Resurrecting Catholic Higher Education

COMMENTARY: It seems like the path to Catholic and liberal arts education is to hunker down at high-quality but tiny colleges.

Eucharistic procession is held during a Franciscan University conference in 2019.
Eucharistic procession is held during a Franciscan University conference in 2019. (photo: Catholify / Franciscan University)

All over the country, high school students are opening shiny brochures inviting them to institutions of higher education. Reading them, they will consider campus amenities, job prospects for graduates, tuition rates, and whether they like the school colors. 

Some will ask deeper questions:

Will this school help me discover truth? Will it show me a path to a beautiful life? Will I learn to be virtuous, just, and good at this school? Will this be a school that sets me on the path towards the Master whom we hope will say to us “well done good and faithful servant”? 

These students might turn to various college guides that will give them advice. Many Catholics rightly look to the Cardinal Newman Society guide to Catholic colleges. These college guides often focus on a collection of excellent and small colleges. Schools like Thomas Aquinas College, University of Dallas and Franciscan University lead the way along with even smaller institutes like Magdalen College. It seems like the path to Catholic and liberal arts education is to hunker down at high-quality but tiny colleges. 

This development occurs largely because of the failures of fidelity at Catholic universities. James Keating, in his essay “Who Killed the Catholic University?” describes himself as a madman crying out that Catholic higher education has died and demanding to know who has killed it. 

His article focuses on the abject failure of U.S. Catholic universities to live from the heart of the Church. Keating laments the twilight of Catholic higher education. But he ends his article by pointing to the light. He happily emphasizes the proliferation of Newman-endorsed schools, but he points to other hopeful developments in higher education. In the ruins of Catholic universities, departments and programs have arisen to carry on the light.


A New Newman Guide

This article is a kind of supplement to the Newman and Register college guides for the committed Christian high schooler, the young person afire for truth and parents tending those commitments and that fire. The Catholic university is in a terminal condition and yet there are revitalizations that you should not ignore. 

Don’t overlook the big Catholic universities if you seek an education ordered towards truth and the salvation of souls. Even in secularized places, students can find a real education. In those moribund institutions, there are flourishing institutes that may offer a more enriching path than tiny Catholic colleges. 

John Paul II, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, called on Catholic colleges to live from the heart of the Church and unite “two orders of reality … the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” But Ex Corde Ecclesiae was not enacted. Having given up on the knowledge of the fount of truth, Catholic universities are increasingly giving up on truth itself preferring job preparation on behalf of large corporations while following every other university down the path of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

And yet I would propose that one should pause before one does. First it is not all doom and gloom. Catholic universities are not dead yet. When we speak of the death of Catholic higher education, we should be able to tell the difference between the good ones and the bad ones. 

At many of those universities, Catholic studies and humanities departments have taken up the task of living from the heart of the Church. In these thriving departments, students steep themselves in the works of St. Paul, Dante, Catherine of Siena, and Shūsaku Endō. Living in tight-knit intentional communities, they seek truth while filled with the confidence that the Truth seeks them in their seeking. 

I have personally encountered three flourishing versions of this phenomenon. I earned my master’s degree in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. There I met undergraduates on pilgrimage with Dante, reading St. John Henry Newman on the development of doctrine, and seeking to understand the complementarity of woman and man through Sigrid Undset’s novels. 

Amid our studies, we went to Mass together, danced together and perhaps learned to smoke a pipe over a Minnesota craft beer. Now I find myself in the Humanities Department at Villanova. There, students seek a path of wisdom forged by Augustine in a program centered on great questions. Each class is inspired by Augustine’s endless questioning about good of the person, the loves of a society, the miraculous ordering of the world, and the good of the loving God who orders all things. It is a place where students find out the deepest reality is that we are loved and so ought to love. 

Possibly more surprising than this renewed life is the new life popping up at secular universities. Take the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture. It serves the University of Pennsylvania. With a mission that must make Benjamin Franklin roll over in the grave, Collegium offers students the chance to ask universal questions while offering them Catholicism’s answers to those same questions. These three institutions know that seeking the truth is grounded in our confidence that Christ is the source and summit of truth. 

There are many such institutes and departments at universities like the University of Southern California, Princeton, or my beloved alma mater Providence College. Those who claim that Catholic Studies programs mean that the university’s Catholic identity is dying are partially right. And yet, it is hard to argue with the robust quality of these departments in the ruins. We are all living in the ruins whether we are at Thomas Aquinas College or St. Thomas. Our task is to carry the light in those ruins. 


A Broader Vision

The Newman Guide and the Register’s college guide are a great service to young people and their families. The often-tiny colleges they highlight are exemplars of fidelity and witness to the meaning of education. And yet we do need a richer guide to options at Catholic and secular universities. There is too much good going on — too many excellent professors and thriving departments — to just ignore them. 

Consider the young person with the talent and interest to study advanced science. To attend UPenn is to have some the greatest science programs in the world. Based in their intellectual home of Collegium and their spiritual home at the Newman Center, students can learn the research skills necessary to consider quantum condensed matter physics. At Villanova, you can learn to be a skilled entrepreneur, a nurse, or engineer while steeping yourself in Catholic social thought so that your business, medical practice, and civil engineering serves the common good as ordered to the highest good. 

These departments and programs act as intellectual homes for students while enabling them to pursue broader research and vocational training. They offer an education into the transcendentals, the fundamental questions, and the encounter with the Incarnate Truth. They do so in the context of the broader possibilities of universities where scientific research and vocational learning are possible. The world is going to need people formed in wisdom and technical skills, in the Christian intellectual tradition and advanced research.

There is a second reason to consider such programs in such universities. They offer the opportunity to radiate faith to a lonely and lost generation. Attending Christendom College is a bit like following in the steps of St. Benedict. Separated from the world one learns richly. But to attend Duquesne for Catholic Studies or the University of Chicago, while participating in Lumen Christi, is to follow Augustine, Dominic, and Francis into the city. You ground yourself in a community that lives Ex Corde Ecclesiae as a witness to those who live from the heart of the earthly city. 

Countless are the students who see the joy of students in a humanities seminar and want to find that joy. Or they luck out and land in a required course taught by a Catholic studies professor and discover that faith is the real path for reason. These students find themselves suddenly restless for the God who is the only rest of the human heart. Through the witness of the believing students, they are inspired to journey to the heart of the Church. 

Such an education is a preparation for how to witness to faith in a pluralistic world that is generally apathetic or hostile to the faith. Whether tuned out or too angry, the denizens of universities are potential Christians. Give them the opportunity to see some actual Christians and maybe they will shift from mere potentiality to the richest of actualities. Learning from this experience will give you the preparation to evangelize beyond the college walls. 


Reasons for Our Hoping

Keating is right that there is much to lament in the world of Catholic education. And yet he is also right that we have reason to have hope for the revitalization of that education even if only on a smaller scale. Thomas Aquinas College has started a second campus; Catholic Studies at St. Thomas is 30 years old; Villanova’s Humanities Department is 20, and the Collegium Institute is 10. 

The programs at the heart of the Church are a source of hope and renewal. Their revitalization is a sign of the Christ’s power to revive what seems dead. 

Long ago, I was a student of the mad professor Keating. Dead to the faith I was dead in my soul. It was with him that I first read Nietzsche and considered the death of God. But I also read Aquinas, Pascal and Dostoevsky. What I found — a wannabe new Atheist — was that God is the God of the living, that the God who ‘died’ on Calvary resurrected, that amidst secularity there is still the shining light of hope. I only found this light because of those madmen who stayed in the ruins to cultivate it. 

As we see a burgeoning of classical schools on the K-12 level, we will need to direct those students to a variety of possibilities for collegiate education. For students considering where they want to land, they should seriously consider the possibilities of an education ex corde ecclesiae within the secular academy. They may find that not only can they seek the true, love the beautiful, and serve the good, they can manifest the true, beautiful, and good to others. 

To live from the heart of the Church sometimes means reviving what seems near dead and striking out into the depths. For young people considering where they want to go to college, consider this your shiny brochure and your Newman guide supplement. Catholic higher education is being revitalized all around us. Be a part of that revitalization.