As the college term drew to a close last spring, Providence College’s most prominent professor, Anthony Esolen, author of hundreds of articles and several books—including what some reviewers consider the best translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy—packed up and got ready to leave the school, where he had taught since 1990. He would renounce his tenure, give up his well-earned sabbatical, and accept a teaching position at St. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, one of the smallest colleges in the country. Esolen’s choice to leave one Catholic school for another had nothing to do with desire for greater status or a higher salary. He wasn’t swayed by the offer of an endowed chair or a lighter teaching load. Rather, Esolen was attracted to the curriculum at Thomas More—the commitment to a classical Catholic education that values the theology of Thomas Aquinas more than diversity studies. He was drawn to Thomas More, he told a National Catholic Register reporter, because “students are meant to be surrounded by beauty and sanity,” and he admired how “the education at Thomas More focuses on the whole human being.” He was leaving Providence because he wanted to be “part of delivering a curriculum that was based on the Truth.” He would try to bring to students at his new school what he had always sought to give Providence undergraduates: “a love for art and poetry and the best of human wisdom and the trust that such things can bring us into the precinct of the divine.”
Esolen’s departure from Providence—a highly regarded Catholic college, administered by the Dominican friars and, until fairly recently, a bastion of traditionalism—represents only the most recent episode of a phenomenon that has been under way for decades: the abandonment by Catholic colleges and universities of their religious identities. It’s a development with ramifications not only for Catholicism but also for higher education, because it was the Catholic tradition that created the idea of the Western university, based on devotion to the good, the true, and the beautiful—and in reason’s capacity to help us discover all three. America’s first Catholic university, Georgetown, founded in 1789, was patterned on the sixteenth-century Jesuit plan of study, Ratio Studiorum, with the goal of cultivating the moral virtues—helping students gain an appreciation for faith and reason in the pursuit of truth.
Nowadays, however, rather than embracing the good, the true, and the beautiful, Catholic universities have adopted the same curricular fads as their secular peers, hosting departments of gender studies, black studies, ethnic studies, and gay and lesbian studies. Campus leaders claim that Catholic universities’ “commitment to social justice” differentiates them from non-parochial colleges, but they neglect to mention that they have defined the term “social justice” so broadly that campuses now welcome chapters of the pro-abortion Law Students for Reproductive Justice. Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who became a celebrity in promoting the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, was president of Georgetown’s LSRJ chapter.
Concerned about the loss of religious identity on Catholic campuses, Pope John Paul II released Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990, identifying the centrality of Catholic higher education to the Church. Literally translated as “from the heart of the Church,” Ex Corde attempted to address the slide toward secularism by calling for Catholic colleges to be accountable to the local presiding bishop. A key component of the papal document was a controversial requirement that all theologians obtain a mandatum, or certificate, from the local bishop attesting that their teaching was consistent with official Church doctrine. More than two decades later, most of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities resist Ex Corde, with faculty and administrators seeing it as a threat to academic freedom and independent governance. After the document was released, Notre Dame’s faculty senate voted unanimously to ignore it. In the Jesuit publication America, Notre Dame’s then-president, Reverend Edward Malloy, and Reverend Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, warned of “havoc” if Ex Corde were implemented—calling it “positively dangerous” to Catholic institutions. Today, the contentious battles that once surrounded the papal document have ended, as most Catholic college presidents refuse to be governed by it, and deferential bishops have been reluctant to enforce it. Even Notre Dame professor of law Gerry Bradley, a longtime proponent of Ex Corde implementation, has pronounced the papal document “dead.”
Meantime, professors who support Catholic teachings have come under siege on their own campuses, usually with little support from their academic administrations. Esolen’s case was typical. His willingness to criticize identity politics at Providence made him the target of campus progressives, who wanted to move the curriculum away from a focus on Western civilization to an emphasis on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. But the progressives’ goals are broader than that, Esolen believes. “The dirty not-so-secret,” he said before he left the school, “is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program—the focus of curricular hostility—also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal.” That goal extends far beyond the campus of one Catholic college in Rhode Island.
Many point to the 1960s, understandably, as the beginning of the end for Catholic colleges and universities, but the problem traces further back. From the earliest days, secular academic leaders from elite Protestant schools viewed the Catholic curricular focus on philosophy, theology, Greek, and Latin dismissively. In an 1896 article in The Atlantic, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot mockingly compared the Catholic university curriculum with “the most backward educational system” of religious fundamentalists. Others would echo Eliot’s criticisms over the years.
In 1956, John Tracy Ellis, a priest and faculty member of Catholic University in Washington, published an essay accusing faculty on Catholic campuses of “perpetuating mediocrity” by devoting too much emphasis to students’ moral development instead of scholarship and intellectual excellence. Ellis’s essay appeared at the dawn of an era of social change that would usher in a new religious pluralism, the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and the questioning of the authority of traditional institutions like the Church. In 1962, Pope John XXIII assembled Church leaders for the Second Vatican Council, with a call for “renewal and reform.” In time, many Catholics would drift from obedience to their Church.
Ellis’s essay set in motion a series of Catholic conferences and discussions that culminated on July 20, 1967, when Notre Dame president Theodore M. Hesburgh gathered a small group of Catholic academic leaders—including ten Jesuit priests—in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, to declare independence from Church authority. This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of their statement. Viewed nostalgically by progressive professors as a proclamation of autonomy, the statement was better described recently by Esolen as a “suicide pact.” Following the Land O’ Lakes gathering, Catholic colleges removed most priests and nuns from their governing boards, and some secularized their mission statements. Some Catholic colleges went so far as to remove crucifixes from classrooms and saintly statues from their grounds. Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart and Webster College (now Webster University) publicly declared themselves “no longer Catholic.” Manhattanville promptly deleted the “Catholic part” of its name; Webster College president Sister Jacqueline Grennan renounced her religious vows and withdrew from her religious order to become a lay leader so that she could lead the now-secular institution “without the embarrassment of being subject to religious obedience.”
A new generation of Catholic college leaders came to believe that the road to upward mobility for their schools circumvented the Church. “The best and only traditional authority in the university is intellectual competence. . . . A great Catholic university must begin by being a great university that is also Catholic,” wrote Hesburgh, who served as Notre Dame’s president from 1952 until 1987, in The Challenge and Promise of the Catholic University. Hesburgh’s stature in the academy and beyond gave his musings moral and intellectual authority. The recipient of more than 150 honorary degrees, Hesburgh, who died last year, became the first higher-education professional to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, in 2000. He was the first priest elected to Harvard’s board of directors and served two years as board president. He made a career of distancing himself from Church authority—and sometimes from Church teachings. Such was the case during the years he served as a trustee—and, later, chairman of the board—of the Rockefeller Foundation, a frequent funder of causes—including population control and abortion—counter to Catholic doctrine.
Abandoning their devotion to a classical curriculum, Catholic colleges instead sought parity with their secular peers, an effort in which Jesuits have played a key role. At Land O’ Lakes, Jesuits dominated the proceedings. Until the 1960s, the Society of Jesus was seen as the main defender of the faith, though by then most Jesuits had lost touch with faithful Catholics in the pews—the ones who raised the money that had helped to build their colleges and universities. With their faithfulness and zeal in propagating the faith, Jesuits provided the Church with 38 canonized saints and 243 martyrs, put to death for their loyalty to the Church. But in the sixties, the order began waging war on Church authority and teachings. “Almost overnight the pope’s light infantry became a battalion in which every man decided for himself which war he was fighting,” wrote Paul Shaughnessy, a Jesuit priest, in a 2002 Weekly Standard article, “Are the Jesuits Catholic?” An institutional nightmare ensued: “confusion and cowardice at the top; despair, rage and disillusionment in the ranks. . . . American Jesuits went from 8,400 members in 1965 to fewer than 2,500 today.” But the real crisis, as Shaughnessy saw it, was “not one of size but of allegiance.” The Jesuits and the Church are engaged in a battle for control over what Catholicism should stand for.
Though they’re fewer in number today, the Jesuits continue to wield great influence on Catholic higher education. The Jesuits’ struggle with the papacy appears to have ended triumphantly, with the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of one of their own—Jesuit priest Jorge Bergoglio—as his replacement; but the struggle with the Church and its teachings continues. In 2014, an Atlantic article examined the “rebranding campaigns” of several Jesuit universities that have “shifted marketing strategies to appear more inclusive.” Rockhurst University in Missouri removed the word “Jesuit” from the university tagline; Regis University in Denver launched a new brand campaign deleting both “Jesuit” and “Catholic” in the school’s description. Thayne McCulloh, president of Gonzaga University, described “a tension between desire to be strongly identified as Jesuit and Catholic and the desire to respond effectively to the call to be a contemporary, competent university in North America.” A fund-raiser for Regis University admitted that “We hide the word ‘Catholic.’ . . . We focus on the Jesuit piece rather than the Catholic piece. We’re able to transform a little quicker because we are not waiting for the archbishop to give us permission. We don’t have to ask the pope when we want to make changes.”
In 2013, concluding that his alma mater “takes pride in insulting the Church and offending the faithful,” William Peter Blatty, author of the best-selling novel The Exorcist, filed a Canon Law petition with the Vatican asking that Georgetown University be denied the right to call itself Catholic. In an open letter to the Vatican, Blatty pronounced Georgetown a “Potemkin Village . . . the Borgia university, reflecting more the spirit of Alexander VI, than of Archbishop John Carroll, John Henry Cardinal Newman, or Pope John Paul II.” Proclaiming Georgetown “dishonest,” Blatty told an interviewer that to present a Catholic facade at alumni dinners, “the university will make sure there is a Jesuit in a collar at every table like the floral arrangement.”
Blatty hoped that his 200-page papal petition documenting “23 years of scandals and dissidence” at Georgetown would demonstrate to Pope Francis that his once-beloved alma mater had become “the leader of a pack” of Catholic colleges “failing to live up to their Catholic identity.” Apparently not: on April 4, 2014, Archbishop Angelo Zani, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, sent Blatty a cordial letter reassuring him that the congregation was “taking the issue seriously” and “cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.” Blatty died earlier this year, but Manuel A. Miranda, the counsel on his petition, promises that the case will continue. More than 2,000 Georgetown alumni, students, and parents have pledged to pursue the Vatican for correction of the university’s “serious abuses of Catholic identity.”
Money was another contributing factor in the schools’ abandonment of traditional Catholicism. In a 1987 essay in the New York Times, Hesburgh cautioned that unless Catholic colleges and universities were completely independent of Church control, the Supreme Court would rule that they should be deprived of the growing flood of government money to higher education. This was never true, but as secular sources of funding increased, Catholic colleges became less dependent on financial support from alumni and the faithful—and less motivated to accommodate them.
Most university presidents still try to avoid offending alumni, but Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, didn’t see a problem with posting an essay on her university’s website in February 2017, excoriating Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to President Donald Trump and one of Trinity’s most prominent graduates. “Presidential Counselor, Kellyanne Conway, Trinity Class of 1989 . . . has been part of a team that thinks nothing of shaping and spreading a skein of lies as a means to secure power,” McGuire wrote. Many alumni cheered McGuire’s essay, but others criticized the post—including at least one professed member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the founding religious order of Trinity Washington University. McGuire’s willingness to alienate some alumni points up the increasing importance of government funding for Catholic colleges and universities. Rather than depending solely upon alumni largesse, McGuire has successfully parlayed public funds to enhance her campus. Despite an Internal Revenue Code prohibition on political campaign intervention for all 501(c)(3) colleges and universities, McGuire used her speeches, published writings, and blog posts to oppose candidate Trump and promote Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
Money continues to allow or, worse, motivate Catholic universities and colleges to shed the Catholic identity. St. Louis University, the second-oldest Jesuit university in the United States, found itself facing a 2009 lawsuit when plaintiffs claimed that the $8 million in tax-increment financing that the university received for its new sports arena violated Missouri’s constitutional ban on public funding for religious institutions. In response, the university reaffirmed publicly that it is “not controlled by the Catholic Church or by its Catholic beliefs. . . . [T]he school does not require employees or students to aspire to Jesuit ideals.” In a brief opposing the university’s position, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote that “it is surprising that the University would sell its heritage for $8 million.”
Still, Catholic college leaders are happy to dust off their religious identity when it serves their purposes. Their commitments to social justice notwithstanding, most Catholic colleges have blocked attempts by employees to unionize. When adjunct professors at Manhattan College voted for the right to unionize in 2011, college administrators argued that the college was exempt from National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) jurisdiction because it was a church-operated institution. The NLRB ruled, however, that the “public representations of Manhattan College clearly demonstrate that it is not providing a religious educational environment.” While the college frequently cited its Lasallian tradition in public documents, the NLRB concluded that those references were made in “purely secular terms.” Noting that Manhattan College’s admissions brochure includes no reference to the Catholic Church or Catholicism, the NLRB issued a 26-page report arguing that the college cannot claim a religious affiliation as justification for preventing employee unionization.
Likewise, on January 6, 2015, the NLRB issued a “Certification of Representation” allowing adjunct professors and lecturers at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). A month earlier, adjunct faculty at St. Michael’s College of Vermont voted in favor of joining the SEIU, and later in 2015, the NLRB ordered officials to reconsider labor disputes involving employees at St. Xavier University in Chicago, at Duquesne, and at Seattle University. University leaders had attempted to thwart unionization, claiming that such efforts posed a threat to their schools’ religious character. Most recently, in 2016, Loyola University of Chicago mounted a battle against unionization by claiming that “the NLRB’s definition of religious is in direct contradiction to our sense of Loyola’s religious identity and mission.” Loyola’s interim president John Pelissero told faculty that the SEIU was “not consistent with our deeply rooted Catholic intellectual tradition.”
That’s a hard case to make at Loyola, though, which has been encouraging students for decades to participate in activities antithetical to Catholic teachings, including internships at the Chicago Abortion Fund and Planned Parenthood. Loyola’s law school hosts a chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice and, through its chapter of OUTLaw—an advocacy group for LGBT issues on law school campuses—it lobbied for marriage equality for same-sex couples. For the past decade, Loyola has invited undergraduate students to perform at the university’s Annual Drag Show, sponsored by Loyola’s LGBTQIA student group, Advocate, as part of LGBTWIA Heritage Month on campus. In this environment, mere unionization is weak tea.
Last May, Notre Dame awarded its 2016 Laetare Medal, the “oldest and most prestigious honor accorded to American Catholics, to the pro-choice Catholic vice president, Joe Biden, who had helped President Obama implement the HHS mandate that forced Catholic institutions, including Notre Dame, to provide insurance coverage for free contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, to all employees. Biden also advocated for legalizing the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Biden was being honored for his dedication to “genuine public service,” said Notre Dame president John I. Jenkins. Faithful Catholics disagreed—including the Most Rev. Kevin C. Rhodes, the presiding bishop of the Notre Dame diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend, who declared that Biden’s “gravely irresponsible rejection of Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage should disqualify him from Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal.” Notre Dame’s faithful alumni complained as well, but to no avail.
The Biden episode was another vivid illustration of a major shift: in some ways, progressive politicians have become the de facto leaders of Catholic higher education. Some have been appointed to the boards of trustees of these schools—thus being entrusted with the fiduciary responsibility of maintaining the university’s mission. Attempts to prevent faithful Catholics from participating in college governance have become more commonplace. In 2007, St. Thomas University’s board of trustees severed ties with the St. Paul–Minneapolis archdiocese. Voting to change the university’s bylaw that maintained the sitting archbishop of St. Paul–Minneapolis as the Vicar General and Priest President of the university, the board issued a statement claiming that it had changed the bylaws that had formerly stipulated that the archbishop of the diocese serve ex officio as board chairman. It was an attempt to limit the authority of the incoming conservative archbishop, John Nienstedt, who succeeded the more liberal Archbishop Harry J. Flynn as head of the archdiocese the following year.
Ignoring California representative Nancy Pelosi’s 100 percent pro-abortion voting record throughout her long Senate career, Catholic Trinity’s Patricia McGuire awarded Pelosi, a member of the class of 1962, an honorary degree. In 2007, McGuire hosted a highly publicized inaugural mass on campus to celebrate Pelosi’s becoming Speaker of the House. Likewise, Kathleen Sebelius, Trinity class of 1970, received an honorary degree from McGuire in 2003, despite the fact that Sebelius has long shared Pelosi’s commitment to defying nonnegotiable Catholic teachings by expanding abortion rights (including support for late-term abortion) during her tenure as governor of Kansas. McGuire lauded Sebelius for her role in helping to create and pass the Affordable Care Act.
McGuire also invited the Jesuit priest Robert Drinan, a longtime professor at Boston College and progressive politician from Massachusetts, to celebrate the 2007 inaugural mass for Pelosi. Drinan, who died later that year, was a member of the House of Representatives from 1970 until 1980. Sharing a similar record of supporting abortion rights as Pelosi and Sebelius, Drinan provided a much-imitated model for Catholic politicians backing the fledgling pro-choice movement in the mid-1960s while claiming to be faithful Catholics. In fact, in a well-documented meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport in July 1964, Drinan, along with other leading theologians and progressive prelates, coached the Kennedys and their allies on how Catholic politicians could promote abortion with a “clear conscience.” One of the Hyannisport attendees, former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, emeritus professor of ethics at the University of Washington, published an account of the meeting in his 2003 book The Birth of Bioethics, describing the role that Jesuit theologians from Boston College and the University of San Francisco played in persuading the Kennedy family to support full reproductive rights.
As part of the secularization process on Catholic campuses, students are getting more choice in curricular offerings. In 2015, Notre Dame faculty proposed removing the theology requirement. Though the proposal was defeated—students still must take two theology courses—the offerings have expanded well beyond Catholicism, or even Christianity. At Notre Dame, as at most Catholic campuses today, students can choose from courses on Native American religions, Buddhism, and cults, among other topics. At the University of San Diego, “Gay and Lesbian Voices,” a course listed as an interdisciplinary theology/sociology offering, counts toward theology credit. Like many LGBTQ curricular initiatives on Catholic campuses, the course was underwritten by James Irvine Foundation funds for the “Rainbow Visibility Project,” with the goal of “raising the collective awareness of the university community to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture and history.” Fairfield University received a $100,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to “hold and disseminate information from a series of forums in order to expand the current discussion on homosexuality within Roman Catholicism to include the diverse opinions of progressive Catholic thought leaders and theologians.” DePaul is the first Catholic school in the U.S. to offer an LGBTQ studies minor. Chances are zero that it will be the last.
Against this progressive tide, dozens of Catholic alumni groups have emerged to combat what they view as the secularization of their campuses—including, among others, the 1887 Trust at Gonzaga University and Alumni for a Catholic University of San Diego. Even Notre Dame graduates, historically among the most faithful (and generous) alums in the country, created the Sycamore Trust in 2006 to protest Notre Dame president Jenkins’s caving in to faculty demands to allow a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues—after the priest first claimed that the vulgar play was inappropriate for a Catholic university. In 2009, the Sycamore Trust helped to organize more than 367,000 individuals who signed a petition protesting Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Obama at its commencement ceremony in 2009. Most were objecting to Obama’s expansion of access to abortion, at home and abroad. The Sycamore Trust was joined by ND Response, a coalition of 11 student groups brought together by their opposition to honoring Obama, which organized an alternative graduation ceremony. So far, however, these groups have seen few victories.
Still, despite all the evidence that most Catholic colleges and universities have lost their way, cause for hope exists in the flourishing of Catholic colleges—Christendom, Franciscan, Ave Maria, the University of Dallas, Wyoming Catholic, John Paul the Great, St. Thomas More College in New Hampshire, California’s Thomas Aquinas, and others—that remain committed to a Catholic identity. And contrary to concerns that retaining a traditional Catholic identity would degrade the schools’ academic status, the more traditional colleges have won recognition for academic excellence by some of the most prestigious listings of colleges and universities.
For example, Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, with its impressive Great Books Program, ranks 53rd in the 2017 U.S. News Best Colleges rankings for liberal arts schools—well ahead of its more secularized Catholic peers. Forbes declared Franciscan University of Steubenville its “hands-down winner” among medium-size institutions in its #MyTopCollege competition. Franciscan students “wowed us with their posts about faith, friendship and travel,” the magazine explained. Last year, Newsmax declared Christendom College in Front Royal the second-best college for conservative values in America. Christendom outranked Texas A&M, Liberty University, and Franciscan in terms of its commitment to conservative principles in its curriculum.
Marketing themselves, as Franciscan University does, as “Passionately Catholic” and in obedience to Ex Corde, these colleges and universities offer a faithful alternative—even as progressive Catholics scorn them. A 1996 article in the National Catholic Reporter, for example, derided Franciscan as a university “located on the outskirts of an old river town whose central area is marked by crumbling mansions, potholed streets, dejected-looking citizens, a continuous traffic jam of pickup trucks and a profusion of sulfur-like odors wafting across the river from the few remaining steel mills in neighboring Wierton, West Virginia.” When Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan opened Ave Maria Law School in 1999, Father Drinan complained to The Chronicle of Higher Education that the new law school was “simply a vehicle to advance a right wing agenda” and accused Monaghan of “implying that the other 26 Catholic law schools aren’t Catholic enough.” Monaghan responded: “There’s nothing wrong with most Catholic schools, except they’re not Catholic.”
In God on the Quad, Naomi Schaefer Riley describes graduates of these schools as part of a “missionary generation” and concludes that they are often quite distinct from their more secular counterparts. Though they have assimilated contemporary attitudes on the role of women in society and are more tolerant of homosexuality than their predecessors, they are committed to marriage and family. They remain strongly pro-life. They dismiss the “spiritual, but not religious” answers to life’s most difficult questions, and they reject the intellectual relativism of professors and the moral relativism of their peers. “While they would disagree among themselves about what it means to be a religious person,” Riley writes, they assume that “trying to live by a set of rules, generally ones laid down in Scripture, is the prerequisite for a healthy, productive and moral life.”
In his 1852 Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman described the university as a place where “the professor is a missionary and a preacher . . . treading in the truth day by day into the ready memory and wedging and tightening it into the expanding reason.” Newman believed that a Catholic university must be the “seat of wisdom, the light of the world, and the minister of the faith.” For him, “religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of, general knowledge.” At one time, all Catholic colleges shared this vision—it was what made them Catholic.
Faithful students and faculty like Anthony Esolen are drawn to traditional Catholic colleges and universities because of the schools’ promise of fidelity to their religious identity and the vision that Newman articulated. They believe that the truth can be known—and that a faithful university is the place to begin the search. Until Catholic leaders stand up against the secular trends on their own campuses, and strive again to be Cardinal Newman’s “light of the world,” many more Catholic universities will likely end the pretense of calling themselves Catholic.
Top Photo: The Basilica at the University of Notre Dame: the school’s administrators and scholars took the lead in rejecting Pope John Paul II’s call for Catholic universities to be accountable on doctrinal matters to local bishops. (JOSEPH MAAS / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)