How Not to Be a Catholic University

By David Anderson Published on February 24, 2016

“Catholic doesn’t sell.”

“Liberal arts doesn’t sell.”

These statements were apparently uttered by Simon Newman, the current president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, a Catholic liberal arts school.

As one might imagine such statements — along with notable others — have divided the campus. The core of the debate concerns what counts as bona fide Catholic education.

As a professor at a Catholic university, I am no stranger to such debates. My own experience is paradoxical: I am an evangelical, yet in recent years I have found myself defending a distinctively Catholic approach to higher education from those at my university who wish to “update” our institution. The melee at Mount Saint Mary’s is, in short, no anomaly.

The Question

Three years ago, I asked our dean of humanities an open-ended question: “What is a Catholic higher education?” My question arose as part of our university’s Herculean attempt to renovate our general education requirements — those core classes that form the intellectual center of our students’ experience. As a member of the renovation committee, I was eager to hear my dean’s take.

My dean is as qualified as anyone to answer my question. He has been a faculty member or administrator at a number of Catholic universities in the United States. For the last seven years, he has capably led the charge at our school, bringing his considerable professionalism and powers of organization to the daunting tasks of defending the humanities and herding faculty in a meaningful direction.

In response to my question, my dean hesitated then replied, “It’s accepting students as they are, encouraging them to be bold, and empowering them to explore the world.” We both knew, of course, that these values are easily found in many secular and Protestant universities.

A long pause followed.

Sensing that it was appropriate to offer a suggestion, I said, “Presumably a Catholic higher education ought to engage the Catholic intellectual tradition.”

“Well,” my dean said with a trace of resignation, “I’m not sure what the Catholic intellectual tradition is.”

Not sure? I was stunned but managed to recover myself and say lightly, “You are the dean of humanities.”

“Yes, I know. But I don’t feel qualified to answer your question.”


To be sure, anecdotes have their limitations. Yet my experience — along with that of those at Mount Saint Mary’s — have become increasingly frequent at religious institutions. What follows are a few observations about what’s happened at my university; some of these very much accord with the experiences of others.

My first observation is our school’s curious concession to secular ways of thinking. My dean’s understanding of the humanities is a case in point. He not only confessed ignorance about the Catholic intellectual tradition, but seemed content to do so. As he said, he’s not even qualified to speak on the matter.

It’s easy to point the finger at a given administrator. But the deeper issue is how we got such a dean in the first place. In truth, our university abandoned mission-centered hiring long ago. For quite some time, we have made hiring decisions based on criteria utilized by secular schools. Unsurprisingly, we’ve hired a fair number of secular-minded administrators and faculty. Naturally enough, these individuals make decisions that reflect their own values. The roots of our current predicament are not that mysterious: secularism in, secularism out. In effect, we’re reaping what we sowed.

While complexities abound, my own sense is that our adoption of secular hiring values arises in part from our university’s attempt to scale the ladder of visibility and prominence. The ancient Israelites once hoped to “be like all the other nations.” Evidently, that sentiment remains alive and well. We want to be like other schools whom we believe rank higher than us on the totem pole. In fact, we crave prominence so badly that we’re willing to hire a dean who thinks that understanding the Catholic intellectual tradition is none of his business. Now that’s capitulation.

Anything Goes?

To be sure, a remnant of the Catholic intellectual tradition remains in our curriculum. For example, students must take one religious studies course. But even so, a solitary course hardly makes for serious, sustained study. Moreover, this course isn’t required to have any particular orthodox theological content. The course need not expose students to Catholic theology or even basic Christian doctrine in any systematic way. It need not engage Aristotle, the Patristics, Augustine or Aquinas, for example.

Moreover, there’s no course in the curriculum that requires students to learn great Western thinkers, like Hume, Kant and Nietzsche, who are in critical dialogue with the Catholic tradition. At our school, the great Western conversation has been largely been discarded. Even the most influential critics are now outdated!

Unfortunately, this result was predictable. In drawing up a new curriculum, we didn’t carefully consult the Catholic intellectual tradition. Instead, we simply ratified the curricular ideas that were popular among our faculty at the time, and then called that a Catholic education. At my school, apparently, a ‘Catholic’ curriculum is whatever the majority of faculty decide. For us Catholic education is a choose-your-own adventure story — a sort of majority relativism applied to curricular decision-making.

Just to be clear, I’m all in favor of our faculty deciding what our curriculum should be. It’s our right to do so. We can teach our students whatever we want. But I’m not in favor of our faculty deciding that a Catholic higher education is just whatever we want it to be. Given that the Catholic intellectual tradition has been around for 2500 years, it falls slightly out of the jurisdiction of faculty at a regional university in North America in the early 21st century to decide the matter by fiat. To this day, I am astounded that some of our faculty and administrators, many of whom are my friends, remain entirely unaware of their profound condescension toward the Catholic Church.

Integrity on the Wane

I realize, of course, that many factors are in play. Chief among them is that our university depends upon high enrollment. In order to stay solvent we need to attract students. Some administrators and faculty felt that a new and improved general education curriculum was necessary for the economic well-being of our school.

They have a point. Like any professor, I want my school to endure. To do so, we obviously need students. Yet I also recognize that our school claims to be a Catholic university: we repeatedly say so to prospective students, parents, donors and the community at large. So, when we enroll students in our school, we have an obligation to expose them to Catholic ideas — and not just the select range of Catholic ideas that our liberal professors prefer. Students ought to receive a well-rounded exposure, which includes traditional Catholic views.

As I said, I’m not Catholic. And yet I support the right of a Catholic school to tell students what the Catholic intellectual tradition is all about, leaving them free to make up their own minds. Incidentally, I also think that self-identified secular schools ought to expose students to secular ideas and insights. And, evangelical schools ought to present evangelical ideas to students. Of course, all of these schools should teach their students more than these ideas, but surely not less. The same is true for Catholic universities.

In the end, what if Catholic higher education in any traditional sense is no longer viable, as both my dean and President Newman apparently believe? I doubt this is the case, but suppose it is for a moment. If our university, for example, adapts to this reality by changing our educational approach and content, we should also change our name and affiliation. We shouldn’t call ourselves a Catholic university. We can still be a university, of course. Heck, we might even be a better university. But surely we can’t abandon the Catholic intellectual tradition and still call ourselves a Catholic university. Can a place like The Juilliard School maintain its identity if it abandons its music programs? Hardly. In the same way, it’s incoherent for us to advertise ourselves as a Catholic school when our curriculum only partly reflects those values.

If Catholic higher education no longer sells, then so be it. And, if schools like mine and Mount Saint Mary’s wish to recast our identity in our own progressive image, then fine. But at least let’s have the integrity to say so.


David Anderson, Ph.D., is a pseudonym for a professor who teaches at a Catholic university in the US.

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