Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Catholic Colleges; Are they Catholic Enough?

Sister Edith, who blogs at Monastic Musings, and also teaches at the College of St Scholastica in Duluth, has an interesting post on a recent trend among the nation's Catholic Colleges and Universities where they are attempting to recruit more Catholic professors and expose them to more Catholic culture.

[...] Times change. In 1990, the idea that colleges and universities might be asked to hire in such a way that a certain proportion of the faculty were Catholic was widely perceived as threatening and intrusive. In 1999, the president of Notre Dame was vocal in his opposition to the implementation of Ex Corde. Last month, Notre Dame launched, with much fanfare, an initiative to locate and hire Catholic faculty, now barely more than 50% of the faculty.
Some might say, why all this fuss? Aren't these colleges already doing what a college is supposed to do - attract good students, provide them a variety of programs taught by high-quality faculty and send them into the world ready to take up a productive role in society? I suspect the presidents - and those in charge of mission integration - would say, sure, but that's not the sum total of our vision for this college.

For the most part, Catholic colleges were not founded because of a lack of educational opportunities. The Boston area, home to most of the schools listed above, is home to Harvard, to Boston University, and to dozens of small colleges. It may have more colleges per person than anywhere in the U.S. My college, St. Scholastica, has always been within a mile of UMinnesota-Duluth, which has 5 times as many students, many more buildings, and lower tuition (although fewer scholarships). No, there are plenty of colleges - in fact, most colleges are competing to get good students. Catholic colleges don't exist because of a general need for colleges. Why, then, did religious orders feel called up on to found a college in the first place? Why do they continue today?

The Catholic understanding of education is really of forming the whole person: passing along information and training the mind, certainly. But much more. One branch of Catholic theology is known as "Christian anthropology" - not using the word in the same sense as the academic field, but rather, the Christian answer to questions such as "what does it mean to be a human being" and "what forms of human interaction support and nurture human beings, and which ones detract?" A Catholic education, then, is designed to pass along this worldview, and form the conscience of the individual to act on these values.

In social science jargon, Catholic colleges were founded as institutions which would socialize young people into the adult Catholic world view, not by rules & regulations, but by weaving that perspective through the classrooms, the curriculum, and the activities of the college. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, founders believed in this worldview, and found it worthwhile to take on large debts, work long hours, and assign many of the best educated members of the community to teach in the college. Students - Catholic or not - chose to attend primarily because they shared the values or appreciated the mission of the college, as embodied in the many members of the religious order who taught there.

Zoom forward several decades, and the picture changes. After the Second Vatican Council, the schools tended to grow in size, while there were fewer and fewer members of religious orders teaching on campus. Colleges were incorporated separately from their religious orders for financial reasons; lay presidents and Boards of Trustees became common. None of the changes was designed to alter or abrograte the original mission of the college. The reality is that, over time, the lay leadership of most Catholic colleges did not have the depth of training or understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition, nor of the holistic model of Catholic education. Many focused on marketing the college to a wider audience, sometimes by diluting references to its Catholic foundations.
At some schools, the non-Catholic faculty and students outnumber the Catholics. The American majority rules culture might lead to a perception that the original mission has simply become irrelevant. Combined with the consumer orientation that occurs as colleges compete to attract students, some in these colleges might feel that any emphasis on the original mission of the college is intrusive, forcing religious beliefs or practices on people who don't agree with them.

In this milieu, the norms of Ex Corde that were perceived, even by Catholic administrators, as intrusions into the academic world may now seem necessary if the identity and mission of the college is to be maintained. Notre Dame's well-funded program to find and hire Catholic faculty members, the Collegium Colloquium on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition(where I caught the fire!), and many other creative missions-and-values programs are designed to invite stakeholders to understand the mission in greater depth, and ask them to support it with greater fervor. Some people at these colleges find this invigorating and enticing; others find it uncomfortable and off-putting.

What will be the result of such effort? Burtchaell's book names what he observed at many institutions: the dying of the original light.

That is clearly one possibility. A very few schools (Thomas Aquinas College in California or Franciscan University in Steubenville) have mandated a very uniform standard of Catholic practice and culture on their campuses, and attracted faculty and students who want that atmosphere. What Notre Dame, Boston College, Fordham, and, yes, small schools like St. Scholastica are attempting is more complex and difficult, but also more likely to achieve the purpose set forth in Ex Corde for a Catholic university. [...snip] Read it all from Monastic Musings

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