The country’s first and — perhaps still only — exclusively online Catholic university is marking its 35th anniversary this year, a testament to the role it continues to play in the landscape of Catholic higher education.
Marianne Mount, the president of Catholic Distance University (CDU), said the anniversary has focused the school’s attention on its distinctive mission and identity. “Now, in the words of Pope Francis, the CDU is able to reach the peripheries,” Mount said.
Catholic Distance University was founded in 1983 by Bishop Thomas Welsh of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, who recognized a need for the formation of the laity after Vatican II’s teachings on the universal call to holiness and witnessing to Christ in the world.
Originally known as the Catholic Home Study Institute, the school offered long-distance education, which, in the mid-’80s, meant correspondence courses. It launched with two employees, two part-time professors and one course on the Apostles’ Creed based on tape recordings from Jesuit Father John Hardon, according to the school’s history.
At first, it couldn’t even grant real course credits or degrees. Instead, the institute merely made credit recommendations that students could claim through Gannon University in Pennsylvania.
Accredited in 1986, one decade later it was renamed Catholic Distance University when it launched its first degree, a Master of Arts in theology. A few years later, CDU started the move to online courses. It has also formed partnerships with the Diocese of Brooklyn and EWTN. Michael Warsaw, EWTN's Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, also the Register’s publisher, serves on CDU’s board of trustees. The school is regularly featured in the Register’s annual “Catholic Identity College Guide.”
Today, the school boasts 900 students, four degree programs between the undergraduate and graduate levels, continuing education, certificate programs and a little more than 30 faculty members. Everything comes together on an innovative virtual campus, complete with a digital cafe, where students can meet, and an online chapel, where they can post prayer intentions.
School officials expected that most students would be laypeople working for the Church as CCD teachers or directors of religious education — and many of them are. But the majority of students are business executives, doctors and other professionals who want a better understanding of their faith — contrary to the stereotype of long-distance schools as being only for those whose educations are incomplete.
In fact, one professor reportedly told Mount that it was not uncommon to have students who already had doctorates in other fields.
One such student was Dr. Angelo Giardino, who has both an M.D. and a Ph.D., in addition to a master’s degree in public health. Giardino said he decided to study theology out of a desire to apply the same rigor to his understanding of the faith that he had to the human body in medical school. He says Catholic Distance University allowed him to do that while maintaining his busy schedule as a doctor at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
Giardino says the master’s degree in theology that he obtained from CDU in 2016 has had an impact on his faith.
“It strengthened my faith tremendously, and now I feel like I understand it more,” he said. In particular, he says he credits the program with introducing him to the documents of Vatican II, a greater understanding of Scripture and a better appreciation of the liturgy and the role that the laity plays in it.
Now as a graduate, Giardino is giving back, serving on the board of trustees for CDU and as chairman of the alumni committee. As a pediatrician, he also advises the Church on how to “create a safe environment” for children and prevent child abuse.
Like Giardino, Sister Mary of the Angelus, of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, says the courses helped her get her degree amid a packed schedule as a member of a religious order that is active in a parish and a Catholic school. She says CDU went out of its way to accommodate her schedule — even when she struggled to find time for her studies.
“I have had a very positive experience with CDU. My schedule is not always the easiest to fit into, being a religious and active in a parish and school,” Sister Mary said. “So I really needed something that I could mingle well with my schedule. CDU fit the bill. For several factors, I have had to drop classes over the years since I’ve been here. And the staff and faculty have always assisted generously with my need.”
Unlike Giardino, Sister Mary’s education was somewhat incomplete: She did not have an undergraduate degree before entering CDU. Currently, she is studying for a bachelor’s degree in theology, which she says will support her work as a teacher at St. Paul’s School in Harlem or in another school or parish setting.
One current graduate student, Lan Nguyen, is hoping to use her degree to teach the love of God to children in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. She says the courses are both solidly faithful to Church teachings and convenient.
“I was excited to find that CDU has developed a very convenient and flexible online program with a great support system. Each course has introduced to me a different piece of the Church’s doctrine and God’s word, where I then find the truth and authentic love,” Nguyen said. “The thing I love most is having access to my coursework anytime and anywhere, and the staff is wonderful.”
The flexibility of CDU doesn’t just attract a certain type of student — it also draws professors who have a need for a fluid schedule. “We like to look for professors who, in the words of Pope Francis, have the smell of the sheep,” said Peter Brown, the academic dean and a professor in Scripture and biblical languages.
That means that many of its professors, like their students, also have other jobs. For example, Marcellino D’Ambrosio is a well-known Catholic writer and television commentator who runs Crossroads Initiative. Lori Dahlhoff, who teaches catechesis, is the digital content manager at Our Sunday Visitor. And Matthew Bunson is an EWTN senior contributor and senior editor for the Register. Brown himself found that teaching at CDU meshed well with the schedule he had as a graduate student finishing his Ph.D.
Professors, like students, are spread out not only all over the country, but across the world. One is a guide at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Another is the founder of a biblical and catechetical institute in the Archdiocese of Hobart in Australia.
“I find CDU has a vibrant learning community that genuinely reflects the universality of the Church,” Nguyen said.
While its virtual campus is global in scope, CDU does have a physical headquarters, located in Charleston, West Virginia. Students also have the opportunity to meet in person once a year at annual black-tie galas and academic convocations in Arlington, Virginia. This year, CDU will mark its 35th anniversary at a black-tie gala in November.
Its faith-filled mission continues unabated. As Brown said: “The 35th anniversary represents not a look back, but a look forward. We’ve grown from a small apostolate that mailed paper courses to curious Catholics to a cutting-edge online university.”
Stephen Beale writes from
Providence, Rhode Island.
This story was updated online July 23, 2018.