What do a computer executive commuting to Belgium from Prague, a worker on a Mississippi River steamboat, a deacon in Washington state, a homemaker in Virginia, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an average citizen in Australia have in common?
They’re all graduates or current students at Catholic Distance University. Not one of them had to travel to the university’s headquarters in Hamilton, Va., 50 miles west of Washington — but they take or have taken the same classes taught by major professors, interact with each other, and grow dramatically in their knowledge of the faith.
Catholic Distance University is unique among institutions of higher learning. Founded in 1983 as the first catechetical institute in the United States to award the catechetical diploma and teach the Catholic faith though distance education, it offers courses in print format and online.
"It makes such perfect sense," says Marianne Evans Mount, CDU’s president. "When our Holy Father specifically mentions technology as being part of the New Evangelization, why not a university that delivers very solid and inspiring education to the Church and the world?"
In just one course taught by Father Bevil Bramwell of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who is CDU’s undergraduate dean and chaplain, there were students from South Africa, Hong Kong and Baghdad, as well as military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Courses focus on teachings of sacred Scripture, the living tradition of the Church, the magisterium, with an emphasis on the Catechism and the documents of Vatican II.
Among its programs, CDU offers a Bachelor of Arts in theology for students with existing undergraduate credits, a Master of Arts in theology, a graduate certificate in sacred Scripture, a catechetical diploma, awarded by the authority of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, and a host of courses for those not seeking degrees.
CDU’s newest degree is an online two-year associate’s degree in liberal arts with a concentration in Catholic studies. With a mutual agreement, Mount St. Mary’s University (a College Guide school) in Maryland accepts this degree for students applying to Mount St. Mary’s.
Past and present students come from all 50 states and 60 countries worldwide — places like Chile, China, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Philippines, Taiwan, Tanzania and Trinidad.
Closer to home, in northern Virginia, Cathy Branly received her B.A. in theology from CDU and is now studying for her master’s — all online.
She went to a Catholic college in the 1970s, which, oddly, did not offer a degree in theology. Later on, she wanted to study the faith. CDU became the perfect answer, given her military family was always on the move.
"In some places, you are completely isolated; there’s no place to go to get a degree in Catholic theology," Branly says. "One of the strengths (with CDU) is you can go to class no matter where you are at, any time of the day."
She has found great benefit in being able to review lectures again; she also has ample time to think about answers before responding to a question from the professor or an observation from a fellow student.
For weekly lectures, there are PowerPoint presentations. They can be read, plus the narration is often delivered as an MP3 file to download and listen to as many times as students need to.
The convenience is a plus, but the quality is what matters to the students. "The content of the courses is phenomenal," Branly says. "Every course is grounded in the magisterium and the Church documents. You were constantly being referred back to the Catechism, and you were reading encyclicals, documents of Vatican II and the early Church Fathers."
"We’re aware of the enormous treasure Catholicism is," Father Branwell notes, "and we’re trying to put it in a complete form on the Web."
Deacon Peter Flatley is grateful for the opportunity to learn more about his faith. He is retired as a colonel after 24 years in the Marines. Having settled on the Olympic Peninsula on Washington’s Pacific coast, "I still felt a need to know more about my faith," recalls the deacon, who has always been a practicing Catholic and attended Catholic institutions.
But the closest Catholic college was 2 1/2 hours from him "and didn’t have the orthodoxy I searched for," he says.
Then he found the perfect match in CDU.
"The good Lord in his divine Providence was putting everything on the table and said: ‘How can you resist? Here it is right now,’" Flatley recalls. "I wanted to know the faith for myself and make sure if I was going to represent the Church to anyone else, I was going to represent it accurately.
"St. Jerome said, ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.’ I would say: Ignorance of the Catechism is ignorance of the Church. From that point on, I felt more confidence presenting and talking about the faith."
He earned a master’s degree, and he found something else — the deaconate. "The Lord enlightened me one step at a time," he says. "The more you learn of the faith, the more you love the faith."
As President Mount adds, CDU "100% hands on the teachings of the Church. At CDU, they are going to get the truth."
Concurs Father Bramwell: "We are representing what the core of Catholic theology is."
And creating Catholic community online. There is an online "chapel" where students and faculty post prayer intentions.
"We recognize the power of technology to bring people together and share their knowledge and their spiritual lives with one another in a very controlled situation with our online chaplain," explains Mount.
There is yet another strong partnership that is about to expand between CDU and EWTN.
"We go way back," says Mount. The collaboration began years ago, when CDU offered only printed correspondence courses. But because people enjoy watching EWTN, the Register’s parent company, the school considered: "Why not give them the opportunity to take a course based on content on EWTN?" Mount recalls. "That was something we thought was a great idea."
With shows such as Father C. John McCloskey’s series on Cardinal John Henry Newman, the school and the TV network became "partners in education" as EWTN programming was incorporated into CDU’s curriculum.
This year the CDU Presents series is now broadcast weekly on EWTN Radio. Also this year, EWTN’s president and CEO and the Register’s publisher, Michael Warsaw, was named to CDU’s board of directors.
"Now we’re exploring another possible way of using courses that were developed," Mount says. One avenue is to have EWTN programs available online.
"We think EWTN is a great vehicle for education," says Mount. "By partnering with them, we can bring the richness of the TV programming, with the wonderful video programming from EWTN, and marry that with the wonderful systematic university education that CDU offers."
Looking at what CDU is doing, Father Bramwell emphasizes: "We’re going to use the Internet well. We’re going to use it for Catholicism."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.