The Elusive Idea of a Catholic University

By Curran, Charles E. | National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Elusive Idea of a Catholic University


Curran, Charles E., National Catholic Reporter


What does it mean to be a Catholic college or university? Catholic colleges in the United States have been struggling with this question for the past 30 years, but the question remains and the problem is becoming even more acute.

The background

Why the problem? Institutional, historical and cultural changes have raised the issue, but at the very minimum the identity of the Catholic college must be seen in the context of broader identity questions.

American higher education itself today cannot agree about its own identity and purpose. Postmodernism has challenged the understanding of higher education generally accepted in the earlier part of this century with its emphasis on the autonomy and capability of human reason, value-free objective knowledge and human progress through the developments of science and technology.

The rise of diversity and pluralism has challenged an older understanding of American higher education. Deep divisions exist within many departments in our colleges and universities about the very nature of the discipline and the proper methodological approaches to be used. Most institutions find it harder and harder to find agreement on curriculum. Power struggles are omnipresent on our campuses.

The Catholic church itself is also experiencing an identity problem. The divisions within the church over issues of sexuality and authority are well-known. Many Catholic women today, for example, find it increasingly difficult to be committed to the Catholic church with its present understanding of the role of women. Many other women remain committed and involved but determined to bring about change in the institution.

On the other hand, some Catholics have been upset with the extent of change within their church and are unwilling to support any further developments. Thus, many Catholics have come to their own modus vivendi with the church at the present time, but such differences make it very difficult for the total church to act in a particular way or to agree on an understanding of what is church.

Experiential and anecdotal evidence supports the contention that Catholic academics and intellectuals are more turned off by the church today than other Catholics. Academics especially have difficulty with pronouncements such as the latest statement from the pope on the ordination of women. Relying not on reason or argument of any kind but solely on authority, the pope decreed that the ordination of women cannot even be discussed within the church. However, there are probably some Catholics on Catholic campuses who agree with the recent papal pronouncement.

Colleges and universities are not the only institutions that claim the title "Catholic." Catholic institutions are heavily involved in health care and also in social services usually under the umbrella of the Catholic Charities organization. But a significant difference exists with regard to Catholic colleges and universities.

Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities organizations are seen as a direct and immediate part of the pastoral mission of the church under the control of

the church hierarchy. Thus, for example, Catholic hospitals resist any pressure to do abortions because such procedures are against the Catholic hospital code of ethics.

Independent boards

In the United States today, almost all Catholic colleges and universities are independent of church authority. These colleges, run by independent boards of trustees, do not fall under the jurisdiction and direct control of a religious order or a bishop. This remarkable change in the structure of Catholic higher education came about very quickly in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This characteristic makes Catholic colleges different from all other Catholic institutions and raises special and distinct problems about the Catholic identity of these institutions of higher education. …

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