Catholic Higher Education and the New Evangelization

Today courses in Catholic theology are supposed to be characterized by the New Evangelization. My contention is supported by two basic lines of evidence. First, magisterial teaching strongly testifies to the necessity of teaching theology with an evangelical orientation, including Vatican II’s Gravissimum Educationis, several documents issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2008 address to Catholic educators. These sources demonstrate that professors working in Catholic institutions of higher education are supposed to explain the rationale for Church teaching in the classroom. Second, I briefly outline and discuss the results from a questionnaire that I sent out to at least one theologian at every Catholic college and university in the Unites States. The results of this questionnaire indicate some hesitations about my proposal. I exposit these challenges under five broad headings and offer rebuttals to their concerns in the light of Catholic teaching.

Magisterium, Universities, Evangelization

One of the most important documents for understanding the role of Catholic education in the modern world is Vatican II’s Gravissimum Educationis. This Declaration defended the various ways in which students should be formed in seminaries, Catholic universities, colleges, and schools. In this document, Catholic colleges are seen as an extension of the Church’s mission to evangelize the world; it follows that part of developing a Catholic worldview will be characterized by evangelization. “A Christian education,” the Declaration affirms, “has as its principal purpose this goal: that students . . . learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world” (Gravissimum Educationis, §2).

[caption id="attachment_5821" align="alignleft" width="440"] Notre Dame students attend the Moreau First Year Experience class; Photo: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame[/caption]

The Declaration is unambiguously clear that evangelization should not be relegated to colleges where a majority of the students are practicing Catholics. Because Christianity is, by definition, Catholic, the Gospel is meant for everyone, not just for those who identify themselves with the Church. With the assumption that Catholicism is true, good, and beautiful, colleges will be greatly assisted to foster the use of reason which is at the heart of an educational experience.

Consequently, a teacher’s love for his students will prompt him to account for basic Catholic faith. Educators who shy away from evangelization do not show a serious concern for the students’ well-being, but are somewhat driven by fear and a radical subjectivism. As Benedict XVI observed: “The profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love.”[1]

With regard to the ongoing concern about a diverse population on campus, the Congregation for Catholic Education restated the plain teaching of Gravissimum Educationis:

Many Catholic school students belong to a multiplicity of cultures, therefore our institutions must proclaim the Gospel beyond believers, not only with words, but through the power of our educators’ lives, which must be consistent with the Gospel. . . . The whole professional and educational community is called upon to present faith as an attractive option, with a humble and supportive attitude. This model is provided by Jesus Christ and his disciples.[2]

Conversely, failing to justify basic Catholic teaching in its integrity is tantamount to violating the students’ rights. For everyone has an intrinsic right to hear and live out the truth. Seen in this way, evangelization helps foster the possibility of forming students with the help of God’s grace to help transform the world.

Undoubtedly, the notion of evangelization can play an important role in facilitating conversion, which can lead one to serve the world in action. One of the perennial values of evangelization is that it can deepen and enrich one’s understanding of Catholic truth. Quite naturally, theology and external practice affect and reinforce one another. Conversely, the lack of evangelical concerns on campus, says Benedict XVI, “weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.”[3]

Given the pluralistic scenarios on campus, one may surmise that evangelization can be brushed to the side, but the Congregation affirms that educators should take the New Evangelization even more seriously. Because students come from different religious backgrounds, courses in theology should at least try to foster a mindset that might become open to the possibility of evangelization. Hence courses and activities that center around the theme of “pre-evangelization” need to be seriously considered. The Congregation observes:

We have already referred to the fact that, in many parts of the world, the student body in a Catholic school includes increasing numbers of young people from different faiths and different ideological backgrounds. . . . In these situations, however, evangelization is not easy—it may not even be possible. We should look to pre­-evangelization: to the development of a religious sense of life. In order to do this, the process of formation must constantly raise questions about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ and then point out and deepen the positive results of this investigation. . . . There can be unity in the midst of pluralism, and we need to exercise a wise discernment in order to distinguish between what is essential and what is accidental. Prudent use of the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ will lead to integral human development in the formation process, and this is what we mean by a genuine pre-evangelization. It is fertile ground which may, at some future time, be able to bear fruit.[4]

As a significant percentage of students are not Catholic, there is an ongoing concern about how Church teaching can be presented while not excluding, marginalizing, or offending anyone’s beliefs. Although other religions and life-views must be respected, that would not mean they should be celebrated at the expense of the school’s Catholic identity.

In summary, a diverse student body should not become a reason to silence, sidestep, or dilute a concerted effort to evangelize; rather, it serves as a significant condition and opportunity for everyone to become acquainted with the truth of Christianity which is supposed to be life-changing.

Evangelization and Theologians

To get a general feel of how Catholic scholars think about the possibility or desirability of the notion of evangelization on campus, I wrote up an informal questionnaire and emailed it to at least one theologian at almost every Catholic college in the United States. That’s 219 emails. I received 60 responses.

Many of the respondents to the questionnaire were faithful to Catholic teaching, but a significant number of them responded with pessimistic or even hostile commentary. Many of my respondents unnecessarily pitted following theological paradigms against one another: “dialogue instead of evangelization,” “practical concerns instead of evangelization,” “love instead of evangelization,” “holiness instead of evangelization,” “ecumenism instead of evangelization,” etc. Instead, what is needed is a complementary, both/and relationship between these theological activities. Practical concerns can lead one to faith, and evangelization, by definition, can help spur on the motivation to take practical concerns more seriously.

Another category of negative response was heavily centered around the negative effects of evangelization. Nevertheless, the problem of abuses that can accompany the process of conversion should not take away from the way that Catholic scholars should model evangelization on campus. So long as evangelization remains a human activity, there is always the possibility of someone making mistakes. Further, one of the most basic components of evangelization is to love our dialogue partners. But this would not mean that we should refuse to make hard truth claims. Rather, the focus must remain on how one’s witness should be made. Catholics should propose truth, but they must never impose those truths on individuals who hesitate to accept them.

The intellectual task of the New Evangelization is about defending Catholic truth, and should not be seen as a defensive posture in reaction to a hostile, secular world.

Moreover, love speaks the truth to the beloved. Love tries to win over the favor of the beloved. Arguments can therefore be given for faith. Being argumentative, by contrast, is an abuse and should always be avoided. Correlatively, the intellectual task of the New Evangelization is about defending Catholic truth, and should not be seen as a defensive posture in reaction to a hostile, secular world.

Many of the respondents to my questionnaire did not show much familiarity with the Magisterium’s vision of Catholic higher education in response to common challenges such as religious diversity on campus. If evangelization is properly implemented on campus, it will be expected that controversy will occur. But controversy, it should be added, is well known for generating the learning process, building camaraderie, and deepening one’s conversion.

Let me turn to some of the more salient negative survey responses which in turn call for a more concentrated response. First, some of my respondents have said that evangelization can violate religious freedom. By contrast, freedom, according to Catholic theology, is not the ability to do as one wants, but the ability to do as one should. In this view, as someone abides in the truth, she becomes freer to live in accordance with human nature. Freedom is not an absolute value, but a necessary condition for knowing truth. Truth is the presupposition for freedom, not its antagonist. Therefore the consequence of abiding in the truth is consonant with educators’ aspirations to develop society in a way that is worthy of the common good.

Here I would like to make a formal distinction between natural knowledge and supernatural faith. In Catholic colleges, students are required to grasp the epistemic warrants for and explanations of faith. Some type of conversion is required: going from a state of ignorance to a state of understanding. Be that as it may, students do not have to personally appropriate Christian faith as a part of their lives. Students cannot be evaluated on whether they have faith. As the Congregation concludes:

It is becoming increasingly important to promote this right not only from the negative point of view, as freedom from—for example, obligations or limitations involving the freedom to choose one’s religion—but also from the positive point of view, in its various expressions, as freedom for—for example, bearing witness to one’s religion, making its teachings known, engaging in activities in the educational, benevolent and charitable fields which permit the practice of religious precepts, and existing and acting as social bodies structured in accordance with the proper doctrinal principles and institutional ends of each.[5]

Here one might wonder about the psychological struggles that some students might experience about enrolling in a Catholic college. The Congregation notes that colleges must provide pastoral care for these students. Although this vision of higher education might be difficult to maintain in the current cultural milieu, Catholic colleges and universities, in the words of the Congregation, “should be noteworthy not so much for their numbers as for their high standards, because it is better to have fewer excellent Catholic Universities than many mediocre ones.”[6]

Moreover, the formal distinction between academic and personal appropriation applies in the case of all other courses. Take a course in English for example. Whether the students are interested in writing—or even speak English—they will have to write sentences and papers that conform to the proper rules of grammar. Although students should be positioned in a way that would enable them to excel in the course, they may refuse to personally appropriate correct understandings of English when they leave the classroom. “What we must never do,” says Benedict XVI, “is support [students] when they err, to pretend we do not see the errors, or worse, that we share them as if they were the new boundaries of human progress.”[7]

Evangelization is intellectual and invitational while catechesis goes much further: it is holistic and personal.

A second major concern is that evangelization is synonymous with proselytizing the students. But proselytism is not the same thing as evangelization. The Congregation defines proselytism as the attempt to strip away the cultural identity of Christian and non-Christians in the attempt to further evangelize them. Be that as it may, proper understandings of evangelization try to persuade others to absorb Catholic Christianity (what is believed) in a way that retains each individual’s uniqueness (or how it is believed). Catholic theology recognizes a legitimate plurality within the parameters set by orthodoxy. Evangelists and apologists will respect the different ways in which people come to faith and the various ways to express it.

[caption id="attachment_5820" align="alignright" width="440"] Photo: Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame[/caption]

The third concern is evangelization is proper for catechesis; it is not suited for theology courses. The notion of catechesis presumes that one’s hearers are already convinced of Christian faith. Quite naturally, catechesis is not appropriate in many Catholic schools. Many students do not consider themselves Catholic, Christian, or even religious. Instead a theological approach is more suitable.

By definition, theology draws from authoritative sources such as Scripture, Tradition, human experience, and Magisterial teaching to make a compelling case. Unlike catechesis, theology is strictly concerned with developing students’ knowledge of the Christian faith, not with developing the students as believers. Notice that theologians are still supposed to be concerned with pre-evangelization which retains its teleological, evangelical shape in the classroom. Theologians should be concerned with basic Church teaching, but they do not assess student performance on whether students have faith. As the Congregation states:

The aim of catechesis, or handing on the Gospel message, is maturity: spiritual, liturgical, sacramental and apostolic; this happens most especially in a local Church community. The aim of the school however, is knowledge. While it uses the same elements of the Gospel message, it tries to convey a sense of the nature of Christianity, and of how Christians are trying to live their lives. It is evident, of course, that religious instruction cannot help but strengthen the faith of a believing student, just as catechesis cannot help but increase one’s knowledge of the Christian message.[8]

Here one might want to delineate the connection between evangelization and catechesis. Evangelization is intellectual and invitational while catechesis goes much further: it is holistic and personal.

The fourth objection is that apologetics and evangelization “shuts down” creative thinking. For the most part, theologians assume that the Catholic expression of Christianity is true and that there is some need to explain and justify it against current objections. Moreover, rational inquiry does not proceed from a neutral, presupposition-less starting point.

Embracing the truth does not constrain reason, but allows it to become what it was meant to be. Hence an acceptance of Catholic faith should not be considered “blind submission to authority.” Rather, such acceptance rightly recognizes the impossibility of an autonomous rationality apart from human experience.


Embracing the truth does not constrain reason, but allows it to become what it was meant to be.

So it is one thing to say that theologians should begin with the truth of God’s revelation in the man Jesus Christ. But it is quite another to maintain that human knowers can fully understand that truth which is absolute. We are always in the process of trying to achieve a fuller perspective on and expression of the truth. Thus believers can and should participate in the give and take of argument both for and against faith. For genuine respect for the mystery should not make one renounce the cognitive ability of human beings, but should prompt one’s search to understand more fully what is encountered, motivating one to evangelize those whom Christ loves. Christianity, it may be added, is not true because bishops and clerics “say so”; rather, bishops “say so” because the Gospel is grounded in Infinite Truth, the One who never ceases to draw inquiring minds closer to himself.


It is strange that evangelization is lowly esteemed in many Catholic colleges and universities. The New Testament writers and the early Fathers of the Church had to be heavily evangelical and apologetical as they made inroads across the Mediterranean world, for there was no Christian influence in culture yet. In a Western, post-Christian context, it seems reasonable that Catholic colleges and universities, which are supposed to be an extension of the Church’s mission to evangelize the world, should have the same approach.

Featured Photo: Word of Life (Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame); Ian Chan; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, “Remarks at The Catholic University of America” (April 17, 2008).

[2] Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion (2014), III.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, “Remarks at The Catholic University of America” (April 17, 2008).

[4] Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988), §108.

[5] Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love (2013), §56.

[6] Congregation, Educating Today and Tomorrow, I.2.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, “Remarks at The Catholic University of America” (April 17, 2008).

[8] Congregation, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, §69.


Glenn B. Siniscalchi

Glenn B. Siniscalchi received his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Duquesne University in 2013. He currently serves as Assistant Professor of Theology at Notre Dame College, South Euclid, OH. His recent book is titled Retrieving Apologetics (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016).

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