The editors extended to me an invitation to blog at dotCommonweal a good year ago; I can only thank them for their patience!
Foremost among the things that have occupied my time and attention was organizing a conference at King’s on “The Idea of a Catholic College,” 9/19-9/20. Select proceedings will appear in February in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education; my hope is to make a video of the keynote address, by Father John Jenkins of the University of Notre Dame, publicly available within the next few weeks. (If so, I’ll post again with a link.) By the way, “Commonweal’s own” Dennis O’Brien was among the presenters.
One month later, we’ve only begun working through the conference’s lessons -- for our core curriculum, professional programs, and student life -- though see here some more expeditious reflections posted by Jason King, from Saint Vincent College, on the blog Catholic Moral Theology. In any event, the national conversation goes on, most recently in an article by Beth McMurtrie, “Catholic Colleges Greet an Unchurched Generation,” in the October 17 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Unfortunately, the article is password-protected.)
The article focuses principally on initiatives at Marquette and generally strikes a quite optimistic tone. While we’re told that the “pipeline that once fed Catholic colleges is shrinking: Catholic secondary-school enrollments have dropped 42 percent since 1970,” and that more and more students and faculty alike profess no religious affiliation, the article’s interest is in what schools are doing to connect “their religious mission to topics of broad interest, like developing a meaningful philosophy of life or pursuing social justice.” So we learn that, while the “nones” feel little affiliation with Catholicism, “‘they can relate to the values’” -- presumably solidarity, preferential protection of the poor, concern for the common good, and so forth.
I’m an insider to these conversations and know well that the quotations administrators give to reporters don’t always fully reflect the complexity of the administrators’ thinking. Also, administrators and faculty shouldn’t just join the prophets of gloom who believe Catholic higher education has gone to ruin; the better answer is to do as Marquette and other institutions have done and invest in creative initiatives, among others Collegium, briefly discussed in the article. But still I couldn’t quite share the article’s optimism. Hope has to be harder won here.
Here’s a problem I see with trying to hook students through the “values” of the Catholic tradition. These values have, I think it should go without saying, theological grounds: Catholics believe in, for example, solidarity or preferential protection of the poor because of what they believe about God and Jesus and creation -- that is, because of more fundamental theological beliefs. I teach a course in business ethics. A business ethics course at a Catholic school surely should communicate Catholic values, and mine does! These values, however, can hardly be taken for granted when the students don’t share or know what to do with the underlying beliefs. Yes, this means that they need then to be educated, but honestly often the most that can be hoped for, from a single course at least, is that the “unchurched” or “nones” come to understand a bit better the Catholic lens on the world just as, after my course, they understand a bit better how to see things through a Kantian’s eyes or a utilitarian’s or Milton Friedman’s.
My point is simple: when the classroom is populated by the unchurched or nones, the possibility of genuinely connecting with the vision of, say, Pope Francis -- of taking seriously his prophetic style, of being formed by it, of contemplating acting on it -- is much more difficult to realize. Notre Dame’s answer has been to mandate that some 80 percent of its undergraduate student body be Catholic. Christian Smith’s new book on Young Catholic America -- reviewed by Tom Baker in Commonweal’s October 24 issue -- leads me to wonder how long this policy will work. One way or the other, it’s not a policy that most other Catholic colleges and universities have the number of applicants to put it into practice if they even wanted to do so. For the great majority of Catholic institutions, much greater creativity with our core curricula, professional programs, and student life is the pressing order of the day. I can't help but think, though, that our hope here has to be tempered by acknowledgment of the magnitude of the challenge.