianism, Santeria, cargo cults, the Salem witch trials or survey courses with as much depth as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. In actuality, of course, bringing religious insight and spiritual practice to students at a Catholic university has pedagogical challenges that are far more difficult than a simple choice between one or the other.

Such repetitive debates make good culture war copy, but they mask an overlooked assumption: The “students” getting good or bad Catholic education in these conversations are traditional-aged undergraduates, impressionable young women and men, long on curiosity and short on experience, who are still trying to figure themselves out. It is an understandable blind spot, given the history of Catholic catechesis, which has long overemphasized religious education for the young, but one that ignores the actual student population in Catholic universities. There are now a large number of graduate students in Catholic higher education, and few of them encounter anything substantive in regards to faith formation, religious meaning-making or the role of spirituality in their lives.

Bringing religious insight and spiritual practice to students at a Catholic university is a task with specific and difficult pedagogical challenges.

A changed educational landscape

Why do those concerned about the Catholicity of higher education institutions have such little time for the role of faith among graduate students? When presidents of universities gathered in 1967 for the Land O’Lakes statement, which instituted fundamental changes in American higher education and is often praised or maligned in discussions of Catholic identity, those leaders had an ambitious vision for the “religious differentiation” of a Catholic university. While the statement has a separate section for undergraduate education, a close reading of the document shows the same assumption as the Catholic identity debates: What a Catholic university does formally in matters of faith is really an undergraduate mission. The bias made sense in 1967, because at the time there were few graduate students in Catholic universities. But it does not make sense now.

In the decades after the Land O’Lakes statement, graduate enrollment in Catholic universities grew dramatically. According to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, in 2015 the undergraduate student body in Catholic higher education comprised 551,336 undergraduates and 221,815 graduate students, the latter comprising more than 28 percent of the student body. It is even more dramatic in Jesuit institutions. According to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, Jesuit graduate programs grew 26 percent in the decade of the 1980s, 31 percent in the 1990s and 26 percent in the first decade of the 21st century. Graduate students now comprise 34 percent of the student body at Jesuit institutions.

Yet, aside from programs associated with ministry or other service professions, when it comes to the strategies and activities associated with a Catholic university’s mission to students in regards to promoting religious meaning-making, let alone faith formation or efforts to developing an applied spirituality for life and a particular career, graduate students and their programs are largely afterthoughts. Although most Catholic universities have resources for assisting graduate students in matters of faith development, discernment and theological education, and some graduate faculty creatively work some derivative of these issues into courses, the resources are almost always “co-curricular” in nature and few harried graduate students, with the demands of work and family, have time to participate.

When it comes to the strategies and activities associated with a Catholic university’s mission to students in regards to promoting religious meaning-making, graduate students and their programs are largely afterthoughts.

A renewed theological model

This glaring graduate oversight is an unintended byproduct of the Land O’Lakes statement and the evolution of its vision alongside the complex developments in higher education through the 1970s and 1980s. Building on documents from Vatican II, particularly “The Church in the Modern World,” the Land O’Lakes statement called for a renewed model of theology in the U.S. Catholic curriculum. In addition to theologically oriented courses, the model called for the exploration of theological and philosophical themes and concepts of the good, true and beautiful through creative interdisciplinary explorations hosted by theologians. This new breed of theologian, having a grounding in theology and other academic fields, became the connective tissue for the intersection between the faith instinct and all forms of human knowing and in a way that honored the integrity and freedom of each academic disciplines’ methodologies and insights. There is a beautiful symmetry to the vision, although it evolved curiously.

At the undergraduate level, the Land O’Lakes vision matured into two intertwining “strategies” in matters of theology and faith for most universities. One strategy followed a traditional professorial model, upgrading the academic discipline of religion or theology into the pantheon of academic disciplines fighting for influence in a humanities curriculum; another strategy moved much of the traditional work of faith formation—such as retreats, discernment and prayer workshops and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults—into campus ministry or mission and ministry departments. In time, some universities also launched Catholic studies majors and then centers and institutes that seek to promote the interdisciplinary scholarship envisioned by the Land O’Lakes statement.

The bifurcation of the vision produced some good results, though mostly at the undergraduate level. But an overall lack of intentionality and coordination around the role of religion and faith in the university curriculum and an inability to reimagine institutional structures left the vision unaccomplished and made Catholic universities far more open to critique in Catholic identity debates.

In addition to theologically oriented courses, the Land O'Lakes model called for the exploration of theological and philosophical themes and concepts of the good, true and beautiful through creative interdisciplinary explorations hosted by theologians.

A woeful absence

Over the past 50 years, the treatment of religion and the expression of faith, Catholic and otherwise, have improved across many campuses. But it has grown like wild foliage on a jungle floor, having some rhyme and reason but lacking an effective strategic endgame and institutional integration. Efforts to make theology a force of curricular integration and the instigator of interdisciplinary conversation has happened mostly in sporadic fashion. The Land O’Lakes vision needed theologians with academic expertise, but it also required theologians with entrepreneurial and Renaissance orientations and personalities, capacities more difficult to find than originally imagined. These developments also resulted in the woeful absence of the treatment of faith and the spiritual life as a meaningful component in graduate student learning.

Some Catholic universities did launch a third post-Lakes strategy, however: graduate-level practical theology programs. These degrees and certificates accommodated students interested in working as ecclesial lay ministers in the Catholic Church. The programs, usually isolated from other campus degree programs and activities (and more visible off campus than on), operated like a university-sponsored religious “side business.” The programs pioneered innovative pedagogies for teaching and integrating religious and spiritual concepts and critical theological reflection with personal, spiritual and professional skill development. Most of the professional lay staff in archdioceses and dioceses around the nation went through some iteration of these kinds of programs.

Over the past 50 years, the treatment of religion and the expression of faith, Catholic and otherwise, have improved across many campuses. But it has grown like wild foliage on a jungle floor.

Practical theology models

The theological content and spiritual processes and practices used in graduate-level practical theology programs are not directly transferable to other academic programs. But the decisive lay orientation of these programs, built on Vatican II’s revolutionary vision of a lay appropriation of the Catholic faith tradition that engages the modern world, provides a thought experiment for making faith and spiritual development more accessible to graduate-level coursework, especially in professional degrees. The best practical theology models are built around the following principles:

1. All students have an internal “meaning-making system” that is part conscious but heavily unconscious.
2. This system is comprised of both cognitive and deeply emotional dimensions and provides the foundation for a worldview, the primary orientation the student has to others, to work, life, God or a higher purpose and the student’s own self.
3. The meaning-making system, when mixed with the life experience of an adult and the quest for personal self-improvement, becomes an additional textbook students bring into the classroom.
4. Engaging this meaning-making system requires a sophisticated curriculum and advanced pedagogy that intentionally integrates elements of knowledge and skill development into a unified whole that is also personally meaningful and purposeful. It is the opposite of what Alfred North Whitehead once called “inert knowledge,” having no practical application.

The best practical theology programs have learning outcomes that are tightly woven throughout the curriculum; and they make room for the student’s extra textbook (that being life experience) in both theoretical and practical learning objectives.

The best practical theology programs have learning outcomes that are tightly woven throughout the curriculum; and they make room for the student’s extra textbook (that being life experience) in both theoretical and practical learning objectives. The best faculty have also developed a multilingual approach to engaging the meaning-making system of the student, borrowing concepts from the social and physical sciences, popular culture and other sources, as well as formal religious doctrines and ideas. Practical theology students learn to recognize the layers of underlying meaning in everyday life and language, broadening and redefining their notion of what constitutes religious or spiritual material.

Education focused on engaging the human meaning-making system is nothing new. Medieval Christianity called it sapiential learning, and the theologian Ellen Charry defines it as a form of learning in which the inner world of the knower is connected at a deep emotional level with the known.

Focusing on ultimate concerns

Is it possible to imagine, using practical theology programs as a thought experiment, a distinctively “Catholic” curriculum for graduate-level students in professional business, law, engineering, health care, law enforcement and arts programs? Yes, but it would require returning to some version of the Land O’Lakes project for theology and some bold steps.

First, universities would need to strengthen their promotion and enhancement of Catholic and other religious and meaning-making resources in regard to specific professions and interdisciplinary conversations at the graduate level. Second, Catholic universities would need to learn how to organize, coordinate and give careful, integrated intentionality to how religion, faith and spirituality manifest themselves across a particular campus, rather than allow it to manifest itself on a campus like foliage on a jungle floor. Third, faculty and administrators would need to create a common language and set of processes for consciously and intentionally engaging the meaning systems of students in the learning process, in such ways that the students are opened to the “ultimate concerns” that are at the heart of authentic, thoughtful adult living.

Fourth, and perhaps most challenging, Catholic universities would need to find a critical mass of theologians with the competencies envisioned by the Land O’Lakes statement. This would require doctoral programs in theology that help students develop capacities for entrepreneurial and Renaissance thinking and acting. Fifth, Catholic universities would need concrete plans for incentivizing theologians (and departments and schools) to promote interdisciplinary activity with a practical theological focus.

Catholic higher education needs to stop playing defensive ball in the binary Catholic-identity debates and to become more assertive in helping to define what “Catholic” means in the higher education context, particularly with graduate students.

Lastly, and perhaps most important, Catholic higher education would need to stop playing defensive ball in the binary Catholic-identity debates and to become more assertive in helping to define what “Catholic” means in the higher education context, particularly with graduate students. Catholic universities have become far too religiously pluralistic, especially at the graduate level, to use a simple formula for a religious distinctiveness. Engaging the human meaning-making system in education is a fundamentally “religious” act by itself, and there is a unique and highly effective Catholic way of doing it.

Would young and middle-aged adults in graduate programs take interest in a more intentional integration of issues related to spirituality and faith? Consider the United States’ $9.6 billion market for self-improvement programs and products. Many of the highest-selling programs and products use quasi-theological language and a bricolage of spiritual ideas and practices, and many of the people investing in these resources are the nation’s graduate-educated. Why? Because older students enrolled in graduate programs are just as hungry for life-transformative education, both personally and professionally, as younger students.

If Catholic practical theology programs could figure out how to bring a contemporary perspective on spirituality and faith into fruitful dialogue with the adult hunger for self-improvement and the integration of faith and spiritual insight into the professional activity of lay ministry, a similar approach could lead to something truly distinctive for Catholic graduate education. At any rate, graduate students, now more than 25 percent of Catholic enrollment, deserve more than they are getting.

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