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Canceling Catholic higher education

For those who believe that the basis of education rests in a civil but robust disputation of questions, it is difficult to be optimistic about the academy’s future.

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Higher education is in a state of crisis. And the source of the threat is not what you might think.

The pandemic isn’t to blame. It hasn’t helped but it hasn’t caused the problem. COVID has merely sidelined a more important conversation, temporarily focusing administrators’ attention on whether a college education can be effectively delivered online. While this is a worthwhile debate, it is one that assumes that what is to be delivered is worth receiving. In marketing parlance, the in-person versus remote conversation confuses the importance of the “place” over that of the “product.” To be direct: if the product is terrible, it doesn’t matter how it’s delivered.

When COVID eventually makes its exit, colleges and universities will be forced again to confront their product. And it will be hard to ignore the fact that while the academy has traditionally been the place for the generation of ideas, creation of knowledge, debate and discourse, it has rather quickly become riddled with safe zones, microaggressions, identity politics and a victimization that has veered into explicit villainization. For those who believe that the basis of education rests in a civil but robust disputation of questions, it is difficult to be optimistic about the academy’s future.

How many schools today are genuinely committed to an authentically liberal education? How many are truly invested in free speech? In liberty and in the pursuit of “truth”? Admissions folks might think such questions are better left for another time—fun fodder for cocktail conversations at the provost’s house. But if this past summer has reminded us of anything, it is that bad actors see opportunity in every crisis. Make no mistake: campus culture is being actively re-made as you read this. And not just at state universities or at that private, preppy and progressive secular college the Land Rover-driving family at the club sent their daughter to last week. Ally programs, woke wackiness, and cancel cancer have metastasized on Catholic campuses everywhere.

And authentically Catholic schools must realize: the threat is existential.

The history of Catholic education in this country dates back to before the Revolution. Missionaries from various orders opened schools throughout the eastern part of the continent during the early 17th century. In 1606, Franciscans opened the first school in what became St. Augustine. In 1677, the Jesuits established the first prep school in Newtown, Maryland. Ursuline sisters started an all-girls school in coordination with an orphanage in New Orleans in 1727. St. Mary’s in Philadelphia, considered the first parochial school in the United States, was opened in 1782. Shortly thereafter, the Church moved into higher education. In 1789, Georgetown University was founded by John Carroll, a cousin of Declaration of Independence signor, Charles Carroll; it enjoys the distinction of being the first Catholic college in America.

Over the next century, others would follow including Fordham University (1841), University of Notre Dame (1842) and the Catholic University of America (1887). The Jesuits started up my undergraduate alma mater just as the first half of the 20th century was closing out. The Dominican Friars—my employer—founded Providence College a quarter century earlier, in 1917. I’ve spent nearly 20 years of my life at Catholic institutions.

What is the centerpiece of a traditional Catholic education? Veritas. Truth. From St. Anselm’s ontological proof of God’s existence to St. Thomas Aquinas’s focus on virtue, the mission of Catholic higher education is the pursuit of what is true. Grounded in Socrates and Aristotle, Thomism reminds skeptics that reason and faith do not compete; they are, as St. John Paul II stated in the opening of Fides et Ratio, “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth…” Pope Leo XIII, the courageous and prolific pontiff who authored Rerum Novarum, the encyclical which began the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, understood this. Written at the height of the industrial revolution during the tumult of Haymarket and Homestead, Rerum Novarum began an ongoing tradition in which the Catholic Church offered the people of the world the truth of Christ. Catholic Social Teaching is a message not about conformity but about what T.S. Eliot calls the “permanent things.” It was and continues to be a reminder to Catholics—and society more broadly—that if we are to navigate toward truth, we must always orient ourselves around the eternal. One would expect authentic Catholic Social Teaching to have a revered place within Catholic higher education. Quite sadly today, it often does not.

For years, secular naysayers argued that the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) should not be a part of a liberal education. Aristotle’s words—“All men by nature (emphasis mine) desire to know”—offered such critics little assurance; CST was based on mere articles of faith, divorced from reason. The argument went that Catholic institutions should not really be “Catholic”—and as a sophomore in college, I was “educated” on the fact that they weren’t. A well-respected “ethics” professor informed me that most faculty at my school weren’t Catholic; the few who were, weren’t really and none thought it was relevant for teaching any courses aside from (perhaps) theology. I remember thinking that this would have been good to know before my family spent the considerable sum it cost to enroll me in what it thought was a “Catholic” school over, say, Bucknell (which I had turned down). In such an environment, matters such as subsidiarity, a robust defense of private property rights, respect for human dignity, an unapologetic reverence for the family, and an appreciation for the centrality of faith as a critical intermediating force between the individual and the rest of the world were marginalized. Over the years, the success of Catholic intellectual heavyweights including Robert George and Peter Kreeft, among others, effectively made obvious the silliness of this secular line of attack.

Accordingly, others uninterested in authentic Catholic teaching chose to assume a more sophisticated strategy: to co-opt and bastardize certain tenets of CST to covertly—and sometimes even overtly—mainstream the inclusion of left-wing politics into the life of the Catholic campus and even into curricula. Successful efforts to do just that have largely been done under the “social justice” banner. It is the rallying cry for celebrating the destruction of human life, the deconstruction of traditional marriage and the families it creates, and the literal re-invention of biology itself. Of course, this last tack encounters tautological difficulties: biology isn’t legitimate science until it helps the significantly less intellectually sophisticated de-legitimize contributions they don’t like based on sex. Michelangelo, DaVinci, Dante, Shakespeare, Augustine—all men. Even worse, all white men. In an age of systemic racism—a term embraced by even Catholic institutions far and wide, though interestingly and very cleverly never clearly defined—these are non-starters. Acceptability is judged only by what looks good through the “ism” prism. And turning to God to confess, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” won’t fly for long.

In an age in which so many speak of “equality,” so few understand that this equality derives from our creation by a God who made us in His image. We were “created equal.” Explicated in our country’s Declaration of Independence, this truth is “self-evident” but seemingly lost on nearly everyone on college campuses today. Rather than being cowed into submission by cancel culture crazies, Catholic college presidents should see this reality as an opportunity. Where better than the Catholic campus to motivate an understanding that only in orienting ourselves toward God will our lives and all within it, including who we are and how we relate to others, have any meaning?

But before re-invigorating the marriage of faith to reason, Catholic institutions need first to recommit themselves to the merit of reason itself. Bad actors are very purposely working to dismantle the foundation of the academic experience—critical thinking, reasoned debate, respect for empiricism, physical science—and they are having success. The effects are profound: mob violence against devout Catholic students, school-sponsored meetings that publicly name and defame long-time Catholic faculty members, diversity offices that allow claims to be brought against Catholic members of the community based on information the office itself knows to be completely untrue. These are the signs of an abdication of moral duty and, yes, reason.

On their worst day, Catholic colleges and universities can be confused for any of the worst secular offenders. We need Catholic institutions to do better and to get this right. Quickly. They represent the last best hope in the face of chaos and nihilism.

The mob knows it. Pray that Catholic college presidents do as well.


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About Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D. 3 Articles
Ronald L. Jelinek, Ph.D., is a Professor of Marketing at Providence College. His work has been published in National Catholic Register, Catholic Business Journal, and numerous academic journals including Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Industrial Marketing Management, and Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, among others.

13 Comments

  1. Nothing new here. Catholic Colleges basically rejected the “Mandatum” many, many years ago. Oh, sure, the theology department applies, the local bishops grants it, or not, and then the college pretty much clams up about it.
    .
    I actually wonder how many students even know what the Mandatum is, or was, when and what the controversy even was.

    • I wonder how many students, faculty, and members of administration know what “Ex corde Ecclesiae” is, much less have read it?

  2. Of the opening three sentences of Paragraph 11 of Dr Ronald Jelinek’s astute analysis it could be said: “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”
    What is to be done?

  3. With men like Dr. Jelinek on its faculty, Providence College has a brighter future than that which was evidenced during the Anthony Esolen debacle there only a few years back. Let’s hope that the leadership of the college can turn this Dominican college in the direction of restoring our Christian culture.

    • IF he isn’t driven out of Providence College by a toxic combination of students, faculty, and administration, the way Dr. Esolen was.

      As long as the likes of Father Brian Shanley and Father Kenneth Sicard are at the helm, Providence’s future remains questionable at best and weak at worst.

  4. When you go on a college’s website and you have to dig for the words, “Jesus Christ,” it’s not hard to realize there’s an issue. The first image should be that of the Cross.

  5. A few years ago, DePaul University put several students on academic probation for posting signs that said “Unborn lives matter.” If that doesn’t sound the death knell for the very concept of “Catholic Education,” I don’t know what does. St. Vincent must still have tears in his eyes over that one.

  6. It should be noted that there are a handful of solid Catholic universities remaining in this country, and they are growing and vibrant. My wife and I have 11 children and seven of them have attended the University of Dallas (five have graduated, two are there now and three are not yet college age). UD has a serious core of studies that does not deviate. They have serious Catholic faculty (by and large) that fight for the schools Catholic identity and a growing alumni that send their kids there. It is a real bright spot for the Catholic Church in the US.

    • I am a graduate of what is now Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. I went there in the late sixties as the Catholic world was turned upside down. I recommend this institution to students and parents looking for a faith-based education. I can second the previous poster’s recommendation of UD. I’ve lived in the Dallas area for 40 years and have participated in numerous continuing education programs there. The Catholic education is still available, and we must support it.

  7. Dr. Jelinek is a brave man given the intolerance in higher academia. It is a sad fact that many so-called Catholic Colleges have sold their soul to the federal aid devil. When I receive my feel good requests for money from my “Catholic” alma mater I immediately toss them in the waste basket. If enough people did that it may help to solve the problem raised by Dr. Jelinek.

  8. Professor Jelinek paints with much too broad a brush. There are numerous fine faithful Catholic residential colleges from which a faithful Catholic can choose – notably those 15 listed by the Cardinal Newman Society in it’s annual guide. Some are: Franciscan U. of Steubenville. Christendom College, Univ. of Dallas, Wyoming Catholic, Thos. Aquinas in Calif.& Mass. and more. see https://newmansociety.org/college/

  9. I do find the comments and article here somewhat contradictory. I agree that College should be a place where students and faculty can encourage robust discussion, critical thinking, and hopefully dissenting opinions. However, by bemoaning the death of “true” Catholic colleges, isn’t the author arguing for the very safe spaces that are actively being derided here. The determination of Truth has long been determined by a minority of individuals (i.e., White, older men). The inclusion of other voices will obviously cause tension, but this should be encouraged, even if there are casualties along the way. What the author sees as chaos, others could see as progress. It can be argued that the liberal views deemed unworthy of a Catholic institution is less an existential threat, but progress championed by internal sources (i.e., The Pope). The World is changing for the better and some views, regardless of whether they are rooted in history, need to shift to account for this.

    • You raise a verity COMBINED WITH a falsehood. The verity is the very difficult, and so-far failed effort for the perennial Church to find the language of engagement with the so-called modern world. The falsehood is in the dismissal of the magisterium and the Apostolic Succession (indwelled by the Holy Spirit!) which trace back to the incarnate Christ–as “white, older men”.

      It wouldn’t hurt if the FIRST STEP taken by so-called Catholic colleges, in trying to grow this engagement, hadn’t been to first cut themselves off at the knees with their late-60s, adolescent Land O’ Lakes Declaration of “autonomy”–the very virus that has unmoored the entire West into its continued sinking into the dustbin of history.

      So, certainly YES to your real dialogue, but not by first surrendering what one really does have to proclaim and bring to the table.

      As for Pope Francis, the language of designed tension found in his Evangelii Gaudium (2013) illustrates this riddle only too well. Two of his four “principles” are shown by Germania to be at some point CONTRADICTORY—”Time is greater than space” (the go-with-the-flow “synodal path”), but also “the whole is greater than the part” (Germany is a particular church within the universal Church). Aside from Catholic theology, and an irreducible part of the mix, is the across-the-board, self-evident FIRST PRINCIPLE of non-contradiction.

      As for what is “championed” by Pope Francis, after seven years he now expresses in private his “concern” with Germania—actually a broader concern raised in the “dubia” (re moral absolutes, 2016) and still unanswered. Now might be the ripened time for clarity, and we need not be entirely surprised if Pope Francis rises to the occasion. After all, these are “interesting times.”

      (A FOOTNOTE here regarding moral absolutes: this is not about any beady-eyed squint; it’s actually about whether there is really a GOD larger than history, or not.)

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