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Catholic options at traditionally Protestant colleges and universities

A notable number of historically or explicitly Protestant colleges and universities offer both excellent educational opportunities and robust Catholic fellowship and support.

(Image: j zamora | Unsplash.com)

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.

Grove City College

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.

Hillsdale College

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.

Hope College

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

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

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.

Bethel University

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.

Pepperdine University

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

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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About Casey Chalk 17 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.

14 Comments

  1. Surely the relativism in this article is not intentional, but the reality is that feeding Catholics the impression that there is something comparable or equivalent in Protestant education to a faithful Catholic education is terribly misleading. To the extent that some of these institutions press a Protestant theology and worldview, they are dangerous to young Catholics. There is so much that can be found at faithful Catholic colleges, why even look at these places? The reasons, I suspect, have nothing to do with finding a better and truthful education, but instead are the same reasons that lead Catholics to secular and (worse) secularized Catholic colleges (location, career ambition, politics, lack of interest in truly Catholic formation). Most important, the education at these institutions is fundamentally flawed for its denial of core truths about man and God — truths that are embraced only at faithfully Catholic institutions. See NewmanGuide.com.

    • As a professor at one of the Catholic universities mentioned in this article, I could not disagree with you more. I know many Catholic professors who teach at non-denominational or even overtly Protestant colleges and universities. Often they do so because they can teach more openly as believing Catholics in these settings than they could at nominally Catholic institutions. Moreover, Catholic universities – even “orthodox” ones – hire a lot of faculty who neither understand nor support the Catholic mission of the institution. From the perspective of the student and his family, there is also an enormous cost factor. Both Grove City College and Hillsdale, for example, are far more affordable than some of the Catholic colleges mentioned in this article, because they have a deeper scholarship base and offer much more in the way of financial aid. Finally, these two institutions do not accept any federal dollars and this has a very important liberating impact on the administration of the schools. Lastly, I would point out that large Catholic families have very few Catholic options for the education of their children. Without a tuition waiver, the faculty at my Catholic institution could never afford to send our children to the school. State schools and community colleges are normally the best and only feasible option financially. Coupled with a solid Newman Center, a student can still receive a decent education in a public institution.

    • I strongly disagree with this comment. As a lifelong Catholic, I attended a faith-based Presbyterian liberal arts college. A course on the historical Jesus taught by a Protestant professor helped to blossom and deeply enrich my Catholic faith. God speaks to each of us in different ways, and as long as a student can find a college Catholic community to balance education in the faith, then I feel that much can be gained by engaging those with other perspectives. Or else should we only interact with those who believe exactly like us?

    • Patrick – while I agree that colleges on the Newman Society’s list and the list from the National Catholic Register should be the first place people look for college, the truth is there currently isn’t enough room for all faithful Catholics can’t attend just those schools.

      Plus, undergraduates can’t be our only concern (yes, I know your group is focused on the undergraduate level only). We need to support and help GOOD Catholic Newman Centers & communities to flourish at non-Catholic schools (whether non-denominational Christian or public).

      Good Newman Centers provide not just Mass, but continuing faith formation for students, reinforce Catholic values, sponsor Catholic speakers, engage in evangelical & apologetic activities to non-Catholics and fallen away Catholics, support the creation and activities of Catholic Faculty organizations, support Catholic seminars, and even provide Catholic dorms or help students to find faithful Catholics to live with.

      While I totally support the mission of the Cardinal Newman Society, we also need to help establish strong & orthodox Catholic ministries on non-Catholic campuses because unfortunately, it’s going to be a while before the heretics running many “Catholic” colleges are replaced by people who put the faith first.

      God Bless

  2. I think the author might be contemplating the achieving of a toehold the the ever challenging environment of decreasing tolerance for an open study of civilization. I don’t believe any Hillsdale College professor, Catholic or not, would blaspheme the the Mother of God in the fashion on the “emancipated” English Department of the Franciscan University of Steubenville ( Isn’t that on the Newman good guy list?), nor can I honestly imagine the Hillsdale administration or student body behaving in the manner of the denizens of the Dominican Providence College as recently testified to by a well known Catholic author. Yes, ideally one should be looking for a Catholic College to foster their faith in learning, but I think the day is well spent and the laborers are wanting so going to the crossroads may help.

  3. I agree with Patrick above. Why support Protestant (or poorly rated Catholic) schools?

    There is much anti-Catholic bias on many good quality Christian campuses. There is also a social danger: many young people meet their future spouses in college. The chances of marrying in the faith become drastically reduced.

  4. Very interesting article and comments. I am reminded of a quote from Bishop Sheen in the 1970’s – ” I tell all my friends and relatives to send their children to public colleges and universities where they will be forced to defend their faith, rather than to Catholic ones where their faith will be taken from them.”
    I graduated from a Jesuit university in the 60’s. I would not recommend it for my grandchildren.

  5. My son is currently attending Notre Dame and one of the greatest joys of his life this past semester was the ability to attend the Iron Sharpens Iron weekly fellowship on campus. The ministry features dialogue and common worship among Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics and is open to students of UND, St. Mary’s and Holy Cross. I asked him what was the attraction and he said a genuine love for Jesus and willingness to live in the Holy Spirit which transcends ideological differences. It’s a shame that “We are One in the Spirit” is not a Catholic approved song because as a former Baptist I thought it was prophetic, especially now, in a time in which we should be united against the ‘Woke’ existential threat to Christianity in the U.S. Who knows maybe this whole historical episode is God’s plan refine and unite; “We are One in the spirit we are One in the Lord…and we pray that our unity may one day be restored”. Maybe?

  6. Thank you for this excellent article. I’d like to share our family’s experience with Hillsdale College.

    One of our first impressions of Hillsdale: it’s surprisingly affordable for families who don’t qualify for federal aid but don’t make enough to pay for college outright. Hillsdale offered a generous combination of scholarships, grants and loans, and worked with us when that wasn’t enough.

    Hillsdale was my son’s second choice after one of the exceptional Catholic colleges listed above. But what a great choice it turned out to be. For four years he immersed himself in the great books of Western Civilization, indulging his love for Greek and Hebrew and enjoying a first rate music program as well. Small classes made for engaging discussions both in the classroom and beyond. His faith was supported by a strong Catholic community including the Hillsdale Catholic Society and a group of devout Catholic professors and faculty. On Sundays, faculty and students packed St. Anthony’s parish in Hillsdale. I was moved by the beautiful sung Latin at St. Anthony’s when we visited, joined by a chorus of babies –always a sign of a vibrant parish.

    Our son made lifelong, close friends at Hillsdale, both Catholic and Protestant. He witnessed many conversions and walked with friends as they traveled from Protestantism to Anglicanism or Eastern Orthodoxy, to Catholicism. In April 2020, 18 students were baptized or received into the Church. That’s remarkable.

    He graduated with an advantage over students at primarily Catholic colleges. Deep conversations with Calvinist and Lutheran friends gave him an unusual grasp of the various Protestant churches and what they believe. That’s a powerful tool for evangelizing, one that many Catholics lack.

    There is something beautiful and mysterious going on at Hillsdale, and it goes beyond tolerance, or a Catholic presence on campus. It’s no accident that David Whelan, a devout Catholic and for many years Hillsdale’s Provost, was himself a graduate of the famed Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. That Great Books program, which immersed students at a secular university in the good, the true and the beautiful, also resulted in an astounding number of conversions to the Catholic faith.

  7. I’d like to suggest an honourable mention to Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. Although Protestant in mission, it shares its campus with a Catholic seminary and students from across the Christian spectrum are welcome. Many American students choose TWU because, with the typically less valuable Canadian dollar and many financing programs, it’s more affordable than its American counterparts, but still easily accessed from throughout the USA. TWU is famous in Canada for advancing the cause of religious freedom in education – it has fought for the right to provide a traditional and Biblical Christian education in the Supreme Court of Canada, twice since 2000.

  8. If I might (somewhat self-servingly) add a school to your list, the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University (St Davids, PA), an evangelical school, has a significant number of both Roman Catholic and Orthodox students and faculty (Phil Cary writes regularly for “First Things”); students read not only Plato, Aristotle, but Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Pieper, O’Connor, and other Catholic authors, and there is a steady stream of converts from various evangelical backgrounds into the Catholic Church.

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