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Catholic College and Universities: Books

Not dead just yet


By James Tunstead Burtchaell, CSC
William B. Eerdmans, 868 pages, $45 hardcover/$20 paper


Introduction by William J. Bennett
William B. Eerdmans, 672 pages, $25


“We are now blessed at Fordham by having no laymen on the faculty.” So wrote a correspondent in 1891 to Woodstock Letters, the in-house quarterly news-and-history magazine of the American Jesuits.

Things were simpler then. Fordham, a century later one of the American church’s largest universities, had in the 1890s -- including a high school and grammar school -- fewer than 300 students. Nearly all were obedient but occasionally restless Catholics; daily Mass and monthly Communion were the law; in May the cadet corps fired volleys in honor of the Queen of Heaven; and there were enough Jesuits to teach all the classes, conduct philosophy disputations in Latin, proctor the dormitories, supervise the study hall and dining room and take the boys on 20-mile walks on Thursdays.

Rather than being unique to the Catholic colleges, this order of the day was shared in many ways by Catholic and Protestant colleges throughout the 19th-century United States. Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and other denominations took it for granted that if the schools were to achieve the purpose of their founders -- that is, reinforcing the religious tenets of their denomination -- their students, faculty, presidents, boards should all profess the same faith both privately in their hearts and publicly in mandatory chapel, in classroom teaching, in the rituals of the academic year and in the legal statutes of the institution.

Then, like the first raindrop that precedes the devastating flood, one or another slight shift of emphasis or reinterpretation of an old rule starts the process that inexorably picks up speed and force till, today, the founders would never recognize the modern incarnation of their dream.

In The Dying of the Light, Holy Cross Fr. James Burtchaell, former provost and theology professor at Notre Dame, now a full-time writer at Princeton, treats us to an encyclopedic history of the secularization of American higher education, featuring 17 Protestant and Catholic colleges and universities. Though no one need read every page of this very, very long book, nearly every page is interesting. Religious educators who fail to ponder Burtchaell’s final analysis and the chapters about their own institutions will miss a chance to both rethink their own history and search their own souls.

At Dartmouth, founded as a Congregationalist college in 1769, William Jewett Tucker, a progressive who became president in 1881, made the chapel services, which the students used to disrupt, popular and memorable. He did so by making them an academic rather than religious exercise, by reducing Christian doctrine to “vapid humanism.”

At Beloit College in Wisconsin, which liked to call itself the “Yale of the West,” Edward Dwight Eaton, president from 1886 to 1918, “softened the curriculum with electives,” agreed to have no denominational requirement for faculty and trustees and to teach no denominational doctrines to students in exchange for money from the Carnegie Corporation. He substituted values like “manliness” for Christian virtues. The Congregationalist schools’ failure, says Burtchaell, was “pietism,” substituting heart religion for faith with a strong theological foundation.

At Lafayette, founded by Presbyterians in 1850, only half of the students came from Presbyterian families by 1889, and only a third considered themselves of that faith. In 1905, a clever and popular teacher, John Moffatt Mecklin, chair of the department of Mental and Moral Philosophy, made it clear in his lectures that he had no religious faith at all. The president forced his resignation, but the uproar over this “violation of academic freedom” led to the founding of the American Association of University Professors. The president, too, was forced to bail out.

In the 1960s and ’70s, when the college attempted to adopt a nondiscrimination policy for its fraternities, it discovered that in this “Presbyterian” school, Presbyterians were outnumbered by Catholics and Jews. Faculty members who were formerly required to be “dedicated to” the proposition that the “love of learning” was linked to the “love of God” were now asked only to be “sympathetic to” that idea. Obligatory chapel was whittled down to optional meetings -- the Rev. Al Sharpton, for example, speaking on Black History Month.

And so it goes for over 800 pages, through Baptists, Methodists, Evangelicals and Catholics.

The Dying of the Light focuses on three Catholic colleges long sponsored by teaching congregations -- the Christian Brothers’ St. Mary’s College in California; the Ursulines’ College of New Rochelle, N.Y.; and the Jesuits’ Boston College -- all of which began in the classical mode, specializing in the humanities and sciences, and ended up with a wide array of professional, job-oriented departments and schools. All three, because of a series of trauma in the 1960s, were threatened by economic collapse, suffered from weak or misguided leadership, but struggled to reshape themselves and survive.

Survive they did. They even prospered; but, says Burtchaell, at a terrible cost -- the loss of their original vision.

St. Mary’s, founded in the spirit of St. Jean-Baptiste de LaSalle, to teach the poor, now deals mostly with the middle class. Founded to teach Catholics, it was so swept up in the “diversity” and multicultural movement, accepting a $750,000 grant to “Celebrate Diversity,” that it cannot clearly celebrate the values basic to the school.

The Ursulines, built on the vision of St. Angela Merici, a contemporary of St. Ignatius Loyola, were determined in 1904 to make their ideal graduate “a woman of culture, of efficiency and of power.” Through the 1950s, the College of New Rochelle asserted its Catholicity and even purged three faculty members for suspected not-Catholic-enough views.

Fudging Catholic identity

By 1967, however, when declining enrollment pushed it toward bankruptcy, to be eligible for New York State funds, the administration did back flips to fudge its Catholic identity. To remarket itself to a broader population, it created a School of New Resources, gave “life experience” credit and hired moonlighting teachers to teach whatever would sell. As a result, today undergraduate women constitute only 7 percent of its students. As for religion, those seeking “a deepening of religious convictions,” will find at the college “a positive, accepting attitude.” They could also find that, says Burtchaell, a few miles away at West Point.

But Burtchaell saves his heaviest fire for the Jesuits, who at St. Louis University, Fordham and Boston College, in the late 1960s, in the spirit of the 1967 Land O’Lakes report, “The Idea of a Catholic University,” determined to reshape their institutions to match the academic standards of secular institutions -- including autonomy from any outside ecclesiastical control; academic freedom by the rules of the American Association of University Professors; and required publish-or-perish scholarship.

The slide down from classical Catholic liberal arts education began, allegedly, in 1935 when Boston College and Holy Cross, working secretly, dropped the Greek requirement for the A.B. degree. Boston College was multiplying itself, spreading like a blob in a sci-fi flic, tacking on a School of Education, a School of Nursing, all kinds of professional, money-making programs. Then, in 1958, it even dropped Latin! The final collapse: In 1971, the required philosophy courses sank to two!

The heart of Burtchaell’s argument: The Jesuit presidents, who saw themselves as professional educators rather than pawns to be moved every three years by religious superiors, conspired to free themselves not just of Vatican and chancery interference but from the authority of their own provincials.

In the face of declining Jesuit manpower -- as younger Jesuits either left the society or preferred pastoral work to getting a doctorate; and as some veteran Jesuits lacked the publishing credentials to win tenure -- Walsh’s theory was that less could be more. He thought “15 good scholar-teacher” Jesuits were enough to leaven a hundred lay faculty. A daunting task today, says Burtchaell, when at Boston College there are 623 regular faculty, of whom only 20 or 30 percent are Catholic. There are several Jesuits in only philosophy and theology, and a few scattered in other departments. Boston College is thus paying the price for its uncontrolled 1960s expansion, which it could not staff.

Under Walsh’s successor, Jesuit Fr. Donald Monan, Boston College’s Jesuit presence shriveled into a “strategic hamlet” mode, a cadre of (by my catalog count, about 47) Jesuits who are “present at” the university rather than setting its tone. Burtchaell mercilessly, sardonically quotes the various goal statements -- from several sides of a split Jesuit community -- which, with vague puffery like “tradition,” “roots” and “Judeo-Christian values,” rather than, say, “Jesus,” try to put a happy face on a lost cause.

Why has the light died?

In Protestant and Catholic schools alike, why has the light died? According to Burtchaell: the leaders lost their nerve. They turned to, and sold themselves to alumni, corporate, and state sources of funding. Ambitious presidents separated themselves from church authorities. Faculty gave their loyalty to the professional scholarly associations, lost interest in their college’s character. To make money, the schools diversified, rather than center on the humanities, which they know how to teach. Foolishly, fleeing the authority of Rome, they knuckled under to the authority of the state, which deprived them of whatever made them distinctive. Meanwhile, Catholics flooded into Dartmouth, Beloit and Lafayette, forcing them to accommodate their chapel requirements for the newly diverse student population. At Protestant schools, intellectual theology declined, citizenship replaced God; at Catholic schools, religious studies replaced theology. Finally, the church, the life-giving source of historical continuity, was pushed aside. Everywhere, in place of Christ -- “caring.”

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, in its Choosing the Right College, purports to save students from this debacle by evaluating 100 schools that might provide a conservative curriculum and atmosphere for a “right-thinking” student. Only four of Light’s schools appear in Right. Only six on Right’s list are Catholic.

Conservatives leaning toward Boston College will be glad to learn that the new president, Jesuit Fr. William Leahy, refused to be pushed around by both gay demonstrators who demanded recognition for their club and the basketball coach who tried to palm off two academically substandard recruits. Those leaning toward Georgetown will see that, while a hot school for Capitol Hill types, the university is facing up to its “diminished intellectual stature and diluted Catholic vision.” Holy Cross, the unnamed authors say, has replaced Cardinal John Henry Newman’s “Idea of the University” with a “simplistic program of tolerance and social justice.” It praises the history and classics departments but brands religious studies and sociology as the “most politicized” on campus -- meaning that their politics are insufficiently “right.”

On the other hand, Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio, often touted as the Platonic ideal of the “real,” “orthodox” Catholic college, comes across as a pious pile of mediocrity. Although charismatics set the dominant religious atmosphere, academically there’s no core curriculum; like the schools Burtchaell lambastes, it’s a collection of professional money-raising programs; faculty get tenure whether they’re scholars or not. “It’s almost a four-year retreat.”

What do we say about Burtchaell’s book and its indictment? First we thank him for this prodigious work of scholarship, where the footnotes are often as illuminating as the text, and for intelligently challenging the accepted liberal wisdom. Educated at Fordham in the 1950s and having taught and/or served as dean at Fordham, Rockhurst, Holy Cross, St. Peter’s College and Loyola New Orleans, and having lived at Catholic schools, I have witnessed and, to some degree, suffered from the process he describes.

Assessment is just plain wrong

But his final assessment -- that the “light” is dying or dead -- is just plain wrong.

Burtchaell writes as if religious colleges existed on islands in the Caribbean or on Starship Enterprise, immune from the tug and pull of history and culture. Along with Vatican II’s requirement that religious orders reconsider their constitutions, the demands Sputnik put on science education, the sexual revolution, the burst in the college-age population that triggered the 1960s revolt, the emergence of the social sciences as ethical weathervanes, the loss of faith in all institutions precipitated by the folly of Vietnam and the crimes of Watergate did more to transform all universities than a college president’s “failure of nerve,” or silly use of hogwash to puff up a hollow mission statement.

Most important, the presidents were right when, in spite of powerful and bitter opposition within their own religious communities, they demanded the same scholarly standards from religious and lay faculty alike, and determined that piety was no substitute for a real intellectual life, with full freedom to pursue the truth wherever it may lead.

Schools that do not demand faculty scholarship and don’t promote an atmosphere of free discussion court -- embrace -- third-rate status.

He is right in his theme that Catholic colleges should formally search for and prefer to hire new faculty who are Catholics, or those of other faiths who have studied and share the school’s religious vision -- rather than passively accepting applicants who mumble vaguely, “I can live with that.”

Whatever the chaos these changes have brought, many of us who lived through them would say that, in the context of their times, the colleges are as “Catholic” as they have ever been and intellectually better than ever.

Burtchaell declines to offer an alternative to the tragedy he depicts; yet his logic seems to be that true Catholic colleges should be a little more like Fordham in the 1890s, when everything was -- or seemed -- a lot more clear. Perhaps he would be happy at Thomas Aquinas College in California. The curriculum is four years of Great Books. There are no electives or majors. Faculty are not “professors” but “tutors.” Except for pro-life work, activism is discouraged. “Formal dress” is required at chapel, in class, dining hall and library. Students may not chew gum, eat or drink in class.

The college has 220 students.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, assistant dean of Fordham College, Rose Hill Campus, also teaches writing. He allows no gum-chewing, eating, late papers, the wearing of hats or the packing of one’s books before the end of class.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998