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Hollow Theology

Every so often the subject of religious literacy is brought to the fore of public discussion, and usually it’s those in the thick of modern education who sound the alarm of ill education. Recently, research conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education, a division of the Cardinal Newman Society, found that most Catholic colleges in the U.S. no longer require students to study Catholic theology. Many of us know this anecdotally, but it remained for some intrepid soul to crunch the data. And now the Cardinal Newman Society has given us the straight dope.

Dr. Kimberly Shankman, dean of Benedictine College in Kansas, authored the study that found that while Catholic colleges have stronger general-education requirements than their secular counterparts, most have abolished requirements for students to take Catholic theology courses. Shankman was surprised to find that at fifty-four percent of the Catholic colleges and universities studied, the “theology” requirement could be satisfied without actually studying Catholic theology. A few schools maintained no theology requirement at all; some allowed students to take courses in either philosophy or theology, meaning that the requirement can be fulfilled entirely with philosophy courses. Many times, theology is confused with “religious studies,” an academic discipline that focuses on the study of religion as a social phenomenon, or of comparative religions, or of the theology of non-Christian faiths such as Hinduism or Buddhism.

Shankman’s findings align with common perceptions: Those Catholic institutions that most clearly embrace their Catholic identity — e.g., Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, and Franciscan University — are much more likely to provide their students with a “comprehensive, coherent general education program” and a “definite requirement that students study Catholic theology.” All the others: not so much.

Our separated brethren over in Britain have recently heard a similar alarm sound, courtesy of education experts at Oxford University, who have described the quality of religious education in Christianity in British schools as “naïve,” “cartoonish,” and “lacking intellectual development” (LifeSiteNews.com, Dec. 13). The experts sharply criticize the way multiculturalism, secularism, and fear of offending have watered down the teaching of Christianity in religious-education classes, which are mandatory in state schools in England up to age 16.

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