Catholic Colleges and Universities in the United States: A Historical Overview

The University of Notre Dame.

It seems that the question about the Catholic identity in Catholic higher education is once again in the news. According to the National Catholic Register, the University of Notre Dame is currently reviewing its core curriculum requirements and is considering decreasing the number of required theology credits for undergraduates. (For those of you who may not be familiar with the phrase core curriculum, it usually refers to the general liberal arts requirements that all students are required to take, regardless of major or program.)

The discussion about potential curriculum changes at Notre Dame has brought the conversation about Catholic identity in Catholic universities into the limelight once again. In light of this, we at Daily Theology have decided to run an impromptu Shark Week titled “”What is, or should be, Catholic Higher Education?” Starting Monday several of our contributors will offer their insights on this complex topic, each from his or her own personal and institutional context. Don’t worry. We will, of course, interrupt this scheduled Shark week for our Ash Wednesday reflection.

The ongoing conversation about Catholic identity and mission in American Catholic colleges and universities has existed since Georgetown University was founded in 1789. Today, well over 200 colleges in this country are Catholic institutions and each one wrestles with how best to understand, cultivate, and articulate their religious identity in light of their distinct institutional histories and their particular contexts. The conversations regarding Catholic identity and mission tend to become more contentious when issues such as the core curriculum or adherence to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church arise, such as birth control coverage for employees and students and institution-sponsored LGTBQ student groups. In recent years, some of the most controversial debates have revolved around pro-choice politicians and other public figures being invited to address the student bodies at a few of the larger Catholic research universities like University of Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgetown University. It is important to note that these types of universities make up a small percentage of the Catholic colleges and universities in this country, the majority of which are smaller, regional institutions.

As with many touchy subjects, the Catholic identity conversation can easily cause polarization, especially when tactics of fear mongering and demonization are used. Yet this should not prevent us from recognizing the importance of these conversations or keep us from entering into them. Debates concerning Catholic identity and mission require more nuance and sophistication than many of the media outlets offer. As Catholic and public scholars, we recognize our responsibility to enter this conversation in a thoughtful and open-minded manner. In order to do so, it is necessary to supply some general historical background before entering this conversation. There is always a danger in doing this. Obviously, this post cannot do justice to all of the intricate historical details this topic deserves. The following is just to provide enough historical perspective to ground this Shark Week’s theme. If you are interested in pursuing this topic in more depth, I highly recommend starting with the sources listed at the end of this post.

Catholic Higher Education in the United States Prior to Vatican II

Most of the Catholic colleges and universities in this country were founded in the 19th and early 20th century in order to provide college education for the growing number of Catholics in the United States. Prior to the 1960s, the majority of the students and faculty at these institutions were practicing Catholics. These institutions were, as historian David O’Brien points out, visible extensions of the American Catholic subculture. Students were required to go to Mass and chapel. They took required philosophy and religion classes that were steeped in the neo-scholastic tradition. A good number of the faculty members were also members of Religious congregations. No one could doubt the religious identity of these institutions at this time.

While their Catholic identity was evident, their identity as legitimate universities was called into question on a number of different fronts. Leaders in American higher education frequently criticized Catholic colleges and universities for being sectarian and therefore not up to the educational and professional standards of other American institutions of higher learning. Catholic universities were often denied membership to professional and scholarly organizations. In fact, the first Catholic institution to become a member of the illustrious scholarly society Phi Beta Kappa was St. Catherine’s University and that was not until 1937.

Monsignor John Tracy Ellis

As discriminatory as many of these critiques were, justifiable concerns about the academic rigor at Catholic universities came from within the Catholic community itself. Many notable leaders in Catholic higher education lamented the intellectual life of American Catholics and called upon Catholic universities to develop more intellectually stimulating curricula and an increased focus on research. The most famous call for Catholic intellectuals came from Rev. John Tracy Ellis in his 1955 controversial article “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life.” He criticized Catholic colleges and universities for their mediocrity, low academic standards, and for failing to form authentic scholars. Ellis’ admonishment could not have come at a more significant time, as the winds of change were shifting both within the American Catholic community and the American education system.

Vatican II, Land O’ Lakes, and Ex Corde Ecclesiae

Catholic colleges and universities found themselves swept up in the cultural, political, educational, and social upheaval of the 1960s. The Vietnam War, the Civil rights movement, the women’s movement as well as the shift of American Catholics into mainstream American culture all collided with the Second Vatican Council. The documents of Vatican II—particularly Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution On The Church in the Modern World)–galvanized Catholic educational leaders around the world to consider the role of the Catholic university in this newly engaged Church. The International Federation of Catholic Universities (I.F.C.U.) asked various regions to contribute their visions of the Catholic university in the modern world. In response to this request, representatives from colleges in the US and Canada gathered in Land O’ Lakes and wrote a treatise on the idea of the modern Catholic university. It is now famously known as the Land O’ Lakes statement.

Written under the leadership of University of Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, the Land O’ Lakes document recognized that in order for Catholic colleges and universities to serve the Church and the world, they needed to be first and foremost universities. While always connected to and grounded in the Church, the universities needed the academic freedom to pursue the search for truth and wisdom if they were to serve the Church and the world adequately. In the decades following Vatican II, dialogue continued between Vatican and educational leaders about the role of the Catholic university. The issues of academic freedom, Catholic identity, and the role of the Catholic university continue to loom large in the conversation today.

Meanwhile, the simultaneous explosion of cultural, political and educational revolutions in the 1960s and 1970s had dramatic impact on Catholic campuses. American Catholic colleges and universities had to carefully negotiate their role as sectarian universities in order to receive federal and or state funding. The transition to independent boards caused some tension with Church officials. Many traditionally single-sex colleges decided to go co-educational. Significant curriculum changes were made especially in philosophy and theology. Students were no longer required to go to Mass or participate in the faith life of the institution. More lay faculty were hired as the number of Religious on campuses began to decline.

As Catholic universities rose to higher standing in American higher education, the number of non-Catholic students also increased. Today a high number of students on Catholic campuses are not Catholic and it can no longer be assumed that Catholic students have received religious formation or catechesis. Despite all of these significant changes, these institutions have not gone the way of many of their once-religious-now-secular counterparts. The Catholic heritage still plays a strong role in the identity of these institutions and is often what attracts students of different faiths to Catholic colleges and universities.

In 1990, Pope John Paul II promulgated his Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities. Ex Corde Ecclesiae declared that the Catholic university is born from the heart of the Church and that the intellectual pursuits and the educational vocation of Catholic colleges and universities must be upheld. While the document caused some controversy, especially with regards to the USCCB’s Application and Norms, it compelled Catholic colleges and universities to take the questions of Catholic identity and mission seriously. Over the last twenty-five years, leadership trainings for Presidents and board members have been introduced. Many Catholic colleges and universities have created mission offices and hired mission leaders. Thus, the religious identity question continues to be discussed on Catholic campuses. Arguably, this ongoing conversation can be interpreted as one visible expression of the religious identity of these institutions.

Same Questions, New Urgency

Questions about the role of the Catholic university in the United States have been asked for the past two centuries. What is a Catholic university? What makes a Catholic university distinct from other institutions of higher learning? How are Catholic colleges and universities in the United States unique institutions? What is the role of theology and philosophy in the curriculum and within the academy? What is the relationship between the Liberal Arts, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, and the core curriculum? How do lay administrators and faculty creatively cultivate learning communities that support the religious identity? These are just some of the perennial questions we hope to address in the upcoming Shark Week recognizing that the cultural and ecclesial realities these institutions find themselves in today requires wrestling with these questions with more grace, openness, and conviction than ever before.

Selected Bibliography:

Buckley, Michael. The Catholic University as Project and Promise: Reflections in A Jesuit Idiom.Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998.

Gallin, Alice. Negotiating Identity: Catholic Higher Education Since 1960. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.

Gleason, Philip. Contending With Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Haugey, John. Where is Knowing Going?: The Horizon of the Knowing Subject. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2009.

Hesburgh, Theodore M, C.S.C., ed. The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre  Dame Press, 1994.

Langan, John P., ed. Catholic Universities in Church and Society: A Dialogue on Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Washington DC: Georgetown University, 1993.

Morey, Melanie M. and John J. Piderit, S.J., Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. Edited by Martin J. Svaglic. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

O’Brien, David J. From the Heart of the American Church: Catholic Higher Education and American Culture. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1994.

Schier, Tracy, and Cynthia Russett, eds. Catholic Women’s Colleges in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

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