Last fall, my daughter was starting her senior year of high school, looking forward to making all the memories that would mark the end of this chapter in her life. But life took an unexpected turn for the Class of 2020. Sports, concerts, prom and even graduation itself, all got cancelled. They missed a lot. Sadly, that’s what they’ll always remember. And just as the pandemic was hitting full swing this spring, my daughter and her classmates had decisions to make — colleges and universities were sending out their acceptance letters and commitment deadlines were fast approaching.
My daughter had applied to several in-state public schools and a handful of smaller private Catholic schools. Over the last couple years we had visited at least 25 schools, gone on many campus tours, sat through numerous information sessions. As it turns out, going through the college admissions process is an eye-opening education into the world of higher education.
What we noticed while touring (even before 2020 struck), was that “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” appeared to be the de facto religion not just at the public schools, but at the Catholic schools as well. At most of the Catholic schools, “statements on inclusion” were touted, while theology classes and campus ministry programs were barely mentioned.
One Catholic school’s admissions application form was particularly “inclusive”. On page one of the form, just under the spaces allotted for student name, was the gender question — in this case a drop-down list of ten gender options from which to choose. The alphabetized list began with “Agender” and ended with “Queer”. “Man” and “Woman” were simply options on the list.
The question made me wonder if some of the Catholic schools were really, in the end, any different from the progressive, ideologically-driven public schools that we had toured. Perhaps these days “Catholic school” actually means, in most cases, “Catholic in name only.”
Catholic schools have been chasing left-leaning students for years. While touring schools with my daughter, I noticed that student activist and identity-group organizations seemed to be cowing administrators on a plethora of issues — listing gender on name tags, course offerings and even their content, and affinity-group housing and services. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was an adult in the room. Who was teaching? What were students really learning? And to what end?
As Catholic schools drift into secular ideology, they are increasingly struggling to communicate their value proposition vis-à-vis public schools. Most Catholic schools are part of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), which serves as the collective voice of U.S. Catholic higher education.
At the ACCU’s last annual meeting which took place this past winter in Washington D.C., sessions were held on such topics as “How Catholic Higher Education Must Adapt to Continue Its Mission”, “Adapting to the Shifting Nature of Learners”, and “Finding Fiscal Stability in Today’s Environment.” This last session touched on the existential question for today’s Catholic schools: “For Catholic colleges and universities, being ‘Catholic’ may no longer hold as much appeal for students looking to enroll. What can Catholic higher education do to reverse the financial distress that threatens its survival and mission?”
Perhaps the answer to this question can best be found in one of the meeting’s only bright spots, a session on “How Identifying the Barriers to Enrollment Growth Delivered Record-Breaking Numbers.” The University of Mary, in Bismarck, North Dakota was profiled as the success story in this talk. Despite its small size — about three thousand students — and its remote location, the school is thriving.
I knew a bit about this school on a personal level. Last year I had attended my Catholic parish’s annual women’s retreat, and my roommate that weekend was a faith-filled, orthodox Catholic woman, a University of Mary alumni. I knew the school truly embraced its Catholic identity, rather than apologized for it. Its community center is called “Chesterton’s” and the school is recommended in the Cardinal Newman Society’s “Newman Guide”.
Only 26 of the ACCU’s 197 U.S. Catholic colleges and universities made it onto the Newman Guide’s recommended list this year. These colleges all teach theology, ethics, and reasoning. They all have strict rules governing campus life. They all have vibrant campus ministry and a strong Catholic culture. Rather than embrace society’s prevalent culture, these schools are truly counter-cultural.
I return now to my earlier discussion of the gender question on my daughter’s admissions application form. (The school is an ACCU member, but not included in the Newman Guide.) As luck, or perhaps providence, would have it, I had met the vice president of the school — a Catholic Holy Cross order priest — at a seminarian benefit dinner just a week before reviewing my daughter’s application.
I sent the priest a gentle email reminding him of our delightful conversation that evening and included my feedback on my daughter’s application process at his school. I mentioned that I had read the school’s “statement on inclusion” but I had some concerns from the standpoint of adherence to Catholic teaching on human dignity.
I addressed several related concerns in my email. “I’m not convinced that asking each kid to identify their sexuality from such a long list of choices with ‘male’ and ‘female’ being just options down the middle of the page is the most helpful way to be ‘inclusive’ for each kid applying or even for the school’s community as a whole. … In our city’s public schools now, kids as young as kindergarten are being taught that they need to choose their gender and explore their options, and we don’t quite know the physical, emotional and spiritual impact of this attitude and influence.”
The priest replied to my email almost immediately. He admitted that the school’s tack was “progressive” but that “today things are much more open than ever before” and that the school was “balancing inclusion and faithfulness.” In his email signature he identified his pronouns — “he, him, his.” But he was friendly and open and invited me to the school, to attend Mass with him, have lunch with him, and to discuss the issue further.
I did visit with the priest. Mass was lovely, lunch was delicious, and the conversation was enlightening. He shared from his 20 years experience working with college students. I shared my (almost) 20 years experience raising kids. And I shared my worries. I left feeling like the conversation had been productive. And it was — the priest notified me that the “admissions task force” had reviewed the application format and decided to change the application back to a more streamlined question. Accessing the application today, there are only two options for sex: male and female. With a question below stating “if you would like the opportunity, we invite you to share more about your gender identity.”
Why do I share this simple story — a story with a decidedly satisfying ending — about a school admissions application form? Because I believe the application itself speaks to a bigger problem that has infected many Catholic colleges and universities, and in fact almost all liberal institutions throughout the U.S. today. It isn’t just progressive gender language on an application. Or any one of the various progressive worldviews that many of these Catholic universities immerse themselves in — postmodernism, postcolonialism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, critical race theory, intersectionality, and the like. But it’s the combination, and the intensity of these viewpoints, that need to be challenged, questioned, and countered with the foundational principles of our Catholic institutions — truth.
St. Augustine may not have said that truth was like a lion that can defend itself. But, of course, truth often does need defending. So we need to wake up and speak out. The endgame to progressive ideologies is to destroy. And we’ve already seen signs of destruction as ideologies have moved into the streets. This university was itself the victim of vandalism during this summer’s civil unrest. Statues on campus were damaged by rioters. Sadly, the school’s response was to simply remove the statues — in effect, to cancel itself.
But self-cancelling contributes to social tyranny and a sense of hopelessness, the opposite of the dignity and liberty God wants for us. “American liberalism is under siege. There is a new ideology vying to replace it,” wrote Bari Weiss in an October 14 essay for Tablet:
The new creed’s premise goes something like this: We are in a war in which the forces of justice and progress are arrayed against the forces of backwardness and oppression. And in a war, the normal rules of the game — due process; political compromise; the presumption of innocence; free speech; even reason itself — must be suspended. Indeed, those rules themselves were corrupt to begin with — designed, as they were, by dead white males in order to uphold their own power.
If it’s a war, people of faith will need to put on the armor of God and speak out against this new creed. Parents paying the bills and alumni giving the grants need to protect the institutions they love. We cannot simply wait for the school’s administrators to self-correct. Because they themselves are now the problem. As Ms. Weiss implored, we no longer have the luxury of asking “Can you believe?” “We should never be shocked that any ideology that makes war on…true and eternal values,” — our Judeo-Christian values — “will inevitably make war on us.”
On a personal note, I’m happy to report that my daughter is now a freshman at a Newman-approved college, and flourishing. I am grateful that she is being protected from 2020 in a bubble at a school where the true, the good, and the beautiful are embraced. I want that gift for more college students. But that can only happen if we start to wake up and speak out.
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