Wyoming Catholic College, of which I serve as president, recently determined that it has a duty to abstain from federal student-loan and grant programs. As a new college that received the accreditation necessary for federal funding only this year, Wyoming Catholic faced a stark choice for or against. Other Catholic colleges, of longer standing, already have their finances entangled in funding of this kind. We saw abstention as necessary to preserve our institution’s religious liberty. Let me explain the hazards we foresaw, which other religious colleges will have to confront before long.
Whether it is taken as cause for rejoicing or cause for lament, everyone agrees that the culture has shifted against Christians—quickly. In prominent journals such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, we find faculty members of esteemed universities mounting critiques such as this one, by University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Conn: Religious colleges are “intellectually compromised institutions,” in that they “erect religious tests for truth,” and so should be denied accreditation.
There have been dramatic public episodes. Gordon College, a Christian school in Massachusetts, became controversial last year when its president appeared among the signatories of an open letter raising religious-liberty concerns on behalf of federal contractors. Headlines and petitions ensued. Activists highlighted a clause of Gordon’s conduct policy prohibiting “homosexual practice” among students and employees.
In response to the uproar, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges reviewed Gordon’s policies, inquiring whether they were “non-discriminatory” and compliant with the agency’s standards for accreditation. Money was at stake. If Gordon had lost its accreditation, it would have lost its eligibility for federal student-loan and grant programs. It didn’t come to that—Gordon’s accreditation was reaffirmed in May of this year. But the agitation by activists, and the politicization of accreditation standards and funding in response to that agitation, highlight the vulnerability of any Christian school that adheres to biblical teaching on sex and marriage.
Still more ominous was a line from oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, heard in April of this year. Justice Samuel Alito asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli whether, given a favorable ruling for same-sex-marriage advocates, religious colleges would be punished for refusing to recognize same-sex marriages, as Bob Jones University had once been punished for barring interracial dating among its students. (The IRS revoked Bob Jones’s tax-exempt status in 1970, and a Supreme Court ruling in 1983 favored the IRS.) Verrilli’s answer: “It’s certainly going to be an issue.”
We should acknowledge how we have invited this kind of interference—by failing to construct an argument, much less a financial infrastructure, for resisting it. Decades ago, leading figures in Catholic higher education misidentified the threat to our identity and autonomy. The formal expression of their confusion was the 1967 Land O’ Lakes statement, drawn up and signed by twenty-six officials in Catholic university life and amounting to what historian Philip Gleason has called a “declaration of independence from the hierarchy.”
In principle, the Land O’ Lakes statement was a declaration of independence from all authority, secular and episcopal. It reads, in part: “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 whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” But of these two forms of external authority, “lay or clerical,” we may guess which was the more resented.
In the years after 1967, and following the example of the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., the Notre Dame president who had convened the Land O’ Lakes meeting, American Catholic colleges increasingly accepted the authority of mainstream academic practice. Most incorporated themselves separately from their sponsoring orders or dioceses, becoming no longer accountable to Church authorities for their academic and administrative decisions. Curricular requirements ceased to be integrated around a core of theology and philosophy. They began to operate under the ordinary conditions of academic freedom. Pope John Paul II would eventually stipulate, in the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), that academic theologians should secure a mandate from “competent ecclesiastical authority.” This demand continues to meet resistance.
Hesburgh wrote that “the best and only traditional authority in the university is intellectual competence.” This sounds noble, but in practice it means prioritizing academic excellence over the formation of faith and morals. It may mean viewing academic excellence as antithetical to Catholic orthodoxy and piety.
These priorities were evident in Hesburgh’s last major public act. In 2009, as president emeritus of Notre Dame, Hesburgh vocally supported the conferral of an honorary law degree on the pro-abortion-rights President Obama. He did so despite the objections of the local bishop, John D’Arcy, who deemed the honor contrary to the Church’s pro-life witness. Hesburgh’s defiance of his bishop illustrated what many suspected: The authority of the Church’s magisterium was seen by the Land O’ Lakes signatories as inimical to the Catholic university, whereas external lay authority was not. Given a high-profile choice between external masters, ecclesiastical and governmental, Hesburgh declared Notre Dame independent of the former—the better to accommodate the latter.
Catholic colleges will be faced increasingly with a choice between these masters: Mother Church and Uncle Sam. Whether we measure by policies issued or by funds dispensed, the federal government has amassed great influence over higher education—such that accrediting agencies and departments of the federal government now wield greater authority over Notre Dame than does the bishop of Fort Wayne–South Bend. Perhaps this development was unforeseen in 1967. The U.S. Department of Education, established in 1979, can now enforce the federal government’s agenda on a host of issues, including the contemporary causes célèbres relating to marriage, gender, and sexuality.
It is empowered to do so by the confluence of two laws: Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IV governs the administration of federal tuition-support programs. The federal government is currently the originating “bank” of more than 90 percent of student loans, having driven out of the market all but a few private lenders. Title IX prohibits discrimination “on the basis of sex” by educational institutions receiving federal aid—including aid received indirectly, in the form of tuition paid by students receiving federal loans.
The standards for Title IX compliance are becoming ever more demanding, and compliance increasingly has implications for Title IV eligibility. On an originalist reading, Title IX would seem to prohibit discrimination on the basis of biological sex—effectively, discrimination against women. But recently the Department of Education has construed “sex” to mean gender identity. On this reading, a gay employee may complain to the Department of Education that a religious college does not provide benefits to his same-sex spouse. A transgender student may complain of lack of access to gender-specific facilities or activities—restrooms, housing, athletic teams. The offending school may then be subject to an enforcement action, backed by the threat of losing its Title IV eligibility.
Currently, federal regulations require the Department of Education to exempt religious colleges from Title IX rules that violate their beliefs. But pressure is mounting. When a Quaker school in Oregon declined to honor the housing preference of a transgender student, an activist complained: “The real crime here is that [the university] has requested an exemption that allows it to get public money while discriminating.” As indignation over this form of “discrimination” gains currency with the public, federal policies will be regularized, and not in a way that favors religious liberty.
Anticipating this, at Wyoming Catholic we have sought a less compromised way to finance our mission. Currently, we partner with private banks to offer loans to students. Within the next few years, we plan to create a million-dollar St. Thomas More Fund, from which we will disburse need-based grants and merit-based scholarships.
From a financial standpoint, we still have every incentive to participate in Title IV programs. Being less than a decade old, with a teaching model that requires small class sizes, we have high costs. The $28,150 we charge each student for tuition, room, and board each year does not cover our expenses. By declining federal tuition support, our college will forgo $700,000 in the coming year—approximately 15 percent of our budget.
What could be worth $700,000? The frontier spirit that founded Wyoming Catholic is the same frontier spirit that characterizes the state of Wyoming. Our founder, Bishop David Ricken, had nothing lukewarm or ambivalent in mind when he started a Catholic college in a state where only 18 percent of a very small population is Catholic. What he saw in Lander, Wyoming, was a place for a college to flourish, as free from the pressures of modern culture as from infringements by the federal government.
Our students immerse themselves in the Great Books (the Western Canon), the Good Book (the Bible), and God’s “First Book” (nature)—all of which we consider necessary for a true liberal education. Our humanities curriculum starts our freshmen off in Homeric Greece and brings our seniors through modernity and postmodernity. In a time of cultural amnesia, this deep study in the sweep of Western literature, history, politics, and philosophy cultivates the intellect and the heart.
Our theology curriculum instructs our students in the two-thousand-year tradition of Catholic faith and practice, with readings in the Scriptures, the fathers and doctors of the Church, and the councils and encyclicals. Students conform their minds to Catholic truth on the basis of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Outdoors, we require courses in hiking and horsemanship. This contact with nature inspires the wonder without which the mind will not be properly receptive to truths about God, man, and the world.
In none of this does Wyoming Catholic abide by the political and curricular orthodoxies current in higher education. But all of it, we think, is crucial to the university’s task of forming the whole person in virtue—body, mind, and spirit. Such a formation is worth far more, as one of our students put it, “than the interest rate of a federal loan.”
Kevin D. Roberts is the president of Wyoming Catholic College.