Identity Crisis

Catholic Higher Education

A Culture in Crisis

Melanie M. Morey and John J. Piderit, SJ

Oxford University Press, $35, 450 pp.

The argument isn’t new: Most Catholic colleges are in imminent danger of losing whatever religiously grounded distinctiveness they still possess. Melanie Morey and John Piderit assert, along with many others, that “a crisis is looming within American Catholic higher education.” What, then, distinguishes this book from the usual jeremiad? For one thing, it provides specifics-concrete data systematically collected. It also has a remarkable generosity of spirit. Neither Right nor Left can lay claim to this book; it is too analytically nuanced and too practically oriented. Morey and Piderit want to mobilize a nonideological crusade to save Catholic colleges in all their legitimate variety. “Catholic universities are confronting and interacting with a strong, brassy, dominant culture,” they write, “and we are recommending a bold and dynamic Catholic cultural response that acknowledges and embraces the good of the wider culture, but is not crushed by it.”

The book’s data come primarily from interviews with senior administrators at thirty-three Catholic colleges and universities. These schools represent the full spectrum of Catholic options in higher education, which the authors reduce to four models: (1) “Catholic immersion” institutions, where the great majority of students, administrators, and faculty are Catholic and the culture and curriculum are self-consciously orthodox; (2) “Catholic persuasion” institutions, which have Catholic majorities among their students if not their faculties, a “small array of Catholic courses in the academic sector,” and a vigorous Catholic culture outside the classroom; (3) “Catholic cohort” institutions, with a minority of Catholic students and even fewer Catholic faculty, where the “Catholic content” in the curriculum is usually confined to specialized centers and Catholic-studies programs; and (4) “Catholic diaspora” institutions, typically located in areas where Catholics are a negligible minority in the population, which offer few distinctively Catholic courses. Each model, according to the authors, represents a legitimate approach to Catholic higher education in the American context, always assuming that a school’s Catholic auspices render it genuinely different from neighboring secular institutions. A college’s first goal must be survival, and one can hardly market “Catholic immersion” where there are few interested customers.

Most of the administrators interviewed for the book were laypeople, although roughly half the college presidents were priests or religious. The lay administrators were nearly all practicing Catholics and seriously committed to maintaining the Catholic identity of their institutions. But most, including most of the lay presidents, lacked substantive training in theology and what the authors call “spiritual formation.” At least partly in consequence, the interviews revealed a surprising lack of consensus about what constitutes “Catholic identity” in higher education, much less how to achieve it. Nor was there much evidence of strong leadership around the issue. Save for the “Catholic immersion” institutions, nearly all of them very small, these administrators’ colleges typically failed “to educate their students about the Catholic intellectual tradition at even the minimal levels prescribed by their given institutional model.” Outside the classroom, moreover, the authors found plentiful evidence of a “religiously tepid” student culture, with much unofficial toleration of underage drinking and free-wheeling sexual activity. “Student life administrators at most of the colleges felt under siege and unsupported.”

Given this fairly bleak assessment, what should the leaders of Catholic colleges do? An essential first step, according to Morey and Piderit, is public acknowledgment of the fragile state of Catholic higher education. Most of the administrators interviewed knew very little about how other institutions were dealing, or failing to deal, with “Catholic identity” issues. They seldom raised these issues on their own campuses, given the likelihood-at all but “Catholic immersion” schools-of conflict with the faculty. The time for evasion is over, Morey and Piderit assert. Strong leadership will be needed if Catholic colleges are to survive in any meaningful fashion, along with firm commitment to specific goals and timetables regarding contentious initiatives such as “hiring for mission” and eradicating student religious illiteracy.

Not that every Catholic institution will solve these problems in the same way: what is appropriate to a “Catholic immersion” college will not necessarily work for other types of Catholic campuses. But every institution that calls itself Catholic must build, by means of targeted hiring and internal education, a critical mass of faculty and administrators who are grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition and committed to passing it on to the next generation. (The relative size of this group will vary, depending on the nature of the Catholic college in question.) This group will also be committed to the practice of Catholicism, both in worship and in personal conduct. These committed laity, in short, must replicate the role once played by the colleges’ sponsoring congregations. Morey and Piderit even suggest that they be readily identifiable, by means of an insignia or membership in a high-profile campus society.

Beyond hiring and training “for mission,” Morey and Piderit counsel a new seriousness with regard to students’ religious knowledge and practice. All Catholic colleges should make clear to their Catholic students that weekly Mass attendance is a sacred obligation, and they should offer liturgies that engage students. Colleges ought to collect data to measure student Mass attendance-something that virtually none of the colleges studied does. As for dormitory life, administrators ought to articulate and enforce clear rules for student conduct-rules explicitly grounded in the Catholic tradition: “With respect to clarity of standards and consistency of enforcement in matters pertaining to social drinking, addictive substances, and appropriate levels of sexual intimacy, there should be no substantial differences in norms and sanctions among the four Catholic models.” Finally, Morey and Piderit urge that Catholic colleges require their soon-to-be graduates to demonstrate basic knowledge about Catholicism, just as they now ask for demonstrated competence in mathematics or a foreign language.

As one who teaches at a Catholic university, I can readily imagine the outrage-the word is really much too mild-that prescriptions like these would elicit from many faculty and students. But the ensuing conversation, if wisely managed, could be exhilarating. Should we not be delighted at the chance to reflect collectively on the meaning of our life’s work and the grounds on which we make critical moral choices? Pleased at the prospect of learning more about one of the world’s most formidable intellectual traditions? Wise management shouldn’t be presumed. Most administrators don’t trust faculty very far, as the interviews quoted in this book attest, nor do most faculty members trust administrators. Low standards for student conduct reflect doubts about the moral capacities of the young on the part of administrators and faculty alike. A fruitful conversation isn’t likely to happen without trust and respect.

And yet it must-on this point Morey and Piderit are absolutely right. Catholic college presidents can’t save their institutions alone. They need support from both faculty and students; in many cases, they-like the rest of us-need to learn more about the Catholic intellectual tradition their colleges ostensibly serve. Taking the place of the priests and religious who once defined Catholic higher education-precisely what lay Catholic faculty and administrators must now do-will be an enormously difficult undertaking. It will happen, if it happens at all, only through patient cooperation and mutual assistance. It’s a task, in short, that mandates the same degree of personal discipline as living in religious community-or conscientious parenthood (to give the laity their due).

About the Author

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

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