Identity Crisis: Dramatic action is needed to ensure a distinctly Catholic education.

What is the best way to foster Catholic identity at Catholic colleges? The question has been much discussed in this magazine and elsewhere. Just last year, “The Faculty ‘Problem,’” by Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C. (Am., 9/10/07), prompted numerous letters to the editor and even a response in Commonweal by Father Miscamble’s colleague in the Notre Dame history department, John T. McGreevy. The debate continues, because faculty and administrators disagree about how best to assure the vitality of a distinctly Catholic higher education.

Opinions on the issue are varied, but for argument’s sake they can be grouped into two influential schools of thought. The first and larger group is basically content with the direction of Catholic higher education. Proponents see new initiatives, some better than others, to foster Catholic identity and deem these a good thing. They also see their institutions’ popularity among prospective students growing and see no need to rock the boat.

The second and smaller group, however, is worried about the future. Its proponents think that many academic institutions are failing to achieve their Catholic mission and that something dramatic must happen to get them back on track. We belong to this group. Although some observers judge Catholic universities mainly on their campus ministry and volunteer programs—two important parts of any effort to foster Catholic identity—we think that integrating the Catholic intellectual tradition into the college curriculum itself is just as important. There is almost no data on what colleges and universities offer in terms of Catholic content. The findings of our own study, Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis, however, suggest that at many institutions the offerings are very thin.

A Catholic Placement Exam

How could the situation be improved? First, if Catholic colleges and universities want to know whether they are succeeding in their Catholic mission among undergraduates, they must determine what students know about Catholicism when they enter. Very few do this. Consequently, they lack a baseline from which to measure their success. Most institutions—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—give placement examinations to entering freshmen in math, writing and modern languages. Yet there are no placement exams in Catholic aptitude, even though theologians on the faculty know that freshmen vary greatly in their knowledge of the faith. Without such an assessment, and another at graduation, an institution cannot measure its success in transmitting parts of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Second, all the administrators we interviewed claimed that Catholic colleges and universities offer a cultural alternative in American higher education. That is a claim we believe administrators at other Catholic institutions would echo. But how realistic is it?

Many faculty and administrators at Catholic schools were educated at the same major research universities as their counterparts at secular institutions. Inculturated in the dominant university culture, they are not likely to challenge it. Another problem is that faculty outside theology departments are often ill prepared to integrate the Catholic intellectual tradition into their own disciplines.

In explaining why he left Stanford to join the faculty at the University of Notre Dame, the historian Brad Gregory said that “a Catholic university can and should have scholars who raise appropriate questions about the relationship of Catholic teachings and sensibilities to their respective areas of expertise in the social sciences, natural sciences, arts and humanities, which in turn should be brought into relationship with Catholicism” (Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 2007). All Catholic colleges and universities have such faculty members in their ranks, but very few have them in enough numbers and across enough disciplines to constitute the “critical mass” necessary for a Catholic institution to maintain its religious identity.

The priests, brothers and nuns who ran these colleges and universities for years had extensive religious training, much of it related to what ultimately became their academic specialty. To put it crassly, a lot of money was spent training priests and religious to teach in Catholic colleges and universities. Not nearly the same kind of money is being invested today to prepare faculty to teach at Catholic institutions. So it would be surprising if most newly minted Ph.D.’s teaching at Catholic institutions were well informed about Catholic thought on issues pertaining to their discipline, even though such issues have been extensively discussed within church circles for centuries.

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition

The challenge of finding or developing young faculty members who can effectively engage the Catholic intellectual tradition in their own disciplines is not new. Judith Dwyer and Charles Zech concluded from their 1996 research that “greater effort must be spent on developing younger faculty members” (Am., 5/22/99). Programs have been developed to do that—initiatives like the longstanding Collegium program, which predated the Dwyer and Zech research, and the new Substantially Catholic seminar. The Collegium colloquies focus on the Christian academic vocation and engage scholars from a variety of backgrounds, faiths and disciplines in an exploration of various aspects of the Catholic intellectual tradition. The Substantially Catholic seminar, which we direct, helps faculty members in specific academic disciplines—such as English literature, political science, psychology or biology—integrate Catholic content into their teaching repertoire.

Individual campuses also sponsor in-house faculty development programs. The Catholic Intellectual Traditions Seminars at Boston College, for instance, support a faculty dialogue about Catholic identity and how best to foster a distinctly Catholic intellectual culture. Similar programs exist at St. Norbert’s College, Villanova University and elsewhere. Many such initiatives are excellent, yet they face daunting challenges.

A lack of preparation among faculty is but one problem. In her book Negotiating Identity, Alice Gallin points out that many faculty members “are ignorant of, indifferent to, and, yes, even hostile toward the Catholic dimension of these institutions” (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000). Faculty members on Catholic campuses often challenge church teaching. Yet, as Cardinal Francis George argued in the journal Logos, secular arguments contrary to church teaching are seldom scrutinized with the same rigor. Faculty are less than eager to point out the confusion in the secular approach. Students, if they are not taught to identify the unproven or conflicting assumptions behind the dominant secular outlook, are likely merely to assimilate it.

Congregational Versus Catholic Identity

Administrators of Catholic colleges and universities say they want their institutions to remain Catholic. For the most part, however, they lead with words like Jesuit, Dominican, Mercy, Franciscan or Lasallian, instead of Catholic. Mission statements refer to Mercy or Jesuit institutions in the Catholic tradition. Congregational identity trumps Catholic identity. This approach puts the cart before the horse; it is a strategy that undermines vibrant Catholic institutional identity. It is not possible to be Jesuit, Franciscan, Mercy or Dominican without first being Catholic. Religious congregations offer a particular way of living out a radical commitment to the Catholic faith; they are not an alternative to it.

Administrators may be working from the assumption that their Catholic identity is well known, and they are trying to distinguish themselves while emphasizing their founding charism. Yet as institutions of higher learning continue to suffer from a dramatic loss of priests and religious, they ought to emphasize commonalities rather than differences. Furthermore, most Catholic students do not know much about their school’s founding religious congregations. From the perspective of a student or parent, it makes more sense for the institution to stress its Catholic identity. Not only is this term better understood; it is less likely to be interpreted to mean “academic excellence and Catholic lite.”

Catholic content is important, but it is not everything. Professors also make a difference. Suppose 90 percent of undergraduates at a Catholic college or university never take a course taught by “Catholic intellectuals attempting to live out faith commitments in the modern world,” as John McGreevy described them in Commonweal. Is the institution still Catholic? We think not. A Catholic institution has to be home to a sizable cohort of committed Catholic faculty who at least occasionally comment on how the faith makes a difference in the way they approach academic issues. If only content counted, a nonsectarian college or university with a good Catholic studies program could count as a Catholic institution. Of course, in order to have a critical mass of professors who engage the Catholic intellectual tradition in the classroom, Catholic institutions need particular data. Some administrators may be hesitant to ask prospective faculty members their view of faith in relation to their academic discipline, yet such questions are legally acceptable as long as the integration of faith is part of the job description. State laws vary on this point.

A Shadow Culture

Residential life also plays an important role in the educational mission of any college or university. After all, most students spend far more time in the residence hall than they do in their classes. But if Catholic content is thin on the academic side at Catholic colleges, it is almost non-existent in the dormitories. The administrators we interviewed confirmed that very few residential life programs dealt with religious issues. The Association for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities is trying to address this gap by providing opportunities for student affairs professionals to increase their knowledge and understanding of the Catholic tradition and how it applies to their day-to-day work with students. As part of that effort, they have recently published Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities. These are important developments, but they are first steps. Much more is needed.

Resident advisers play an important role in shaping the culture at Catholic colleges and universities. Yet R.A.’s rarely convey Catholic teaching about sexual intimacy, drinking and substance abuse to their residents. Nor do they challenge the consumer culture that is so powerful among students. While R.A.’s spend a fair amount of time focusing on legal and safety issues, they do not give equal time to sharing a Catholic perspective on social behavior, interaction and responsibility. Donna Freitas makes this point rather dramatically in Sex and the Soul (Oxford), when she points out that of all the students she interviewed, “the Catholics laughed the most, or if they didn’t laugh, they looked at me quizzically when I enquired what they learned from their faith tradition about sex and dating.” She concludes that “when it comes to sex and religion, Catholic schools are little different from public and private ones. Many parents surely imagine that sending their children to a Catholic school implies that they will be educated within a Catholic community. But…this is likely not the case.”

Unless Catholic colleges and universities take dramatic action, the shadow culture within residence halls will deepen. Such a culture poses real threats to students and undermines the Catholic character, identity and mission of the institution. Cooperation across all of Catholic higher education will be necessary on this front. Otherwise institutions that adopt a more serious Catholic approach could suffer in the marketplace.

Many professors and administrators at Catholic universities believe their institutions are doing fine. They insist that a Catholic school that requires one or two theology courses and emphasizes spirituality, service and social justice and that has a vibrant campus ministry offers a thoroughly Catholic collegiate experience. We disagree. We believe that the Catholic tradition must be integrated into every aspect of university life.

Administrators at Catholic schools like to emphasize that Catholic colleges and universities are where the church does its thinking. Catholic thinking certainly takes place in theology departments, yet important modern issues relating to the faith and its practice also arise in philosophy, literature, history, sociology, biology, chemistry, physics and business. These subjects are the heart of any modern college or university, and Catholic schools must do more to connect them to the faith. The pertinent religious issues extend far beyond ethical matters and involve important Catholic beliefs and church teachings. How much Catholic thinking can take place on college campuses if most Catholic faculty members know little about how their own discipline relates to the faith?

The Research

Our book, Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2006) was grounded in a two-part leadership study of Catholic colleges and universities conducted in 2002-5. Phase one used a 12-page open-ended questionnaire that was sent to all presidents of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. The responses from 55 percent of the presidents provided a snapshot of the leadership landscape in Catholic higher education in the summer of 2002.

Phase two focused on how senior administrators at Catholic institutions understood Catholic identity and what it meant in terms of their own leadership. In-depth interviews were conducted with 124 senior administrators at 33 broadly representative institutions among all Carnegie classifications, with a balance among institutions bounded by laypersons, diocese and a broad array of men and women’s religious congregations. Sites included institutions in cities, suburbs and rural areas across all geographic regions.

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12 years ago
“Identity theft” is more like it. Of course Father Piderit and Ms. Morey are correct. What really counts at a Catholic university is who teaches and what they teach. With the attenuation of theology and philosophy requirements at Catholic universities disclosed in the authors’ book and the striking decline of Catholics on faculties, the Catholic identity of the major Catholic universities is properly in question. At Notre Dame, for example, probably the most Catholic of the group, only six hours of theology are required and of those only three must be comprehensively Catholic; and, more importantly, as Father Miscamble observed in his America article, the Catholic proportion of the faculty has dropped from 85% in the 1970’s to 53% today. Once dissenting and merely nominal Catholics are taken into account, Notre Dame no longer meets its Mission Statement requirement that there be a “predominant number of Catholic intellectuals on the faculty.” But at least Notre Dame has a reasonably objective standard. Most others, if they talk about Catholics on the faculty at all, speak of a “critical number” of Catholics, a phrase the authors employ several times. That’s a useless measure, for it means only what the administrators say it means. The authors have it right when they ask: “How much Catholic thinking can take place on college campuses if most Catholic faculty members know little about how their own discipline relates to the faith?” With all its faults, a majority standard, which Pope Paul II adopted in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, is the best that has yet been devised. Testing the students to see how much they have learned about Catholicism in four years, as the authors propose, is the sort of measure any well-run enterprise would adopt. If a study by the Higher Education Research Institute is any guide, the results would be unsettling. This four-year study of students at 38 Catholic institutions (including Notre Dame), which ended in 2001, disclosed that after four years 52% of the students believed abortion should be legal, up from 38%; 70% believed that homosexual marriage should be legal, up from 52%; and 48% believed that pre-marital sex was not immoral, up from 28%. There was a control group of Catholics at secular schools. There was no significant difference. Evangelical schools, on the other hand, did better. If faculties at Catholic universities share the view of the Notre Dame Faculty Senate, the road back will be hard indeed. Last April, the Senate declared, “The University should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity.” William H. Dempsey President, The Sycamore Trust
12 years ago
Once again we owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Morey and Father Piderit for having the courage to tell the truth about what is happening in our institutions, and being willing to 'take the heat' that will follow. The situation is simply abysmal in most of our colleges and universities. Our dissembling in order to mislead alumni into thinking that the Catholic tradition is pervasive and vibrant so that they will continue giving to the institution is wrong. We need to take bold, decisive measures to begin to recover from the institutional drift that has taken place since 1970. We urgently need to develop a plan for preparing and hiring a new generation of Catholic intellectuals in all disciplines whose teaching, research, and personal witness will assure the vitality of the tradition into the future. As many point out, these institutions could go the way of Harvard and others, secularizing themselves while retaining some vague aura of the heritage that characterized their founding and their past. And, many of our ill-informed administrators and fund raisers see that as being just fine: our institutions can move into the future as institutions of Catholic 'heritage' with no living connection to the tradition that gave rise to them, and, if they position themselves carefully in the educational marketplace, they can survive. And for those among who care only about securing our own jobs and retirements, perhaps that is enough. For those of us, however, who know, in our bones, that the Catholic vision of reality is the most compelling vision we can offer to the next generation of young people, the status quo is not enough. We have got to act, and act quickly. I would argue that vibrant, interdisciplinary, cross-departmental Catholic Studies Programs, animated and guided with vital philosophy and theology departments at their centers, are the best way to go.

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