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Can a Catholic university be too Catholic?

Consultants have reportedly told CUA faculty that commitment to a Catholic identity “hurts” the school’s brand. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Ariel view of the CUA campus. (Screenshot from "Cultivating Catholic Minds" page at

Concerned about a nearly $3.5 million operational deficit and falling enrollments, Catholic University of America—long considered the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States—hired a group of consultants who reportedly told them the university’s religious identity was actually a liability in recruiting students.

According to an April 16th article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric Collum—a senior associate at Art & Science, LLC, a secular higher education consulting firm—told a gathering of the Catholic University faculty in January that their commitment to a Catholic identity “hurts” the school’s brand. Faculty were advised that: “Students are open to having their experience enriched by Catholicism but not necessarily defined by Catholicism. They want to go to college; they don’t want to go to church.” To turn things around, the faculty were advised to position the University as a “global Catholic research university” rather than a narrowly defined religious institution.

The article further reported the consultants suggested Catholic University should focus on “research opportunities for undergraduates, and guaranteed on-campus housing,” and to expand opportunities for “athletics and fun.” And, although Christopher P. Lydon, the university’s vice president for enrollment management and marketing, told Chronicle of Higher Education  that “to lay it all at the feet of Catholic identity seems a narrow interpretation,” he acknowledged that “the consultants found that we had no more market share to gain through Catholic identity alone.”

Andrew V. Abela, the Provost at Catholic University, denies there is any evidence that Catholic identity may be hurting the university, but The Chronicle suggests Catholic University may already be making changes to re-brand itself. For example, a 2016 marketing video titled “Cultivating Catholic Minds”—depicting papal visits, pious students at Mass, and priests and nuns—was moved in February from its prominent spot on the university’s home page to a separate tab labeled “Faithfully Catholic.” While this may have been a coincidental move since the video had been on the homepage for the past two years, The Chronicle reported that some faculty members said removing the “Cultivating Catholic Minds” video was “an acknowledgment that the university had gone too far in portraying itself as churchly.”

Catholic University is one of only 29 Catholic colleges and universities identified as “faithfully Catholic”—out of more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities in the country—in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College published by the Cardinal Newman Society, an 501c3 organization devoted to identifying faithful (and unfaithful) Catholic colleges and universities. Lauded for the courageous decision in 2011 to return to single-sex residence halls as a way to try and counter binge-drinking and hooking up, Catholic University’s John H. Garvey has become a leader among faithful Catholic college presidents. In a #MeToo culture, Garvey’s decision seems prescient. But some have suggested that this too has hurt the university in recruiting those students who want to experience more freedom. For some, that means including the freedom to engage in behavior that is counter to Catholic teachings.

And that is the crux of the problem. According to the most recent Pew Research Center data, younger millennials are less likely to believe in God than are members of previous generations; they are less likely to attend religious services every week. Only 41 percent indicated that organized religion played an important role in their lives. Most identify as “spiritual” but not “religious.” Secular consulting firms such as Arts & Science, LLC have suggested in the past that “Christian colleges must adapt to new strategies and messaging … ‘Do you want students who are trying to find a Church? … Or are you looking for students who are interested in finding a college that will also address their faith?’” There is movement by some Catholic colleges to replace religiosity with spirituality.

Marquette University, for example, has created the Marquette Colleagues’ Program, which teaches Jesuit values through community service “to attract students who are less religious but more spiritual.” Other Catholic colleges, like Providence College (which used to be included in The Newman Guide) now emphasize career outcomes. Providence President Rev. Brian J. Shanley told a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter in December 2017 that Providence now embraces “a larger mission of trying to help students find out what their God-given vocation is.” Dante scholar, Anthony Esolen, one of Providence College’s most distinguished Catholic Professors, recently left Providence for St. Thomas More College—one of the 29 faithfully Catholic colleges listed in the Newman Guide.

Georgetown University, located just a few miles from Catholic University in D.C., has long ago abandoned any pretense of a commitment to traditional Catholic moral teachings. Ignoring Catholic doctrine on human sexuality and life issues, faculty members at Georgetown promoted legislation to provide access to same sex marriage and expand reproductive rights. In 2013, the New York Times lauded Georgetown for its “gay friendly” campus, its focus on legislative pathways to securing rights for “trans” and “gender nonconforming” people, and its workshops on “Trans-Health in the Military,” and “Queer in the Capital.”

Not only does Georgetown have co-ed dorms, it now has a new LGBTQ dorm on campus called “Crossroads: Gender and Sexuality” According to a January 2018 article in The Washington Blade, Todd Olson, who is vice president of student affairs at Georgetown, told a reporter for The Hoya that the new LGBTQ-only “Living Learning Community” was created as a way to “provide a language, perspective and sense of inclusion for deepening our sense of cura personalis… Our Catholic and Jesuit values call on us to engage with respect compassion and sensitivity with our LGBTQ community.” The late William Peter Blatty, one of Georgetown’s most distinguished alums and the author of The Exorcist, was so concerned about Georgetown’s loss of a Catholic identity he filed a Canon Law petition with the Vatican shortly before his death, asking that Georgetown University be denied the right to call itself Catholic.

With the exception of a few dozen faithful Catholic colleges and universities, incuding my own academic home, Franciscan University of Steubenville, many of the 230 Catholic colleges and universities have strayed far from their Catholic roots. Some of these “Catholic in name only” schools are struggling, and some have closed. But, contrary to what secular consultants like Art & Science, LLC might have predicted, most of the faithful colleges and universities in the Newman Guide are welcoming some of their largest incoming classes. In fact, Franciscan University—a university that describes itself as Passionately Catholicanticipates enrolling the largest incoming freshman class in its history, based on the record number of undergraduate applications and admissions received for fall, 2018. According to Joel Recznik, vice president of enrollment, Franciscan has received 20 percent more applications than last year at this time—a strong predictor of class size. He attributes the higher numbers of freshman applications to “Franciscan’s Catholic intellectual and faith mission.”

It would, I think, be a mistake for Catholic University to listen to the advice of consultants who appear to have little if any understanding of Newman’s Idea of a Catholic University. And, although there are some faculty members at Catholic University who seem to believe that giving up the Catholic identity is the way to achieve higher status as a “global institution” rather than a Catholic university, they probably do not understand the price they would have to pay for such surrender.

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About Anne Hendershott 101 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Sophia Books, 2020)


  1. “this too has hurt the university in recruiting those students who want to experience more freedom. For some, that means including the freedom to engage in behavior that is counter to Catholic teachings.”

    Great. Students who want to be enabled to be sleazy tramps.

    I hope CUA sticks to its guns and doesn’t sell out its morals for popularity (yes, Georgetown, I am looking at *you*).

  2. A question: Did you change something about your comment form? Formerly, when I posted I remained logged in and could see my comment with a note that it was awaiting moderation. Now, I’m automatically logged out and I don’t see anything. I didn’t think I changed anything on my computer, but if it wasn’t you it must have been I who did something!

  3. Does the school have a brand or a mission? Is it’s mission to be a university faithful to Catholicism or to be a prestige school with a massive endowment?

    Brand, brand, brand, brand, brand. Good grief do buzzwords get old and stale quickly. Colleges don’t exist to self-perpetuate or sell something. CUA is not McDonalds.

  4. Soon much of Catholic higher ed will be rendered too expensive to operate; CUA might as well start scaling down now and educating those who really need the education for the darker times ahead.

  5. “Catholic University is one of only 29 Catholic colleges and universities identified as “faithfully Catholic”—out of more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities in the country—in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College published by the Cardinal Newman Society.”

    As with so much of the Catholic Church today, the evidence of such massive corruption and decadence that can only be called apostasy is reason not for despair but rather for hope, at least in this specific and restricted sense; namely, that until what is rotten collapses or is burnt away, there cannot be cleared ground for what is true and vital to germinate and grow. In this sense, I say speed the day to the disappearance of the 90% of bogus institutions that fraudulently call themselves “Catholic”.

  6. A national Catholic university must be thoroughly Catholic to earn and keep the name. As to other universities, perhaps the problem is more with the religious order than the academy. If the Dominicans at Providence College cannot manage to uphold Catholicism and neither the Jesuits (and so on) at their institutes then the orders should be disbanded. The Church needs to grasp the notion that it does not need dissenting religious orders any more than it needs dissenting universities.

  7. Yes, the price to pay…”they probably do not understand the price they would have to pay for such surrender.”…. perhaps the price would be participation in the loss of the salvation of many. Either the world or Christ, but not both.
    God bless, C-Marie

  8. The final paragraph of this article is spot on. If a student wants the “freedom and fun” of a public university they have countless options. As a parent, I will not pay for my children to attend a Catholic University that disregards Catholicism for the sake of enrollment, prestige, money, and various other shallow, earthly attachments.

  9. A large number of Exorcisms seem to be necessary. The report from Georgetown suggests that Satanists have been in charge.

  10. If it is too Catholic for someone – they can go across town to Georgetown or out to the midwest to Notre Dame. Those two schools value prestige like the consultants.

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