Addressing Catholic educators during his visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI offered a clear vision of what has become in some academic circles a controversial point: Catholic identity in colleges and universities.
Catholic identity is not found simply in the percentage of Catholic faculty members or even the orthodoxy of classroom content. “It demands and inspires much more,” Pope Benedict told educators assembled April 17 at The Catholic University of America. “Namely, that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom.”
This high calling for Catholic education informs the mission of the newly created Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education, a research arm of the Cardinal Newman Society.
Although the Newman Society, which is celebrating its 15th year of operation, makes its biggest headlines by criticizing Catholic campuses that host “The Vagina Monologues” or pro-abortion commencement speakers, its focus has always been on finding and highlighting the good things happening at Catholic colleges and universities. The Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education, based at the Newman Society headquarters in Manassas, Va., is an outgrowth of that mission.
“The center’s areas of focus run the gamut of critical issues in Catholic college reform,” explained Patrick Reilly, president of the Newman Society, “from restoring colleges’ commitment to strong core curricula, to hiring policies favoring faculty who support the Catholic educational mission, to campus life programs that strengthen faith and encourage chastity.”
Reilly added, “Although the center’s most common means of addressing issues is by publishing research and position papers, which are disseminated to educators and posted at CatholicHigherEd.org, the center also sponsors symposia, lectures, surveys, books and a quarterly newsletter.”
The director of the new center is Joseph Esposito, a former deputy undersecretary for international affairs for the U.S. Department of Education, who also served as Washington bureau chief for the Register. He began working at the Newman Society two years ago as director of research and editor of The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, which was released last November. The guide recommends 21 U.S. colleges and universities that promote a Catholic identity by adhering to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education.
Esposito describes the center as “a unique, cutting-edge think tank that will be a valuable resource for Catholic colleges and universities. The center will research and share best practices as it works to promote Ex Corde Ecclesiae and strengthen Catholic higher education.”
Esposito said, “We see our role as a facilitator that works to share information about successful practices on campuses and to stimulate thinking in many areas of education, including curriculum, governance, spiritual programs, faculty recruitment and development, residential life and other areas. We are eager to work with colleges and be of service to them.”
The major focus of the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education thus far is the college guide, which will enter a second printing this summer after selling out of its first 5,000 copies, and its quarterly publication Bulletin of Catholic Higher Education.
The main contributors to the bulletin are two academics, Brennan Pursell and Peter Kwasniewski, who carry the title of Newman fellows. Pursell is associate professor of history at DeSales University and author of Benedict of Bavaria: an Intimate Portrait of the Pope and His Homeland (2008, Circle Press). Kwasniewski is associate professor of theology and philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College.
As a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., which is known for its Catholic identity, and during his years as a professor, Kwasniewski has experienced firsthand the life-changing potential of authentic Catholic education.
“I have always admired and supported the Cardinal Newman Society’s indefatigable efforts to promote a renewal and reform of Catholic higher education in this country,” he said. “The battle we are fighting at the start of this millennium is fought on many fronts — not just to defend and promote the truth, but also to teach and live the goodness of a holy life, and to cultivate in souls a love for the beautiful, which is so sorely lacking in contemporary American culture. It is a struggle for Catholic identity, which is expressed as much by solemn liturgy and holiness of life as by orthodox doctrine. Following in the footsteps of Pope Benedict, the center too wants to lead people to rediscover and rejoice in our distinctive Catholic identity.
The center will also oversee the Newman Society’s Love and Responsibility Project, which promotes chastity and healthy attitudes toward sexuality based on the teachings of Pope John Paul II.
In Wake of Benedict’s Visit
Plans for the Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education had been going on for months, but Reilly said that he put off launching the initiative officially until after Pope Benedict’s address to U.S. Catholic educators in April.
“We wanted to ensure that the center’s direction would fully support the Pope’s vision and priorities,” he said.
In May, the center published reflections on the Pope’s trip by a number of education experts. Father Robert Cook, founding president of Wyoming Catholic College, summed up Benedict’s message in a sentence: “Catholic institutions, wake up and rediscover your deepest identity!”
Father Cook continued, “The Pope’s very first words, drawn from the Letter to the Romans, set the tone for his entire address: ‘How beautiful are the footsteps of those who bring good news.’ The good news is not academic freedom, it is not earthly credentials and it is not worldly success. The good news is Jesus Christ, his message, his wisdom, his salvation.”
Esposito said that Catholic colleges and universities should seek to form and inform the whole student. “Catholic education is important for the spiritual well-being of Catholics as well as for helping develop young men and women to be good parents, moral citizens and faith-filled workers.”
Stephen Vincent writes from