National Catholic Register


Transition to Secular Mind-Set on Campuses Evolved Over Years

Pragmatic reasons, more than skepticism about faith, contributed to the change in the character of U.S. universities

BY James Hitchcock

May 3-9, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/3/98 at 2:00 PM


The cultural movement called the Renaissance was in part an academic quarrel between scholastics, who believed that only systematic logic could lead to truth, and humanists, who favored literary and historical studies. Most universities eventually expanded their curricula to include humanistic disciplines.

Although practically all of the Church's formal theology was pursued in the scholastic mode, the humanists, in attacking scholasticism, were not attacking faith. Their approach did not mean that religion became less important, merely that it might be studied differently (preferring Augustine's Confessions, for example, to Aquinas’ Summa).

The medieval universities had been under Church authority not only in terms of what was taught but also in the sense that, outside law and medicine, virtually all the masters were priests, most of them members of religious orders, and most of the students were at some point ordained at least to minor orders. The Church was by far the largest employer of university graduates.

In the Renaissance, more and more laymen became affiliated with the universities, both as masters and as students, and graduates began to pursue a greater variety of secular careers, especially in the service of civil governments. Thus while humanism did not cause the secularization of the universities, it did to some extent laicize them.


The Protestant Reformation was to a great extent also fought within the universities—Martin Luther was a professor, and his 95 Theses were intended as a call for an academic debate. Both sides realized that the fundamental issues were theological and had to be addressed by scholars.

The result was that, if anything, the Refor mation strengthened the religious character of the universities by making Church authorities, Catholic and Protestant, highly conscious of doctrinal orthodoxy. Of course as a result of the Reformation many universities that had long been under the aegis of the Catholic Church were lost.

Second of three parts on the Hstory of Religion and Universities

The Galileo case of the 17th century, which turned on the question of whether the sun was the center of the universe, seemed to threaten the very assumption on which the existence of the universities were based—the harmony of faith and reason. For the most part the scientific revolution moved forward outside universities, however, and eventually Galileo's proposed resolution of the conflict—that the Bible was not meant to teach astronomy but merely used the accepted language of its day—was almost universally accepted in Catholic circles.

It was rather the Enlightenment of the 18th century that marked the full—scale assault on religious beliefs. Unlike Galileo, intellectuals like Voltaire did not believe faith and reason were compatible, and they dismissed faith as not having any intellectual foundation. Most of the universities of the 18th century were intellectually rather moribund and, as with the scientific revolution, the great intellectual changes took place elsewhere. The universities remained officially Christian, but their intellectual torpor prevented them from providing vigorous defenses of religion as it came under increasing attack from intellectuals outside the university system.

As often happens with ideas, change was brought about not by debate but by force—the French Revolution abolished the control that the Churches exerted over the universities in Europe. Although attempts were made to restore this control after 1815, they were only partially successful. For much of the 19th century the European universities existed according to either of two quite different models.

Oxford and Cambridge, not directly affected by the French Revolution, continued in fairly traditional fashion. Religion dominated, to the point that students had to belong to the Anglican Church and professors had to be Anglican clergy. Students lived in residential colleges where the faculty took responsibility for their moral and religious lives. Those institutions saw their task as forming educated and devout Christians.

The German model of the university went in an entirely different direction. There, faculties were opened to men who might be skeptical of faith, and students were to a great extent left on their own in terms of their personal lives. Above all the German universities committed themselves to the new “scientific” model of higher education.

According to this model, the universities’ principal task was “research” in the sense of pushing back the boundaries of knowledge through systematic rational inquiry, a task that was to be pursued even if it had a negative effect on religion and other traditional beliefs. Ideally the university was to educate people to be “objective” thinkers, unhampered by prejudice or dogma, who would follow the path of rational investigation wherever it might lead.


The German universities did not ignore religion, but the continued presence of theology within their walls actually had negative consequences for the Churches. The “scientific” method was inherently suspicious of all orthodoxy, and theological faculties came to think of themselves as alternative sources of religious authority to that of the Churches themselves. The Bible and other sources of religious belief were to be subjected to the same kind of “objective” scrutiny that other subjects received. The ultimate standard of truth was not any claim of divine authority but prevailing scholarly opinions within the universities themselves.

The Puritans of New England valued a learned clergy, so that colleges, which eventually became universities, were founded quite early (Harvard already in 1635). Well into the 19th century most American schools followed the English model in which religion dominated.

However, by about 1820 there was already some dissatisfaction with the orthodoxy of what would later be called the “Ivy League” colleges, so that devout Protestants felt the need to found new schools that would be more faithful than the old appeared to be. In time these newer schools also came to be suspected of heterodoxy, and yet newer institutions were founded, a process that has continued in American Protestantism up to the present.

By the late 19th century Harvard was deliberately moving in a secular direction, because of the intellectual and spiritual collapse of New England Calvinism. Yale and Princeton retained their religious character somewhat longer.

Skepticism was not necessarily the major reason for this secularizing trend. Perhaps more important was the desire to adapt the school to what were seen as changing social needs— preparing students for business and other professional careers rather than for the clergy, and expanding the curriculum to include subjects considered useful to the modern industrial age.

For a time, the best secular universities in America, like Oxford and Cambridge, effected a compromise between the German model and their own tradition. Increasingly they recruited professors with respectable scholarly credentials, but hoped they had sympathy for the institution's religious traditions. Until the 1960s these schools continued to exert supervision over the personal lives of their students.


The Catholic institutions of higher learning in America came from yet a third educational tradition, which dated to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages (summed up in, among other places, the ratio studiorum of the Jesuit order). By the early 20th century there was some concern in Catholic circles that the very way in which they structured their curricula was unfamiliar to most American educators. Graduates of Catholic schools sometimes suffered discrimination in getting into secular law and medical schools, for example.

Gradually, after 1900, the Catholic universities began to adopt the prevailing American synthesis of the English and German approaches. They broadened their curricula, including professional subjects like medicine and business, and recruited faculty with respectable professional credentials, while at the same time still insuring that Catholic teaching was respected everywhere in the institution and that the moral and spiritual welfare of students was cared for.

As with the some of the secular schools, this synthesis worked reasonably well until the 1960s, when the Catholic schools finally began to feel the pull of secularization.

James Hitchcock is a professor of history at St. Louis University.