The Cardinal Newman Society's Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education works to ensure that Catholic colleges are truly Catholic — which is needed now more than ever.
"We are at a better place than we were 18 years ago," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. "Today, Catholic educators freely acknowledge that something important has been lost, and they want to get it back. The center is doing the essential task of identifying what works in Catholic higher education and offering practical ways of renewing Catholic identity in the classroom and in campus life."
"Sadly, our culture has become toxic to Catholic identity," he added. "We can defend our Catholic institutions by reinforcing their foundations, ensuring that our faith is formally reflected and promoted in every policy, program and teaching of a Catholic college. And more, we need colleges that prepare men and women to go out and teach all nations, to transform the culture without conforming to it."
On July 1, the center moved to the campus of Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., where it is now headed by Msgr. Stuart Swetland. (All other CNS entities remain in Manassas, Va., where the society has always been based.)
Why the move? And why to the Mount?
"For several years, the Cardinal Newman Society has had a great working relationship with Mount St. Mary's University," Reilly explained. "When the president, Dr. Thomas Powell, suggested this partnership, it seemed a natural fit: The center is focused on practical steps toward strengthening Catholic identity, and that is precisely what Dr. Powell and Msgr. Swetland have emphasized at the Mount, making great progress."
He noted that Msgr. Swetland is in high demand as an educator, speaker, writer, pastoral guide and leader "because he is one of those unique individuals with the personality and wisdom to succeed in all of those tasks. It is evident that God has called him to do great things for the Church, and so it is a great blessing for us to have him at the helm of the center."
For his part, Msgr. Swetland is ready for the challenge. He understands what's at stake for college students.
"We know straightforwardly how vital the period of time between 18 and 25 is, with young people going away to college. Those raised Catholic must appropriate the faith — make it their own. It's also the time for significant relationships, friendships and, often, finding a spouse."
"Vocational decisions are also made in this period, discerning what God is calling them to, and the foundational development of adult habits of prayers and sacraments," Msgr. Swetland explained.
That's why, during this time, he said, "It's vital for colleges to have effective apostolates in Catholic higher education. We have to be present to journey with students."
He hopes to increase the center's presence at non-Catholic campuses, where many Catholic students attend. The Cardinal Newman Society has estimated that close to 90% of Catholic students attend non-Catholic schools.
"Because the Lord has given me the background with my own education at secular and Catholic and non-Catholic campuses, I can bring that experience to bear on this apostolate," he said.
Msgr. Swetland teaches at Mount St. Mary's University, where he holds the endowed chair of ethics and teaches seminarians and undergraduates. He is also the school's vice president of Catholic identity. He is working on his own research and papers about Catholic identity, so he understands why stronger Catholic identity on campus is so needed today. "It's more important due to secularism," he said. "We have to be more active to evangelize, catechize and form."
What new ventures does he hope to put in place? "I want to emphasize ways to help form new faculty — people of good will need ongoing formation — and implement core curricula and share that information. It's important to invest faith and reason in all curricula."
Reilly agrees: "There has been much talk in Catholic academic circles about Catholic identity and notions like 'hiring for mission' and student formation. The conversation has been healthy, and we want to move things along. Monsignor will be looking at programs to help new faculty members understand the implications of teaching at a Catholic college, at methods of integrating faith and reason within particular subject areas, at ways of developing a student culture in which sobriety and chastity are assumed and supported. The Vatican and bishops have resolved what is a Catholic college, and the center is focused on how to be a Catholic college in day-to-day operations."
In terms of examples of the center's work, "Last year was the 20th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and the college leaders and bishops have been discussing its implementation," said Reilly. "In the center's [new] publication Assessing Catholic Identity, we helpfully summarize the requirements of Ex Corde Ecclesiae according to functional areas of the Catholic college, and we offer a tool to help college leaders self-evaluate their progress toward meeting the Church's standards."
Also of importance, Msgr. Swetland said: "We want to address the great threat to religious liberty and pressure to compromise our teachings."
Reilly explained, "We help Catholic colleges defend against threats to their religious liberty, such as the recent rulings by the National Labor Relations Board that two Catholic colleges, St. Xavier University in Chicago and Manhattan College [which he discussed in a recent Register op-ed, "Catholic Identity Can Protect Religious Liberty"], are not sufficiently religious to be exempt from federal labor law. Attorneys tell us that Catholic colleges can best defend their religious liberty if they demonstrate a consistent Catholic identity, and the center's Assessing tool helps colleges document that on a regular basis."
Scholars in various disciplines are conducting research on such topics, including Kimberly Shankman, the dean of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
"It's always a good thing to have as many resources as possible to maintain and strengthen Catholic identity on campus," Shankman said. "I'm looking forward to what the center can do to help us strengthen Catholic identity as we work to accomplish the same things."
As a center fellow, Shankman is researching schools' core curricula — what every student is required to take (Benedictine has a set of three theology and philosophy courses). "How widespread are these requirements? How are they implemented? How different? How are they oriented to the Catholic mission?" she explained.
In addition, Msgr. Swetland will meet with university presidents this fall "to hear what they need" to strengthen their Catholic identity.
Joel Recznik, the vice president for enrollment at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, said: "We want people to be aware of the great faithful Catholic colleges — of which we are one."
He says schools like his and others in the Cardinal Newman Society's Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College educate the whole student, mind and spirit, and "God willing, that has eternal ramifications."
Many prospective students mention the guide when they visit and say it helped them consider Franciscan. He supports the society's work because it is important.
"It's great work that they do: bringing truth and shining light on what's going on at Catholic colleges," said Recznik. "It helps Catholic colleges to be faithful. It causes change."
Amy Smith is the Register's associate editor.