Catholic universities in America are typically regarded as offering a well-rounded education combined with one of the premier intellectual forces of the West: the Catholic Church, and its vast well of knowledge in almost every discipline. Unlike state-sponsored institutions, which can offer a quality education, Catholic universities have the advantage of a grounded and time-tested moral foundation.
This foundation, and the discoveries, advances, and progress it has produced, is unrivaled in any other Western tradition. Secular universities, good though they may be, lack the basic direction Catholic universities receive by their nature. As a result, secular universities are more prone to moral decay and moral bankruptcy than religiously affiliated institutions. Daniel Payne addressed recently in his article, “From Fake Rapes To Petty ‘Microaggressions,’ American Colleges Have Lost Their Way.”
Despite the moral bedrock that Catholic universities are founded upon, Catholic-American institutions of higher education have lost sight of their institutional identities. At this point, only direct intervention from the Vatican can reverse their decline and death.
Catholic Universities Sponsor Anti-Catholic Activities
Catholic universities regularly engage in or sanction activity that obviously contradicts their mission as an arm of the church, yet defend it with doublespeak about free speech and a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance, saying that permitting an activity or group on campus does not equal endorsement. But actions belie statements, and Catholic universities continue to be caught betraying themselves.
The Cardinal Newman Society, a Catholic higher education watchdog, reports almost daily on the worst (and occasionally the best) that Catholic institutions offer. For instance, Loyola Marymount University offers internships with the openly pro-choice group Feminist Majority Foundation. Gloria Steinem was hosted at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, despite the objection of the local bishop. In a recent and highly publicized case, Marquette University is taking steps to fire a tenured professor who criticized a “graduate student instructor who told a student not to oppose same-sex marriage in her class.” Even Notre Dame has had its Catholic identity questioned—and by the Washington Post, at that.
Lists like these are absurd, and rightly so. But they are just the tip of the iceberg. A number of Catholic institutions engage in deep-seated Progressive politics. “Diversity” offices, drag shows, and programs—even entire courses—focusing on race, class, and gender are the norm.
Loyola University Chicago, my home institution, has by now almost completely trampled its Catholic identity. The short list includes running an annual drag show eight years strong, hosting former President Obama advisor Van Jones and MSNBC personality Touré Neblett, hiring a professor accused of bizarre sexual harassment, chartering a pagan club (now named the Indigenous Faith Alliance), and engaging in numerous other questionable activities.
More frustrating than all of this are the students, who themselves easily outdo administrators on the liberal spectrum and encourage the abandonment of Loyola’s Catholic principles, all to the tune of “social justice” or “Jesuit values”—which by definition must in line with the greater church. Despite all of this, Loyola prides itself on its “Jesuit, Catholic identity” and seems to believe that it affirms enough basic Catholic doctrine to retain the Catholic designation in its name.
Although every Catholic university peddles its “Catholic identity,” such identity is almost meaningless. How can a university call itself Catholic if it offers internships at pro-choice organizations? Or if it punishes a professor for defending the Catholic teaching on marriage?
Dialogue Doesn’t Require Abandoning Reason or Morals
The fact is, doublespeak has become an epidemic at universities, secular and Catholic alike. When a nebulous sense of “dialogue” is cited (as it often is) to justify programs completely contrary to the values of these institutions, the game is up; the rabbit hole was too tempting not to jump down. “Dialogue for me but not for thee” is a powerful master, and thus far it has been a dominating force for the culturati elite entrenched at most universities.
On paper, “dialogue” is an attractive proposition, especially at a Catholic institution. The church has conceded that (capital T) Truth can best be discovered through reasoned dialogue, reminiscent of John Stuart Mill’s approach. Points and counterpoints, arguments, and well-intentioned debate can uncover more Truth than top-down imposition of a single viewpoint.
Now, in ironic fashion, the church hierarchy and Progressive populists have switched places. Before Vatican II, the Catholic Church was ambivalent, at best, about religious liberty and dialogue and completely opposed to it, at worst. The post-Vatican II Church encourages inter-religious dialogue and the exchange of ideas, especially in the university setting. It is the progressives who crush the dissent. “Dialogue” is used and abused in the Catholic university and has been for some time. Only one view is allowed at Catholic universities, and rarely is it the Catholic view.
Can Catholic Universities Ever Become Catholic Again?
Despite the mess that Catholic universities find themselves in, reform of Catholic-American universities is a realistic possibility, arguably more so than reforming the public university system. To begin with, Church-university interaction is wound relatively tight. Bishops generally have control over the universities in their diocese, barring specific and complex Canon Law regulations. Ultimately, though, universities are responsible to the Roman Curia, the Pope, and the directives of Rome. But Rome is the end game, not the place where reform starts.
Catholics can’t afford to sit on their laurels and wait for the Vatican to step in and corral out of control institutions. Reform will initially have to be a guerilla movement of students, parents, and alumni working together to leverage universities from the inside and outside. Two fronts, so to speak, have to be opened to pressure administrators into reform.
Two groups offer good models to reform-minded individuals: RenewLMU and The Father King Society. Both are grassroots movements aimed at protecting and promoting Catholic identity at Loyola Marymount University and Georgetown University, respectively (notably, The Father King Society was founded by William Peter Blatty, a Georgetown alum and author of “The Exorcist”). RenewLMU especially has a good combination of allies inside and outside the university:
RenewLMU is an alliance of students, alumni, faculty, donors, and other LMU supporters who seek to strengthen LMU’s Catholic mission and identity. LMU’s motto is ‘For the Greater Glory of God.’ The mission and the activities of LMU, its administration, faculty, students, and staff should be centered around this very noble principle.
RenewLMU has made small but significant inroads, like helping to launch pro-life programming on a campus devoid of a pro-life presence, and the Father King Society has been successful in filing a canon lawsuit with the Vatican over a collection of grievances at Georgetown.
Eventually, Rome will have to get involved in institutional reform for deep-seated Progressive entrenchment to lift. Students and alumni have only so much leverage, but Rome wields the authority needed to get the job done.
Small inroads have been made here, as well: last year, the Vatican’s Congregation of Catholic Education responded to a request to address a drag show on the University of San Diego’s campus. Although they didn’t address the issue head on, they did acknowledge that “in light of the show and the scandal that it caused, this congregation intends to act through administrative channels to the competent ecclesiastical authority in San Diego.”
Catholic universities in America are a far cry from what they use to be. The picture may be bleak, but Catholic education cannot afford to be extinguished, especially in this country. Indeed, it will never be completely extinguished. But its future is dubious and a pruning is in order for Catholic-American universities. It is long overdue, but renewal is in sight. Deo gratias for that.