The condition of Catholic higher education in America has scandalized many of the faithful for years. Many devout Catholics make considerable financial sacrifices to send their children to schools that present themselves as Catholic institutions. These families are often distressed to find that their children are taught things actively contrary to the faith, and that the schools do little or nothing to provide a wholesome dormitory life or a solid spiritual foundation.

In short, some of these schools are no more Catholic than the local state university. Allow me to offer an economist's perspective on this issue.

Imagine that you are a hungry traveler, looking for a place to stop for lunch. From the highway, you see a large sign with golden arches. You pull off the road, drive up to the restaurant, which displays a sign saying “McDonald's,” a golden arches flag, and a large inflated redheaded clown sitting on the roof. Your mouth is watering for a Big Mac. You go inside, look at the menu, and discover that it is a vegetarian restaurant. You demand to speak to the owner. “I've been misled!” you cry. The owner replies, “My name is Joe McDonald. I can run my restaurant any way I want. It's a free country.”

How long do you think the McDonald's corporation would put up with this? We may be sure that it would have put our hypothetical Joe McDonald out of business long before he had a chance to lure you off the highway to his vegetarian diner. You and I cannot open a restaurant and call it “McDonald's” without signing a franchise agreement and paying a lot of money to the parent corporation. This requirement in no way infringes anyone's economic liberty or freedom to do business.

The law recognizes a company's brand name as a significant, if intangible piece of business property. The consumer's ability to recognize a brand name provides so much value to a company that the company invests heavily in it and in its associated trademarks, logos and images. Courts protect all these forms of corporate property.

Campus consumer fraud?

What does this have to do with Catholic higher education? Some Catholic institutions have become the equivalent of a vegetarian restaurant calling themselves McDonald's.

Of course, faculty at top departments such as Stanford and Yale also teach things contrary to the Church. But everyone expects them to. These institutions do not claim to be representatives of the Catholic tradition. However, when schools represent themselves as Catholic to prospective students and to donors, they have an obligation to deliver the product they promise. Economists have a name for the contrary practice: We call it consumer fraud.

Heaven knows that we do not want the courts interfering in the internal affairs of our Catholic colleges and universities. Not for a moment would I suggest that disgruntled parents call in the Federal Trade Commission to prosecute a “traditionally Catholic school” for misleading advertising.

Fortunately, we don't need to file a lawsuit or “make a federal case out of it.” We Catholics are blessed to have our own institutional structures for protecting the identity of the Church. The Holy Father and the bishops have the responsibility for defending the “brand name” of the Church.

We don't usually describe it in such cold business terms, of course. We usually say that the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him, defend and define the deposit of the faith handed down to us from the apostles. The hierarchy fulfills this responsibility in part through regulating the institutions that want to call themselves “Catholic.” If a school employs dissident priests or theologians, the local bishop certainly has a right to say something about it.

In practice, the bishops must be guided by prudence in deciding how to address particular issues that arise within their dioceses. Most bishops aren't academics, and have no aspirations to manage the day-to-day life of a university. But there is no doubt that they have the authority to preserve the Catholic identity of the institutions under their jurisdiction.

The Holy Father made this clear in his apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Gently but firmly, as is his way, John Paul II has made it clear that he expects Catholic colleges and universities to conform to canon law. In particular, anyone teaching Catholic theology in a Catholic institution needs to receive some form of approval from “the competent ecclesiastical authority.” The Holy Father has left the bishops in each country considerable leeway in implementing this requirement of canon law.

I have no doubt that universities and colleges did not intend to compromise their Catholic identity. Most often, they find themselves in this situation because they pursued the good of competing with secular institutions. They wanted to emulate the top academic departments in things like faculty publications and credentials. But they now find themselves compromised because they have, in effect, promoted one set of ideals in recruiting faculty and administrators, and a different set of ideals in recruiting students and donors.

Plainly, this is not a stable situation. Implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae will force these schools to clarify their mission, one way or the other.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. e-mail: jmorse@jps.net.