Secular ëComplexí Led Catholic Universities to Lose Their Way

By 1960 the American Catholic universities could take satisfaction in having successfully combined the demands of academic professionalism with the demands of faith.

At the heart of the undergraduate curriculum was scholastic philosophy, the principal legacy of the first universities, which had been established by the Church. To that had been added the humanistic studies of the Renaissance and the natural and social sciences developed in the 19th-century German system. Finally, the major Catholic universities had committed themselves to the kinds of professional education unique to America—law, medicine, dentistry, nursing, business, social work, engineering, architecture.

In terms of academic respectability, the Catholic schools had made significant progress since World War II. However, it is part of human nature that, as people approach their goals, they develop a heightened sense of frustration at how far they still have to go.

A Seminal Essay

In 1955, Church historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis wrote a famous essay, American Catholics and the Intellectual Life, which caused a sensation in Catholic academic circles. As is usually the case with writings that somehow take a grip on the public, Msgr. Ellis did not so much state something new as articulate what many other people had been thinking. He argued that, while Catholics were entering the mainstream of American life economically, socially, and politically, they were deficient intellectually. They had produced few great scholars, even fewer influential intellectuals.

The thesis set off a prolonged discussion in which various explanations were proposed, some attributing it to the legacy of an immigrant Church, some to a lack of imagination and vision, while others raised the question of whether the Catholic concept of religious authority was not itself a barrier to intellectual maturity. Whatever the cause, the Catholic universities were by now glancing nervously at the most prestigious secular schools and finding themselves wanting.

The successful attempt to combine academic quality with religious commitment was a relatively simple matter in 1960. Most schools were operated by a religious order, which increasingly sent its more intellectually talented members to obtain advanced degrees in a wide variety of subjects. Catholic lay people in increasing numbers were enrolling in graduate schools (Catholic or secular), and many of them returned to teach in Catholic institutions. Thus the universities could recruit faculty who were both professionally competent and committed to the faith. The system could accommodate an occasional non-Catholic in what were deemed not to be sensitive disciplines (mathematics, engineering), with the understanding that such professors would be in no way hostile to the Church.

In one respect, Catholic schools understood that they were unlikely ever to “catch up” with the Ivy League universities or the leading state schools—few Catholic schools could realistically hope to equal the financial resources of such institutions. But within those limits they resolved to continue to improve.

What no Catholic educator saw in 1960 was the fact that the prevailing secular system that they took as their model, and which imposed on them a permanent sense of inferiority, was itself just on the verge of being repudiated. Within less than a decade, the normative secular educational standards which Catholic schools had accepted would be abandoned by the very secular schools from which Catholics had borrowed them. Higher education, like the rest of the culture, changed with remarkable speed during the half-decade 1965-70, by the end of which the Catholic universities too had changed in ways even the most extravagant fantasist could not have predicted a decade before.

Since universities deal mainly with ideas, they are acutely prone to cultural crises occurring outside their walls, and the entire American system of higher education was plunged into a severe crisis by the phenomenon commonly known as “the ‘60s.” Indeed, the new left and the counter-culture— related but distinct movements—were centered on the campuses, practically the only institutions that willingly gave them a home. The movements were powered to a great extent by students, with considerable faculty support.

Legacy of the ‘60s

Summing up the ‘60s is almost impossible, simply because they left scarcely a single institution, a single belief, untouched. The movement was simply a ferocious, and largely successful, assault on every traditional belief, every institution, every claim to certitude. Deliberately choosing to use force and threats of force rather than rational argument, the campus revolutionaries succeeded, within less than five years, in abolishing almost all rules of student conduct and in undermining much of the established curriculum. They plunged the universities into a state of turmoil from which they have never recovered, making them permanent battlegrounds for ideological factions and centers of a systematic and corrosive skepticism that affects the entire culture.

On the whole, Catholic institutions seemed to have been affected less acutely by those movements than were the most prestigious secular schools, a fact that, ironically, was taken as further proof that the Catholic schools were out of the mainstream. But the Catholic schools were struggling to participate in the universities’ unraveling; they too bought most of the destructive ideas of the ‘60s, abandoned most efforts to exert discipline over their students’ lives, and began jettisoning much of their traditional curricula. Since they had much farther to fall, their unraveling in the end proved to be even more radical than that of the secular schools.

A simple explanation of this would be to see it as a conflict between “cosmopolitans” and “provincials” on campus, the former being faculty who had been educated in secular schools, the latter those, especially clergy and religious, who were largely products of the Catholic system. But that explanation is quite misleading.

The cosmopolitans did have their effect. As it turned out, some faculty trained in secular disciplines in secular universities came to the Catholic schools with something of a missionary spirit, determined to spread the doctrines of modern philosophy and psychology, for example, to places they deemed narrow and ignorant. Around 1965, officials of Catholic universities seem to have ceased trying to monitor potential faculty with respect to religion. Professional credentials alone were deemed a proper basis for judgment, and the number of non-Catholics (or ex-Catholics) on the faculty increased dramatically. In practice, after 1965 most institutions seem to have surrendered the hiring process almost entirely to individual departments, many of which in effect decreed that religion had nothing to do with their work. Most academic departments in Catholic institutions think of themselves as in no way different from their secular counterparts; they merely happen to be situated in institutions which retain some vague and diminishing religious legacy.

But just as the cultural movement called “the ‘60s” was beginning in 1965, the Second Vatican Council was ending, and the great crisis through which the Church has been passing for more than 30 years would not have been nearly so severe had the program of religious renewal not gotten sucked into chaos of the ‘60s.

Thus many of the academic “provincials”—clergy and religious, people trained entirely in the Catholic system—began experiencing their own crisis, and often they were among those most hostile to the traditional idea of Catholic higher education, even more hostile than many of the “cosmopolitans.” Just as the crisis of secular academia was provoked by the cultural phenomenon of the ‘60s, so the crisis of Catholic academia was really the crisis of the whole Church which followed the Council.

Crisis of Faith

The problem has been overwhelmingly psychological in nature. The authentic reforms of the Council are appropriately respectful of tradition and pointed toward an orderly process of reform. But what many people thought they understood from the Council was that they were now being “liberated” from the past, that almost everything which they had been taught was now discovered to have been somehow false. The crisis most severely affected those who were the most devout, especially priests and religious.

Thus, in the Catholic universities large numbers of faculty left the priesthood and the religious life (often continuing to teach in the same institutions), even as those who remained were thrown into deep confusion concerning their vocations. They no longer saw their duty as that of passing on the authentic Catholic faith to new generations but merely as facilitating some kind of search for truth, in which the search itself was more important than its goal.

An unrecognized flaw in pre-conciliar Catholic universities was the fact that, strangely, the weakest discipline in the curriculum was theology. Indeed, most schools did not have a “theology” department but one called “religion.” In religious orders the best theologians were assigned to teach candidates for the priesthood, not young laypersons in the universities. Thus priests who did teach “religion” often had meager academic credentials and taught at a level of sophistication only somewhat higher than that of the high schools.

By the time of the Council, the Catholic universities had become aware of this deficiency and had resolved to correct it. They began to recruit competent theologians, some of them lay people. Academically the quality of religious education improved notably. However, this improvement also meant that the teaching of theology was now irrevocably implicated in the larger crisis of belief which affected the Church. Many theologians saw their role as adversarial to Church authority, as that of disabusing their students of what they considered naive or uncritical beliefs. For many, successful teaching could be measured by how many students ceased to be orthodox Catholics.

Rebellion of the Universities

Basic to the theological rebellion which followed the Council was the assertion that Catholics were in no way bound by hierarchical authority, but should instead rely on their own experiences to arrive at truth. In 1968 a group of Catholic university presidents issued the Land O'Lakes Statement which was in effect a declaration of independence from ecclesiastical authority.

Of the approximately 200 American Catholic colleges and universities which existed in 1965, a few formally proclaimed themselves secular, and a number soon closed. Of those which remain, most still proclaim their Catholic identity, but that identity remains deliberately vague and undefined. To alumni and parents of students, university presidents talk as though the institution still adheres closely to Church teaching, while in addressing faculty and the larger academic community they imply the opposite.

It is by now a virtual crusade for Catholic educators to reject any notion of “outside” ecclesiastical authority. Their Catholicity must be something which they define entirely for themselves. At the same time they willingly subject themselves to endless regulations and conditions imposed by government agencies, mainly because those impositions qualify the schools for public money.

Most Catholic schools are still haunted by the specter of what they remember as almost a fraudulent kind of scholarship, in which the demands of religious orthodoxy were allowed to influence teaching and scholarship. In reaction they continue to proclaim the traditional Germanic model of “objective” scholarship. Yet over the past thirty years the very idea of such objectivity has been rejected by the secular academy. Women's studies, black studies, “gay and lesbian” studies, and numerous other programs now insist that scholars not only can, but must, be advocates for particular points of view. Where religion is concerned, however, most Catholic institutions have missed the point. They allow women's studies to be taught ideologically, but would be horrified if they thought religion was.

Pope John Paul II's official statement on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, insists that Catholicity must be defined by the Church itself, and it places in the hands of the bishops the authority to judge the Catholicity of those institutions. To date, however, there is little evidence that either bishops or anyone else are prepared to do so.

James Hitchcock is a professor of history at St. Louis University.