DR. TIMOTHY OíDONNELL has been president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., since 1992. In 1985, he had left his post as assistant professor of theology at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles for Christendom. O'Donnell calls the move “the best decision” he's ever made.
When asked by Christendom's board to take over as president, O'Donnell accepted on the condition that he be allowed to continue teaching. Today, the 45-year-old theologian, teaches freshman history, sophomore New Testament and a few upper division courses. He recently spoke with the Register at Christendom.
O'Donnell: We would not exist if everything was fine in the world of higher education. We're very much concerned with contemporary trends in education generally and more specifically in Catholic education. Christendom's founders wanted to get back to the notion of a core curriculum. Almost all secular and Catholic universities used to require a fairly large number of courses in the liberal arts. In the 1960s that was all thrown away. All that was required at the Jesuit school where I was teaching, for example, were two religious studies courses. That was supposedly going to help you to become a good Catholic with an adult knowledge of your faith. That failed miserably. At Christendom, we went back to emphasizing a core curriculum that aims at grounding the student in a traditional offering of Catholic wisdom, where faith and reason are blended.
Were there otherreasons forestablishing yourcurriculum?
The founders were very concerned about the abandonment of theology at other Catholic colleges. It had been replaced in many cases by religious studies. That is a good and a valid discipline but very different from traditional theology, which studied God, his nature and attributes, and, which was concerned with studying the revealed core of doctrine. In addition, many theology departments were run by people who did not support the teaching of the Church. Christendom's founders insisted on a strong attachment and fidelity to the Church in this particular area.
What other problems were the founders looking to address?
They were concerned about the size of universities. Universities had gotten so large that a professor would often be teaching several hundred people at once. Christendom College is committed to never having more than 450 students (total enrollment) and never exceeding the 1 to 15 faculty to student ratio. The school offers an intimate, personal education. It is the more medieval notion of education where you have students and faculty living together, praying together and pursuing truth together.
Are you concerned about the rising costs of education?
Basically we are doing everything we can to keep costs down. Presently, our tuition and board costs are only $13,700 per year, which for a private school committed to 1 to 15 faculty student ratio is quite good. Nevertheless, we realize a number of our students come from larger Catholic families, and so besides traditional financial aid we offer a work study program. This helps students earn money for tuition, while the maintenance costs of the school are kept to a minimum.
Among otherreasons, universities work to achieve a reputation foracademic excellence to give theirgraduates a higher profile in the job market. What motivates Christendom?
Christ, through his three years of public ministry, was a teacher very much concerned that his teaching would be handed down through all generations. The Church has always been very much concerned with educating students about the Catholic faith and catechetics. However, as the Church spread throughout the world and encountered cultures, she saw the need for a broader mission. Hence the rise of the Catholic university.
As the Pope said in his apostolic exhortation, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the notion of the college and university came “out of the heart of the Church.” The idea of the university as a place where faith seeks understanding is fundamentally faithful to the mind of the Church and to the mind of Christ, the greatest teacher that ever. He communicated and united the two orders of faith and reason.
Please explain Christendom's emphasis on studying history?
History is important because Jesus Christ became man in time. The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition acts in history. Since Christ did not leave us orphans—he sent the Holy Spirit—the Church continues as an extension of the Incarnation in time. St. Augustine, in The City of God, stresses the Christian understanding of time as a linear progression, whereas pagan cultures were dominated by a view that we are on an endless wheel. The notion of God's Providence in history—that we can learn about God, man and the Church through what has been revealed—makes the study of history supremely worthwhile.