The first part of this essay, published in last month’s issue, recounted how the process of estrangement between Vanderbilt University and the Southern Methodist Church was typical of the alienation of mainstream Protestant colleges and universities from their churches, occurring from about 1870 to 1910. Educators who anticipated that churchmen might use their leverage to obstruct rather than encourage their plans for academic reform withdrew their colleges and universities from ecclesiastical governance. Deploring “sectarian” narrowness, they bound their campuses’ intellectual and disciplinary life to a generic Christianity rather than to any actual church. A new generation of faculty, with neither commitment to nor interest in joining a community of faith, brought their institutions into a new secular obedience. It was noted, finally, that the initiatives which assured the swift secularization of these campuses were undertaken by educators who were themselves observant believers who failed to foresee that the academy had no way to remain Christian without vital membership in an ecclesiastical fellowship.
If the Vanderbilt transition from Methodist to neuter exhibits a typical pattern of academic secularization, what we will find at the root of these events is a sponsoring church that is nonchalant about its burden: one that wishes to be the patron of a college or university without being its benefactor. Usually the officers of the churches involved in the process outlined above included few persons who had benefited by advanced studies or were intellectuals. Deprived of native sympathy for academics and of a sense of ease in dealing with them—indeed, inclined to view them with misgiving—these ecclesiastics did not by instinct address themselves to their institutions in their office as articulate exponents of their faith, nor as pastors, nor as prophets. They fell back upon the only role remaining: that of governors.
Facing these sponsors was usually an institution with the possibility and the determination to become more rigorous in its standards and more ambitious in its financial requirements. Because it lacked a sure sense of authentic advantage in being the undertaking of a community of faith, it tended to look uncritically to the best-financed institutions as its models, and these invariably were secular or secularized.
The alienation usually required, as well, an academic administrator whose determination to transfigure the institution and whose ego (if these be not synonymous) inclined him to neutralize all potential rivals to his leadership. Typically the board of trustees was reconfigured to follow administrative leadership without let or hindrance, the faculty was tamed with increased emoluments and funds for scholarship, and the donors and public were won over by a rhetoric of assurance. The only threat remaining resided within the church. Because the church’s members, by and large, were not so impressed by higher education that they were ready to subsidize or even abide it when it became too outspoken and critical, and because its officers sensed no competence in themselves to interact with academics save from a position of control, the administrator sensed rightly that the church held the latent power to bring down everything he was striving to build up. Church affiliation became, in a word, not worth the risk.
Whatever the drive for power on the part of the institution and its academic leadership, the desire to be free of the church was usually motivated by the belief that the Christian context and spiritual nourishment they regarded as a blessing could and would continue after the removal of any authoritative link with the church. The widely shared church membership and piety of the campus population led them to suppose that the inertial force of faith is such that it would carry them along after their relationship to the church became informal and inexplicit rather than legal. Or, to put it another way, those who negotiated the withdrawal imagined the campus (or the culture) as a sort of autocephalous church.
Yet at the same time that these institutions asserted their readiness to remove themselves from church oversight and still remain a community of faith, they proved unwilling to undertake any of the essential tasks that a community of faith must perform in order to thrive or survive: the defining of authentic faith in seasons of dispute; the maintenance of moral discipline on standards grounded in faith; the invitation to communion and its withdrawal; concern for the personal welfare of its members beyond professional performance. The reformed institutions never had the principled nerve to make good on their claim that in asserting their independence they would nonetheless retain their character as Christian communities.
Not that religious trappings disappeared from campuses overnight or altogether. Vestiges of religion remained in the liberal Protestant institutions well after the completion of the secularization process in the first decade of this century. The capacity of religious identity to linger in confused and ambiguous observance and symbol allows strange and sometimes awkward outcroppings of “religion as heritage.” Perhaps a few contemporary examples of this phenomenon will illustrate the point.
Ten years ago, one originally Protestant university made the following announcement:
Those attending today’s Opening Exercises in the University Chapel will notice several subtle but significant changes in the traditional ceremony marking the start of the academic year. Perhaps most obvious, the time of the program has moved from 11:00 A.M. to 2:00 PM., so as not to conflict with the chapel’s regular religious service. The substance of the program has also been modified to make it less ostensibly “religious” in a denominational sense while retaining its underlying spirituality. For example, such traditional parts of a religious service as doxology, Lord’s Prayer, benediction, and offering have been eliminated. At the same time, the nondenominational prayer and responsive reading have been retained, and the musical program has been enhanced with inclusion of the University Glee Club and instrumental Ensemble in addition to the chapel choir. The changes, according to the Associate University secretary, are consistent with the recent trustee report analyzing the role of the chapel and of the dean of the chapel. In planning this year’s opening exercises we have tried to emphasize the spiritual and intellectual diversity of A___ University. We think we have developed an imaginative program that embodies the important spiritual traditions of A___ while recognizing its diversity.
An alumnus of another distinguished former Protestant institution wrote a letter recently to the alumni magazine:
It appears from the photograph of V___ Chapel . . . that the chapel “restoration” has stripped the chancel of its specificity of religious symbolism. When I was first a student at the University, the Chapel represented a vision of Christian ecumenism. The Gothic architecture and the via media Protestant liturgy, the cross and altar beneath the reredos, expressed a generalized, yet specific, religious and cultural heritage, that of a reformed Western Christendom. Later, the liturgical movement of the Roman Catholic Church spilled over into the ecumenical Christian scene and the altar of F Chapel was reoriented. The most recent alteration no doubt represents an adjustment to a cultural setting that is on the one hand more religiously pluralistic and on the other more pervasively secularistic . . . .A worthy vision, symbolized by the V ___ Chapel chancel of a past generation, has departed. I do not think it can, or should, be restored, nor even lamented. We require a new and wider ecumenism in religion and a new and wider humanism in education. I cherish a time when every University of B___ alumnus will have contemplated not only Greek philosophy and the Bible, but also the Gita and the Buddhist Sutras and the manifold issues of the hour. Secular, pluralistic civilization makes a fine setting for the spiritual search of serious-minded individuals in intellectual community.
At yet another formerly Protestant campus the recent appointment of a Dean of Chapel led one faculty member to write another:
Today word was received that a Jewish president has replaced an Episcopalian priest with a Congregationalist minister, educated as a Nazarene, ordained in the United Church of Christ, married, this time, to a Unitarian-Universalist minister, and “persuaded that the ultimate religious vision must be characterized by universality,” to preside over Presbyterian worship at C ___.
On the main mall of a university that still claims ties to its founding church, at a spot within sight of the campus chapel and almost within the ambit of the founder’s bronze statue, one may read on a handsome plaque the words that expressed the founder’s vision and the university’s mandate: “The aims of D___ University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; to advance learning in all lines of truth; to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals; to develop a Christian love of freedom and truth; to promote a sincere spirit of tolerance; to discourage all partisan and sectarian strife; and to render the largest permanent service to the individual, the state, and the nation, and the church. Unto these ends shall the affairs of this university always be administered.” Perhaps not always. At the recent presidential inauguration, the chairman of the board of trustees read out this commitment. He omitted, however, the passage italicized above.
Evangelical Protestant institutions partook to a much lesser degree in either the academic enhancement or the secularization of their mainstream cousins during the period between the Civil War and World War I. Some of them today (and they are mostly colleges, not universities) have succeeded, though at a more deliberate pace, in their ambition to maintain a Christian character while upgrading their scholarly performance. Indeed, some of the most impressive small colleges in the nation are in this group. Yet some evangelical institutions are now growing wary of what they consider the aggressively anti-intellectual leadership of their denominations, and are moving to dissociate themselves from church-controlled governance.
On the campus of E ___ University where most trustees had always been selected collaboratively by the board and church representatives, the board withdrew itself from church involvement because it feared an imposition of fundamentalist tenets. The president explained that “We remain a Christian university with a W____ relationship. We have just redefined that relationship in a mutually supportive way.” Those with a sense of history might wonder, however, whether a “relationship” of this sort might labor under some of the same ambivalence as “relationships” between some of the campus freshmen.
A college founded by another church has in the latter years of its nearly 170-years existence redefined itself as “nondenominational.” Chapel attendance has not been an integral part of campus life since the early 1960s, but apparently prayers have continued at certain campus ceremonies. Faculty resistance has lately broken out, since, as one professor put it, “prayer has become a symbol of division and exclusion for those who feel, some for secular and others for reasons of religious integrity, that prayer imposes a set of beliefs on them which they do not share and which are irrelevant to the academic mission of this college.” The trustees responded by appointing a Committee on Religious Presence at F ___ , but the tenor of campus comment suggests that the dissociation from the church signaled the end of religious presence anywhere but in the chapel.
Thus the initiative of Eliot, Kirkland, and the other Protestant educational reformers to free their institutions from church control continues to play itself out, and the alienation from particular churches seems to entail the delayed but inexorable estrangement from communal faith seeking understanding.
The process whereby the liberal Protestant colleges and universities were separated from their sponsoring churches in the period 1870-1910 may have been repeating itself during a comparable period, 1950-1990, among the very large cohort of universities and colleges that were founded as Catholic. This will require more by way of evidence than simply the high incidence of the familiar, irresolute “church-affiliated,” “church-related,” “tradition,” “heritage,” “background” nomenclature much in vogue in recent years. Yet we do not have available the abundance of historical literature on which the earlier part of this essay has been able to rely. The Catholic alienation, if it is underway, is too recent to allow more than an impressionistic estimate. On the other hand, if it is underway yet not complete, there is more at stake than in appraising a transformation that occurred generations ago.
Already in the 1950s a progressively emancipated atmosphere of public discourse allowed Catholic educators to raise critical doubts about the soundness of the enormous establishment of colleges and universities they had built and supported in this country. Best remembered, perhaps, is historian John Tracy Ellis’ 1955 address in which he reproached his coreligionists for “the impoverishment of Catholic scholarship in this country, as well as the low state of Catholic leadership in most walks of national life.” Ellis noted with regret “the absence of a love of scholarship for its own sake among American Catholics, and that even among too large a number of Catholics who are engaged in higher education. It might be described as the absence of a sense of dedication to an intellectual apostolate. This defect, in turn, tends to deprive many of those who spend their lives in the universities of the American Church of the admirable industry and unremitting labor in research and publication which characterize a far greater proportion of their colleagues on the faculties of the secular universities.”
John Cavanaugh, Notre Dame’s president emeritus, followed Ellis’ reproach with an oracle against Catholics’ “inferior position where culture and intellectual achievement are concerned.” “Where,” he asked, “are the Catholic Salks, Oppenheimers, Einsteins? . . . Perhaps it is true that we are not yet generally conscious of our mediocrity and not sufficiently impatient about it.” Catholics who had in 1947 warmed to Boston Archbishop Richard Cushing’s proud remark that there was not a single U.S. Catholic bishop born to a parent who held a college degree now took it as a reminder that in neither head nor members were they a body academic.
Catholics began to hear scholars like Richard Hofstadter deplore their record.
One might have expected Catholicism to add a distinctive leaven to the intellectual dialogue in America, bringing as it did a different sense of the past and of the world, a different awareness of the human condition and of the imperatives of institutions. In fact, it has done nothing of the kind, for it has failed to develop an intellectual tradition in America or to produce its own class of intellectuals capable either of exercising authority among Catholics or of mediating between the Catholic mind and the secular or Protestant mind.
In response to this humiliating appraisal, presidents like Theodore M. Hesburgh of Notre Dame, Paul Reinert of St. Louis, Ann Ida Gannon of Mundelein, Jacqueline Grennan of Webster, and James Shannon of St. Thomas called their colleagues to a new level of academic excellence. Excellence also meant autonomy from control by church officials, and in 1967 a group of Catholic educators issued what became known as the Land O’ Lakes statement, which echoed the declaration Charles Eliot had put to his religious establishment in the nineteenth century:
The Catholic university today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of every kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities.
Shortly after the statement, Notre Dame and St. Louis set an example, which many Catholic institutions then followed, of removing the majorities of ecclesiastical persons—priests and members of religious orders—from their boards so as to leave the presidents effectively sovereign. This replicates the move led by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to change over to lay boards of governance.
The president of one of these Catholic schools explains:
At G ___, we identify ourselves as an independent institution with an X ___ [religious order] tradition; I mean X ___ as being Catholic as well. We’re independent of ecclesiastical control; we’re independent of any attempt to indoctrinate, of denominationalism. Has that Catholic and X___ tradition disappeared completely? I would say no. The element of that tradition that I would hope would be subscribed to by people who are not coreligionists would be the idea that at this university, religious values, religious experience, are taken quite seriously, both as legitimate grounds for reflection, and also in terms of some kind of communal experience. In addition, while religious issues, religious experience, should be taken seriously, it’s also true that they need not preclude a wholehearted humanism: an enthusiasm for the arts, a recognition of the ways of knowing, and all the rest.
While this statement might seem fuzzy, it is best appreciated by contrast with a statement published almost fifty years earlier by one of the author’s predecessors in the presidency, who was explaining why there was no room for a graduate school, in the usual mode, on a Catholic campus. The immediate purpose of research, he suggested, is to increase the sum of human knowledge, to find things never known before. For Catholics, however, the most significant knowledge is already available, not through effort, but through revelation. There are—literally—no big surprises left:
Here we have the radically peculiar cast of the Catholic approach to learning and the objective without which its thinking is unpalatable, to itself vain and pointless. It is the simple assumption that wisdom has been achieved by man, and that the humane use of the mind, the function proper to him as man, is contemplation and not research. I do not deny that in others the marks of this cast of mind may be found. But in its plenitude and perfection, it is peculiar to the Catholic mind alone.
It would seem reasonable to infer that some process of a fairly transformative dimension had been underway between the statement of the earlier president and that of his successor, and to conclude that if typical. it suggests an upheaval comparable to that wrought by the liberal Protestants in their educational establishment years ago.
The new ambitions of the Catholic educators carried heavy financial costs. The church had often been accused of providing little or no subsidy to its colleges and universities. This was not quite correct. Most Catholic colleges and universities were the foundations of religious orders who contributed their professional services for only token salaries. And the surge towards secularization arose only when the diminishing numbers of vowed religious was rendering that contribution less significant in the total budget. Funds in abundance would eventually begin to flow from alumni and donors, but the most immediate sources were the foundations and the government.
When government regulations appeared to require secularization as the condition of financial support, many Catholic institutions were prepared to conform. Shortly after the Land O’ Lakes statement spoke defiance to outside authority, the State of New York, which had many of its citizens enrolled in independent colleges and universities that were almost all laboring under severe annual deficits, made institutional grants (known as “Bundy money”) available to them. The Blaine Amendment in the state constitution forbade tax moneys to go to any sectarian entities, so 90 percent of the Catholic universities and colleges in the state abruptly declared themselves nonsectarian. What Protestant colleges had done with surprising alacrity to qualify for the first Carnegie grants. Catholic colleges were now doing to qualify for state grants. One university rewrote its brochures to delete references to it as a Catholic university, took down the crucifixes from the classroom walls, and removed its entry from the annual Catholic Directory. Some years later it allowed the entry to be restored, but insisted that the ordinary diocesan heading, “Colleges and Universities” be altered to “Universities and Colleges with religious in residence.”
But even when outside financing comes unencumbered by the need to foreswear an institution’s religious identity, its very availability has tended to loosen the institution’s ties to the sponsoring but nonfunding church. Thus the G.I. Bill, the Public Facilities Act, the National Defense Education Act, and the various forms of student aid initiated in the 1960s—BEOGs, SEOGs, Work-Study, Pell grants, etc.—have subsidized the survival of many colleges and universities, but inexorably they have served as well to make the grantee institutions more anxious to observe the laws and regulations of the State than the strictures of the Church whose sponsorship is, by comparison, so intangible.
In the new atmosphere, questions inevitably arose about whether preferential admission or appointment of Catholics was compatible with a dedication to academic excellence. One Catholic university, which had for years professed that it “does not discriminate on the basis of age, sex, race, handicap, color, (or) religion” and “welcomes applications without distinction on the basis of race or religious beliefs,” discovered that Catholics had thereby declined from 70 percent to 59 percent of its student body in only ten years. A decision to raise this to 62 percent was met with sharp condemnation on campus. Said the president of the student senate: “Of course, there’s a strong Catholic tradition here, but I don’t think the way to uphold it is to discriminate essentially against non-Catholics who may be qualified.” The president of the faculty senate said he would hate to see the university lose its Catholic identity. “At the same time, though, the university is striving for excellence and it is trying to recruit the best possible students. You have to balance those two things.”
Catholics in this century have been as ready as Protestants in the last to embrace, without sense of contradiction, the belief that actions characteristic of faith could be guaranteed on their campuses without any unseemly insistence on guaranteeing that the personnel belong to their church. The founding president of one large Catholic University told his first board of trustees that
H ____ is Catholic and “must ever remain Catholic” with regular instruction in Catholic doctrine being given to Catholic students. However, “true to the letter and spirit of the charter of the University, no religious test is applied to either students or teachers; no provision is made in the record forms for noting the religion of the students or professors.”
A recent vice-president explained: “It didn’t matter that a student was Catholic or not, any longer, it only mattered that people who were disadvantaged for one reason or another . . . had an opportunity.” The second-ranking academic officer of the university states that “I think, by and large, this is not a Catholic institution. I think it is much more a Y ____ [religious order] institution, and more people identify with the Y ____ subset of Catholicism than with Catholicism per se.” Yet there are presently only two members of the Y ____ order teaching at this large university, and both of them were appointed within the past three years.
When the Vatican prescribed in 1990 that Catholic universities must maintain a majority of Catholics among their faculty, a number of university presidents responded that this was a requirement that would have to be adjusted to American practices. Yet if recruitment is intentionally blind to religious commitment and its attendant convictions, new faculty naturally bridle at any residual expectation that they might or should identify with the institution’s traditional identity. One social scientist recently replied to a flyer on behalf of a political action committee advocating ethically consistent life commitments in political life (embracing protection for the unborn, welfare reform, and nuclear disarmament):
Let me make it abundantly clear to you that I am unequivocally prochoice on the issue of abortion and that I would hate another tree to be felled sending out mass mailings to unsympathetic persons like myself. I am certain that you purchased, or worse, were given a mailing list of staff from the University of I _____. I am angry that my employment there frequently results in false assumptions about my religious or political beliefs.
With the probable intent to avoid asserting any institutional beliefs that would offend a dissident individual, the chairman of the religion department offered the following grace at an annual faculty dinner in one Catholic university:
We gather here this evening as a community of many faiths and of many traditions. We are Christian and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu, believer and nonbeliever alike.We gather to celebrate what we share in common: our humanity, our humane values, our commitment to this university and to its students, its faculty and its staff.
We gather at the threshold of Christmas—a feast of peace and of good will to all—mindful of our call to be bearers and instruments of peace and good will, especially on behalf of those at the margins of society and those who suffer most keenly at this season of the year.
We gather, finally, to eat—to sit at table one with another, and to partake of bread one with another, and to grow in solidarity one with another.
May our loving Creator bless this food, bless those of us who partake of it, bless those who prepared it, and bless those who do not have what we have. Amen.
The prayer invites into itself not a congregation of faith but an aggregation of individuals, and the invitation is for them to pray simultaneously but not communally. No one can be offended because there is nothing to disavow.
The liberal Protestants had attempted being corporately Christian without any corporate link to a church. The Catholics have been drawn to a yet more difficult venture: remaining corporately Catholic without any public commitment to the church.
For Catholics during this period, the church had seemed a more formidable adversary to intellectual prowess than local clergy of the Protestant churches—congregational, presbyterial, or episcopal—had seemed to their coreligionists a century earlier. The bishop of Rome, claiming immediate jurisdiction over every local congregation and individual, was served by administrative personnel whose readiness to require intellectual obedience was unsustained by relevant theological or historical scholarship, or by a habit of explaining their disciplinary actions. Thus Catholic educators faced threats of intervention by Rome which, while rare, were potentially quite devastating. Rome’s remembered obscurantism on such matters as biblical studies, natural science, and historical development made even potential threats seem intolerable to many educators of loyal but scholarly faith.
To achieve autonomy without appearing to violate continuity the institutions have done what their pioneering precursors had done earlier: adopt ambiguous language that has quickly manifested a tendency to devolve. There is frequent talk of humanizing, and of “values.” For instance, one public relations brochure addresses the question: “What does it mean when you say you are a Catholic university?” It begins by mentioning that the institution was founded long ago by an order of priests, but then the language shifts to “heritage,” which is identified with “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” which is about forming “lasting personal values.” The remainder of the statement assures incoming students that the half of the student body who are Catholic will openly discuss religion with them but “without pressure to conform to a particular religion.” “Ours,” it affirms, “is a community proud of its Christian heritage.” Twenty years earlier, the same university’s brochure had spoken of Catholicism, of Pius XI’s depiction of the Christian Catholic character, and of endowment “with the redemptive merits of Christ which we call grace or supernatural life.” It seems rather a long road from there to “lasting personal values.”
The Catholic colleges, in a liberating ecumenical age, have begun, one century after the Protestants did the same, to welcome an increasingly diversified faculty in which the communicants of the sponsoring church are fewer, and often a minority. But statistics tell only part of the story. The opening to noncommunicants appears to reflect a spirit not so much ecumenical as indifferent. Non-Catholics are welcomed not as allies in a religious undertaking; instead, they are recruited, evaluated, appointed, and welcomed without any frank word about religious commitment, the college’s or their own, unless by way of apology. While the remaining believers of the sponsoring church may imagine that the newcomers are being incorporated into the traditional undertaking of the college, in fact the opposite seems to be happening. Instead of their even being asked to defer to the college’s religious commitment, the college stands ready to defer to their many individual commitments or anti-commitments, out of what it calls hospitality but what may more frankly be called a failure of nerve. The ancient tokens of hallmark faith are withdrawn, evacuated, or desecrated so as not to make anyone feel estranged.
One college explained to its public:
The first additions to the Z ___ [religious order] faculty and staff were committed Catholic men and women. But it was apparent as the college grew to true university status that a pluralist society requires institutions which are effectively pluralist in outlook, and that education for life in this society has to be conceived as broadly as the full range of responsible opinion in the society is broad. A diversity of viewpoints contributes to the intellectual and spiritual health of the university, and it is inconceivable now that it be entirely or even mainly staffed by men who are members of one religious order or even by Catholics alone.
The brochure is headed by an epigram from Kierkegaard: “It is not worthwhile remembering that past which cannot become present.”
In one Catholic college a student interviewed twenty-two members of the Department of Theology; fifteen were Catholics (five of them priests). He posed three questions. First: “Should J____ , a Catholic institution, try to cultivate an appreciation of prayer in its students?” The virtually unanimous answer was Yes. Second: “What role, if any, do the theology faculty have in cultivating this appreciation?” To this faculty suggested personal example, participation in retreats, or collaboration with campus ministry. Third: “Do you ever begin your classes with a prayer?” To this eighteen answered No. (Throughout its history, until the last twenty years, all classes at this university had begun with a prayer led by the instructor.) The interviewer pressed for reasons, and they were forthcoming:
In the classroom, prayer must be looked at academically. It can be studied, but should not be practiced, at least not in any formal manner. Theology is an intellectual and academic discipline; “it is not religious education or catechism.” Without the separation, the theological inquiry would be less rigorous. Beginning required classes with a prayer might confuse students and reinforce their previous simplistic ideas. Regular prayer in class might “shut the door to authentic prayer by identifying it with formality.”Another reason for not praying in class stems from a concern for the rights of the individual. Some might not be ready to pray; some may resent being subject to prayer. This reasoning sees prayer in class to be presumptuous, an imposition on individual freedom, and a practice that takes advantage of the students’ required presence.
What of students in ministry courses? Here too there was reluctance. The class is not a faith community with a shared experience that would lead to prayer. Some said they would feel presumptuous to ask the class to pray because that simply is not their role. Their purpose is to teach, not to lead prayer.
The few faculty who did begin classes with prayer said they found the students uniformly sincere, even devout, and happy to join. And they found no problem with prayer in any class at a Catholic university.
One president emeritus of a Catholic university wrote recently:
A peculiarity of the modern Catholic university is that it has taken to itself large numbers of faculty members who are neither Catholic nor, in many cases, Christian. On the other hand, all of them are fully aware of the kind of institution to which they have committed their lives and work, and in most instances they endorse both the university’s preoccupations and the presence of the church within it.
Apart from its implausible claim that the university’s Catholic character was a matter of explicit reflection and endorsement by the noncommunicants who had come to join it without ever being asked for their undertakings towards what it calls, not the university’s “commitment,” but its “preoccupations,” the statement seems to imply that there is some other effective way for a university to be Catholic if the faculty are not. What was first intended unreflectively as an act of denominational ecumenism devolves into interdenominational vagueness and then into nondenominational secularism. And it is, as it had been a hundred years earlier, largely the work of clergy and religiously active lay educators, who find themselves opposed by church officials and some tendentious colleagues who give every sign of being intellectually cramped and authoritarian.
Religious faith comes forward nowadays in softer garments. Justice and peace, social service, awareness of and care for the environment, volunteer work; or liberal arts, discriminating inquiry, courses in professional ethics, gender studies: these are presented as the contemporary surrogates for faith.
One study of Catholic values on Catholic campuses disclosed that when administrators, faculty, students, and alumni were asked to identify core Catholic values in the culture of their institutions, “high academic standards,” “academic freedom,” and “respect for the individual” regularly ranked at or near the top, while “community of faith” trailed far behind.
The transformation of Vanderbilt’s Bible Department into a School of Religion and then into a nondenominational divinity school had been a first phase in the typical marginalizing of theology at the university. The second phase saw theology departments transformed into religious studies departments. Is this same secularization of faith-related scholarship occurring in Catholic universities and colleges? One recent study by sociologist Frank Schubert traced a shift in theological teaching at several Catholic universities. Course descriptions such as these had been typical of the decade 1955-65:
Learning Christ. Palestinian Judaism at the time of Christ. Old Testament backgrounds. Apologetic questions connected with the written Gospel. Biblical inspiration, norms for fruitful reading of Scripture. A life of Christ in the gospels and Pauline letters. His teaching, testimony, redemptive Death and Resurrection.
Faith, Hope, Charity, and Grace.
The nature, divisions, qualities, and necessity of the theological virtues, the eschatological doctrines of the Church, and the supernatural life and activity of elevated human nature.
The Sacramental Liturgy of the Church.
The priestly quality of God’s people; liturgy as communal, hierarchical, sacrificial, sacramental. History of eucharistic and other sacramental rites. The celebration of the Mystery of Christ.
Two decades later the institutional catalogues were offering such courses as these:
Global Ethics. Fifteen participation-learning sessions aimed at sensitizing oneself to the global situation of political, social, and economic imbalance—particularly in developing countries of the Third World. Emphasis is on both information and the clarification of attitudes and values. Some of the areas to be covered will include economic realities in the global village, capitalism and the distribution of wealth, an examination of the multinational corporation, a case study of neocolonialism, power realities with a developing country, educational realities in the third world, a comparison of values—particularly East Africa and North America.
The Books of the Bible I-II.
The Bible is, without rival, the most influential collection of writings in the history of western civilization. The ideas contained in this anthology, its languages, literary styles, and lexicon are present in all the languages of the western world. One cannot assume to be educated without a knowledge of the Bible, its history and its concepts. This course will serve as an introduction to each of the books of the Bible, analyzing each in turn, studying its historical setting and comparing extra-biblical sources with the biblical text.
The Ritual Process.
This course will be a laboratory workshop experience of the elements which constitute ritual expression, both as a historical and current phenomenon. Students will be expected to critique and, in some instances, perform established rituals. They will also be expected to adapt or create new forms of ritualized expression from existing or emerging patterns”e.g., ancient rites of initiation, the current rites of Baptism, Bar Mitzvah”a new or adapted rite based on these models.
The trend shown is an unresolved one. Catholic departments are tending more and more to redesignate themselves by the intentionally neutral title: Religious Studies. There is a strenuous determination to be acknowledged as Catholic while disclaiming accountability to church superintendency. And the secularized graduate programs that train new faculty have increasingly influenced Catholics to consider faith as a matter of private (and possibly emotional) preference inappropriate to academic interchange. So it may be that theological scholarship is on its way to the margin, if it is not there already.
This pastiche of contemporary anecdotes can be no more than suggestive. But the suggestion is this: that secularization is rapidly bleaching the Catholic character out of that church’s universities and colleges, with all the elements we saw typified in the Vanderbilt story.
As with the Protestant alienation a century earlier, the severance of formal ties has been the achievement of enlightened and observant clergy, or members of religious orders, acting in order to shelter their upgrading institutions from church authorities who were seen as anti-intellectual, intrusively authoritarian, and unable to offer any resources but their own unimpressive governance. And, as a century earlier, the Catholic institutions enjoyed an immediate honeymoon period wherein autonomy actually enhanced the institution as both a faith community and a house of liberal learning. But then the slow and inexorable gravity pull of the secularism dominant in the force-field of the academy begins to retard and then counteract the inertial momentum that has hitherto set the course of the Catholic college or university, until, after a period when the forms and symbols of Christian identity are gradually evacuated of their conviction, the institution finally emerges as a wraith of the Christian community it once was.
Herewith some apparent morals to the story.
1. The only plausible way for a college or university to be significantly Christian is for it to function as a congregation in active communion within a church. If it is not a community that can worship together, on some church’s terms, then it is or will inexorably become secular. In Christianity, communities that float free are not viable. There is neither faith nor ecumenism ungrounded on church.
2. In every one of its component elements—governors, administrators, faculty, and students—the academy must have a predominance of committed and articulate communicants of its mother church. This must be regarded, not as an alien consideration, but as a professional qualification. This means that every adjective whereby an institution wishes to qualify itself (including its Christian allegiance) must represent a quality that is openly and unapologetically appraised and solicited in every recruitment process. Various academic qualifications can be and are traded off against one another, but when any one of them is systematically subordinated to the others, it will shortly disappear from the institution. Communal faith is in one sense, however, unique among professional credentials: apparently the only qualification which, if lost, is institutionally unrecoverable, is commitment in a church to Christ.
3. A Christian college or university must advise noncommunicant members openly and explicitly when welcoming them that the institution is constitutionally committed to its church in a way that must transcend and transfigure the commitments of individual members. Similarly, any institution will decline to let its foundational norms of scholarship yield to the private and personal standards of each individual scholar. Though the appropriate freedom of inquiry and advocacy will be protected procedurally for all, it cannot be done with prejudice to the school’s filial bond to the church.
4. Granted the inveterate intellectual mediocrity within the churches and their officers, and the inveterate contempt for faith among intellectual elites, the Christian college or university must expect continual low-intensity distrust from either direction. It will have to be an active force in its church to assure that learning and scholarship are honored as professional qualifications for church office. And it will have to be an active force in the academic world to assure that Christian faith and commitment can introduce the mind to its most far-reaching insights and judgments. The polarization process typified at Vanderbilt, and associated with secularization generally, has considered veto power by church officers as the essential and unacceptable feature of affiliation. In an atmosphere of communal trust, it is still unclear whether there might be other arrangements, untried thus far, that could service the affiliation.
5. Lastly, whatever a university or college is committed to must be able to be professed out loud, and honestly. When church-related colleges in America were in tranquil but lackadaisical union with their churches, little was said about their relationship because it was unreflective. It was only when a mutual antipathy began to pull the colleges and universities and the churches away from one another that the new religious rhetoric arose, largely in denial of what was happening. In retrospect it seems that most of the assurances and mission statements and vision statements were obituaries. That is because they were wistful or dishonest attempts to supply by talk what no longer existed in fact. The vacant talk came in as a counterfeit for the frank talk that was needed all along.
If our account of alienation as a repeating process is reliable, then the American Catholic institutions of higher education are nearing the end of a process of formal detachment from accountability to their church, and instead of exerting themselves to oblige that church to be a more credible patron of higher learning, they are qualifying for acceptance by and on the terms of the secular academic culture, and are likely soon to hand over their institutions unencumbered by any compromising accountability to the church.
James T. Burtchaell (1934-2015), C.S.C., a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things , is Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.