More than ten years ago, when I was still a Protestant, I attended a small, conservative Presbyterian church that met in a fire station in my native Northern Virginia. When Sunday evening services were finished, it was the congregation’s responsibility to put everything — chairs, tables, Bibles, hymnals — in a storage closet. Among those often doing these mundane but necessary tasks was an older, friendly couple. You would never have guessed the husband had once been a senior official in the George W. Bush administration, or had a very successful law career.
That man, Paul J. McNulty, is now president of Grove City College, a liberal arts college in northwest Pennsylvania. While not officially aligned with a Protestant denomination, Grove City College has historically been associated with Presbyterianism. Paul and his wife Brenda (who attended and met at the school in the late 1970s) recently hosted me and my eldest daughter at the college and gave us a private tour of the school.
As we walked the campus — and as Paul greeted every student, seemingly familiar with almost all of them — I caught myself thinking that perhaps there might be a few historically-Protestant colleges worth considering for my kids. In talking with friends and faculty across the country, I was able to put together this short list.
It’s not just that Grove City is currently enjoying excellent leadership (Paul told me that his primary ally in the school’s athletic conference for keeping the kids playing during the pandemic was Franciscan University in Steubenville). In addition, the school has a robust Catholic presence, and even notable Catholic alumni, including Scott Hahn. Grove City’s Newman Club, which is “dedicated to educating students of all faith traditions who are interested in the Catholic faith,” was ranked 28th best in the country this year.
Political science professor Paul Kengor is a prolific author on Catholic and conservative topics, including the recently published The Devil and Karl Marx. Protestant Bible scholar and religious studies professor Carl Trueman — whose writing has been featured in Catholic World Report, and whose recent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self has been favorably reviewed by Catholics, also teaches there.
The student body at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, is almost sixty percent Protestant (it was originally Baptist), but is also about twenty-five percent Catholic, and that Catholic cohort is very active. Bradley J. Birzer, a professor of history at Hillsdale, estimates that the percentage of faculty who are Catholics is comparable to that of the student body. Much of Hillsdale’s embrace of Catholics can be traced to the “very tolerant (Anglican) administration of Larry Arnn,” Birzer told Catholic World Report. “Larry is incredible, and his reign has been nothing but wonderful for Catholics. An excellent leader,” Birzer added.
Among the Catholic faculty include History professors Paul Moreno, Matt Gaetano, and Paul Rahe; English professors Stephen Smith, Dave Whalen and Benedict Whalen, and Dwight Lindley; and Philosophy professor Lee Cole. Joy Pullmann, executive editor of The Federalist, an alumnus of the school and a practicing Protestant, told CWR how grateful she was to be assigned readings by St. John Henry Newman in one of her Hillsdale courses. “Chesterton and Tolkien are almost saints there among the professors and students,” she noted.
There is also a strong Newman Center and Catholic Society at the school, and last year eighteen students entered the Church, according to the National Catholic Register. Birzer notes the parish priest Father David Reamsnyder (Anglican ordinariate) is also excellent. The university’s new chapel, lauded by Catholic writer Roger Kimball, is a testament to the school’s commitment to the ancient and venerable architectural and aesthetic traditions of Christianity.
Another Michigan-based Protestant school with strong Catholic credentials is Hope College, located in the town of Holland and affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. Hope College has a statement of “Christian Aspirations” that are intended to be ecumenical and even invoke the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions approvingly as branches of the “historic Christian faith.” The school also hosts the Saint Benedict Institute, a Catholic spiritual and intellectual center led by founder and executive director Jared Ortiz, who teaches Catholic theology in the Department of Religion (and is a regular contributor to CWR). However, SBI is not a Hope entity, but rather an apostolate of the local parish, and is completely responsible to our bishop (Bishop of Grand Rapids, Most Reverend David J. Walkowiak, J.C.D.).
There is also a Dominican priest serving the Hope College community full-time, according to Jack Mulder Jr., the chair of the college’s Department of Philosophy, a Catholic convert, and co-founder of the Saint Benedict Institute author of What Does It Mean To Be Catholic? “Catholics now form the largest single formal body of Christians from which Hope students hail (usually around 20%),” he told CWR. “I never seriously doubt that the Catholic faith is welcome on campus by those who make real decisions… I have been blessed to be a part of an institution that seems to want genuine ecumenism within which committed Catholics are welcome” Mulder added.
Whitworth University, in Spokane, Washington, has more orthodox Catholics on faculty than does many nominally Catholic academic institutions. These include East Asia specialist Anthony E. Clark and his wife Amanda Clark, a Dean and head of the university’s library. “When I was hired,” Anthony told CWR, “the university president said to me, ‘We want Catholic professors who believe in their faith and can contribute an authentic Catholic view on campus.’ That helped me decide to accept the position.” Two of four Whitworth history professors are Catholic, and they welcome Catholic students into offices with crucifixes and rosaries. Whitworth’s Catholic chaplain regularly hears confessions on campus and provides opportunities for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the student union. About 8% of the university’s student 2021 population is Catholic, up from 6% in 2020.
Baylor University in Waco, Texas— the world’s largest Baptist university — also has a strong Catholic population. About 16% of students and 12% of employees at Baylor are Catholic. The Baylor Catholic Student Association was the first non-Baptist religious organization to be formed at Baylor University since its establishment in 1845. The St. Peter Catholic Student Center at Baylor also has a variety of ministries and two-full-time priests.
Another Protestant higher education institution with a strong Catholic presence (or Newman Centers or Catholic student associations) is Bethel University in Mishawaka, Indiana. Bethel is one of only a few members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCL) that will hire Catholic faculty, according to professor of nursing and a practicing Catholic Rick Becker, “By doing this, Bethel is trying to live out this ecumenism,” Becker noted.
Yet another is Pepperdine University in Malibu, California — of 3,200 students, about 600 are Catholic. The Nova Forum for Catholic Thought — an initiative of the Roman Catholic community at USC in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles — partners with Pepperdine, provides students with programs for intellectual formation in Catholic thought.
Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia aims to foster a biblical worldview while preparing students for statesmanship responsibilities, with a “fidelity to the spirit of the American founding.” The school, a proud beacon of conservative political philosophy, also has one of the best forensics programs in the nation. Though predominantly Protestant, there is an active Catholic student population. According to one student interviewed for The American Conservative, the school talks “about Aquinas and Plato as much as we talk about scriptures.”
Of course, there are many great Catholic schools that offer a rigorous academic curriculum coupled with an authentically Catholic experience. A short list includes: Christendom College, Ave Maria University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Thomas Aquinas College, Catholic University, St. Louis University, University of Dallas, Mt. Saint Mary’s University, Benedictine College, Belmont Abbey College, Wyoming Catholic, and University of St. Thomas Houston. Many of these can be found on The Newman Society’s website, which maintains a list of recommended Catholic colleges for interested parents and prospective students.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of non-Catholic, historically or explicitly Protestant colleges and universities that can offer many of the same educational opportunities. Some of these schools have specific departments or individual faculty members worth the price of admission. I’d be especially excited to send my children to Hillsdale, whose faculty have been at the forefront of combatting attacks on constitutionalism and conservatism (President Larry Arnn was one of the foremost academics behind the 1776 Project). If a student or parent desires a classical, conservative, or devoutly Christian academic experience, there are Protestants schools where Catholics are thriving, and to which parents can feel good about sending their children.
As a young man, I got the impression from friends and fellow Presbyterian seminarians that Grove City College was a sort of mecca for those desirous of an authentically Calvinist collegiate experience. It seems to remain so. Nevertheless, Paul and Brenda McNulty — and their impressive and humble servant-leadership approach — persuaded me that Grove City is the kind of place where Catholics are welcome and able to thrive. In a time when even many Catholic institutions of higher-learning are struggling to achieve that essential objective, that’s saying something. Lord knows that when so much of secular (and even Catholic) academia has succumbed to the new religion of progressivism and wokeness, and so many liberal arts programs are un-educating our children, faithful Catholics need as many allies as we can find.
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