I. The Crisis in the Catholic College

American Catholics are becoming increasingly aware of the growing tendency of Catholic colleges to secularize themselves — that is, to loosen their connection with the teaching Church and to diminish deliberately their Catholic character. Catholic parents in particular are becoming alarmed at the effects that this secularization has or threatens to have on the intellectual and moral formation of their children. The colleges themselves display a growing inability to define themselves in such a way as to justify their continued existence as Catholic institutions.

At first glance, the cause of this tendency appears to be economic. A growing number of administrators and controlling boards are trusting to the strategy that by secularizing their institutions they will enhance their eligibility to receive monies from educational foundations and from the government. It is questionable, however, whether the strategy has been thought through, for it is far from clear that Catholic parents will send their children to an institution that calls itself a Catholic college but that appears indistinguishable, except in cost of attending, from the nearest tuition-free state college.

And if Catholic parents should find themselves unable to distinguish between the Catholic college and the secular institution, their confusion would not be without basis in the actual character of the emerging Catholic college itself. For, fundamentally, the explanation of the growing secularization of American Catholic higher education is doctrinal rather than economic. The willingness of a college to secularize itself in the hope of monetary gain presupposes that it already views its Catholicity as something that is subject to negotiation, which in turn presupposes that it has rejected the traditional doctrine that the essential purpose of a Catholic college is to educate under the light of the Faith. We find, in fact, that the most outspoken proponents of the secularization of the Catholic colleges are not arguing about economic considerations but are attacking the very idea of a college that educates under the light of the Faith. We find, further, that Catholic college graduates, students and professors are, by and large, unable and unwilling to resist these attacks. Indeed, the most virulent attacks now being made on Catholic education — as well as on the Church itself — emanate from some of these graduates, students, and professors. That this should happen points to a grave deficiency in Catholic education; institutions whose essential purpose is to combine Catholic wisdom and secular learning have given birth to a generation of teachers and learners who in large part reject such a purpose as irrelevant or contradictory. Inescapable is the realization that the Catholic college has not been true to its purpose.

Yet this realization, somber as it may be, should not be surprising, for a brief look at the American Catholic college as we have known it in the past reveals fundamental flaws which, given time to bear their fruit, have made the present crisis inevitable.

There was a time when the Catholic college justified its existence by saying that it gave its students, almost all of them Catholics, an education which had as some of its components courses in Catholic philosophy and religion. This meant that all its students took mandatory courses in these disciplines, whose truths, it was hoped, would permeate them and shape their lives. The rest of the curriculum was put together in imitation of the pattern of courses existing in secular schools and was assumed to achieve the same purposes as were achieved by secular education. Hence it was the boast of the Catholic college that it had all that secular education had and more; it was Catholic without ceasing to be secular, and in fact it was thought to prepare its students even better than other schools for this world because it gave them a philosophical formation which would sustain them in whatever state of life they chose.

But there were certain anomalies: a) While the college was boasting that its curriculum was up-to-date, that it had courses in the latest disciplines such as sociology and modern psychology, whose paradigm is Newtonian mechanics, it was also proposing philosophy courses based upon a general conception of reality opposed to the philosophical presuppositions of sociology and modern psychology. Similarly, its courses in physics and chemistry presupposed, without question, a philosophical view about the nature of matter and motion which contradicted what was taught in the philosophy courses. b) But even within the philosophy curriculum itself anomalies existed. The philosophical formation of the students was essentially faulty in that faculties themselves were fundamentally divided on the question of whether there is philosophy or merely philosophies. The effect of this division was to propose to the students that philosophical education would at once lead to a certain understanding of reality, which understanding was at the same time relative basically to the changes of time and place. This opposition was in effect between those who claim something can be known and those who are skeptics — and the resultant effect on the students, who quite naturally attempted to integrate both positions, was skepticism. Skepticism, of course, defeats the purpose of the intellectual life by denying the possibility of knowing anything. c) The proponents of perennial philosophy sought to be true to the nature of Catholic education as traditionally understood by the Church and, more particularly, as repeatedly emphasized by the papal encyclicals since Leo XIII, but even here the American Catholic college has been troubled by yet another failing. Where the papal encyclicals made it plain that the perennial wisdom was to be studied through the works of the great masters themselves, and above all through the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, it has been more often the case that students have rather become acquainted with this wisdom through textbook versions. In this attempt to proportion such wisdom to the modern student’s mind so as to minimize its intrinsic difficulties, the proper character of this wisdom was distorted and misrepresented in various ways. In part this misrepresentation was due to the impossibility of simplifying these difficulties and in part the result of attempting to restate traditional doctrines through the thoughts and language of contemporary philosophies which in fact understand reality in ways incompatible with this wisdom. In the measure that this was true, the perennial philosophy was lost. d) Even more seriously, the religion courses were isolated, and in no way performed a sapiential function with respect to the rest of the curriculum, contenting themselves with a superficial restatement of the truths of Catholicism. No attempt was made to acquaint students with the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Church, or to deepen their understanding of the richness of the Catholic heritage. Theology was not treated as the science it is, and as a means to the intellectual, as well as to the moral growth of the student. The possible penetration he might have had into the highest truths was little realized. Yet, all the while, the religion courses claimed to be the important part of Catholic education.

A critique of Catholic education would seriously fall short of accomplishing its objective if it overlooked the purely educational weaknesses that Catholic education shares with all American colleges in the area of liberal education. The American college has long ago abandoned genuine liberal education. In its place it has in part substituted vocational education for what once was an education for man simply as man. And in another part where it has preserved certain studies that do not lead to some practical application it has done so only because they lead the student to a greater appreciation of the “learning” and “culture” of his civilization. The second part goes by the name of humanism so as to designate its subjects precisely to be those things that are from man as distinguished from those things that come from nature. These two parts make up an indiscriminate whole and are both called education univocally. This profound confusion which is now bearing its unhappy fruit in the irrational academic uprisings and revolutions, with their endless and aimless proposals for reform, has for a long time been adopted, somewhat unwittingly, by the Catholic colleges themselves.

In a more particular way this general debility of the American secular college, which served as the model for the Catholic college in areas other than philosophy and theology, has these effects. The secular college does retain vestigial requirements in some areas of liberal education, but it was settled long ago that the main function of the college was to train students for the professions by meeting the demands of professional and graduate schools. The student had to begin specialization early in his college career lest he fall behind in the race toward professional success. Educators were not always happy with the growing trend toward specialization, but it was realistic to assume that this was what most students wanted. Educators could find solace in the dogma of instrumentalist pedagogy that successful education occurs in direct proportion to its compliance with the interests of the student — an interest which is assumed to be antecedent to enrollment and already fully determinate. Finally, since few educators were prepared to defend the proposition that one course of instruction might be of itself more educative than another (or the proposition that there is a discoverable order among the existing disciplines), no one was able to resist the deluge of course proliferation which created the modern college catalogue. Indeed, few spoke out against it, and there were those who maintained that the student’s academic freedom had, in a significant sense, been enhanced by the multiplication of options set before him. Until the anarchic events of the late nineteen sixties, few seemed to realize the potentially disastrous consequences of the principle that the student himself is the best judge of which studies are most relevant to his intellectual development. Nor was it noticed how undergraduate dialogue would be restricted by full specialization of interests on the part of both faculty and student body. The professor in his specialty becomes more and more insular and removed from both his students and his fellow educators. He meets his students in the lecture hall, and he meets his colleagues in learned journals and at conventions, and while these functions do not altogether exhaust his responsibilities, they are certainly the functions which define his role. The very excellence of specialization itself multiplies and widens the divisions of academia.

The Catholic colleges had hoped to overcome the adverse effects of the elective system and of premature specialization by casting philosophy and theology in the role of sapiential or integrating disciplines. To some extent this project was successful, but the overall effect was less than what had been hoped for. The philosophy and theology departments were victims of their own specialization, and not fully prepared to engage other disciplines in dialogue. Moreover, with the general decay of the liberal arts because of the elective system, philosophy and theology could not often be taught with sufficient emphasis on their inner structure qua intellectual disciplines. As a result they often assumed a needless and unbecoming authoritarian stance, which not rarely made them unpopular. Pressures now exist within the student bodies of most Catholic colleges, if not in most of the faculties, to abandon the traditional requirements in philosophy and theology. Most colleges have already reduced the number of hours required.

It is not surprising, therefore, that under the pressure of ever widening vocationalism and humanism, Catholic education, immersed in this tide, is capsizing. Blurred in its vision, it cannot well distinguish and justify true liberal education apart from vocational and professional training, in a time when technical and technological progress seem to be everything that is commonly regarded as worthwhile. Correlated with man’s hope in technology is his despair in knowing the truth about reality, which desperation gave rise originally to humanism. Even against the humanistic part of modern “liberal education,” wherein man turns back upon himself for the meaning of all things, which view always favors the “world” against God, and man against his Creator, the benighted Catholic college has found itself defenseless. This capitulation shows on the one hand the general lassitude and dullness to which we are all heir, but on the other hand it shows more importantly what was noted above: the Catholic college has never really understood itself, has never, that is, thought out the exigencies of a liberal education which is undertaken in subordination to the teaching of the Church, and which has as its aim an intellectual perfection which is possible and proper to the Catholic alone. Such an education demands that all the parts of the curriculum not ordered to technical concerns should be conducted with a view to understanding the Catholic faith, and that the Faith itself should be the light under which the curriculum is conducted.

A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education

Click here for a full, printable version (PDF).

“Thomas Aquinas College knows this — that the life of the mind involves the spiritual life as well — and that is why I have always thought of this institution as a college in the image and likeness of John Paul II.”

– George Weigel

Papal Biographer