Seven hundred classmates and I recently graduated from a Catholic college—the oldest Catholic college in New England and the only liberal arts, strictly undergraduate, and Jesuit institution in the country. One might assume that such a school offers a Catholic studies major as a regular academic program, but such an assumption would be incorrect.
I majored in Catholic studies through a self-designed course of study. It can be done. Whether in a literature class on Dante’s Inferno or an advanced Christology seminar, most every Catholic college offers the courses needed to create a satisfying Catholic studies major.
Beyond the virtues of any particular class, however, a Catholic studies curriculum holds intrinsic value, as its inherently interdisciplinary nature forces the student to draw connections between theology, culture, politics, and aesthetics, and helps to break down too-strict divisions between departments and disciplines. In this way it encourages the student to think on several fronts at once. A student of Catholic studies is not cast adrift into a sea of specialization and technicalization, then, but encounters and ultimately participates in a dynamic and organic tradition of thought.
For example, I spent one summer researching the extent to which early Christian teachings on just war guide the contemporary Church’s diplomatic efforts to outlaw certain types of wartime munitions; by examining sources as diverse as City of God, the book of Maccabees, diplomatic records surrounding the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, papal encyclicals, and secondary scholarship on guerrilla warfare, I came to understand how history, ideology, and personality fit together to beget the ideas and values that define our current age. Thus Catholic studies is also an ideal complement to any number of other majors (I had a second major in political science).
But while my experience as a Catholic studies major was transformative, it ought not to be unique, especially at a top-notch Catholic school that possesses all the institutional and educational resources to provide it. Despite my alma mater’s commitment, as professed in its own mission statement, to enabling “special” engagement with the “intellectual heritage of Catholicism,” the college fails to promote, systematize, or even distinguish in-class engagement with the rich intellectual, artistic, and spiritual aspects of the Catholic experience. Indeed, one may, and many do, make it through this leading Catholic college without taking a single class in which Catholicism is seriously treated.
More and more elite colleges and universities are graduating religiously illiterate students, including Catholic institutions which have particular reasons to stress this aspect of a liberal education. That signals a catechetical breakdown, yes, and a possible case of institutional insecurity to boot.
Catholic studies departments do exist as stand-alone major programs at some Catholic colleges and universities, notably The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. But unless one is enrolled at one of a small handful of four or five such colleges, it is up to self-motivated and unusually self-aware college students to design their own majors if they want to learn about the Catholic faith (slightly more schools—including Georgetown and Notre Dame—offer minors in the field, but the number of schools offering majors remains low).
For their own sake and for the sake of their students, Catholic colleges and universities should be unafraid to offer full course loads in Catholic studies, and where fledgling programs exist, administrators and students should push for their development. Especially at schools that owe their existence to the Church, the study of Catholicism deserves to stand alongside other disciplines as an equal.