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What Makes a College Catholic? (a question for educators)

Thank you for some insightful comments. Here's another short contribution, followed by a call for your input. I'd like to continue the conversation, albeit in a slightly different vein.

Many of you are familiar with the Cardinal Newman Society. Some of you mentioned it in your comments. In an article from the CNS website entitled "Colleges Need Better Measures of Catholic Identity, Study Finds," I found this claim:

“Catholic families should be able to hold Catholic educators accountable, with meaningful information,” said Patrick J. Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which commissioned the study. “That requires research that assesses whether students at Catholic colleges are growing in the Catholic faith—and not some undefined spirituality.”

Parents holding Catholic educators accountable? What would this look like, exactly? How would it affect the process of intellectual inquiry and instruction? What about academic freedom? I'm happy to hear from students and parents, but this is really directed to Catholic educators: What are your thoughts about being "held accountable" by "Catholic families"?

(the CNS article can be found here:


About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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“I'm happy to hear from…parents, but this is really directed to Catholic educators…”


Oh, the irony!  The Cardinal Newman Society wants to know what a Catholic University is?  Hoot of the year!!!! 

I went to a secular college in which we were required as freshman to read selections from Newman's "Idea of a University" which set the standard about hearing and disputing all sides of a the great human issues  -- and that means *all* sides no matter how upsetting to some kids (and other faculty members).  True, *every* student has a right to hear the Catholic side of important issues, and courses in Catholic colleges which do not present the Catholic sides (plural) are short-changing their kids.  But they must also present the opponents if they're to live up to Newman's standards.  

Sadly, for the CNS, academic freedom is freedom *from* real dispute. Theirs is the old "The Church ays it, I believe it, that settles it" slogan.  They're the Catholic fundamentalists, and Newman would notdoubt disown them.

Patrick J. Reilly's comments raise some interesting questions.

Legally, the board of trustees holds the responsibility for the Catholic university (or college).

But how could parents hold the board of trustess accountable for the Catholic university (or college)?

Reilly mentions research that assesses whether students at Catholic colleges [or universities] are growing in the Catholic faith."

But do researchers understand how to conduct such assessments?

Does Reilly mean that the students are growing in their knowledge and understanding of the doctrines and tenets of the Catholic faith? Have any researchers developed a Catholic religious understanding inventory that could be used as an instrument to measure and assess the students' Catholic understanding?

Or does he mean that the students are growing in their practice of the Catholic faith? Have any researchers developed a Catholic religious practices inventory that could be used as an instrument to measure and assess the Catholic religious practices of the students?

Clearly the research design for making such assessments would involve pre- and post-tests to be taken by the students when they enter the Catholic college or university and then again when they graduate.

But what if the research assessments do not show that the students are growing in their Catholic faith?

What should the board of trustees do if that were the case?

I know, I know, further study is needed.

Parents holding Catholic educators accountable? What would this look like, exactly?

Structurally, it might look like more like a democratic institution!! Oh nooooo......I know universities teach democracy, not live it! 

Funding would be tied to satsifaction and evaluations done by parents. Parents being on committees which are responsible for tenure and advancement. Criteria determined by a committee composed of faculty, parents and student. 

I kind of suspect that the many, many adult or otherwise financially independent university students would probably just prefer that Uggs McFreshman's mom and daddy not be the ones judging who is and isn't fit to teach college classes.

Not an "educator", professional or otherwise, but I was a government organizational trainer.  Both sides of the Catholic spectrum (and not just educators in the middle) would have to agree on definition of terms and their application to survey items.  Would the CNS be willing to participate in such a project?  I have my doubts.....


I'd say a Catholic college, besides offering the sorts of subjects that secular universities offer,  must insist that Catholic teaching be presented fairly and in some depth, including ethics, theology and Church history.  In the ancient tradition of Catholic universities, a Catholic university must also present  important opinions which differ from those of the official Church.  At the same time a Catholic college may offer systematic apologetics which consider the controversial issues of the day.


Reasoned argument about contested issues must be encouraged, never stifled.  Ad hominem arguments on either side must not be allowed, and rhetoric, no matter how important the topic, must never be substituted for reasons.  It is not the function of a Catholic university to be a sort of lay seminary which "forms" its students, and a Catholic university must respect everyone's conscience, though it cannot not agree with all of them.  The school must make the sacraments and spiritual advising easily available to the students.  


Catholic faculty will have the right to disagree with their students.  Parents will not be allowed on campus except in case of medical emergency :-)

Any particular reason for CNS using the term "college" rather than "university?"

Apologies to Robert Geroux for sidetracking, but the whole idea of asking parents to assess Catholic education strikes me as utterly silly. Parents should be assessing the quality of their religious educations when they are children. But college students, except for a few freshman, are legal adults. Many are paying for their own educations. If Catholicity is to be assessed, oughtn't the students to do so as part of the course evaluation process? And if they should, exactly how would Catholicity be defined for them on the evaluation forms?

If you want to kill half an hour or so, visit, type in the name of any Catholic college or university, and browse through what students say about theology profs. There is some complaint about adherence to Catholic doctrine in a few cases (one was called a heretic), but the majority of students seem to want professors who are personable, clear, and challenging (though there are legions who just want to bitch about the amount of work, the personal quirks, and cost of textbooks).

In any case, my read is that they don't need or want more CCD.

Sorry, "... asking parents to assess Catholic COLLEGE education ..."

This isn't exactly on topic, but it's an important part of the troubles with American colleges in general:

HIstorically American Catholic colleges have been strong in the Humanities, including theology and phlosophy, but the Humanities are under pressure everywhere and in most colleges they're are even in crisis.  Gary Gutting of Notre Dame has an article about it in The NYT's The Stone, "The Real Humanities Crisis".  His most surprising  point:  in spite of the claimed American rejection of socialism, American governments (state and federal) spend one TRILLION DOLLORS  a year assisting the owners of sports organizations.

Gutting has suggestions for meeting the crisis, at least partially, including having the universities stop their money-losing athletic programs that include farm leagues for professional football teams.  If the owners want farm leagues, they can pay for them.  And they can also pay for their own sports stadiums. 

(Sorry, the NYT won't let me give the address.)  Just go to the NYT and look up Gary Gutting.

P. S.  Did you know that on average more people go to museums on Sundays than go to sports events? Let the governments support the Humanities, not the already rich owners of athletic teams. 


Don't understand your last comment.   If more people go to museums, why would they need government assistance?    Sounds self-contradictory.

Mark ==

The point is that people really are interested in the Humanities -- more than in sports, apparently.  So instead of giving a hand to the NFL owners, the governments should help out the arts.  Gutting points out that one state just spent $600M  ($600 MILLION!!!!!!) on a stadium, but it's letting the best art museum in the state go bankrupt for the lack of $6 million.  Doesn't make ANY sense at all -- it's just more corporate welfare in spades.

But Ann, interest is shown by how much money (which is a reflection of their time/labor) people will pay/donate for an encounter.   If people are not will to pay for the museums they attend, the interest is not as great as you suggest.    That's not an argument against government funding, per se, but you can't use broad/deep consumer interest as part of your argument.   It it existed, government funding wouldn't be needed.

I hope I can be really rich one day, so that I can be really interested in things.

Hear, hear, Abe!

I suppose one has always had to pay for bread, but did the Romans charge admission to the circuses?

The bread was free, too!

Mark, Abe, and Mark --

Read Gutting's article.  It's not just about cost of admission to museums -- it's about support of artists and other humanists generally, e.g., in the schools.  Artists today, unlike in other cultures, cannot *afford to become artists* unless they hit it very big time!!  

We need a separate thread on the crisis in the arts/Humanities.  Badly. 


There's no such thing as a free lunch, so if you're not paying for what you're consuming, you're feeding off someone else.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, so if you're not paying for what you're consuming, you're feeding off someone else.

That's just what Jesus said when he passed around those loaves and fishes. Oh, wait ...

Mark --

I agree with you about the free lunches.  In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons that American end up buying mounds of junk to fill their houses is because they are rarely deeply satisfied with what they buy, and so they keep trying to find cheap stuff that will satisfy them -- instead of paying more for just a few really satisfying works.  It's a false economy, as the ancients used to call such stinginess.

But college students, except for a few freshman, are legal adults. 

I don't even know how my kid is doing in college unless he happens to feel like showing me his grades.  The only lever I have is financial.


Ann Oliver: >We need a separate thread on the crisis in the arts/Humanities.  Badly. 

I had read the Gutting piece, and I agree that it covered more than just the economics of presentations.  Just reacting to what I thought was a nice touch by Abe in response to the homo economicus framework for value.

I would be very happy to see this thoughtful group discuss the nature and extent of crisis in the arts and humanities.  And that is coming from a scientist.

Mark L.

There's no such thing as a free lunch, so if you're not paying for what you're consuming, you're feeding off someone else.

The good citizens of Alameda County, CA, voted a few years ago to guarantee the owner(s) of the stadium where the Oakland Raiders play a certain level of profit.  If the level is not achieved (I don't know who actually audits and evaluates the numbers to ensure that Al Davis is not effing the taxpayers) then the taxpayers pony up $$$.

There IS a free lunch and the poor slobs who think that they get it are really giving it to the team's owner(s).

Mark L. ==

There's been a lot of talk in the academic press lately about the crisis in the Humanities.  As I see it it's so complex it will take years of discussion  to even begin to see the problem(s) clearly and all the causes and hopefully possible cures. The problems involve, I think, the necessity for various sorts of schools,  educational standards, the problems with the arts themselves in our sensate culture, the loss of respect for religion, the question of who shall support the Humanities, and, of course, what values the Humanities have in the first place.

But the conversation needs to begin somewhere.  (We might begin with the differences between sciences, arts, and history.)

Mark L. ==

As a scientist, why do you think that it would be good at this point  to talk about  the Humanities and the arts?  


Because much, pushing most, of what I value in the world revolves around how humans interact with each other, symbolically (i.e., as and through art) and socially (which I take to be the realm of the humans in humanities).  How we see ourselves and deal with our communities – and with those outside our communities - has profound effects on how we interact with the physical world (and all that dwell therein).  And our physical world, conversely, affects how we act within our communities.

I am a geologist.

Mark L.

Mark - -

Interesting that your interest seems to be focused on communal values.  Might that be due to your scientific background?  In the eiteenth century when modern science really took off, much of the cutting edge science was funded by rich men who were simply curious and could afford their own telescopes,laboratories and whatever.  Individuals could afford to go their own way.  Nowadays research simply costs too much for individual scientists to follow their own inclinations, so science is often a much more communal process.  

The arts today continue in their individualistic bent.  Are they better off for it?  I wonder.  I find much contemporary poetry, for instance, to be totally fractured in structure and incomprehensible because of it -- one floating phrase and clause after another with little if anything to unite the cloudlets of meaning.  One can't tell what a poem is about unless the poet supplies some notes about his own particular meanings of the metaphors employed.  So much of it is concerned only with the thoughts and feelings of the individual poet.  The poetry of the Me generation??  

Yes, there's still a lot of poetry about nature, but it seems to be largely about the poets emotional reaction to bits of nature here and there at different instants of time, about nature itself as ephemeral.  (Not that i"ve read all that much contemporary stuff.  The opportunity to self publish is vast by comparison with previous ages.)

As a geologist you must be especially aware of how interesting a long and wide view can be.  The fractured world-views of today's poets could learn a lot from you.

Dear Ann,

I started collecting rocks and fossils when I was a boy – a solitary pursuit, but I read of the 1920’s expeditions of American Museum of Natural History to the Gobi Desert and imagined myself riding camels to look for dinosaurs and fending off attacks by bandits.   But the die was cast in the fall of 1967 when I found Professor H.D. Holland and the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton.  Dick invited me to morning coffee, where I met a dozen grad students, faculty, and staff.  They taught me that the key to being a geologist was simply making the commitment to do my best to be a good one. I was welcomed into the sort of community of scholars (also loads of fun) that I had imagined the University to be.   And of course, it was a liberal-arts college for us as undergraduates, so we did languages, literature, history, religion, and art in addition to of maths and science classes.  Dick Holland, a refugee as a young boy on kindertransport  from Germany, was a man of great breadth and culture, a window into a world that had died entirely.

But the attachment to the arts and humanities  started in my childhood, too.   Mom and Dad both were English teachers.  Mom was a fine musician, and there was much music in our home.   Dad was a lover of Marcus Aurelius and Shakespeare, and we spent more time in museums than at ball parks (though Dad loved to listen to baseball on the radio while working in his garden).  Oh, yes: he also was a regular volunteer in a Catholic Workers community, and he often brought us along to lend a hand and listen.

The long, wide views of which you write are at the very center of geology, and for me they finally led to my chance to visit the South Gobi (four times, so far!), including weekend side trips to Flaming Cliffs.   As Andrews wrote in the last lines of his autobiography:  “Always there has been an adventure just around the corner – and the world is still full of corners.”

I hope we can find some threads to pursue the issues of the importance of the humanities and art, and in fact their relationship as part of our total culture to science.  Mong those issue sif the threat scientism poses to our broad culture, imo.


Mark L

Mark --

How fortunate you were to have the parents you did, as was I.  Both my parents were interested in art, and my mother was a science teacher.  Your Princeton education was, of course, well-balanced in the Humanities and sciences.  Which leads me to ask why in the blankety-blank-blank-blank don't the dumb non-Ivy colleges catch on to the fact that one of the reasons the Ivies turn out such fine products (to speak the language of the day) is because the Ivy curricula still include a lot of the sciences, math and the Humanities and not a lot of specialized "professional" trash courses you find so often in lesser schools these days.  Actually, when I was young the non-Ivies  also had more of the Humanities courses.  Not today.

About long and wide world-views, Pope Francis has some interesting (if somewhat weird) things to say about that in E.G:

"Time is greater than space

"222. A constant tension exists between fullness and limitation. Fullness evokes the desire for complete possession, while limitation is a wall set before us. Broadly speaking, “time” has to do with fullness as an expression of the horizon which constantly opens before us, while each individual moment has to do with limitation as an expression of enclosure. People live poised between each individual moment and the greater, brighter horizon of the utopian future as the final cause which draws us to itself. Here we see a first principle for progress in building a people: time is greater than space.

"223. This principle enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us patiently to endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans. It invites us to accept the tension between fullness and limitation, and to give a priority to time. One of the faults which we occasionally observe in sociopolitical activity is that spaces and power are preferred to time and processes. Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity."

Francis himself was a chemistry major.  Hmmm.




Dear Ann,

Good and competent parents are blessing, certainly.   As also with my being born in the United States and to several rings of privilege, I had no control over the parents to whom I was born, and so can be happy, but not proud in the simple-minded sense.   Great opportunities were presented to me, throughout all of my life, really, quite independently of my personal merit.

When I was an undergraduate, geology was seen and treated as a part of the tradition of liberal education.  Not only in terms of the distribution requirements for which we were responsible, but also in the context in which we learned our science.  There were only nine majors in my class – 5 went on in geology, and the other four went to medicine (2), law (1), and the Protestant ministry (1).  I am not confident that the notion of a geology major as a form of liberal education (encompassing the arts and sciences) is still the faculty model at Princeton.   In fact, I am quite sure it is not – the entire driving force for faculty at the “research” universities is very different, as you know.  I have had a 20+ year conversation with my Department about these matters, but my approach is clearly descendant.   Which is a problem.  [As, too, is the cost of a Princeton education - $45,000/yr if one were paying the full freight; and that accounts (we are assured) for very large subsidies through the endowment and allowances for overhead costs taken out of all contracts.]

I enjoyed the selections from Pope Francis that you provided.   “Time and process” is a central insight from geology. Of course the absolute magnitudes of some properties are very large, but the rate of change in the system is very small almost all the time, punctuated (think earthquakes or volcanic eruptions) by short-period “catastrophes”, from which new conditions the Earth slowly relaxes.  Francis’ emphasis on time and process as important and proper, versus space (as he uses it) and power, seems to me a classically conservative viewpoint.   It is the proponents of “space” and power who are the radicals, surely.

Thanks very much for this engagement!

Mark L


Mark L. =

I wonder  how strong the notion of a liberal education continues to be in the Ivies.  The matter has international importance now that some of them have established satellite schools in foreign countries.  Would that they could eventually teach the Chinese and Muslims about the need for freedom and respect for rights and the philosophies those ideas rest on.   But our cultures are so very, very different, even though we share a great deal of intellectual history with some of the Muslims. 

As for Francis, yes, I agree that he's being metaphorical in his use of 'space" and "time".  He says outright that "time" is greater than "space"(the unchanging), and he seems at times to value time (change) the most.  So I think he's inclined more to liberalism than conservatism.  But he's not entirely consistent about it.  In another section he's very emphatic that the *real* (the actual, the here and now) is paramount in some way.  Saying that change (time) should go slowly is perhaps his way of "harmonizing" space and time.   Interesting perspectives anyway.  

I'm sure what he said about the necessity for change must have struck terror in the hearts of some of the people in the Vatican :-)  


Mark --

To get back to your point about who pays and who should pay for what.  You seem to be assuming that if the people who go to museums decided not to go then they could afford to send their kids to college.  Nonsense.

But the problem isn't the museum admission, the problem is this:  hardworking people can't afford to send their kids to college because the super-rich now take an obscene amount of the profits.  Yes, the mimimum wage should be raised for the poor, but the wages of the middle class have also gone down in real terms even though the middle class is more productive than ever.

 The super-rich are turning the middle class middle-aged and younger folks into poor folks.  (No, not the *older* middle class people like you and me, but the middle aged and younger.)  That's why college is fast-becoming an impossibility for many, many lower middle class kids, and the middle class is also affected.  

The reason the Humanities are important in all this is because there are certain classic questions about human life and human potentials that need to be considered in depth if an individual is to even begin to actualize his/her potentials.  And to answer those questions the students need history and, I'd say, psych and some other social sciences.  

College is not the only way to get a grounding in the Humanities, but it is the most effective way for most people to begin.  And, yes, some of the basics of the Humanities need to be part of pre-college.  See the Common Core Curriculum  thread for some of the problems there.  Yes, half the problem there is about language, lit, history, and critical thinking, not to mention ethics, and theology.  (I, unsurprisingly, would make a bit of philosophy/logic part of the high school curriculum.)

Dear Ann,

To the extent that the Ivies any longer subscribe to the notions of “liberal education,” they would do well to concentrate on what that means in their own context.   But of course, not only are they “research universities” with all that implies in terms of both content and funding, but they are “world leaders,”  and so drawn to opportunities elsewhere. How their own undergraduates fare, is no longer a central concern for a large portion of the faculty, who are consumed by other concerns (starting with how to obtain tenure, and for their administrators, how to manage cash flows from the overhead charges on research).

The Muslims I know best are Malinke subsistence farmers along the edge of the Sahel in West Africa (Guinée du Nord).  [I do not know the Islam of the regions near the Arabian/Persian Sea at all by personal experience.]   For the Malinke, the ideals of the Enlightenment are not only unknown, but probably not very well suited to their circumstances; our “post-Modern” interpretataion of those traditions are even more poorly suited.   The Islam of “peace, purity, submission and obedience”, the most common meanings of “salema”, have deep and strong roots because they provide a coherence with the world in which they live – they provide for a community in a land where only a community can survive.  Interestingly (to me), many of the instances commonly shown here of the suppression of women do not exist there: women are active in community discussions and decision-making, speak to men, including even strange infidels, openly, and are not covered.  [That is not quite exact: all women who have reached puberty wear a cloth in their hair, but it is highly colored and does not at all cover all the hair, much less obscure the face.]  In public meetings on the villages, women sit in the front and speak first – for both men and women, elders always speak first of course.  Lovely people.

The most essential tool of liberal education – in my view, of course – remains respectful discussion, the commitment to listen first and then to try to weave new ideas we have just heard into the web of beliefs that guide our lives.   We have largely lost this habit in America, I am afraid.  [The dotCommonweal group does it as well as anyone I have seen recently.]

Mark L

Mark L. ==

I've been wondering what effects all those satellite schools in other countries have been having on the mother schools here.  (Sorry about that really bad mixed metaphor :-)  If I had a kid at Duquesne, for instance, I'd really wonder what the school was doing spending all that effort and money in some foreign country.  Harvard, no doubt, can afford some expansion, but even so, what does that do to Harvard College?  

Which brings up the whole question:  how big can a college be and still retain the virtues of collegiality?  And the same question arises in ecclesiology, no doubt, and returns us to the nature of a Catholic college (not to mention grad school).

I suspect that as world population getter larger and larger, these questions of communication will loom larger and larger.  (We really have to start thinking again about the sheer size of the human race.)

Your concern about how sheer size of groups affects their behavior (and their understanding of what might make their group a community) is very important.   And little understood.  My personal experience is that there are break-points (or at least inflections) in most organizations beyond which not only must the manner of organization change, but at which it often is seen that people who were successful at leading in the smaller system are not well suited to leading in the larger.

We know this in education – certainly it is clear that lectures, tutorials, and one-on-one discussions with one’s mentor are three very different exercises, for students and for teachers.  We can imagine that, for a first course in organic chemistry, there is a large body of mostly routine information that all students must learn, and much of this can be effectively covered in a large lecture class (or an internet course).  However, synthesizing organic compounds must be learned at the bench, through trial and error with some advice and supervision by an experienced instructor.   In terms of the humanities, we might cover cultural history of France during the 19th-20th centuries in a series of lectures and smaller class sections to discuss the readings, but someone who is a fluent speaker must work with us individually to master the spoken language.  I can repeat words or phrases back to the computer, but unless it is something much more sophisticated than I ever used, it will not help me form my mouth to distinguish the sound of “-u-” from the sound of “-ou”, and so no one will mistake me for a native speaker.

The issues affect us, too, as a nation.  310 Million people, amalgamated now from a hundred nations of origin, and spread across a continent and in contact (at the speed of light) with billions of others: this is a very different situation than the circumstances of a comparative handful of 18th Century men, from a very homogenous background in England, and clinging to a the eastern seaboard.  Even supposing we could discern the “orginal intent” of the Constitution, do we suppose that Madison, Hamilton, Adams, and the others would have supposed that their intent in 1780 was to remain unchanged as the world grew and changed?

Mark L 

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