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The Impossible Reform of Catholic Universities

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 23, 2013

It comes as no surprise that the faculty of Jesuit-run Santa Clara University has overturned the President’s decision to eliminate abortion coverage from health insurance there. The vote was 215 to 89, and it throws the decision now to the Board of Trustees. Many onlookers will attribute the faculty vote to the particular failure of the Society of Jesus to uphold the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Catholic Church in recent decades. That certainly is part of the problem, but its roots go far deeper into Catholic higher education than that.

In fact, the roots penetrate to an identity crisis which was already being keenly felt in Catholic universities shortly after World War II, and definitely from 1950 onward. The shape of this crisis was outlined in a 1955 article, later a small book, by Fr. John Tracy Ellis, an historian at the Catholic University of America. Ellis argued that Catholic universities had fallen considerably behind their secular counterparts in “important” indicators like Nobel Prize winners on their faculties. In other words, Catholic faculties did not seem to have a proportionate share of internationally-recognized scholars.

This and similar observations proved to be a catalyst for major faculty “reform” by Catholic university leaders throughout the United States (Fr. Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, as described in Ralph McInerny’s memoir, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You (see my review), was an exemplar of this trend). The assumption, to put the matter crudely, was that the Ivy League represented authentic excellence in education, and that Catholic universities had to imitate the faculty-recruitment patterns of the Ivy League if they wanted to compete. No one seems to have considered whether internationally-known scholars were such in part because they tended to be secular voices in a rising culture of secularity, or whether the genuine deficiencies of the Catholic educational experience at that time could have been overcome by a markedly Catholic renewal.

The result was that all major Catholic institutions of higher education rapidly diversified and secularized their faculties over the next generation. And even where sound Catholics remained on these faculties, their institutions gave them a new and very pragmatic vision of what it meant to be a successful scholar—of what sort of distinction was to be both prized and rewarded. This notable shift dovetailed with the public emergence of Modernism among Catholic academics beginning in the 1960s, an endemic failure which came to light as soon as it became culturally advantageous to repudiate traditional understandings of religious faith and morals. It did not take long in most universities for secularized faculty majorities to emerge—a combination of non-Catholics and Catholics who no longer had deep commitments to the Catholic intellectual tradition.

What Can Be Done Is Not Clear

So now we are left with the question of what to do about these faculties. Compared with reforming an administration, which can be done fairly quickly under the right circumstances, reforming a faculty is a long-term process unless one can succeed in mass firings, which under most circumstances is legally impossible. Academic faculties tend to perpetuate themselves, having won considerable authority over hiring. It is at least very difficult for a university administration to reject the candidates selected by faculty search committees. And so the way forward, even for a long term plan of recovery, is not at all clear. In the immediate future, for example, we will see increasing efforts by administrators to move institutions toward authentic Catholic moral standards. And faculties will resist these efforts.

This will be the dominant pattern, I suspect, for the next ten to twenty years. Where a renewed board of trustees puts a decent president in place, and this decent president is determined to initiate reform, we will witness sustained conflict. Over time, the outcomes of the various fights will reveal which strategies work best. As I indicated a few days ago in “Can there be too many good Catholic writers?”, we are blessed with a growing crop of Catholic intellectuals in many different fields who can fill positions as they become available. But positions will come available only slowly for fully Catholic scholars because of the in-built prejudice against orthodoxy and devotion as signs of a parochial, or perhaps even a stunted, mind. What is in fact the key to a superior understanding of all of reality (though admittedly it does not have this effect in every scholar) is actually now regarded as an impediment.

But the Church as a whole must find effective ways to renew her colleges and universities. Such a renewal will place the minds and hearts of countless students within easy reach of truth, students who are now more often led astray, and students in numbers that cannot possibly be reached even by the most admirable of the new and inescapably tiny foundations. I repeat, then, that the vote of the Santa Clara University faculty comes as no surprise. But it does demonstrate the battle before us, which is very likely the next most important battle for Church renewal following the reform of the episcopate and the diocesan seminaries, which has been ongoing over the past twenty years with considerable success.

It will take the power of grace to cut through the intractability of contemporary Catholic universities, which in the main are now organized for spiritual failure. Again, success is not just a matter of finding the right strategy; it is rather a matter of finding the right strategy when it seems that no strategy can possibly work. Precisely because such a reform appears humanly impossible, serious prayer will have to form the very center of the effort. It is, in short, as difficult for a university to be saved as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But as Our Lord said of every kind of worldliness, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mk 10:27).

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: shrink - Dec. 24, 2013 1:51 PM ET USA

    We continue to be trapped by our language. These schools are not "Catholic". They have said as much, except in their fund-raising letters. A Bishop must certify that the school in his diocese are indeed catholic. In each diocese the bishop can simply (though not easily) declare that the local "catholic" college is no longer Catholic, if it does not a) embrace the mandatum, and b) repudiate LandO'Lakes. Simple, but not easy.

  • Posted by: jacobtoo - Dec. 24, 2013 9:31 AM ET USA

    Thanks, Dr. Mirus, for explaining what happened at my alma mater. About thirty years ago the president, Fr. Brooks SJ, told us at an annual alumni banquet he was determined to turn Holy Cross into the Catholic Harvard. What he turned it into was an expensive Buffalo State.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Dec. 24, 2013 8:19 AM ET USA

    I would hope the church would assess Catholic Universities for their various attributes and then publish that rating so that the consumers of higher education could may informed decisions about attending a Catholic University. If a poor rating brought about a sever drop in attendance the pressure would be on to change. If a poor rating brought about an increase in attendance then it is time for the church to shake their dust from its feet and declare their failure widely.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 24, 2013 8:15 AM ET USA

    This is an area where tremendous damage to souls is being done and on a large scale. This decline coincides historically with the nearly wholesale abandonment of the public discussion of the doctrine of the Social Reign of Christ the King in the political order and in the hearts and minds of men. Certainly this might be a tall order in the secular states of today, but the fact that Catholic universities and other institutions abandoned it long ago as well speaks volumes to our dilemma today.

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