One Size Fits All? Catholic Higher Education in the Diaspora

The Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Mary, Marymount University, Arlington, VA
The Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Mary, Marymount University, Arlington, VA

Thanks to the posts so far this week for helping to stimulate my thoughts on this – Kat Greiner for providing an overview of the history of Catholic higher education in the United States, and Amanda Osheim for providing me lecture notes for the unit on Dulles in my ecclesiology course next week a thoughtful set of questions to think about different models of Catholic higher education. I’d like to bring another set of models, and questions, into the conversation, those of Melanie Morey and John Piderit from their book Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis, to talk not only about our idea of what a Catholic college or university should take as its theoretical self-identity, but to reflect on how our institutions’ unique histories and, today, the different populations we serve complicate yet enrich our ideas of Catholic higher education.

I’m writing out of a particular context and biography myself, that helps explain my “conversion,” or at least my deepened appreciation, of the diversity of Catholic education. I am the product of 25 consecutive years of Catholic education – K through PhD. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) Much of that was spent in institutions that Morey and Piderit would characterize as “Catholic Immersion” or “Catholic Persuasion” institutions, as we will see in a minute. I did my undergraduate studies at the Catholic University of America and my graduate work at Boston College. At both of those places, but especially at CUA, the student body was such that one could assume a certain amount of basic knowledge about and practice of Catholic Christianity, particularly at CUA – think students scheduling dates to go to Mass together or competitive Lenten abstinence.

Fast forward a few years, and I am teaching at Marymount University, a wonderful, underrated institution in Arlington, Virginia, with a dedicated faculty and staff, and an amazingly diverse student body. Last semester, in one 30-student classroom, I had students from Maryland, D.C., Virginia and other parts of the U.S., but also with current or recent roots in El Salvador, Guatemala, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Italy, Ethiopia, Pakistan, India, the Congo, and Jamaica. Depending upon how we ask questions about religion and religious identification, around 44% of our students are Roman Catholic. I currently serve as the advisor to the very active Muslim Student Association – not a role that I dreamed I would have as a Catholic theologian! It’s an astoundingly rich place to teach, live, and work in community – but just as astoundingly different from some of my past experiences of Catholic universities, and even from other Catholic institutions of higher education within just a one-hundred-mile radius.

Visit with Dr. Flanagan to the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, VA
Visit with a class to the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, VA

Maintaining Catholic identity at a place like Marymount, therefore, is both challenging and interesting, but most importantly very different than the task would be at the institutions of my own training and formation. While we have them, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which the praxis of shared Catholic identity that work at other institutions – opening and closing liturgies, common Lenten disciplines, small faith sharing groups, lecture series by prominent Catholics – would be effective or even appropriate in our context. But, pace some commentators for whom Notre Dame, CUA, or Ave Maria are always going to provide “the gold standard” of Catholic identity, with alternative visions watered-down copies at best, I want to argue that schools like mine do have a Catholic identity to offer the Church and the world, given some intentionality and an ability to look past easy metrics like the number of crucifixes on the wall or the percentages of Catholic students and faculty.

As you might expect from the subtitle of their book, Morey and Piderit have some real concerns about the future of Catholic higher education. In the course of their work, they develop four models of Catholic universities: “Catholic Immersion Universities,” “Catholic Persuasion Universities,” “Catholic Diaspora Universities,” and “Catholic Cohort Universities.” By “Immersion Universities,” the authors envision universities that are “pervasively Catholic,” whose educational priority is “to attract committed Catholic students, to educate them more deeply about the Catholic tradition, and to both encourage and actively support their practice of the faith.” While the authors are appropriately restrained in labeling the institutions they study, one might think of the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Christendom College, Ave Maria, and many newer Catholic institutions of higher learning in this model. The second, “Persuasion Universities,” intends “to give all students knowledge and appreciation of the Catholic tradition, regardless of whether they are Catholic themselves. This type of institution seeks, usually in a gentle fashion, to persuade. This goal assumes that the majority of students attracted to the institution are Catholic, even though many of these students are unfamiliar with basic teachings of the Catholic Church.” In this category, one might identify some of the “classic” Catholic universities like Boston College and Notre Dame, but also similar yet smaller institutions like Holy Cross or St. Bonaventure. “Diaspora Universities” are characterized by a smaller percentage of Catholic students. As my university seems to best fit this category, I’ll indulge in an extended quotation:

The majority of students are non-Catholics who are open to the religious teachings of the Catholic faith. The leadership would be pleased to attract a greater number of Catholic students, but it is constrained in some way. In many instances, these colleges are operating in predominantly Protestant or unchurched areas of the country. Because they are small institutions without national reputations among students and/or parents, they draw from regional, and primarily non-Catholic, student pool and must operate within that constraint. […] Catholic religious activities are offered on campus, but participation is modest. […] These universities aim for religious sensitivity.

Finally, “Catholic Cohort Universities” have a higher percentage of Roman Catholic students and faculty than the diaspora type, but unlike persuasion or immersion universities focus more upon providing professional skills and training, with some opportunities for Catholic students to further their own interests in education or participation in matters explicitly Catholic. Many of the smaller historically Catholic universities of the East Coast and the Midwest that focus upon professional programs of various sorts, and for whom a liberal arts core curriculum is a necessary evil in the minds of many faculty and students, might fit this description.

Morey and Piderit’s book is far richer than just these models, and my account above is a pale copy. But the use of these models is helpful in beginning to take stock of the variety of forms of Catholic higher education and, perhaps, the legitimacy of that variety, with some caveats. In my view, much of the debate over Catholic identity has been reduced to an argument between those promoting a goal of immersion and those promoting a goal of persuasion – that is, partisans of an immersion model arguing that persuasion universities are not fully Catholic enough, and those of a persuasion model arguing that immersion universities are not critical, intellectual, or tolerant enough. But to only think about the future of Catholic higher education in those terms fails to grasp the nettle of the changing demographics of our students and our communities. Given the description of “diaspora universities,” one might argue that most of the United States is rapidly becoming a “predominantly unchurched area of the country” – that many more of us are, or will soon be, diaspora institutions.

To take that reality seriously requires at least two commitments. First, to intentionality, One concern that the promoters of a strong immersion model are right to have, in my opinion, is that Catholic identity be more than a matter of a required theology course and crucifixes on the wall, significant as those might be. Those of us already pioneering Catholic identity in the diaspora, so to speak, might have some lessons and gifts to give Catholic higher education more broadly. At my own institution, for instance, our core curriculum increased the theology and religious studies requirement from one course to two courses (yes, you read that correctly) precisely out of recognition that students of many faith traditions and none, including that Catholics, had fewer and fewer spaces or resources to study the “perennial questions of human existence.” Faculty seminars on ethics and on Catholic higher education itself assist in maintaining a critical mass of awareness of and commitment to mission. And interreligious dialogue is becoming an increasingly important aspect of our Catholic identity, including our support of a conference on Vatican II and ecumenical, interreligious, and secular dialogue, to be held at Georgetown and at Marymount this coming May. Many, many other institutions are doing similar things, and doing very different things that are effective in their contexts, but it seems to me that being intentional about maintaining, or in some cases restoring, a culture of Catholic identity is a crucial task for the future.

The second commitment is to respect for different forms of Catholic higher education. “Tolerance,” “respect,” “diversity,” – we may have just lost some readers who equate those values with capitulation to a secular culture. But the model I have in mind is more like that of different schools of spirituality or theology, with a shared recognition of how much we have in common in our hopes for our students, for our institutions, for the Church, and for the world, and a charitable trust in each other’s best intentions. At the risk of violent imagery, we might come to a broader agreement as to “the real enemy”, or “enemies” – the increasingly corporatization of our universities, the reduction of liberal arts curricula, the consumerism that hurts our students’ openness to instruction, the great sucking sound of the questions of God and of meaning being vacuumed out of higher education, etc. etc. I have no doubt that my institution’s praxis of being Catholic would be out of place or worse at some other institutions, but I also know that importing that of an immersion or persuasion institution would likely fall flat, at best, which is of no help to my students or to my colleagues. Some form of the Ignatian presupposition of right intent and best motivations (canonically, it remains illegal to discuss Catholic higher education without somehow, somewhere invoking Ignatius of Loyola…) might be crucial to the flourishing of a renewal in our institutions, a presupposition in which we are all intentionally – and faithfully – doing our best, hopefully under the guidance of Christ’s Holy Spirit.

So your turn, DT readers – what else do we need?

Click here for more posts from our Theological Shark Week on “What is–or should be–Catholic higher education?”

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