The typical experience of publishing a book is that you work for years on the manuscript, celebrate when you submit it to the publisher, and then…you wait, often for more than a year, until the book finally appears. If your book’s subject is time-sensitive, you also pray, during that year or so of waiting, that what you’ve written won’t prove out of date by the time it reaches readers.
That has not been the fate of James L. Heft’s The Future of Catholic Higher Education. On the contrary, the “future” of Catholic higher education that Heft concerns himself with might have arrived more quickly because of the pandemic: problems that were expected to show up in five years—e.g., a significant decline in enrollments—are instead happening right now. The upshot is that Heft’s book may be even more timely than he had hoped.
One of the virtues of The Future of Catholic Higher Education is that Heft is well aware of the many differences among Catholic colleges and universities, so he’s careful not to overgeneralize even when seeking to identify common challenges. After all, the present moment might be a golden age for Notre Dame or Georgetown or Boston College, while the great number of much smaller, tuition-dependent institutions struggle mightily with the rising costs of higher education, the decline in the population of traditional college-age students, and what Holy Cross’s new president, Vince Rougeau, recently called “the pressure to produce ‘job-ready’ graduates.” (So much for the liberal arts! It’s a pre-professional world now.) In his review of Heft’s book for Commonweal, Dennis O’Brien likened it to Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. I will follow that hint by formulating my own response to Heft as three scholastic-style questions that readers associated with Catholic colleges and universities can consider for themselves.
As O’Brien notes, the heart of Heft’s book is his model for Catholic higher education—“the open circle” of the book’s subtitle. According to Heft, “A Catholic university should be an ‘open circle’”: the center of that circle should be Catholic intellectual life, but the university also should be open to engaging “other traditions” and “a wide variety of ideas.” In other words, it should be both distinctively Catholic in its intellectual milieu and broadly catholic, or universal, in its interests and ambition.
This is an attractive model, but Heft, to his credit, doesn’t confuse it with reality. The attentive reader will find a number of caveats throughout the book. For example: “We have few Catholic intellectuals to engage in that conversation.” “Catholic intellectuals…are, unfortunately, fewer in number than Catholics with doctorates.” Yet, without Catholic intellectuals, “it is impossible to have a Catholic university.” To the point, “will the major Catholic colleges and universities remain Catholic? I answer yes, but very much on the condition that faculty develop vibrant forms of Catholic intellectual life.” Finally, “unless a core of the faculty at a Catholic university remains committed to the educational relevance of Jesus Christ and the Catholic intellectual tradition, the Catholic university’s distinctive intellectual and existential dimensions will weaken and eventually disappear.”
Another virtue of Heft’s book is that he doesn’t rest content with invocations of the abstraction known as the Catholic intellectual tradition. Yes, that phrase appears in the last sentence I quoted, but together with “the educational relevance of Jesus Christ,” a much less common formulation. What’s more, Heft actually considers the question, “How do Catholic intellectuals think?”—and his answer isn’t that they are always contemplating ideas in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition firmament. Instead, he suggests that Catholic intellectuals are grounded, in subtle but decisive ways, in the doctrines of creation and the incarnation. This grounding explains two distinctive patterns of Catholic intellectual life: “the more deeply [Catholic intellectuals] explore what it means to be human, the more inescapable [for them] are religious questions, and…the more deeply they plunge into any area of scholarship, the more likely they will find it necessary to make connections with other areas of knowledge.” That may seem a little schematic, but it does seem clear that there is a lot to learn by thinking further along these lines.