College freshmen and their parents choose Catholic institutions of higher education not only for the schools’ ability to impart and strengthen the Catholic faith, but also on the quality of the schools’ academic offerings. One thing that truly sets Catholic colleges and universities apart is that they often offer courses not found anywhere else.
Catholicism informs nearly every topic, thus allowing Catholic colleges and universities the opportunity to teach in ways that show how faith intersects with everything from leadership to architecture.
God’s ‘First Book’
That’s certainly true of Wyoming Catholic College, the state’s only Catholic college. While the school offers a Great Books-style education, it is its offerings in a Latin-immersion course, an equestrian course and a one-of-a-kind three-week Outdoor Leadership Program that set it apart from both its Catholic and secular counterparts.
Wyoming Catholic College partners with Lander, Wyo.-based, world-renowned National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to offer incoming freshmen a backpacking trip in the Wyoming wilderness before school begins in August and a one-week winter adventure in January.
“There are other leadership programs out there, but truly nothing as practical or wholesome as what we do,” said Mark Randall, vice president for institutional advancement.
“Students learn how to choose a goal, plot how to get there, the food and equipment needed, resolving conflicts, teamwork and handling things you never dreamed would happen, such as coming to a creek that’s too big to cross,” explained the college’s president, Father Robert Cook. “Learning all of this is different from the theoretical study of leadership in a classroom.”
All freshmen also take a two-and-a-half day wilderness medical-training course to learn how to manage injuries in the wild. The 21-day orientation has a heavy spiritual component as well. Groups are split into sections by gender, each with their own chaplain, student leader and NOLS staff person.
In addition to offering spiritual direction and the sacraments during the orientation, the chaplain is encouraged to find opportunities for spiritual or scriptural reflection during the adventure. For Father James Walling, the college chaplain, for example, that meant reading about the Transfiguration after a mountain climb, celebrating Mass on the peak, and reading about the Baptism of the Lord near a river.
The experience creates “students who are very tightly bonded,” explained Matt McGee, director of the program. “They overcome challenges together, like navigating deep river crossings or climbing high peaks that are above 13,000 feet. When they come back to the classroom, they’re prepared to handle the academic challenges because they met the other challenges that they weren’t prepared to do.”
‘Theology of Creation’
While not as hands-on as the Wyoming experience, students at the University of St. Thomas in Houston are also learning about creation through a course titled “Theology of Creation.” That course has been offered annually since the spring of 2009 and is taught by Sister Damien Marie Savino of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, who chairs the environmental science and studies department.
“The course integrates science and theology, along with contemporary questions such as evolution and environmental issues, with the Catholic intellectual tradition and the teachings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI,” described Sister Damien.
The course was originally offered as a theology elective for students and a required course for environmental science and studies majors. Last year, the course became a “synthesis course” in theology.
Learning in Rome
While colleges have long had study-abroad programs, one extremely popular trend among Catholic colleges and universities is the option to study for a semester in the heart of the Church: Rome.
One of the more popular and extensive Rome experiences is offered by Christendom College. Juniors are encouraged to take four courses in Rome either during their fall or spring semester. Among the courses studied while living in Rome are: “Italian 101,” “Roman Perspectives,” “Art & Architecture” and “Theology” (“Moral Theology” in the fall; “Apologetics” in the spring).
“The classes are right there in Rome, near St. Peter’s, at the Istituto Maria SS Bambina,” said Sarah Federico, of Corydon, Ky., who studied in Rome this past fall. “We have to cross St. Peter’s Square to get to class each day.”
“Seeing all of the people attending papal audiences and hearing all the languages spoken there opens your mind to the history and the universality of the Church,” she said. “We saw St. Peter’s bones and went into the catacombs. Catholicism is everywhere, and learning there made the early Church come alive.”
“No other school can boast such a convenient location,” said professor John Noronha, who directs the program and has taught moral theology, art and architecture, and apologetics for the past two years. “Living so close to St. Peter’s and seeing the Pope with such frequency creates a special bond between our students and the person of the Holy Father.”
Art and Architecture
Elizabeth Lev often teaches the “Art & Architecture” course, providing tours of architecture and related arts, from classical antiquity through the Baroque age, exhibited in the monuments and masterpieces of Rome and Florence.
In addition to studying in Rome and Florence, the program includes visits to Siena and a retreat in Assisi. Students are also able to participate in optional trips to sacred cities such as Orvieto and Subiaco.
Professor Noronha said that student highlights have included “audiences with the Pope, visits to pontifical academies and congregations of the Roman Curia, special Masses and meals with cardinals and ecclesiastical leaders, participating in the Lenten Station churches’ tradition, and walking the ground on which the saints and Fathers of the Church once walked.”
Making It Practical
If there’s a common complaint about college courses, it’s that they are often too theoretical and less practical. One course, offered by John Paul the Great University in San Diego, flies in the face of that criticism. It is the university’s “LaunchPad” course.
“LaunchPad was originally designed to encourage students to launch a business of their own and get them to start an endeavor before they graduated,” said Dominic Iocco, professor and provost at the university.
The course is taken during students’ junior and senior year. Iocco described it as “not your typical ‘sit in the classroom’” course.
Iocco described some of the projects that students have launched.
“Students have done all sorts of different things, from creating a design firm to a full-service laundry business and a brewery. One group of students worked on a Web video series; another is working on creating a video catechism.”
One impressive outcome of LaunchPad is the work of graduate Tara Stone. Her project was creating the feature-length motion picture Red Line. The film is a contained-space thriller about a group of survivors trapped in a subway tunnel after it has collapsed.
Stone, originally from Monument, Colo., wrote a series of short scripts during her junior year in LaunchPad. By the end of her junior year, she proposed writing a feature-length script. She completed the script during the first quarter of her senior year. By the second quarter, the film was in production, and during the third quarter, it was in post-production.
Under the direction of Hollywood professionals, interested John Paul the Great students learn about camera operation, lighting, costuming, makeup and production.
“Even in the best film schools, students don’t get this kind of opportunity,” said Stone. “Certainly, there’s no other Catholic college allowing you to work on a feature film.”
Red Line is currently being submitted to film festivals, with the hope of premiering it at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Stone is actively seeking marketing and a distributor for the movie.
Second Chance Project
Sometimes the practical opportunities come via student clubs closely associated with degree programs. At Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., members of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) were nationally recognized for their work in designing the Second Chance Project, an effort to reduce the rate of recidivism in the state of Kansas.
With guidance from Dave Geenens, director of the School of Business at Benedictine, graduate Jordan Neville and others taught entrepreneurship classes to inmates at Lansing State Correctional Facility in order to help ex-offenders find gainful employment or start their own businesses upon release. The SIFE team also developed an outplacement program designed to help inmates find jobs after release.
Even when it comes to more traditional courses, Catholic universities often offer them in ways not found with their secular contemporaries. The faith and Catholic teaching can be brought into practically every imaginable course.
Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, offers a “Catholic Short Stories” course through its theology department. The course, which has been offered for the past two years, explores Catholic thought and practice, as expressed through short stories; in particular, in the work of Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor.
“We start with the original short story, Genesis 2 and 3, to frame the class,” described professor Matthew Powell. “Nearly every story in the Judeo-Christian tradition will reflect that story at some time.”
Powell describes that as students read Graham Greene’s story The Second Death, they begin to see the connections between the story and Scripture, and then they discover how powerful a story is.
“It really impacts students this age, who are often struggling with their faith,” said Powell. “Many Catholic students are worried that they’re doing something wrong because they’re struggling with their faith. They come to find their faith and make it their own.”
At Christendom College, Adam Schwartz teaches a popular course on “The Catholic Literary Revival.” The course examines the literary revival of orthodox Catholicism in modern Britain in a wide variety of genres, including fiction, fantasy, literature, poetry, history and social criticism by authors such as G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, David Jones, Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as Anglo-Catholic writers such as T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers.
Sometimes undergraduates are given opportunities only available to graduate students. That’s the case for architecture majors in The Catholic University of America’s sacred space and cultural studies concentration within the School of Architecture and Planning.
One of the courses, taught by Julio Bermudez, associate professor and director of the sacred space and cultural studies concentration, is “Sacred Space Studio,” a graduate-level course that brings in world-class architects to work with students. This year, they brought in Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa as a professor in residence. Last year, they hosted architect Craig Hartman.
“Students explore how to use architecture to help others in their search for God,” said Bermudez. “Students explore the importance of religion in daily life and how the spiritual realm relates to the physical. Certainly this is something you can’t find in other schools of architecture.”
While the studio is generally only for graduate-level students, this fall nearly half the students were undergraduates who were allowed to take part.
Then there are classes that are so imbued with Catholicism that one can’t imagine them being taught anywhere else. That’s the case with the enormously popular “Human Embryology” course at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. The course has been taught since the 1980s by now semi-retired professor Edwin Bessler, a zoologist by training.
“I was inspired to create the course after attending an Operation Rescue prayer chain in Pittsburgh,” said Bessler. “The intensity of good and evil was so great that two words ran through my head: ‘Teach them.’ That’s how the course and Franciscan’s human-life minor came into being.”
The course has been so popular that even with two sections of it offered each fall and spring, Bessler still has a waiting list.
Why is it so popular?
“Schools do a great job training everyone for occupations such as accountant and dentist, nurse and lawyer, but do a lousy job preparing people for the most common vocation of marriage and family,” said Bessler. “Students take this course because they crave to change the world and this course touches on fundamental issues.”
Bessler opens each class with a prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the unborn. The course covers the events from fertilization to birth, all through a Catholic lens. The course examines all the issues relating to fertility and conception and the bioethical issues such as contraception, in vitro fertilization and abortion.
According to the “Biology 203” course description, “special attention is given to the event of fertilization, the first eight weeks of development, development and function of the placenta, fetal circulation, the hormonal control of ovulation and pregnancy, parturition, anomalies of development and infertility.” The course can be used as part of the science core.
Nursing major Kimberly Doudna, of Fairbanks, Alaska, said that the course appeals to students of every major.
“It’s known as one of the classes you want to take and you know you’re not going to get it anywhere else,” said Doudna. “Professor Bessler provides clear, factual data along with many examples, stories and anecdotes.”
Asked how it might differ from a similar course offered at a secular school, Doudna said that the course’s focus is on “protecting the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception.”
“I work in the Catholic teachings, no matter the topic,” said Bessler.
Describing one image he shares with students, Bessler says he had an artist create an image “of Jesus in the consecrated Host next to a human person in a fertilized egg and the words ‘Hidden Yet Present.’”
“A fertilized egg doesn’t look like us, just as a consecrated Host doesn’t look like Jesus, yet it is,” he explained.
Bessler said the highlight of his career was found on the final exam of a female student who had attended Catholic schools all her life. “On her final exam, she wrote: ‘I came to this course pro-choice. I’m leaving being pro-life.’”
Whether it’s literature, leadership, biology, architecture or business, the distinct offerings of Catholic colleges and universities demonstrate that faith and the Church touch on all subjects.
“Often families choose faithful Catholic colleges because of the spiritual life and campus culture, but these colleges are just as unique in the classroom,” said Patrick Reilly, founder and president of the Manassas, Va.-based Cardinal Newman Society. “When they claim fidelity to Catholic teaching, it’s not just a matter for theology, but promises a truthful view of man and the world, informing every topic from scientific development and historical relevance to business strategy and literary criticism.”
“In an increasingly secular culture, I don’t think there is a single college subject that could be taught in a truly ‘neutral’ way,” added Reilly. “It either embraces popular assumptions about what is important to man or it looks to an ultimate purpose informed by Christianity, which only a Catholic college — and only a faithfully Catholic college — can do with integrity.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.