The Mind of the Church in Michigan

Change might have been the defining buzzword at St. Mary’s College of Madonna University for the past few years, but the Catholic school is using two others to bring constancy to its students: faith and reason.

In five years, St. Mary’s, located in Orchard Lake, Mich., has transformed itself from a small school founded by Polish settlers in the late 19th century into an arm of Ave Maria University in Ann Arbor, the school established by pizza baron Tom Monaghan.

But when Ave Maria ended its sponsorship just three years into the 10-year agreement, St. Mary’s was once again faced with an uncertain financial future. In July of 2003, the college acquired yet another identity when it was taken in by nearby Madonna University in Livonia and set up as a satellite center.

However, one program from its Ave Maria days has carried over. Faith and reason form the cornerstones of the school’s Catholic Integrated Core Curriculum (CICC), a program for undergraduates modeled on Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals Fides et Ratio and Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The CICC’s goal is to give students a comprehensive view of the truth as revealed by the Catholic faith.

“We want to integrate faith and reason, and help the student to develop not only just spiritually but definitely intellectually,” says Monica Migliorino Miller, an associate professor of sacred theology at St. Mary’s. “We want to take the whole person as God has made us. The program is shaped to honor the spiritual and the intellectual dimension of the human person.”

Faith Illuminates

The core courses — in liberal arts, cultural heritage, philosophy and theology — comprise a student’s entire freshman year and two courses in each of the next two years. Core seminars integrate a “great books” curriculum and focus on history from the ancient through the late modern world.

With its special emphasis on theology and philosophy, the CICC offers courses such as Introduction to Catholic Theology, Revelation & Scripture, Ethics and The Philosophical Quest.

Beginning next year, the first group of seniors to go through the CICC will participate in “Capstone” courses that draw connections between their chosen fields of study and the idea of vocation.

The core curriculum acts as an optional substitution for Madonna University’s general education requirements and is open to all students regardless of major. The writings of Pope John Paul II are a key component and a natural outgrowth of the school’s Polish heritage

“There are programs out there with similar kinds of themes, like Christendom and Thomas Aquinas,” says Thomas Woods, dean of St. Mary’s. “But what makes us unique is our distinctive focus on the writings of Pope John Paul II, in particular with respect to education. The program was directly inspired by Fides et Ratio. It was founded, clearly and explicitly, with that encyclical in mind.”

What’s also clear is the school’s faithfulness to the magisterium of the Catholic Church. Many of its materials highlight the fact that all theology and philosophy faculty have taken the Oath of Fidelity.

Patrick Reilly, president of Cardinal Newman Society, says that such a curriculum is not just a good idea academically, but is also integral to a school’s Catholic identity.

“The core curriculum is extremely important in a Catholic institution,” he says, “because students, in order to obtain a true Catholic education — everything they study needs to be informed by the Catholic faith.”

Treasure House

But it’s not just education for education’s sake, says Barbara Laboissonniere, an assistant professor of English who helped design the curriculum.

When the group of professors, under Ave Maria’s direction, set out to create a liberal-arts program that was both traditional and innovative, she notes, they specifically wanted to explore how they could answer Pope John Paul II’s call to discover truth through faith and reason.

Freshman Marko Djonovic says this guidance toward truth is a marked difference from what he experienced before he transferred to Madonna University.

“I felt like teachers were giving their opinions,” he says of the community college he formerly attended. “They were pushing their opinions on you. But here, they talk about what Socrates thinks, what Aristotle thinks, what Plato thinks — not what professor Bob or Dan thinks.”

In next year’s Capstone courses, professors will rely on what Miller calls the “treasure house of (Catholic) teachings having to do with social welfare, social justice and respect for the human person.”

Woods says the Capstone courses set the CICC apart from similar programs.

“Our curriculum was founded to be integrated with the major, and not necessarily a major in the liberal arts,” he adds. “A student can major in nursing or in business or in education, and we emphasize very clearly that you’re supposed to connect the two together.”

In part due to the opening of the St. Mary’s campus and one other center — and in part due to its academic programs and 13-1 student-to-faculty ratio — Madonna University’s enrollment has increased steadily in recent years.

This fall, the school will offer a Catholic major and minor, and students not enrolled in the core curriculum can take courses toward a Catholic minor to guide them in their professions.

The CICC, say professors, will only get stronger.

“It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride,” said Laboissonniere, who credits Madonna University’s support and interaction with the continuation of the CICC, “but we have great faith that there’s so much beauty and potential that our prayers and wishes and hope and belief is that this is just going to blossom.”

Dana Lorelle writes from

Cary, North Carolina.