Catholic Education, Secular Campus: Growing Movement Provides Intellectual Formation to Catholic Students, Wherever They Are

As private college costs continue to rise, alternative approaches to Catholic higher ed are emerging as an important option.

The St. Lawrence Catholic Center serves students who attend the University of Kansas. The center’s offerings include Catholic educational seminars.
The St. Lawrence Catholic Center serves students who attend the University of Kansas. The center’s offerings include Catholic educational seminars. (photo: Courtesy of the St. Lawrence Catholic Center)

A for-credit course called “The Great Catholic Adventure.” 

A theology of the body lecture by a Dominican priest. 

A seminar on St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules for the Discernment of Spirits.

While these kinds of offerings can certainly be found at distinctly Catholic institutes of higher education, from Thomas Aquinas College to Ave Maria University, they are increasingly common at a different sort of venue: secular university campuses across America.

“The Great Catholic Adventure,” for instance, is available to students at Arizona State University; “Thomistic Underpinnings of the Theology of the Body” is being taught at the University of Texas at Austin; and the seminar on the discernment of spirits is being held for students of the University of Kansas.

No, the administrations of these state schools have not been infiltrated by Catholics who are now using public money to push the faith. Instead, offerings like these are made possible by a growing movement of apostolates dedicated to providing students at secular universities with the opportunity to receive a Catholic intellectual formation.


Going Where the Students Are

The logic behind the growth of these alternative Catholic higher-education options is simple: Catholic students at the university level should be receiving a Catholic education, no matter where they’re studying. And increasingly, Catholic students are to be found at non-Catholic colleges and universities.

“There are lots of Catholic students who don’t go to Catholic colleges, and, as a consequence, they don’t have the opportunity to read Augustine, Aquinas, Dante or Dorothy Day,” explained Terence Sweeney, the theologian-in-residence at the Collegium Institute, serving the University of Pennsylvania community. “And if they do, it might not be in a way that is steeped in the Catholic vision.”

According to the Catholic Campus Ministry Association’s 2017 “State of Catholic Campus Ministry” study, 3 million Catholic undergrads are enrolled at non-Catholic colleges and universities, while 900,000 total students are attending Catholic schools. Taking into account the USCCBs estimate that only 60% of the students at Catholic colleges and universities identify as Catholic, this means that only 15% of Catholic undergrads are receiving their intellectual formation at a Catholic institution of higher education.

A variety of factors are likely behind this trend, but certainly one is the rising cost of a private college education. Tuition has increased exponentially at all forms of higher education over the past 40 years, but the gap between public and private options is still considerable. In 2021-2022, the average cost of annual tuition and fees at a private college was $38,185 — nearly $30,000 more than what a student would typically pay for a year of education at their state’s public school.

Relatedly, as the typical Catholic college has gone more “mainstream” in recent years, offering a less distinct education and formation, steep attendance prices may be increasingly harder for parents and students to justify paying.

Whatever the case, what’s clear to many is that something beyond the “old model” of doing Catholic intellectual formation in America is needed for the higher education landscape of today.

“If we want to actually reach these students and provide robust formation, both academic and moral, we need to look outside the current context,” said Richard Meloche, president of the Alcuin Institute for Catholic Culture, an initiative of the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, that provides a for-credit “Catholic Imagination Fellowship” to local Catholics enrolled in college among its other offerings. “The rise of these smaller institutions to provide that formation that [Catholic students] can’t receive elsewhere — I think it’s a wonderful change in higher ed.”

Different Forms

Efforts to provide a Catholic intellectual formation to students on secular campuses come in all shapes and sizes, a reflection of the adaptability advocates say is needed to make these endeavors work.  

Some initiatives exist as a part of already established Catholic campus presences, like Newman Centers, which minister to the pastoral needs of students at secular universities, but sometimes offer something more.

For example, the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers for-credit classes through the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, a partnership between the Newman Center and St. Gregory the Great Seminary under the auspices of the Diocese of Lincoln. Through this institute, students can earn credit toward a University of Nebraska-Lincoln degree by taking classes like “Seeking Happiness: Artistic, Historical and Philosophical Perspectives” and “The Person in the World: Ethics in Theory & Application” that are taught at the Newman Center.

An innovative arrangement is found at Arizona State University, where students can enroll in Mary College, a domestic exchange program that allows them to take Catholic studies courses offered by the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, in the same building that houses the All Saints Catholic Newman Center. An ASU student can even major or minor in Catholic studies through Mary College — all while never leaving campus in Tempe. 

On some campuses, dedicated Catholic centers offer all-in-one formation that attends to both the intellectuel and spiritual needs of their students. The St. Lawrence Catholic Center at the University of Kansas and the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder both fit the bill, with the latter even existing as its own university parish.

At other colleges and universities, Catholic centers exist with a more exclusive focus on intellectual formation. That’s the case at the University of Chicago, where the Lumen Christi Institute, one of the longest-standing institutes for Catholic intellectual formation at a secular university, operates distinctly from the university’s archdiocesan-run Calvert House, which offers Mass, retreats and service opportunities.

The Lumen Christi Institute’s lectures and master classes have put participating University of Chicago students under the tutelage of internationally renowned Catholic intellectuals like Rémi Brague and Jean-Luc Marion. Jennifer Frey, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina who formerly taught at the University of Chicago, leads a seminar on virtue, including the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. 

Not all instances of Catholic intellectual formation on secular campuses, however, look like a dedicated building and staff. The Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C., (associated with the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies) offers a “Campus Chapters” program by which students are empowered to start their own organizations for studying Catholic thought on their respective campuses. The institute provides funding and helps students invite speakers from a curated list to their college (thus, the theology of the body lecture at the University of Texas at Austin). Thomistic Institute-sponsored speakers include well-known Catholic academics like Thomas Hibbs, Brad Gregory and Chad Pecknold.

Student interest in this program has boomed, with chapters of the Thomistic Institute at the U.S. Naval Academy, Harvard, Yale, Duke and Georgetown — among many more. According to Caleb Whitmer, the institute’s manager of campus chapters and communications, there are more than 80 chapters, with at least 50 applications pending. 

Same Mission

Though different institutes present different approaches to the project of Catholic education in a secular context, there are common threads: community, an incarnational ethos and openness to the big questions, including welcoming students of other faiths or no faith at all into a Catholic context.

The Collegium Institute, for example, hosts a four-semester program for Penn students called the Catholic Humanism Fellowship that explores the true, the good and the beautiful. It also acts as a home for projects like Dappled Things magazine and the Ars Vivendi Arts Initiative. Through these projects, the institute offers a space to ask big questions. “Those universal questions just aren’t as central as they could be,” said Sweeney. “We want to create the space for thinking about those things in a robust way.”

Sweeney estimated that 60% to 70% of those who participate in the institute’s non-credit seminars are not Catholic. And the Collegium Institute is not alone in openness to participation by non-Catholics: Michael LeChevallier, the associate director of the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago, said that the institute’s many events and offerings help build a “living dialogue” between the Catholic intellectual tradition and the secular university context.

These initiatives can also provide formation to Catholic students who begin their programs less engaged with their faith and leave with an enthusiasm for Catholic thought and culture. Grace Temaat, a senior nursing major at the University of Kansas (known as KU), was not expecting Catholic intellectual formation when she first started college. She was born and raised Catholic, but in choosing KU, she was attracted by the “phenomenal medical program” that KU offered, not the Catholic presence on campus.

She encountered the St. Lawrence Catholic Center in her second freshman semester, when she enrolled in a class the center offered on “The Human Person.” At the time, St. Lawrence was offering a sequence of for-credit classes through Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, that provided a Catholic education for students at the secular, public University of Kansas. (These classes were inherited from the now-discontinued-but-still-famed Integrated Humanities Program at KU: A memorial to the program stands on the grounds of the St. Lawrence Catholic Center.) 

Another student, Ellie Aykroyd, a senior majoring in management and leadership who helped to organize the series “Ad Astra,” centered around discussions of aspects of Church teaching, said of the St. Lawrence Center: “I don’t know who I would be or where I would be without it.”

The importance of a physical location for building community is, as multiple administrators stressed, paramount. The Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center, serving the University of Colorado-Boulder, is a standalone parish with a coffee shop attached where students can come to study. “The Gospel always comes incarnate,” said Father Peter Mussett, the center’s pastor. 

Similarly, the St. Lawrence Center has a standalone building and staff. Student men live in the center’s nearby Newman house, and there is a women’s house forthcoming, but the center itself provides a sense of physical community to the students that frequent it. Temaat said, “I literally wouldn’t even call it a building — it is a home.” 

Another Newman Center stalwart with on-campus housing is St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on the University of Illinois’ flagship campus. St. John’s, with its church and dorm, is located in the heart of the public-university campus.

Just as at other Newman Centers, St. John’s offers solid spiritual formation — including daily Mass, adoration and confession — that augments the students’ academic disciplines on the Big Ten campus, as public “universities are not equipped to address that [spiritual] aspect,” Father Robert Lampitt, head chaplain, acknowledged.

The Newman Center, which once offered for-credit classes — though the university ended that partnership about a decade ago — focuses on the formation of Catholic student leaders through small groups, including Bible studies and retreats, while “looking out for the lost and reaching out to them,” according to Father Lampitt, a University of Illinois and St. John’s alumnus.

“At public universities … big state schools, students are getting great intellectual formation in a particular discipline, but not the full breadth of what it means to be human and made in God’s likeness — that is what the Church is about, equipping us to be fully human,” and that is what St. John’s provides.

Father Lampitt hopes to work with a faithful Catholic college to offer theological courses for interested students in the near future.

He emphasized, “The world needs excellent doctors, lawyers and engineers — and it is good for the students to study those disciplines — but what the world needs more is excellent human beings” who know, love and serve God and help others to do so, too.

Advantages in New Approach

Some might see Catholic intellectual formation efforts at secular campuses as remedial, a limited attempt to provide a “real education” and “real college experience” that the modern secular university context is seen as lacking. Indeed, multiple students told the Register that their experience with alternative Catholic higher-education initiatives gave a glimpse of “how college was supposed to be.” 

But, for the most part, the educators and administrators of these institutions see their work not as making the best of a subpar situation, but rather as an opportunity for growth and flourishing for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In fact, some argue that unique fruits emerge from offering religious insights on decidedly secular campuses.

“I’m a great believer in Catholic education and the possibilities it offers, but I think in many ways this is one of the best ways of actually living out the Second Vatican Council,” Sweeney emphasized. The goal, in his view, is neither to retreat from the world nor to succumb to the secularity of the surrounding culture, but to “bring a message of joy and hope to people in their worries and anxieties.” 

Sweeney also added that non-credit seminars like those the Collegium Institute offers, over the period of a student’s four-year academic career, can create “a kind of ... openness” between instructor and student that isn’t necessarily present in a formal classroom scenario.

Something else that’s unique about the approach is the students’ active interest and desire in what these Catholic study centers have to offer. Because involvement in the offerings of a study center isn’t required to earn a degree, the students who participate are there because they genuinely want to be.

“What’s always incredibly edifying to me is the enthusiasm of the students for the Catholic intellectual tradition,” said Whitmer of the Thomistic Institute. 

This enthusiasm is related to the intentionally welcoming community that such institutes foster. Daniel Cheely, executive director of the Collegium Institute, pointed to the friendly communal atmosphere that the institute strives to cultivate, referring to its “rich culture of hospitality.”

This atmosphere seems to exist among the administrators of these organizations, as well; administrators shared a sense of newfound growth in this part of the Church’s ministry and good relationships among the various groups. As Cheely put it, “Everybody’s doing good things — none of us can do it alone.” 

Editor’s Note: Register editors Jonathan Liedl and Amy Smith contributed to this story.