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Catholic Colleges and Universities

Models of Catholic studies

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Catholic studies programs, developed over the last decade to address concerns about Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities, are slowly making headway.

An estimated 25 to 30 among the nation’s approximately 230 Catholic colleges and universities have undergraduate Catholic studies programs in various stages of development.

Some, such as the one at Georgetown University in Washington, are floundering, while others thrive, such as the Catholic Studies Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. That center, though controversial among academics, is to date the largest and best funded in the country.

Typically, courses in Catholic studies programs are interdisciplinary and intended to build awareness of the intellectual history and tradition of the faith, not only incorporating theology, but also literature, culture and the arts. Some profess scholarly detachment; others unabashedly strive to help students become more prayerful Catholics.

“There is no one model that fits all,” Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale said in a telephone interview with NCR. Hinsdale, formerly of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., is the new director of the Center for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College. She took a sabbatical leave last year to visit several colleges and put together a “resource book” for Catholic studies programs.

Hinsdale is a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters, Monroe, Mich.

In a draft document of preliminary findings, she advises those considering or evaluating programs to pay careful attention to the funder or funding agency. “This will tell you a lot about the agenda,” she said. For universities, she advises against relying too heavily on individual donors. “The best strategy here, in my opinion, is to promote joint efforts and insist upon multiple funders whenever possible,” she wrote.


Her document can be found at a Holy Cross Web site:

Historian David O’Brien of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said when the Catholic studies movement sprang up a decade ago it was supported by conservatives who were leading the charge against inclusive language in the liturgy and church documents. Concerns bubbled up that the programs “might really be a stalking horse for the right-wing.” As it’s turned out, he said, most of the programs he knows “are pretty much middle-of-the-road.”

O’Brien helped secure funding for two national conferences on Catholic studies, one in 1997 at the University of St. Thomas, of which he was co-chairman, and the other last spring at John Carroll University in Cleveland. The conferences were co-sponsored by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Money for the conferences came from the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis and the Humanitas Foundation in New York, neither of which is considered slanted ideologically.

To be sure, some of the programs have a conservative cast, such as the one at the University of St. Thomas. Among other things, the program is reintroducing to a new generation such orthodox voices as British author G.K. Chesterton and Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who haven’t been read much on campuses since the 1950s. It’s an approach some academics said they find insufficiently critical, though none wanted to be quoted.

It is not clear, however, that St. Thomas’ program is bent to reflect the will of donors. The school has a target to raise a $10 million endowment, of which nearly $7 million has been donated by various sources, said Don Briel, who heads St. Thomas’s Center for Catholic Studies.

Asking where the money comes from “is a fair question to raise, but I also think it is misleading,” Briel said, because “the donors have a very little role in this.”

He acknowledged that $2.5 million came from a Minnesota family known as conservative Catholics, but the center also received $2 million from the estate of “a labor priest” and other many smaller gifts from other people.

The old conservative-liberal debate trivializes the issues and is of no interest to the younger generation, Briel said. They come to college “religiously and historically illiterate,” he said, and need to be more thoroughly grounded in the history and tradition of the church before jumping into debate on such modern issues as homosexuality, women priests or abortion.

Briel said a profile of students in Catholic studies showed that a strong number of them are concentrating in business. By engaging in Catholic studies, those students “are not just getting business ethics but a broader philosophy of work and issues of social justice. The program from the very beginning was broad and daring,” he said.

The university has 11,000 students, double the number 20 years ago. The school population is about evenly divided between undergraduate and graduate students.

Briel said 110 undergraduates are majoring and about 40 students are minoring in Catholic studies. Nine out of the 10 students in the program are taking a double major, such as business, pre-med, humanities and teaching.

A master’s program in Catholic studies is beginning in the fall, Briel said. It will have an international flavor. Applications have been received from London, Paris, Lisbon and elsewhere. It will be one of two master’s degree programs in the country. The other is offered by Loyola University in Chicago.

This fall, the University of Detroit Mercy is introducing a certificate program in Catholic studies that emphasizes the church’s social teachings. It is named for Jesuit Fr. Arthur McGovern, a deceased faculty member who was a strong advocate of liberation theology.

The university has received unrestricted gifts from a university donor along with support from an organization of Catholics made up of alumni and others -- donors who are “deeply committed to strengthening the Catholic identity and the Jesuit identity of the university,” said Brian Nedwek, dean of the university’s College of Liberal Arts.

No litmus test

“They have been absolutely delightful to work with, and I have not had to pass any kind of litmus test,” Nedwek said. Nedwek and several other educators who have been watchful of developments in the Catholic studies movement agree with O’Brien that concerns that funding sources will skew academic programs are exaggerated.

“When there is going to be emphasis on Catholicism, there is no reason to think it would fall into a restorationist framework,” said Marianist Fr. James L. Heft, chancellor of the University of Dayton in Ohio. He added, “I would be the first to agree that there is much that has to be restored -- but in a creative and thoughtful way.” Rather than being inspired by conservative donors on the outside, the initiative for the programs are mainly “swelling up from the inside -- from the faculties and administration,” Heft said.

Vincent J. Miller, assistant theology professor at Georgetown University, Washington, expressed a different concern: that Catholic studies will draw resources away from the theology and religious studies department. “Catholic studies is a bon mot,” he said. “What are you going to oppose, Catholic or studies?”

According to Miller, some theologians are concerned that Catholic studies programs don’t always incorporate the “critical functions” that are essential to theology and religious studies, and are therefore more likely to appeal to some donors. “It’s that structural problem that concerns me,” he said. “It’s a way of shunting resources” away from theology and religious studies, which are sometimes more controversial.

According to Nedwek, tensions in designing and funding Catholic studies programs are inevitable because they happen “in a highly politicized context within the university and within the context of the universities with their external communities -- the alumni and so on.”

“Everyone is steering very carefully through these ideological fjords,” Nedwek said. “Will the focus be on the church of pre-Vatican II, Vatican Council II or the post-Vatican Council?” He said Detroit emphasizes having the students understand the council as a way of discerning what is happening in the church now, with a particular emphasis on social justice. The university, co-sponsored by the Jesuits and the Sisters of Mercy since a merger in 1990 between the University of Detroit and Mercy College of Detroit, lies within an urban area with a diverse student body of 4,000 undergraduates and 2,200 graduate students. About a third of the students are African-Americans with a sprinkling of Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Only about 30 percent of the students describe themselves as Catholics on the application forms, Nedwek said. However, he said, a survey of students indicated a broad enough interest in Catholic studies to begin the program. It will be a few months before he knows how well it is working, he said.

The experience of Georgetown University raises some cautions.

“Georgetown started over 10 years ago, offering courses and proposing things, but we have had a very tepid student response,” said English Professor John Pfordresher.

He said the students one would think would be most interested in deepening their Catholic intellectual life -- the ones who meet in prayer groups and are involved in right-to-life activities -- haven’t shown any interest in the six-course minor in Catholic studies.

“I’m embarrassed to say we have one taker this year,” Pfordresher said.

He said the religiously active students tend to be conservative and look for apologetics to defend the faith while the faculty is offering courses meant to challenge them intellectually.

“We are interested in asking all kinds of questions,” Pfordresher said. “We are alarmed about offering any kind of course [that reflects] triumphalism.

“It’s one of the funny problems we face -- the traditionally religious kids sense we don’t have what they want.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000