Catholic Higher Education: Worth Supporting?

September 1993By Edwin Fussell

Edwin Fussell, a Contributing Editor of the NOR and a retired pro­fessor, attended Pomona College and Harvard University, and taught at Berkeley, Pomona, the Claremont Graduate School, and the University of California at San Diego. So he writes as an outsider to Catholic higher education.

American Catholic Higher Edu­cation: Essential Documents, 1967-1990.  Edited by Alice Gallin. University of Notre Dame Press. 448 pages. $29.95.



Those were critical years for the Catholic colleges and universities of the U.S., but at least they produced a working definition: Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) assures us that henceforth a Catholic college or university is one where not more than one-half the faculty is non-Catholic and both halves behave themselves. We can hardly wait to see the definition applied. It will not be easy, given the American passion for resistance for its own sake. When I mentioned the new criterion to an administrator at a purportedly Catho­lic university, I was blithely told, "We don’t count" (as if counting were un-American). Wasn’t that cute? In fact, count­ing was the point.

How can the American Catholic university fail to take the universe by storm? By lack of resources. By lack of vision. By lack of discipline, inside and outside. By caring more to be American than Catholic. Of all these problems, lack of money is crucial. Here is how Alice Gallin breaks down the annual income of the Catholic institution of higher education:
70% student tuition & fees
10% government grants
9% private gifts
3% endowment
Dependence on student tuition and fees is alarming, especially as inflation continues (do you deplore the rich-girl sorority atmosphere of the Catholic college? stop inflation). The dependence on government grants is alarming, for who knows when and why the government will turn even more anti-Catholic. What is most alarming is the mere 12 percent total from gifts and endowment (virtually all endowment comes from gifts). Private gifts and endowment should come to 90 percent and student tuition and fees be brought down to 10 percent and government grants done away with altogether. That could and can happen when the money forthcomes and not before and not otherwise -- and not otherwise will there be a hugely significant renaissance in the American Catholic university.

Of the 600-odd Catholic universities worldwide, some 250 are in the U.S. Except for the football team at Notre Dame and the basketball team at Georgetown, none of them is top drawer, and Notre Dame and Georgetown head the list of so-called Catholic institutions whose loyalty is in ques­tion. How may these 250 valiant institutions be bootstrap­ped up to top-drawer quality?

MONEY --

money from the American Catholic people in huge un­imaginable amounts. At pres­ent, American Catholic colleges and universities do not on the whole have -- I hate to say it in public, but someone must -- first-rate faculties, except sometimes in philosophy and religion, and they do not have wonderful libraries (not one Catholic university library that I know of could be called an excellent research library), and the professors are underpaid and they teach twice as many courses as professors in nearby state or non-Catholic institutions. And let no one imagine that Catholic educational med­iocrity is owing to something amiss with the Catholic faith. If that is your conviction, it is time you left the Church. If that is not your conviction, it is time you paid up. How shall we have a faculty and a re­search library at St. Mary’s-on-­the-Rocks as good as those at Berkeley? Cut the teaching load to two courses per term or less and double professorial salaries. Pour millions of dol­lars into the library. Check ­books out, people.

The American Catholic people, as Catholics, are doubt­less the salt of the earth Jesus spoke of, but as Americans they are a flavorless lot, self-deluded on such matters as the constitutional separation of church and state (no such provision exists) and their con­stitutional right to freedom of religion (which comes and goes and is seldom very strong on Catholic behalf). Their notion that there is something inher­ently Catholic about the Amer­ican experiment (the Ellis-Murray line of argument, now reinforced by Catholic neocon­servatives who find Catholicity and capitalism virtually indis­tinguishable) is naïve. Do American Catholics really be­lieve that theirs is the true faith? that it is the repository of the truth, the good, and the beautiful in the Western world and in more than the Western world? If so, how can American Catholic universities not be preeminent? Why should American intellectual leader­ship go by default to Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Berkeley? Is it because they are more civilized or because they have more money? Everyone surely knows the answer to that.

A while ago, Richard John Neuhaus announced "the Catholic Moment," all other options having run out. The time has come to change America into a Catholic coun­try like France or Italy, only better (Americans go to Mass). Or would you Catholics rather be a perpetual minority too feeble even to block a presi­dential campaign conducted in large part against you?

It is surely of no use for the Catholic university to de­fine its difference and thus its raison d’être in terms of being inferior. Why is Catholic pub­lishing on the whole so lively and exciting and Catholic university presses so deplorable? (You can’t count the splendid Ignatius Press as a university press just because its head, Joseph Fessio, S.J., teaches at the University of San Francis­co). In more than 40 years of college and university teaching, I have had in my hands perhaps 10,000-20,000 scholarly books, mostly from American university presses, including the beautiful University of California Press edition of John Paul II’s plays and dramatic criticism. Of that total, perhaps 10 are from Catholic university presses. If the Catholic univer­sity press is as feeble as that, how can it influence the intel­lectual community, outside of a rare volume in philosophy or theology? But those fields are not where the battle lines are drawn, as many documents in the present collection make clear, especially those coming from the Holy Father. The bat­tle lines are those which sepa­rate but also join Church and culture. What is the Catholic university doing to win that battle? Precious little. At the secular university you get free condoms.

In the discussions prior to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, American Catholic institutions insisted that they too were entitled to academic freedom and insti­tutional autonomy, even though no one any longer had any idea what those terms meant and even though you could hardly glance at a secu­lar institution for five minutes without noticing their violation. How could there be academic freedom in institutions devoted to social change? How could there be institutional autonomy for institutions virtually owned by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood? The semi-sacred notions of intellectual integrity are never in question vis-à-vis feminism and multiculturalism and gay-and-lesbian theory and barely concealed de-Christianization, but you’d better not drop the name of Jesus or the courts will be on your case for prose­lytizing, the sin of sins. Thus threatened and suitably scared -- that may have been the idea -- the Catholic institution veers away from Catholicity in the direction of Americanism and throws away its chief source of appeal. And its in­come drops again, for who would give money to a place like that? You can get even worse results by paying your taxes. But the 250 Catholic colleges and universities were surely founded for some pur­pose better than running away from the American govern­ment. The idea was surely to provide a true religious educa­tion to the Roman Catholic minority in a country where Catholics joined blacks and Jews as prime targets for the KKK and where the great American Walt Whitman in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass entitled a section "Chants Democratic and Native Ameri­can," Native American mean­ing anti-Catholic. The Ameri­can people is still anti-Catholic, only it has altered the terms of attack.

I came away from these pages wondering why it is not possible for Catholic institutions to be inspected and val­idated by primarily Catholic committees rather than by the state or the post-Protestant academic world. Is there not also work to be done on the part of Catholic lawyers nego­tiating with governments apro­pos the matter of proselytizing? Current prejudicial practices seem rather obviously designed to keep the Catholic university in its place, which is low. I omit here the vexatious prob­lem of the Catholic university that solicits money from Catho­lics for Catholic education and subsequently turns anti-Catho­lic, alleging "the spirit of the Council." How does the Catho­lic institution expect to raise money when it is spattered with dishonorable behavior like that? Surely we have had enough articles in mainly Catholic magazines asking if Notre Dame, Georgetown, Bos­ton College, et alia, are "still" Catholic, together with ads in the same magazines from other Catholic institutions, for the most part new and small, alleging that they really are. It is easy enough to ascertain what is Catholic. There are the documents of the Second Vat­ican Council, which few have read, the revised Canon Law, and the new worldwide Cate­chism.

The most important ques­tion is: What is the use of the Catholic university and why should it be supported and attended? Here are some suggestions on how to make the Catholic college and uni­versity attractive (of students and donations) and at the same time more orthodox and less American (popular, compro­mised -- in the long run, secular-atheist). Administrators are warned that some of these proposals will bring them to blows with the government, which, as I have pointed out, desires no Catholic education.

(1) Put the crucifixes back on the walls, especially in the science buildings, and tell the professors of chemistry, say, to cease proclaiming the table of elements as if they had invent­ed it instead of God. At the beginning of term they should read aloud and explicate 1 Cor­inthians 12, on the relation of gifts to the Spirit. On their knees.

(2) Institute a schedule of required Masses at least twice weekly, with homilies mainly about the Mass and its rela­tions to language, literature, science, and other fields of learning. If non-Catholic students object to compulsory Mass, they can transfer to Stanford.

(3) Ask each entering stu­dent to sign an agreement to repay to the university (via the IRS) 10 percent of his annual earnings lifelong. This money goes into the endow­ment and is for the support of students to come. Watch en­rollments fall off in pre-law, pre-medicine, and other mon­eymaking majors, which are also, not by chance, the moral­ly questionable majors.

(4) Almost every document in this collection calls for in­terdisciplinary work, and so I offer the following. Devise a four-year required (for every­one) course in Catholic Civili­zation, team-taught by theolo­gians and philosophers and historians and literary folk and art critics the best money can buy with the new doubled salaries (and if I weren’t so old I’d go back to college and take it myself):
(A) History of the Church from Jesus to the Present
(B) One semester of St. Augustine, one semester of St. Thomas Aquinas
(C) Catholic Literature, the New Testament on down
(D) Catholic Art
I think John Paul II would like these proposals.

Readers of these docu­ments will find new reasons for thinking John Paul II one of the great popes. It has some­thing to do with his having been a university professor, but it has more to do with his philosophy and theology and his grounding in the docu­ments of the Second Vatican Council with its definitions of the Church, surprisingly Tri­dentine, now turned face to face with the problem of modern culture. It is at this point that the Catholic univer­sity and the modern world must understand, in whatever language, that the cosmos was created by God, through Christ the Word and the Logos, so that each and every academic subject, and indeed each and every existent entity, will bear the marks of the Real Pres­ence, the mystery of faith. If you conflate the Nicene Creed and the first chapter in the Gospel According to Saint John, you have the essential truth, and it is this truth that permeates all knowledge and justifies the continuation of the Catholic university. The great secular universities -- Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale -- have nothing like it, which is why their ultimate impact, however good for moneymak­ing and power, tends toward a sick emptiness inside.

The Holy Father knows all this and more, and can restate the ends of Catholic education in terms of Christ and His Mother. It is he who has the rare Catholic intelligence to speak of "the beauty and greatness of the Gospel." It is he who speaks eloquently and succinctly thus: "more impor­tant than any written text or study plan, there is the ques­tion of a style and an atmos­phere." It is in that style that in Ex Corde Ecclesiae he writes, "The entire ecclesial community is invited to give its support to Catholic institutions of higher education and to assist them in their process of devel­opment and renewal. It is invited in a special way to guard the rights and freedom of these institutions in civil so­ciety, and to offer them eco­nomic aid."

It appears to have been, and still to be, an anomaly of American culture that Yale and Stanford should have all the money and prestige and the power to influence opinion and tell Americans what to think and how to act, when in real life the Catholic population of this great country is now running between 22 and 27 percent of the whole and is, at best, tolerated because ignored, but, when necessary or de­sirable, condescended to and put upon. Really, it ought to be plain, even to the Ameri­cans, that it is the Catholic rather than the secular-atheist institution that represents civilization and deserves support. Your gift is tax-deductible. Make it infinitely grand. Be sure the recipients behave themselves. Have a Catholic Moment. Let it last for all eternity.



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