What Does It Mean for a School to Have a ‘Catholic Identity’?

If you’re someone who values a school’s Catholic identity in addition to rewarding academics, you’ve come to the right place.

Faith is at the heart of these Catholic colleges and universities.
Faith is at the heart of these Catholic colleges and universities. (photo: Unsplash)

The decision to attend college is one of those pivotal moments in life. So is choosing the one that best suits your career goals while continuing to form you in the Catholic faith. If you’re someone who values a school’s Catholic identity in addition to rewarding academics, you’ve come to the right place.

The National Catholic Register is proud to present its 19th-annual “Catholic Identity College Guide,” a carefully curated list of 44 educational institutions, primarily but not exclusively in the United States, which are committed to goals of academic excellence while boldly proclaiming their fidelity to the Catholic faith.

But first of all, what is “Catholic identity”? Here we have to go back a bit in history. In 1990, Pope St. John Paul II published his apostolic constitution on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), in which he laid out essential elements for the renewal of Catholic identity for universities. The core vision of the document: “Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected. Any official action or commitment of the university is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”

In 2000, the Vatican asked the U.S. bishops to produce an application of Ex Corde, including legally binding norms; and the next year, the USCCB published its “Application to the United States” for Ex Corde. 

It recognized a student’s right to receive instruction in authentic Catholic doctrine, especially from theologians, and affirmed the requirement of the mandatum.

Among the elements of Catholic identity were:

  • having an administration, trustees and faculty who believe what the Church teaches and promote it on campus;
  •   having a majority of faculty that is Catholic;
  •  offering daily Mass and confession on campus;
  •  excluding advocates of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning; or the redefinition of marriage as commencement speakers and/or recipients of honorary degrees;
  • having student health services prohibit referrals to abortion businesses.

Since 2004, the Register has used this blueprint to create a distinctive questionnaire we send to colleges and universities every year; and to their credit, many have responded. 

In fact, many of the names you see in 2023 were with us in our first “Catholic Identity College Guide.” It is truly one of the few, if the only, objective measures of the effort by Catholic colleges and universities to achieve basic Catholic identity.

While we are grateful to list the 44 colleges, universities and academies who chose to participate in this year’s “College Guide,” we wish that even more of the schools to whom we send the questionnaire decided to participate. 

In 2023, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities lists “230 Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States” alone. Where are the others? Regrettably, many have sacrificed their Catholic identity for worldly prestige and public image, but we should pray that they act decisively to regain their Catholicity.

Every year, we receive letters from both parents and students who have used the Register’s “College Guide” to sharpen their focus in their search for colleges that are unabashed in their commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church or on the road to renewing their university commitment to their Catholic identity. 

We believe that providing this guide has never been more important, given the wide range of attempts in our society today to marginalize or bully Catholics and their beliefs. Parents can find relief in knowing that there are still places where their children can pursue their call to sanctity within a faithful Catholic college community. 

And students can be reassured that, at such a pivotal time in their lives, they can find a college home where they can pursue that sanctity and make their faith their own.