Identity Crisis on Campuses?

DALLAS—Not everyone at the University of Dallas knows how to pray the rosary. Some students carouse more than they ought and a few even roll their eyes at all the talk of ecclesial authority.

But many students do pray in their dormitories, and they go to Mass regularly. They know that in classes and other places on campus they will hear the official Church view of the world.

“The theology programs here are a nice change,” said Rachel Deeken, a sophomore from Springfield, Mo., who had never before had Catholic schooling. “It's nice to see a lot of the teachers at daily Mass. I really like the ... general attitude here.”

There is little dispute that since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic colleges have come more to resemble secular colleges, in everything from academics to student life and composition of faculty.

The trend has been strong enough to inspire the founding of new schools to buck the secularization trend and to offer an explicitly and unapologetically Catholic education. These post-counciliar colleges include Thomas Aquinas in California, Christendom in Virginia, and Magdalen in New Hampshire.

While arguments about what makes a college Catholic have raged for decades, the University of Dallas and a few other institutions of higher learning that predate Vatican II have quietly retained standards and practices that leave little doubt about their Catholic identity.

“We try to do it in all aspects of the university,” said Glen Thurow, dean of the Texas liberal arts school, which has almost 3,000 students. Founded in 1956 in response to the Protestant culture of north Texas, the university saw itself as a Catholic stronghold from the start. That view remains.

Everyone in the theology department is Catholic. Christian writers like Dante, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are a major part of classes in literature and philosophy. Science faculty acknowledge that learning about the universe around us supports rather than negates the idea of God.

“We try to hire faculty members who regard their Catholicity as important and regard the teaching magisterium of the Church as something that should be paid attention to and given proper respect,” said Thurow. “All of our faculty members in theology have felt free to explore, knowing there is a big difference in looking at things that are part of Church teaching that might be laid out and properly examined and calling out the newspaper and saying the pope is utterly wrong.”

Thurow admitted that, when it comes to sex and drinking, students are less disciplined than in the 1950s. But he added the university does what it can to “create an atmosphere that will guide students in the right way.”

T-shirts and Cybersermons

At Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., students walk around campus wearing T-shirts that say “Wake up to the 7 a.m. Mass.” The message refers not only to the early Sunday worship but the clean living that tends to go with it. With 2,200 students, Assumption requires a heavy load of theology and philosophy courses and has a centrally located, unmistakably Catholic chapel.

In October, 300 of the school's athletes packed the chapel and received medals of St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes.

On the college Web site, an Assumptionist priest visiting the Holy Land sends frequent reflections on faith called “God-OnLine.” Assumptionists, who founded the school in 1904, make up a third of the college's board of trustees, which also includes Worcester Bishop Daniel Reilly. That makeup is unusually religious by modern standards.

“We are not a parish and not a retreat house and we are not a seminary, but our motto is ‘Until Christ be formed in you,’” said Thomas Plough, president of Assumption. “We have been fairly autonomous, but have not given up the mission. The search for truth does not negate the fact that there is a source of all truth.”

In its philosophy-of-curriculum statement, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, speaks of a “dynamic orthodoxy” in which all knowledge is viewed strictly in relationship to Christian truths. The university is divided into “households” of six or a dozen students who pray together and encourage each other in the faith.

The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., the nation's only institution of higher learning with a papal charter, is reaffirming its identity via a new leader.

“My hopes for the future are simple: that The Catholic University of America will see, once again, its responsibility as the national university of the Church in the United States — to be what its name proclaims,” explains Vincentian Father David O'Connell, president of the 6,000-student school since last fall. “I envision an institution that is of the highest academic caliber while also being true to its identity and mission without compromise or condition.”

The Highest Science

St. John's and Niagara universities both reject New York state funding to avoid compromising their Catholicity. Father O'Connell, who held administrative posts at both schools, explained that what makes a university Catholic is the same as what makes an individual Catholic: faithfulness to the Gospel and Church teachings, commitment to the dignity of human life, commitment to service, and commitment to a spiritual life.

To be “Catholic,” theology must be presented “as a science in communion with the church,” Father O'Connell said. Not all leaders of colleges with Catholic connections want to do quite what Dallas, Assumption, and CUA are doing.

In his apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae Pope John Paul II had the highest praise for theology. But he also said, “Every Catholic university feels responsible to contribute concretely to the progress of the society within which it works: for example it will be capable of searching for ways to make university education accessible to all those who are able to benefit from it, especially the poor or members of minority groups who customarily have been deprived of it. A Catholic university also has the responsibility, to the degree that it is able, to help to promote the development of the emerging nations” (No. 32).

Community Service

In the past five years, most colleges have started paying more attention to their Catholic identity. A study of 25 Catholic colleges released this month at the University of Dayton shows that schools have “become much more concerned with their mission and maintaining the Catholic character.”

Many Catholic colleges and universities have hired religious to keep an eye on mission and Catholic identity.

For four years, Irish Christian Brother Jack Mostyn has led such an effort at Iona College in New Rochelle, 25 miles north of New York. “Students like what we do here,” said Brother Mostyn. “They say, ‘This Catholic stuff you teach is clear and unambiguous.’”

Brother Mostyn believes that the strong community service program at Iona is a hallmark of a Catholic identity on the rise. Students travel to help at an Indian reservation, in Appalachian towns and on the streets of Manhattan. Brother Mostyn called it an “anthropological theology,” a discipline that helps students learn about “the overpowering presence of God in everyday life.”

Holy Cross Sister Rose Anne Schultz, vice president for mission at St. Mary's College, a womens school in South Bend, Ind., travels the country helping colleges develop plans for fine-tuning their Catholic identity. She tells campus leaders that the real identity test is how students, faculty and staff live out Catholic values.

“How this is integrated throughout the institution is a challenge,” says Sister Schultz. “I think we have done pretty well so far at St. Mary's. You find that everyone has to have a share in this or it won't quite work.”

Some analysts are cautious about the emphasis on community service, and wonder why more attention isn't paid to ensuring a Catholic perspective in classroom material and the composition of the faculty.

They cite another passage from Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in which the Pope writes, “One consequence of [a Catholic university's] essential relationship to the Church is that the institutional fidelity of the university to the Christian message includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals. Catholic members of the university community are also called to a personal fidelity to the Church with all that this implies. Non-Catholic members are required to respect the Catholic character of the university, while the university in turn respects their religious liberty” (No. 27).

They worry that many Catholic colleges are giving up their identity in a bid to be more like secular schools. That trend began in 1967, says Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society. That is when a number of Catholic college presidents convened in Wisconsin and wrote what has become known as the Land of Lakes document.

The statement voiced a desire to take Catholic colleges from second-class status to a level of respect on a par with the Ivy League. The document, while insisting on a strong Catholic identity, asserted that excellence was possible only if the colleges were free from external authority.

“When you cut strings from the institutional church, you start to drift,” says Reilly. “Catholicism has been squeezed into a theology program that does not inform other activities on campus.”

Setting theology in its proper place atop the hierarchy of knowledge would have other good effects, such as tempering students' unwise forays into sex, alcohol, and drugs, Reilly predicts.

Community service and diversity are noble goals of a college, but do not make a school Catholic, argues commentator James Hitchcock. “It would be rather insulting to a secular university to say, as some Catholics do, that we are sensitive to injustice and you folks are not,” says Hitchcock, himself a professor of history at the Jesuits' St. Louis University.

Ed Langlois writes from Portland, Oregon.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy