The long tradition of Catholic higher education is a substantive reality that is held in trust. Too often it has been squandered, sometimes irreparably. Yet “What We Hold in Trust” can serve as a guide for those who have hope of renewal and those who are thinking about new institutions.

What We Hold in Trust: Rediscovering the Purpose of Catholic Higher Education by Don J. Briel, Kenneth Goodpaster, and Michael J. Naughton (168 pages, CUA Press, 2021)

Another day, another right-wing fundamentalist Catholic attack on American Catholic higher education.

Here’s one complaining that many Catholic universities “are putting their Catholic identity at risk—namely, by positioning and marketing themselves as part of the mainstream liberal-progressive realm of higher education.” Not only that, but our commentator hits all the predictable notes about evil motives, accusing the leadership of such institutions of being “suspicious of any Catholic institutionalism,” of rejecting Pope John Paul II’s 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and having “been too accommodating of the identity politics that have taken root since the 1960s,” while tying itself “too closely… to a vision of Catholic higher education laid out more than fifty years ago in the Land O’ Lakes Statement, which is showing its age.” He notes that it is not just that the idea that Catholic colleges and universities “must teach faith across disciplines” is now abandoned and, in many cases, forbidden, but even in disciplines in which faith is the main subject: “[d]oing theology in, with, and for the Church, as well as for the broader world, has become controversial not only for non-theological faculty, but also sometimes for theology and religious studies departments on Catholic campuses.”

Is this the work of some impertinent homeschooler or senior citizen longing for a mythical Bing Crosby 1950s? Oh, wait. That’s no rad-trad Catholic LARPer speaking. It’s my former St. Thomas colleague Massimo Faggioli, a liberal church historian and commentator now perched at once-deeply-Augustinian-but-now-woke Villanova University. He was writing in Commonweal earlier this spring about the ominous trends that Catholic universities are losing students, running deficits, cutting staff, and dumping liberal arts departments even unto the theology and religious studies departments in which people, such as Professor Faggioli, find gainful employment. His article, “Identity Crisis: We can’t lose the ‘Catholic’ university,” is noteworthy for its long overdue recognition that Catholic universities are both secularizing at an alarming rate and starting to evaporate, but also that these two facts are somehow connected.[1]

Not to put a damper on an already depressing article, but Professor Faggioli doesn’t even cite the already declining numbers of American four-year Catholic institutions. From 1968 to 2021, according to The Newman Idea’s David Delio, who has studied this crisis, nearly a quarter (57 out of 243) of four-year Catholic colleges and universities have closed or been consolidated. The coming demographic cliff of 2026 will no doubt end a great many more.

Professor Faggioli’s lament is incomplete, however, in that he seems to see what’s happening now but does not want to admit the role of Catholic liberals in this affair. One notes the scare quotes around the word Catholic in the subtitle. This might be a tip-off to the real misunderstanding. Take a look at this sentence: “Now, despite the fact that the faith perspective on mainstream Catholic campuses tends to be articulated, thanks to Vatican II, in ecumenical, interreligious, inclusive, and non-proselytizing terms, that faith perspective has become controversial (not in statements, but in deeds) as a driver of overall educational mission.”

“Despite”? How about “because”? If your faith perspective can be completely communicated in a way that only stresses what people of all religions and none agree with, and you make it clear that you are not asking anybody to join you in your faith (much of which, especially all that sexual morality business, you hasten to inform people, is outdated, patriarchal, and probably unjust), it’s a safe bet that eventually somebody is going to start asking questions that run something like the following: “Why do we need a theology or religious studies department? Even they say they’re just doing stuff that can be done in philosophy, history, English, and sociology by people of any faith and none.”

Or: “Even they admit that ‘official’ Catholic teaching doesn’t need to be—and shouldn’t be!—followed on all the hot-button issues of the day; why are we allowing people to express these opinions on our campus? Why are we allowing Catholics to promote any kind of Catholicism when they themselves admit the official Church is so intolerant?”

The secular progressives are a bit more logical than the religious progressives are. The liberal-progressive Catholic university will eventually seem redundant to many and offensive to those who have a formed worldview of a religious or secular variety.

For those who are working in Catholic institutions that have not completely gone down the path whose end-point, if not logic, Professor Faggioli laments, Catholic University of America Press has a new volume out on the nature of a Catholic (no scare quotes) university and the practical steps that must be taken to keep it Catholic and strengthen it.

What We Hold in Trust is a pocket-sized brief volume (160 pages) ideal for, as its subtitle indicates, Rediscovering the Purpose of Catholic Higher Education. The authors have a wealth of knowledge and experience. My late St. Thomas colleague Don J. Briel, the principal founder of the Catholic Studies program in which I teach, began this volume with two other colleagues who completed it: Ken Goodpaster, a philosopher who helped develop the business ethics curriculum at Harvard Business School before taking an endowed chair in business ethics here, and Michael Naughton, who succeeded Briel as the Director of the Center for Catholic Studies.

The introduction, “The Need for Roots,” addresses the main problem of Catholic institutions: a lack of connection both to the 2000-year-old Catholic tradition and to reality as a whole because of the loss of understanding of the need for education to be contemplative (or, in older language, liberal) before it is practical. The four main chapters treat, respectively, 1) the core purpose of the Catholic university, 2) the history of Catholic higher education, 3) the problem of “teleopathy,” or substitution of secondary goals for primary, and 4) concrete steps to make the Catholic institution run. The epilogue is an “examination of conscience” for those in authority at Catholic universities.

The first chapter argues that the purpose of a university can only be discovered when two principles are acknowledged and integrated into every aspect of the university: the unity of knowledge and the complementarity of faith and reason. Only with these two principles acting together can a university have an integrating vision—and thus assist its students in gaining wisdom. Indeed, the principle of the unity of knowledge is dependent on the complementarity of faith and reason, for only a vision that includes God can really put all of knowledge in one basket. Whereas for John Henry Newman all of knowledge formed a kind of circle with religious and philosophical matters running irregularly through and around all the other subjects, modern universities, having abandoned theological and philosophical questions as central, have very little uniting them. Hence the modern “multiversity” with its continuing hyper-specialization of scholarship and a focus on technocratic, practical, and career matters. As the authors note, quoting the late Chicago Cardinal Francis George, a university without an integrating vision is just a “high-class trade school.”

And yet, as Newman would have observed, humans have an irresistible urge to make sense of their lives and to focus on moral questions. When universities abandon the philosophical and theological questions in favor of a “value-free” world of factual questions about “how” and not normative questions of “whether,” what happens is not the disappearance of normative judgments: “Instead, they reappear in an undisciplined and unaccountable fashion within the ‘value free’ spaces of the social and natural sciences, as well as in the policy making of administrators.” Having exorcised the specter of theological authority and Catholic teaching, too many institutions have replaced them with political correctness and speech codes, often brought about through “administrative fiat” in the name of politicized versions of “social justice” or “diversity.”

The authors do not discount either professional education or actual social justice and diversity. Newman himself had professional education in his university, and an emphasis on social justice (as understood by the Catholic social tradition), and even racial and ethnic diversity, can enrich education. Alas, in putting versions of these aspects first—even properly understood—universities end up making them useless or dangerous.

This is indeed what has happened with Catholic education, as the second brief chapter details. The problem did not just begin with the 1960s but had its origins in the medieval debates about knowledge and the Renaissance and Reformation tendencies to downplay the importance of faith and reason respectively. While American Catholic universities were able to thrive amid the problems of the twentieth century, due in large part to the intellectual centrality of the Thomistic revival’s way of synthesizing knowledge (though they do not mention it, a key historical text that would have helped put flesh on this period is Philip Gleason’s Contending for Modernity, which highlighted the effectiveness even amid the limitations of this tradition), the post-Vatican II abandonment of Thomism at most levels has not been replaced by any other theological or philosophical organizing principle. The result is that Catholic universities, like most Protestant universities, clung to a secularized version of liberal philosophy ostensibly focused on “autonomy” that has now yielded to “an illiberal liberalism in the university.” Exit stage right the free speech movement of the late 1960s, and enter stage left “‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ that simultaneously insulate students from debate and promote a fierce agenda of victimization and of groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation as well as on equality of outcome, sexual self-creationism, and other modern ideologies.”

Once vibrantly Catholic schools, such as Professor Faggioli’s Villanova, are advanced in this process, as a 2019 Wall Street Journal article by former faculty members, James Matthew Wilson and Colleen Sheahan, indicated. They revealed that student course and instructor evaluation questionnaires were now asking not only “about the intellectual worth of the course and the quality of instruction” but also “heavily politicized questions such as whether the instructor has demonstrated ‘cultural awareness’ or created an ‘environment free of bias based on individual differences or social identities.’” As the ads say, however, “that’s not all!”

In short, students are being asked to rate professors according to their perceived agreement with progressive political opinion on bias and identity. Students are also invited to “comment on the instructor’s sensitivity to the diversity of the students in the class.” Professors are rated on their “sensitivity” to a student’s “biological sex, disability, gender identity, national origin, political viewpoint, race/ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.” The “etc.” in particular seems like an ominous catchall, as if the sole principle of sound teaching has become “that no student shall be offended.”[2]

Alas, Villanova is not an outlier. They, like too many institutions, suffer from the third chapter’s subject, “teleopathy,” by which the authors mean the assignment of “ultimate importance” to “limited goals.” This happens in a three-stage process in which an institution 1) becomes fixated on some secondary goal, 2) rationalizes and starts to articulate its mission in terms of this goal, and 3) allows that limited goal to detach the university from the mainline of its tradition. Briel, Goodpaster, and Naughton make clear, as they did in the second chapter, that secondary does not mean “unimportant.” It does, however, mean that these concepts—whether they be social justice or diversity or professional education—can only properly play their part in a Catholic university education when they are understood within the whole Catholic tradition. Therein lies the problem, however, for in a secularizing society what can be taken for granted as shared intellectual and moral territory grows smaller and smaller. Most Catholic universities will emphasize some truncated and generic version of Catholic Social Teaching that eventually either becomes empty sloganeering to be repeated and put on mugs for the segment of the university community just interested in jobs or completely assimilated to some other ideology for another part. What’s interesting is that this move is usually done in the name of “pluralism” and “inclusivity,” yet results in “less—not more—pluralism.” What wins is, as Professor Faggioli has discovered, what the authors describe as “slavish conformity and intense intolerance of contrary opinions.” Even the opinions of hip liberal European-born theologians.

Briel, Goodpaster, and Naughton boldly note that “Catholic doctrines, such as the Logos for example, are not arbitrary prejudices or accidental opinions for the Catholic university’s intellectual project; they are foundational in a manner analogous to fundamental principles in the secular sciences.” I like the touch of that “such as” for the doctrine of the Logos—usually translated “Word” but also meaning “rational speech” and ultimately referring to the second person of the Trinity. The notion of the Logos as principle of creation is, of course, an Old Testament-based concept and was developed in the period before Christ, but the notion that God himself is ultimately rational, and not pure will, adds something to the equation.

What many will want to know is what to do next. The fourth chapter on institutionalizing the insights of the first three is extremely useful. They emphasize the importance of hiring for both senior administrative leadership and faculty. One key insight is that search committees for presidents, vice presidents, and other high-level positions should be put together with an eye to what kind of qualifications such figures should have with regard to knowledge and support of the Catholic tradition. Too often neither the committees nor the headhunter firms engaged even think about this as a qualification. The authors also make the case for a solid majority of teaching faculty being Catholic, though they acknowledge that other Christians and even non-Christians can often be more supportive of the Catholic mission than can Catholics who have received the sacraments but do not, for whatever reason, have any interest in thinking with the Catholic tradition. A shorter section indicates the need to recruit trustees who have not only financial resources, business acumen, and political connections, but also a knowledge of what Catholic education is about.

What the authors add, which many other critics do not, is the need for continuing formation of faculty in thinking about Catholic tradition. Professors Goodpaster and Naughton have done intensive seminars on the Catholic intellectual tradition for faculty both at St. Thomas and at many other institutions.

What I found lacking in the book was any discussion of administrative structures and staff hiring. While hiring faculty and senior administrators is key, more thought has to go into both the continuing administrative bloat in institutions and the need to hire staff members who are supportive of the Catholic mission. While the medieval college and university were bodies of scholars and teachers, the modern college and university are now composed of a lot of people doing a lot of different things, many of them former scholars and some not scholars at all. They often have more say in the direction of the institution than do the faculty. Staff members generally control orientation (a student’s first introduction to the character and expectations of an institution), residence halls, a plethora of offices and programs (such as campus ministry, diversity training, Title IX, all manner of presentations), and clubs, and many students spend at least as much of their day on campus interacting with staff members as with professors and administrators. The authors no doubt believe that getting senior leadership and faculty right will change the direction of institutions, but thinking clearly about the role of non-faculty in the ethos of a Catholic university is essential.

Catholic colleges and universities are too often thought of as simply another cog in the higher education machine, a machine that can be put to whatever purposes those in them come up with. The authors believe otherwise. The long tradition of Catholic higher education is a substantive reality that is held in trust. Too often it has been squandered, sometimes irreparably. Yet there are institutions that can be renewed and there are institutions that can be created that not only allow Catholic thought on campus but also make it the beating heart of the institution. This book can serve as a guide for both those who have hope of renewal and those who are thinking about new institutions. It is a good guide to figuring out how to put first things first.

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[1] Massimo Faggioli, “Identity Crisis,” Commonweal Magazine (March 30, 2021).

[2] Colleen A. Sheehan and James Matthew Wilson, “A Mole Hunt for Diversity ‘Bias’ at Villanova,” Wall Street Journal (March 29, 2019).

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