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For more or less a decade, beginning in the early 1990s, Catholic intellectuals conducted conferences, founded institutes, and issued publications to examine and discuss the weakening bonds between religiously-affiliated universities and the churches from which they emerged. Why were these bonds weakening, they asked, and what was to be done about it? 

During this time, many books were published on the topic. To name just a few: Jaroslav Pelikan's The Idea of the University: A Reexamination in 1992; Theodore Hesburgh's The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University in 1994; James Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light in 1998; and John Piderit and Melanie Morey's Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis in 2006. 

Then it seems that the conversation largely stopped. Was it because no consensus emerged? Was it the rapid corporatization of university life? Was it all that and something deeper at the same time? 

In a recent essay in Tablet Magazine entitled “Everything is Broken,” Alana Newhouse wrote: “over the past decade . . . a single ideologically driven cohort captured the entire interlocking infrastructure of American cultural and intellectual life.” And it achieved its objective: what Newhouse calls “flatness,” a homogenizing ideology that robbed our institutions of their distinctiveness. “[I]nstead of reflecting the diversity of a large country,” Newhouse writes, “these institutions have now been repurposed as instruments to instill and enforce the narrow and rigid agenda of one cohort of people, forbidding exploration or deviation—a regime that has ironically left homeless many, if not most, of the country’s best thinkers and creators.” 

Unfortunately, many Catholic colleges and universities have also succumbed to the sort of “flatness” that Newhouse describes. They were not all equipped for or interested in resisting it. After all, for decades many Catholic colleges had been trying to achieve bourgeois respectability and prominence on secular terms, to escape what the mid-twentieth-century Catholic historian John Tracy Ellis called the “Catholic intellectual ghetto.” 

No doubt that engagement has borne some good fruit, but it has had negative effects as well. For instance, as some of those Catholic institutions have become more competitive with elite schools, high tuitions and cultural shifts have created barriers for the economically-impoverished populations that many Catholic colleges and universities were founded to serve in the first place. If we’re not prepared to maintain our distinctiveness, what’s the point of Catholic colleges and universities at all? 

There are 226 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. Many of these institutions will not exist in five, ten, or twenty years, given the looming economic and cultural aftershocks of COVID-19, as well as demographic shifts. What’s more, the vast majority of religious orders that sponsor or control these institutions have seen their ranks diminished. And then there’s the flattening. In the face of all this, what can be done?

The university as we know it first emerged in the latter part of the 11th century. The University of Bologna was formed in 1088. The University of Paris, a relative latecomer, dates itself to 1150. These first universities were religious. They were formed from small study circles around cathedrals, thanks to both the late medieval explosion in religious orders and the expansion of literacy. To recover the ethos of the Catholic university, we need to go back to the origins of the enterprise. Jesuit theologian Michael Buckley wrote that the Catholic university needs “a much more sophisticated retrieval of what was promising in the early inspiration, practices, faith and culture of [Catholic universities], whether in the curriculum or the concerns or the atmospheric culture of the university.” 

To reclaim the distinctiveness of the Catholic university, we must be intentional about developing the “atmospheric culture” of a place like Oxford or Paris in the 14th century, where the concentration of religious orders gave rise to an intellectual vibrancy not seen since long before the fall of Rome. 

This requires not so much a march backward in time, but a renewed focus on the Church’s particular intellectual range and diversity. One specific proposal: Religious orders that sponsor major institutions could invite members of other religious orders within their walls to take up roles on the faculty, populate seats in graduate programs, and minister in the surrounding area, in order to build up a renewed ethos of truth-seeking in the Catholic tradition. Each religious order in the Church expresses its charism differently. A concentration of them in flagship institutions would deepen and broaden the Catholic culture of these places.

Here’s another idea. Since the 1990s there has been a renaissance in integrated Catholic studies programs with an interdisciplinary focus. The humanities department at my own alma mater, Villanova University, is but one such example. These programs not only demonstrate that the liberal arts are still worth doing, but also show the depth that results from bringing academic disciplines into conversation with one another; we should invest in and strengthen these sorts of programs. 

A third, bolder idea: Rather than competing, how about collaborating? Perhaps this is a naive notion in the market-driven world of admissions, yields, revenue, and fundraising. But why couldn’t the strongest and most prominent institutions share resources, build upon complementary strengths, and draw upon the distinct Catholic educational tradition rather than focusing on achieving prestige?

Newhouse’s essay strikes a pessimistic note, but ends with a hopeful tone as she offers suggestions on how to overcome flatness and restore depth to our culture. Her ideas include: building new things, making great art, abandoning the Ivy League. Newhouse is right. The world doesn’t need more of what the Ivy League and its cognates have to offer. It was a Catholic vision that built Notre-Dame cathedral; inspired Dante, Caravaggio, and Mozart; and moved Vincent de Paul and Dorothy Day to dedicate their lives to serving the poor.

Is the Catholic university up to the task of recovering its depth? It’s worth finding out. After all, what is the alternative?

Rev. Bryan Kerns, O.S.A., teaches in the Religious and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA.

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