Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The most 'Catholic' university that isn't Catholic

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 16, 2011

Cardinal William Levada will celebrate Mass for the graduation ceremony at Ave Maria University in Florida on May 7.

The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the highest-ranking American prelate ever to serve in the Roman Curia: that’s a nice coup for a young, small Catholic school.

But wait: here’s the interesting thing. Ave Maria is not a Catholic university. Not officially, at least.

The local ordinary, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, has not yet acceded to the school’s request for formal recognition as a Catholic university. Thus Ave Maria (AMU) cannot yet claim the official “Catholic” label. The school still carefully describes itself as an institution “in the Catholic tradition.”

Last November First Things magazine produced a list of the 10 “most Catholic” Catholic schools in America. AMU sat at the top of the list, edging out such commendably orthodox Catholic institutions as Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College, and the Franciscan University of Steubenville. One might quibble with the First Things rankings; it’s the sort of list that lends itself to arguments. Still the fundamental point comes through: By one imperfect measurement, AMU is the most Catholic university in the country. And yet for official purposes, AMU isn’t a Catholic university at all. In that same November 2010 issue, First Things also listed its editors’ choices for the 10 least Catholic Catholic colleges and universities in the country. Many of the names will be familiar to our readers:

  1. DePaul University, Chicago
  2. University of Detroit Mercy
  3. Seattle University
  4. Niagara University, Niagara Falls, New York
  5. University of San Diego
  6. Lewis University, Romeoville, Illinois
  7. Georgetown University, Washington, DC
  8. D’Youville College, Buffalo, New York
  9. Molloy College, Rockville Centre, New York
  10. Lourdes College, Sylvania, Ohio

What’s interesting about that list? All of those schools—with the possible exception of Molloy College in Rockville Center, Long Island (whose public statements refer to a “private” college, resolutely ducking the question of religious identity) can call themselves Catholic. Whereas AMU takes pride in educating students “in the Catholic tradition,” most of these schools try to camouflage their religious affiliation. There's a lot of reference to "tradition," but it isn't always a "Catholic" tradition. DePaul and Niagara refer to their “Vincentian” tradition; Seattle University the “Jesuit” tradition; Lourdes talks of the "Franciscan tradition."

(The most interesting verbal gymnastics are done D’Youville College, which was named for the founder of the Grey Nuns, St. Marguerite d’Youville. If you read her biography, as presented on the university’s web site, you will not once see the word “Catholic.” Still one assumes that St. Marguerite was in fact a Catholic, and sure enough, if one reads to the very end, one is rewarded with the assurance that the college “honors its Catholic heritage and spirit of St. Marguerite d’Youville.”)

If DePaul and D’Youville can be classified as “Catholic” colleges—along with the dozens of other nominally Catholic institutions that welcome Planned Parenthood on campus, why can’t Ave Maria by designated a “Catholic” university? It’s no secret that AMU has hit some speed-bumps in its first few years of existence. There have been personality clashes, budget overruns, administrative gaffes. Bishop Dewane might have been waiting for some reassurance that the storms would abate and the school would move forward on an even keel. Fair enough. Now Ave Maria has a new president, promising vigorous new leadership, still resolutely anchored “in the Catholic tradition.”

What more will it take, do you suppose, before the bishop officially recognizes AMU as a “Catholic” university? If the administration can entice the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith onto the campus for commencement exercises, what more will it take?

Update: Responses from our readers have convinced me that I have asked the wrong question. If Bishop Dewane wants to withhold the “Catholic” label until he is reassured about the administrative practices and overall stability of AMU, fine. I don’t mean to argue that question. Rather, I mean to point out that AMU—a school with an evident zeal for the Catholic faith, whatever its other weaknesses—still is not officially classified as Catholic, while many other schools with an evident contempt for the faith still carry that label.

Or put it this way: AMU very much wants to be known as a Catholic university, but formally it isn’t. Dozens of other schools are terribly embarrassed by the “Catholic” label, and still have it. So let me ask my final question in a different way:

What more will it take, do you suppose, before other bishops officially recognize that other Catholic schools probably don’t want, and certainly don’t deserve, to bear the “Catholic” label?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Apr. 17, 2011 3:27 PM ET USA

    I think there may be hope in some Bishop's minds that some of these colleges can be turned around. I, for one, do not think it is worth the scandal and loss of faith that they cause. However, I will also say this, that while these liberal universities overemphasize love and acceptance to the point of throwing out the faith, other more conservative, not necessarily orthodox colleges put such an emphasis on the law that they forget that Jesus commanded us to love.

  • Posted by: miked.doc6394 - Apr. 16, 2011 10:36 PM ET USA

    Two of the top 10 worst Catholic Colleges on “First Things” list are in my home Diocese of Buffalo, NY. Yet Canisius College somehow stayed off the list. Canisius College is my undergraduate alma mater before grad school at Franciscan University set me straight. This Buffalo college has hosted the following speakers in the last 20 years: Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton, John Dominic Crossan (of the “Jesus Seminar”) and gay rights activist Dustin Lance Black (who is a writer, producer and director who won the 2008 Academy Award for his screen play “MILK”, the biopic of the late gay rights activist Harvey Milk). The present ordinary of the Diocese of Buffalo will retire by the end of the year. Please join me in praying that the Holy Father will send us a strong, courageous and orthodox bishop to lead this troubled diocese in the future.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 16, 2011 11:03 AM ET USA

    It is difficult to parse the sense of Bishop Sheen's 'Don't send your children to a Catholic college where they will lose their faith. Send them to a secular college where they will have to defend it". Likely he was noting that as we move from the cocoon of parochial school and high school, we are ill prepared for the freedom and secularism of college life. We have to develope our own sea legs. Consider the number of Jesuit students who ran from the Church. Think of Voltaire and Napoleon.

  • Posted by: jaldrich18521 - Apr. 15, 2011 5:19 PM ET USA

    During the Seven Years War St. Marguerite ran a hospital for wounded in Montreal. One wing was reserved for enemy soldiers. I notice the GNSH mother house has a sign designating it a "Nuclear Free Zone." Perhaps this is supposed to be in the spirit of the foundress as well. They don't seem to be the ladies that taught me in the sixties.

  • Posted by: FredC - Apr. 15, 2011 9:03 AM ET USA

    Many Catholic charities donate only to schools listed "The Kennedy Book". We should lobby our bishops to delist the faithful and list the faithful.

  • Posted by: Obregon - Apr. 15, 2011 12:28 AM ET USA

    The hypocrisy of some bishops and of some church authorities is unbelievable! How is it possible to say that Ave Maria University is NOT Catholic, while Notre Dame a university that accepted as a speaker a pro-abortion President is considered a "Catholic" university?