The coronavirus gives Catholic universities a chance to strengthen their identity

Jack Downey, the John Henry Newman Chair in Roman Catholic Studies at the University of Rochester, leads students in an online class during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Jack Downey)

Catholic colleges and universities pride themselves on the Catholic identity of their courses and programs. Their websites are usually steeped in talk of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Faculty and staff are implored to ensure mission is at work in classes and student activities. Even school crests often proclaim a faithful Catholic heritage. But testing whether Catholic mission truly permeates the marrow of an institution and manifests in its practices of teaching and learning is another matter.

The coronavirus crisis offers Catholic institutions an unusual opening to do just that, forcing the very premise of Catholic education into a crucible. We now have a real-world laboratory to evaluate how we make practical the too-often merely conceptual talk about Catholic identity. What is being tested is whether our pedagogies give students what we say they will—a truly distinctive way of being, a way of knowing and a way of responding to life’s most difficult problems.

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Our distinctiveness as Catholic institutions does not mean we can just direct students to the closest chapel to ask for answers; that is too simple.

Overrun hospitals, a halted world economy and a pervasive aura of fear and anxiety turn abstractions about mission and identity into reality. In this moment, need becomes nakedly apparent: our own existential and economic needs, the need of people who are sick and suffering for compassion and care, and the desperate needs of the poor and vulnerable among us. Responding to need, in its wide range and many manifestations, must become our starting point for assessing the distinctively Catholic nature of our institutions.

Our distinctiveness does not mean we can just direct students to the closest chapel to ask for answers; that is too simple. It means that, through teaching, we make alive in them a humane and thoughtful capacity to respond to need and pursue good, and to develop the dispositions of mind and heart to sustain those pursuits. It does not mean students have to be Catholic; it means they live with a Catholic orientation.

Asking Questions From Below

Rather than begin from above with the question “How are we as an institution distinctively Catholic?”, we should begin from below—with questions like: How does our distinctive Catholic culture help our students navigate this shared world crisis? What resources are they drawing on? What assets, practices and frameworks are they using? And what are they lacking? Where are they coming up short? These are questions that every faculty member in every disciplinary area can and should ask.

At many Catholic schools, mission and identity offices are charged with upholding an institution’s historic roots. That work often takes the form of preservation: helping faculty and staff know and appreciate the school’s mission, its place in the story of American and world Catholicism and its connection to the broader Catholic intellectual tradition. Yet if mission is to be more than a relic or a motto chiseled on a plaque, it must be integral to the daily life of the school, particularly and most essentially with regard to what and how students learn. Because the faculty is responsible for creating student learning, it is faculty members who often must be the primary arbiters of mission and identity. A university, a wise mentor once told me, stands or falls by what happens between teacher and student.  

If mission is to be more than a relic or a motto chiseled on a plaque, it must be integral to the daily life of the school, particularly and most essentially with regard to what and how students learn.

Faculty members at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., provide a good example of what it means to take up the project of keeping a Catholic culture alive on campus. As with so many other Catholic schools, their work takes into account a religiously diverse student body, including a sizable minority who identify as Muslim (nearly 20 percent) alongside a student body that is not even mostly Catholic (45 percent). A religiously diverse student population does not mean Benedictine or any other school leaves behind its identity as a Catholic institution, but that it instead embraces and communicates it in new ways.

Like so many schools, Benedictine University moved classes online during the Covid-19 crisis. Susan Mikula, a history professor who laughingly calls herself a digital Neanderthal, said she has been working hard to adjust to this new online reality. While she is experimenting with different formats and activities for her classes, she has remained consistent about a few fundamentals of her pedagogy, chief among them her deep care for students. So she did what she instinctively knew to be appropriate once classes moved online: She offered phone calls to every one of her students. Unsurprised that none of her Gen-Z students, notorious for their phobia about using a phone for talking, took her up on the offer, Ms. Mikula said many students nevertheless wrote to her to acknowledge the impact of that caring offer.

Thus, for her it is not just a question of how content will translate or the format will change in this moment, but rather a matter of how to bring Benedictine hospitality and the practice of “listening with the ear of the heart” across the digital divide. For her the crisis is putting mission-informed values to the test. “The crisis will reveal to us if what we talk about doing...is really what we do,” Ms. Mikula reflected, “There will either be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’”

A good friend of mine put it another way—the coronavirus crisis forces a “gut-check.” Do we or do we not live by our pedagogical principles? Are they or are they not founded on the values of Christian faith?

Do we or do we not live by our pedagogical principles? Are they or are they not founded on the values of Christian faith?

The Blind Leading the Blind?

A few years ago, I facilitated a series of workshops at Benedictine, when I first met Ms. Mikula. The workshops were designed to help faculty members across disciplines to incorporate mission into their daily teaching to a population of students often unfamiliar with and detached from that mission. The workshop’s subtitle: “The Blind Leading the Blind.”

It should be no great surprise that students at Catholic schools are often blind to theology, to the Catholic tradition or to religion generally. And why wouldn’t they be, given our culture’s waning relationship with religious traditions? We live in an age of widespread disaffiliation. Those who attend Christian churches in the United States are getting older. As membership ages and churches fail to attract new, younger members, they shrink, according to studies by the Pew Research Center. Despite modest growth in some Catholic communities, like Latinx churches, the Catholic Church has experienced significant decline even in just the past decade. Because of the trend toward disaffiliation, the student pool from which Catholic institutions historically draw is quickly drying up.

But the story is not all bad. Research shows that as millennial and Gen-Z students turn away from traditional religious groups, they join a growing cohort called the “nones” or “spiritual but not religious.” While most millennials are beyond college age, the newest studies show that these trends continue among Gen Z. They often do not claim membership in traditionally organized groups and do not express religious convictions along conventional lines, yet they maintain interest in religious matters and continue to hold traditional religious beliefs—for example, a belief in God.

The dynamic of “believing without belonging” gives Catholic universities the ability to creatively seize on students’ religious curiosity and introduce them to the richness of Catholic traditions that goes far beyond reciting creeds and doctrines.

This dynamic of “believing without belonging” gives Catholic colleges and universities the ability to creatively seize on students’ religious curiosity and introduce them to the richness of Catholic traditions that goes far beyond reciting creeds and doctrines. Yet it also means that faculty members cannot depend on students’ having foundational theological knowledge. Most significantly, Catholic institutions cannot bet on students spontaneously finding value in the school’s “faith-based” identifier.  

Like students, faculty members can also be blind. This label is not meant to malign them but instead to capture a simple fact. Faculties across all disciplinary fields and in all areas of colleges and universities are expected to carry forward their institution’s Catholic mission, but they are often asked to do so without theological training and often without any developed, personal experience with Catholic belief and practice. Still, schools regularly turn to “blind” faculty to uphold the institutional mission. They cannot afford not to.

Distinctively Catholic

The 2008 financial collapse put all institutions of higher learning on notice, but especially private schools grounded in the liberal arts tradition. Colleges and universities now must defend the ever-growing costs of tuition and articulate educational value in economic terms. On top of all that, Catholic colleges and universities have to convince students that there is something about our way of educating that sets us apart and makes us distinctive and thereby worthwhile. It is likely that these challenges will only be exacerbated by the financial downturn expected in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is difficult to make the case that Catholic schools are distinctively Catholic because of the presence of bona fide Catholics on faculty and staff. Consider the dramatic changes to religious vocations in the past 50 years. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, between 1970 and 2015, the number of men entering training for the priesthood dropped 30 percent. The number of men joining religious orders fell twice as much: 58 percent. And women’s orders experienced the most dramatic changes of all. Between 1965 and 2014, vocations to religious life among Catholic women fell by over 70 percent. 

Though the research does not track what these patterns mean for college and university life in particular, they report on the myriad ways religious orders have drawn back—or withdrawn altogether—from their traditionally sponsored ministries, including educational ministries. To state it bluntly: There are hardly any religious men and women left in visible roles in higher education.

To be sure, it would be far too narrow an understanding of Catholic identity to put only those in a Roman collar or religious habit in the category. More to the point, it would be anti-apostolic. If the mission of Catholic colleges and universities is to remain alive, it will only be because of the efforts of lay people. The facts about our cultural and church situation support no other conclusion. The way forward, then, is to welcome fully even “blind” faculty into the mission project.

If the mission of Catholic colleges and universities is to remain alive, it will only be because of the efforts of lay people. The facts about our cultural and church situation support no other conclusion.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education has issued guidance on the relationship between consecrated and lay educators. While consecrated persons will always play the irreplaceable role of sign and witness (“Consecrated Persons and Their Mission in Schools,” No. 20), lay people fully cooperate in the mission of Catholic schools and even have a “special grasp” of the wider culture and the signs of the times (“Educating Together in Catholic Schools,” No. 15). In other words, the church’s magisterium recognizes the particular significance of the lay contribution to Catholic education, and it is on this conviction that leaders in Catholic education should build.

Why is this important now? Because all questions about mission, identity and how both are carried forward become more immediate—and more answerable—amid the coronavirus crisis. Just as data and bench scientists’ work has become imminently practical as they gather disparate information in hopes of giving us useable answers, Catholic colleges and universities can pay attention to the deluge of data—ephemeral and seemingly insignificant pieces of information that ordinarily pass by without our notice—to ask how our students navigate this shared world crisis. This material, interpreted carefully, will tell us what—if anything—makes our institutions, our work, and ultimately us ourselves, distinctively Catholic. Professors have to prepare for the likelihood they’ll continue to be online educators at a time of pandemic through the fall, keeping this endeavor relevant.

The church’s magisterium recognizes the particular significance of the lay contribution to Catholic education, and it is on this conviction that leaders in Catholic education should build.

Assessment of Mission Impact

Basic assessment strategies will allow us to accomplish this job. Teachers collect information about what happens in and outside their classes to understand how their students learn. This feedback comes in a variety of forms. The most obvious is “gradable” material. Lab reports give a biology professor feedback about whether students have learned to use a microscope. A theater professor reviews a performance to judge the students’ grasp of dramaturgy.

But what we use to measure student learning goes far beyond the byproducts of learning. All the events and activities that orbit around and grow out of the learning process can provide data points as well—for example, student logs of time spent on reading assignments, records on the duration and depth of in-class discussions, or self-reflections on learning. We can collect information from students about what they are doing to tell us how we are doing.

The possibilities here are manifold. Students might be assigned to log how they use their time each day, what they thought about even prosaic questions like whether it was safe to go to a corner store for a candy bar, and what embodied or mindful practices they turned to that bring them calm. Students might find a news item and write one sentence on how it relates to something they learned in class, maybe even something that in normal times would seem incongruous. Students can be asked to list all the needs and vulnerabilities that coronavirus makes apparent and hypothesize about how their studies enable them to respond. 

The same can be done for mission-related ideas students have heard around campus. Teachers can pay attention to how students relate to each other during synchronous video conference meetings. What feelings are being openly expressed? Taking note of their chatter before the meeting starts is often helpful in this respect. They can also survey students about how something they heard about in the “real world” further sparked their interest in ideas from class. What follow-up research, reading or thinking did they take up in response?

Teachers can pay attention to how students relate to each other during synchronous video conference meetings. What feelings are being openly expressed?

What Do Our Students Yearn for?

Possibly the most important strategy may be to survey students about what they yearn for most in this time of crisis. What missed experience of campus life do they find themselves thinking back to most often? What daily rituals do they miss the most? And do they feel they have the tools to manage their own self-care in these extraordinary moments? 

Faculty members can also pay close attention to what students communicate, directly and indirectly, in their emails. What questions and concerns do they express? What kinds of answers do they want? For faculty advisors, what courses and electives are in demand? What classes and programs do students wish were available? The right approach can gather unfiltered responses to these prompts quickly and regularly and can provide significant data points over time. None of them have to be mission-specific, but they can all be analyzed in terms of mission and identity.

Possibly the most important strategy may be to survey students about what they yearn for most in this time of crisis.

Teachers can also give students direct opportunities to bring together disciplinary areas, the coronavirus crisis and mission and identity, perhaps for a final assignment. This current academic calendar is like none we have ever experienced, and we should recognize that and even embrace it. Likely, many faculty already planned on shifting this semester’s final assignments in such a direction, at least in part. But rather than use this work to measure only student learning for a particular class, it can provide feedback on larger questions about student learning and mission and identity. 

Faculty members (even “blind” ones) can take responsibility for generating this data—data that can be used to evaluate whether we are accomplishing what Catholic schools are first and foremost committed to, as stated by the Congregation for Catholic Education: “guiding its students to knowing themselves, their attitudes and their interior resources, [and] educating them in spending their lives responsibly as a daily response to God’s call” (“Educating Together,” No. 40). The process of interpreting the data and asking the questions may even result in new vision. 

For decades now, Catholic institutions have functioned with a diminished presence of men and women religious and with an ever-contracting population of Catholic (and even “Catholic-affiliated”) students. We are only now adjusting to these realities. In this moment, let us put aside boilerplate descriptions of Catholic identity and lay to rest abstractions about how our scholarship intersects with institutional mission. Let us look instead at what happens in routine interactions with and among our students, and how those interactions propel students forward toward the world and its needs. 

We need a theology of the Catholic college and university that emerges from on-the-ground observations and interactions. And we need a philosophy of education that will prove effective for teaching in a time of crisis. If we find that what we teach fails to turn our students outward to the needs of the world, if we find that how we teach does not nurture deep relationships or the inner dispositions to weather today’s storms, then we know that as Catholic educators we need to rethink our Catholic identity.

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