Today, there are only a handful of religious colleges and universities that stand fast against the cultural decline and moral laxity that shapes American society.

In the year 2000, I founded a for-profit Internet university and recruited scholars rooted in traditional scholarship to join what I described as “Conservative.” From the invasion of Europe by Napoleon and the forming of a “Progressive” movement in late 19th century, universities in Europe and the United States had become dominated by anti-traditional ideologies. I thought that my new venture would attract allies at the many religious colleges in American higher education, but what I found was a lack of commitment to the faith of their founders by many religious colleges.

Today, there are only a handful of religious colleges and universities that stand fast against the cultural decline and moral laxity that shapes American society. For that reason, in early March of last year, when I was invited to give a presentation about higher education to an organization of Catholic citizens in Chicago, I chose as my topic the decline of religious colleges. And since I was speaking to a Catholic audience, I focused on the decline of such Catholic colleges as the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, Loyola Marymount, Gonzaga, and Marquette. The commitment of all five to the magisterium of the Church has declined to the extent that concerned alumni have organized groups opposed to further decline.

My understanding of this social history is informed by two interesting books. The Dying of the Light by the late James Burtchaell published in 1998[1] and a newer history, From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker, by Russell Nieli, published in 2007.[2]

The Dying of the Light examines representative colleges founded by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics, and Evangelicals. When my reading progressed well into Chapter 6, titled “The Catholics,” I had to put the book aside. I had taught at the College of New Rochelle, a Catholic college where I earned academic tenure. Rev. Burtchaell’s description of the decline of that college was simply too depressing.

Russell Nieli’s little book, From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker, examines American colleges and universities from their founding in the 1800s. All had a distinct religious character. Dr. Nieli observes that the first colleges were started by Protestant Christian denominations whose goal was to pass on to students the moral, intellectual, and religious heritage of Christianity and the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans were dominant and were followed in the 19th and 20th centuries by Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations.

Later, Catholics became active, forming colleges for Catholic immigrants from Italy, and other southern and east European countries, including Poland. These early institutions today are far removed from the ecclesiastical influences that shaped them as Christian institutions inspired by clerics and evangelists.

Among the institutions cited by Dr. Nieli are:

Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth—founded by New England Congregationalists

Princeton—“New Light” Presbyterian

William and Mary, Columbia and Penn—founded by English Episcopalians

Boston University; Northwestern Southern California, Syracuse, Vanderbilt—Wesleyan Methodist

Brown and the University of Chicago—founded by northern Baptists

Georgetown, Fordham, and Notre Dame—founded by Catholics.[3]

Even public colleges, Dr. Nieli observes, reflected the values of Protestant Christianity. These influences shaped the character and curriculum with compulsory morning Chapel and afternoon Matins, and courses that emphasized classical languages (Greek and Latin), Bible studies, and the ancient Greek and Latin authors. Instructors were ordained clergy who were expected to teach a range of courses. The entire program of these institutions was dedicated to the service of Christ and the furtherance of moral and spiritual purposes.

During the 200 years between the European New England settlement of America and the American Civil War, Christian—that is, Protestant—education sought to combine the best in secular learning with the spiritual truths of the Bible. They were open to secular science and critical of the Catholic Church for its persecution of Galileo.

A turning point occurred with the American Civil War which, coupled with publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, shattered this worldview. The Bible’s explanation of Creation was challenged, and the brutality of the Civil War lessened Christian belief in a benevolent God. Also important, but little examined, American Transcendentalism imported German Idealism to America and the Idealist view that man was essentially divine, thus challenging the Christian view of mortal man shaped in the image of God.

Many university scholars began studying in Germany, and they clamored to adopt the practice of German research universities. Degree Programs and numbers of faculty were expanded and the concept of the unity of knowledge was challenged by academic specialization. In the 1870s the “elective system” was gradually adopted and a common curriculum rejected.

Thus began what today we call “cafeteria style” education.

Dr. Nieli observes that education reformers “believed that it would be possible to combine the culture-and character-forming aspects of a Christian liberal arts college with the greater choice and opportunities it offered in a larger institution that conducted state-of-the art research. . . . But their hopes proved to be illusion. . .”

Gone were required chapel and the policy of hiring only committed Christians. Some scholars, including Irving Babbitt and John Erskine, were loudly critical, and Erskine introduced a core honors curriculum at Columbia University in the masterpieces of Western philosophy. That core curriculum remains today at Columbia and another at the University of Chicago was founded by Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins. That core Great Books curriculum has many imitators even today.

But, then came the 1960s, the Free Speech movement, the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and demands that required courses be abolished. That was followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by calls for multiculturalism to replace the emphasis on Western civilization.

American higher education had entered an era of globalism, multiculturalism, and identity studies. A changing America was one of the forces changing religious colleges, but also a dependency on U.S. government money was introduced by the Higher Education Act of 1965. According to “The Bennett Hypothesis,” announced in a New York Times OpEd by the U.S. Secretary of Education, William Bennett, “Increases in financial aid in recent years has enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuition, confident that Federal Loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.”[4]

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity estimated that over more than 30 years, between 1980 and 2012, college tuition increased 893% relative to an increase of 454% for healthcare and a 196% increase in the cost of food.[5]

Federal student loans increased to $1.292 billion in 2016 and the Wall Street Journal reported that at least half of students who borrowed to pay tuition defaulted on those loans or failed to pay down loan balances over seven years.[6]

By 2019 “Lending Tree” estimated that direct student loans total $1.1503 trillion carried by 34.2 million borrowers. Of those 34.2 million, 11.5% of student loans are 90 days or more delinquent or are in default.[7]

This is accompanied by a growing lack of political diversity of college faculty. Between 1995 and 2010, according to the online Heterodox Academy, “In the 15 years between 1995 and 2010 the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left.”[8]

Because in the Social Sciences and Humanities, the political orientation of most faculty is to the Left of center, even if required courses (dropped from most college curricula during the civil disturbances of the mid-1960s to early 1970s) returned, Leftist faculty would distort course content to suit their political disposition.

I made an unscientific review of which colleges continue a Western civilization core curriculum and came up with only 21 colleges.

Traditional Liberal Arts

Hillsdale College

Western Civilization Programs

Texas Tech University

University of Houston

Christian Liberal Arts Colleges

Ave Maria University

University of Dallas

Campion College (Australia)

Biola University

Regent University

Liberty University

Wyoming Catholic

St. Bonaventure

Carthage College

Great Books

College of the Arts and Sciences (Internet)

St. John’s College, Annapolis

St. John’s College, Santa Fe

Thomas Aquinas College

College of St. Thomas More

Gutenberg College

University of St. Thomas Mount

St. Mary’s University

Concordia University (Montreal, Canada)

This is a country with more than 3,000 colleges, so possibly as many as 2,900 may not be educating students in the history or culture of the West.

In light of this curricular decline, we should not be surprised that free speech has been challenged on many campuses and that many colleges have punished faculty who challenge the Politically Correct orthodoxy that dominates campus culture.

According to “Campus Reform,” an online project of The Leadership Institute, these same “Liberal” faculty donate exclusively to Democrat candidates.[9]

The loss of faith at Catholic colleges and universities where a theology of “Social Justice” has replaced Thomism is particularly grievous.

Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, “Rerum Novarum”[10] on the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” promulgated in 1891, introduced concepts that would soon have a profound effect on the nature of American Catholicism. This encyclical affirms the right to own private property and affirms that private property is based in sacred laws of nature. And it asserts that the main tenets of socialism are contrary to the natural rights of mankind.

That compels employers to duties that bind them to respect the dignity of workers. To misuse men as if they were “things,” Pope Leo XIII says, is shameful. Recognizing that, the Church maintains associations for the relief of poverty. The State also plays a role by assuring that the laws and institutions realize the public well-being and private prosperity. Inequalities of condition will always exist, but if morals are endangered by conditions in the workplace, if burdens placed on workers are unjust, and if health is endangered by excessive labor, it is right to seek the “aid and authority of the law.” A dictate of natural justice requires that wages be sufficient to support “a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.” And Catholics who seek to better the condition of the working man are worthy of praise.

Forty years later, in 1931, Pope Pius XI, issued the encyclical, “Quadragesimo Anno,”[11] that went far beyond the ministrations of Pope Leo XIII and affirmed concepts and ideas that intentionally rejected principles of economics that we associate with Adam Smith and free market capitalism.

Pius XI directly criticizes “individualism” and the Manchester school of economics and argues for an active government role in economic affairs. He objects to “inequality of wealth” and states the demands of “social justice.”

He relates social justice to the Common Good and argues [par. 109] that “free competition has destroyed itself; economic dictatorship has supplanted the free market; unbridled ambition for power has likewise succeeded greed for gain; all economic life has become tragically hard, inexorable and cruel.”

By giving prominence to the dictates of social justice, Pius XI in “Quadragesimo Anno” inadvertently opened the door to the decline of interest in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and its replacement by a theology of “Social Justice.” “Quadragesimo Anno” justified a transfer of focus of Catholic scholars from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of political and economic action.

That inclination to pursue salvation by means of political and economic action was reaffirmed on 15 May 1961 in Mater et magistra, the encyclical written by Pope John XXIII on the topic of “Christianity and Social Progress.” A new theology of Social Justice had been granted Papal blessings.

My thesis requires a complete book and, in fact, one has been written by Thomas Patrick Burke, The Concept Of Justice: Is Social Justice Just?[12]

Dr. Burke’s essay published in Modern Age, titled “The Origins of Social Justice: Taparelli d’ Azeglio,” adds detail to this movement away from the pursuit of truth to social action.[13]

That brings us to a Council of the Church, Vatican II, which met in 1962 about which Notre Dame Professor Ralph McInerny writes in What Went Wrong with Vatican II that Vatican II was not a “basis for the postconciliar view . . . that papal teaching can be legitimately rejected by Catholics.”[14]

Ralph McInerny observed that after Vatican II, American Catholics experienced a discontent that led to flight from the priesthood and the religious life, Liturgies that seemed bent on making the Mass a banal get-together and a drive for “excellence” displaced the teaching of Catholic doctrine.

As a graduate student at Notre Dame in 1965, I recall meeting a CSC novice at Notre Dame who told me that he wanted a secular education. Other students would ask, are we as good as Harvard? Today, that novice need not leave Notre Dame to receive a secular education and my response to students at Notre Dame who asked if Harvard was “better” was “Notre Dame is better than Harvard.”

At Vatican II, Pope John XXIII stated what he wanted the Council to accomplish:

The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.[15]

Unfortunately, I believe, the outcome of Vatican II was tilted in 1931 by Pope Pius XI—not toward the Magisterium—but to an aggressive “Social Justice.”

It gets worse.

I’ve read some pretty silly documents in my life, but the silliest is the Land O’ Lakes Conference of 1967 where some twenty-five leaders of Catholic education signed a document titled “The Idea of the Catholic University.”[16]

That document states that

  • the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind.
  • the Catholic university is a community of learners . . . in which Catholicism is perceptively present.
  • theological investigation today must serve the ecumenical goals of collaboration and unity.

That requires that “theological or philosophical imperialism” be absent and that the university should carry on “a continual examination of all aspects . . . of the Church” and “will deal with problems of greater human urgency.” The Land O’ Lakes statement asserts that “the intellectual campus of a Catholic university has no boundaries and no barriers. There must be no outlawed books.”

A Catholic university must be concerned with ultimate questions, interpersonal relationships, and pressing problems such as civil rights, peace, and poverty. Students can learn by personal experience to consecrate their talent and learning to worthy social purposes.

No mention is made of the obligation of a Catholic university to teach Church history or the Magisterium of the Church and orthodox doctrine, nor does the document spell out what may make up a truly Catholic curriculum. So, in the face of this abandonment of a Catholic education by all major Catholic colleges and universities, what can be done?

One limited attempt at reform was made by Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, promulgated on 15 August 1990. “From the Heart of the Church” holds that “every Catholic University, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics:”

  1.  A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such;
  2.  A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;
  3.  Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;
  4.  An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.[17]

This requires that “all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching. In particular, Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.”[18]

Though its effect was limited, Ex Corde Ecclesiae cleared the air. Today most “Catholic” colleges no longer qualify to call themselves “Catholic.” If founded by religious orders, they refer to themselves as Jesuit, Benedictine, or Dominican.

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Editor’s note: The featured image is University of Notre Dame’s God Quad by Michael Fernandesand is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.


[1] James Burtchaell, CSC, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 1998).

[2] Russell Nieli, From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker: The Transformation of Higher Education in America (Raleigh, NC: The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, 2007).

[3] Georgetown was not founded by Jesuits because on July 21, 1773, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus. Georgetown’s founding was in 1787.

[4] William Bennett, “Our Greedy Colleges,” The New York Times, February 18, 1987.

[5] Center For College Affordability (CFCA).

[6] Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2017.

[7] Student Loan Hero by Lending Tree.

[8] Heterodox Academy.

[9] Campus Reform.

[10] Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII On Capital and Labor

[11] Quadragesimo Anno: Encyclical of Pope Pius XI On Reconstruction of the Social Order to Our Venerable Brethren, the Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and Other Ordinaries in Peace and Communion with the Apostolic See, and Likewise to All the Faithful of the Catholic Word.

[12] Thomas Patrick Burke, The Concept Of Justice: Is Social Justice Just? (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[13] Thomas Patrick Burke, “The Origins of Social Justice: Taparelli d’ Azeglio,” Modern Age, Spring 2010, Vol. 52, No. 2.

[14] Ralph McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained by Ralph M. McInerney (Bedford, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1998).

[15] Ibid., p. 25.

[16] “The Idea of a Catholic University,” The Story of Notre Dame.

[17] Pt. I, Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on Catholic Universities, 17.

[18] Pt. II, The University Community, 50.

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