What's Next After Catholic Colleges Collapse?

About a year ago, I went to D.C. to participate in a forum sponsored by America Media and CUA. The topic of the forum was Latinos and Catholic education. The panelists mostly addressed the kind of topics that have become normative within Catholic educational circles at all levels. Why are Latinos not enrolling in Catholic schools at a primary and secondary level? How might colleges and universities identify and form young Latino leaders? What kind of support would be available to those students attending Catholic primary and secondary schools or colleges?

The unexamined first principle of the conversation was the intrinsic value of Catholic education. Catholic education is integral to allowing young people to either get out of a cycle of poverty or to integrate into the fullness of American life—often both. These schools allowed a generation of Irish, German, and Italian Catholics to move from the cultural ghetto to the boardroom. Now, let’s give this same gift to Columbian, Mexican, and Panamanian Catholics.

Of course, one must recognize that the same schools that were formerly instruments of cultural integration became spaces for the building of social capital among the nation’s elite. Secondary schools were founded to educate the poor Irish immigrant who were denied admission to the WASP-y schools of the Northeast, but they now charge $20,000 per year. It is not impossible to imagine that some Catholic universities will be charging six figures per year for tuition within the next 20 years. Many of these same schools provide generous financial aid, allowing low-income students to receive the same education as the daughters and sons of Fortune 500 CEOs. Still, it must be recognized that the Catholic schools that Latino Catholics might enroll in are fundamentally different institutions than the Catholic schools of the 1940’s and 50’s. People generally choose these schools not because they are Catholic or local, but because they are excellent schools.

The Decline of Catholic Identity in Schools

What constitutes excellence in these schools? I suspect excellence often relates more to the increase in social capital that such schools promote, rather than the inherent quality of the school’s curriculum. With rare exceptions, parents are not choosing these schools because their son or daughter reads Dante in 9th grade or learns algebra within the context of a history of ideas. Parents are choosing these schools for their children because they provide opportunities for the child to get into a good high school, college, and to later have a successful career. They are college preparation schools, less expensive and elitist than Exeter or Philips Academy. Yet, they are still college prep.  

For many of these parents, the identity of the school as Catholic is of little importance. Yes, it is nice that religion is taught within the walls of the school, and it is not a bad thing that they can go to Mass regularly. However, the real purpose of the school is forming the students for future achievement. The National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) discovered that many parents were worried that there was too much religion within the schools, leading parents to choose public schools where instructional time was devoted to SAT-prep rather than praying the rosary. Catholic identity of these schools was often a liability rather than an asset.

Because so many of these schools operate on the thinnest of financial margins, many will likely respond to these concerns. Late modern Catholic colleges and universities have often underplayed Catholic identity as a marketing strategy. One eliminates those curricular requirements that make the school seem too Catholic to attract more students. At least once a year, a Catholic college or university proposes a significant reduction in courses in philosophy and theology, generating at least some outrage among theologians and philosophers. Executive leadership at the institution may allude to the Catholic heritage of the institution, but such allusions function more as a nostalgia rather than a strategic priority. The real goal is the pursuit of excellence, which functions as a free-floating signifier, often closely linked to what makes the college marketable. This even seeps down to admission tours, where it is not unusual for me to hear from well-intentioned tour guides, “Yes, we’re Catholic. But it’s not that big of a deal. Come here, and you won’t even have to see a priest.”

One can understand how the existential threat of closure could lead colleges and universities to downplay Catholic identity. With a declining Catholic population, many of these institutions have determined that getting students is the main priority. Part of this outreach is of course missional. Does not every human being deserve a quality education, especially young men and women who abide on the margins of life within the United States? Is not a good education a “religious” end in itself?   

The stewards of these institutions would do well to critically assess the inherent religiosity of education for two reasons.

First, it is the precise narrative embraced by Protestant institutions of higher learning throughout the 20th century. As George Marsden narrates in his The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, Protestant universities and liberal arts colleges separated from their religious roots not because they imagined that their denominations would disappear. Instead, they separated from these roots because they assumed an excellent education, dedicated to forming citizens for the common good, would itself be a religious activity. While the denominations initially supported this kind of religious formation, eventually they were no longer necessary. The colleges transformed education into a transcendent education without the need for the Methodists or Presbyterians. This kind of transcendent education, meant to transform society, is enshrined in the mission statements of institutions around the United States.   

Many of these institutions thrive under the separation of the college’s mission from its religious roots. Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Duke are now important research universities with hefty endowments, who are not short on applicants. They are flourishing. Yet, for every flourishing institution, there are disaffiliated universities and liberal arts colleges regularly threatened by closure. These institutions are expensive—offering the same, or often worse, education than cheaper public universities. These public universities care about social justice and the flourishing of the whole person just as much as these formerly religious institutions. Therefore, why pay more for a similar education? Smart students, the very ones that these schools will want to recruit, will choose the fiscally responsible option.

Second, the bracketing of Catholic identity at these institutions means that the very source of potential educational renewal is also eliminated. Catholicism is not just a guide for moral living or a series of private religious practices. Catholicism proposes to the human person, through divine Revelation, that human happiness consists of union with God, what St. Thomas called the beatific vision. This capacity for eternal happiness is not reserved for a future state alone but meant to infuse our very age. The orientation of the human person toward contemplative beatitude is interruptive of many of the existing assumptions governing contemporary educational practice. High test scores and a 4.0 GPA are not the destiny of the human person. STEM education is not more essential to the educational task than forming those capable of thoughtful, even awe-filled wonder, at the meaning of existence.

The critique of the current state of Catholic education is not an elitist apologia for a leisure divorced from the workaday world. People need jobs, and schools have always been partially involved in making such jobs possible. Jacques Maritain in his Education at the Crossroads dismisses an overly scholastic approach to education that refuses to form men and women to work with their hands. At the same time, working is not the exclusive dimension of what it means to be human as Maritain recognizes. To claim otherwise is to fall prey to a technocratic schema where every person is reduced to a cog in a machine, a utilitarianism that is the fuel behind much of American educational policy. Discussion around STEM in the United States is linked to a fear that the United States will no longer possess the kind of innovators capable of generating new technology. Such an education no longer places the human person at its center, as much as the needs of the nation-state for industry.    

The reduction of education to a vocational task does not only hurt those who are already bound for scholarly vocations. It harms those men and women who never get a chance to thoughtfully seek truth. Ironically, schools become more elitist the more that they focus exclusively upon training the student for future involvement in society. A leisurely education, one grounded in the great questions that every human being asks, should be a gift to all students—not just those bound for Fordham, Stanford, or the University of Virginia.

The peril of present-day Catholic education is that the thin veneer of Catholic identity at most schools functionally upholds the educational status quo. If Catholicism is just a nice extra, then the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition, the vision of human flourishing at the heart of the Church, will have no effect on the school. We will continue to develop schools interested in forming leaders for society, who have never considered what it means to be a human being. In that sense, we will be forming men and women who have never thought about what it means to be happy or developed the virtues to pursue the happy life. In the absence of this formation, an education will still unfold. But it will be offered by a consumer society that demands a theological anthropology defined by the god of the market

That is why it is insufficient to merely ask how we can keep students enrolling in Catholic schools. Yes, many of these students would benefit from this education. But they might also be initiated into a worldview that is detrimental to human flourishing. They may learn in these institutions that the human person is a homo oeconomicus rather than a homo adorans.

A Vocation for Catholic Education

For this reason, the present task is not then just about policy, fundraising, or marketing campaigns. One needs Catholic education—from high-level administrators to faculty in classrooms—who are formed in a theological and philosophical vision of the Catholic school. Yes, excellence should be pursued. But the account of excellence needs to be grounded in a Catholic vision of the world rather than a consumer-economic or technocratic one disguised under the aegis of a supposed “transcendental” education.

While further work needs to be done related to this philosophical-theological account of Catholic education, it is enough at present to provide three facets of a Catholic education that is both humanistic and Catholic.

First, the Catholic school is a repository of cultural memory. Educational philosophy in the United States is overly influenced by an ideological appropriation of Paolo Friere’s critique of banking education. Many educators believe that the school has no vocation to “teach” the student specific ideas or texts, since it is inappropriate to simply implant ideas into the head of a student.

Banking education, as Friere meant it, is problematic, especially when working with adolescents and adults. Education is ultimately not just a space where knowledge is deposited into the heads of creatures that are absent an interior life. Memorizing endless vocabulary for the sake of standardized tests creates students who are incapable of asking the kind of questions that lead to human flourishing.

At the same time, it is not “banking education” to propose that an encounter with some texts, ideas, or pieces of art is essential to human flourishing. A human being pursuing the happy life must consider what it means to speak about truth, goodness, and beauty. The Church has recognized that some objects of art are worthwhile for the young person to encounter, precisely because engagement with this art attunes the student to both perceive, understand, and perhaps live the beautiful life. It is not a banking education to demand that every student learn to draw, read The Brothers Karamazov, or learn to listen appreciatively to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.  

Of course, Western culture does not monopolize the category of beauty. There are beautiful texts or dimensions of material culture found in every culture. However, the students who live in the United States abide within a Western culture. It is their heritage to appreciate, it is their memory to appropriate. It should not be controversial to a Catholic school in the United States to ask students to read a bit of Shakespeare, to have encountered a poem by Christina Rossetti, or to have read Plato’s Republic. These classics are generative of essential human insights.

The school therefore has a vocation to function as a repository of cultural memory. This does not mean that the Catholic school should then demand that students simply read and memorize arguments. The student is always encountering the texts or ideas as persons made up of their own memory, their intellect, and will. The task of the educator is to create a space of encounter where this conversation can take place.

But there is a content to education. Here, Catholic education may serve as a prophetic critic against the disciples of John Dewey. The vocation of the school is not reducible to serving as a workshop for the formation of the living creature. Yes, the student within a school is an active agent, growing through the encounter with the fund of knowledge within a society. But to place all emphasis on the experiential dimension of education risks leaving the student without a memory capable of making sense of the world. Such students become good at living, bad at being.

Take, for example, attention to the art of handwriting, especially in cursive. Many primary institutions have given up teaching such handwriting, because it is presumed to be archaic. Students are given laptops by the time they are in 3rd or 4th grade. There are technological stations throughout the classroom. Students need to learn to type, not to write in cursive.

But this is short-sighted! Yes, human beings did not always write. But the techne of learning to compose a beautiful paragraph by hand contains a wisdom that the laptop does not possess. It reveals the beauty of structure, the way composition is not just a productive task but an aesthetic one. It forms the student to appreciate the contemplative act of thinking and composing, slowing the mind down. Likewise, when dealing with religious texts, the gravity of the material comes to be appreciated. Writing takes time, because thinking and, therefore, ultimately, being takes time.    

Second, the Catholic school possesses a coherent account of faith and reason. Having spoken now at dozens of Catholic institutions, the relationship between faith and reason remains dangerously misunderstood. The Catholic school that sees religion as an extra dimension of the curriculum will often see faith and reason as two aspects of the human person that can exist alongside one another. The Catholic school allows the student to go to Mass (faith) and to study biology (reason). This dichotomy is detrimental to the whole life of the school since faith becomes a private affair mostly affiliated with the devotional life, while reason is the domain that allows the real work of education to take place.

This dichotomy is especially pernicious in the theology classroom. If the religion classroom becomes a space for the exercise of faith, then a serious examination of Christian doctrine and life is never undertaken. It is enough to have pleasant experiences that are interludes to the serious work of thinking. If the religion classroom becomes a space for a thin sense of reason, then the devotional life is excluded from the life of the school. Here, teachers form students to be suspicious of actual religious practice, since critical thinking becomes the fundamental religious practice. The student is taught that you cannot love a text or an idea. You must deconstruct it under the critical gaze of reason.

A Proper Account of Faith and Reason

A proper account of faith and reason, as John Henry Newman describes in his University Sermons, is not so dichotomous. Human beings are constantly reasoning, making decisions about all sorts of things. Not everything which is “reasonable” also must be subjected to scientific inquiry. It is reasonable to presume, according to common sense, that England is an island—even if never schlepped around the entire landmass. It is reasonable to learn from testimony, from what were been told by those who have come before us.

Likewise, the exercise of reason is infused with dimensions of human life that relate more to intuition than our critical capacity to dissect ideas or texts. A scientist is never just observing reality, offering their report about what is seen. The world is not reducible to the merely visible. Even in the exercise of “pure” reason (if such a thing exists), there are acts of imagination, intuition, and affection that are not “purely” reasonable.

In this sense, the compatibility of faith and reason is not the affirmation of two distinct modes of being human. Rather, it acknowledges that Catholic faith is itself a reasonable response to that which has been revealed by God. Yes, there is something called natural theology, the capacity of the human person to perceive evidence of God in the created order. However, such natural theology is insufficient for a Catholic. The Catholic school exists because of divine Revelation. The Word became flesh, dwelt among us, and in the process transformed what it means to be human. Human life is not oriented toward success, fame, or fortune. Rather, the human person is made to experience communion with God. This communion with God is the raison d’etre of the Church, which is Christ’s Body.

Many Catholic schools are a bit embarrassed by such Catholic particularity. These Catholic schools want to remain at the level of natural theology, professing belief in a God who cares deeply about ethical behavior (religion enables one to be a good person) or helps someone get through bad situations (a therapeutic God). This is not enough.

Thus, theology must be a serious affair within Catholic schools. If one was to attend most institutions of Catholic learning, one will discover one of two fallacies in the theology classroom.

The first would treat theology as equivalent to a kind of indoctrination, a bad catechesis that brackets out the act of reason within the classroom. Students expect to react faithfully rather than intelligently to what has been revealed, hoping that piety will cover over the worst excesses of bad reasoning, poor reading, and a lack of historical consciousness. Don’t get me wrong: such students may in fact inherit the kingdom of God, even become saints. But the fundamental function of teaching theology within the school is to engage in the practice of fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding. Without a proper intellectual vocation to theology, the discipline will become prey to a pseudo-intellectualism that looks more like indoctrination than a science of the blessed.  

The second treats theology according to a mode of critical thinking that is ultimately deconstructive. This kind of theology classroom believes that a pure objectivity, divorced from religious practice, is what the discipline requires. There is often an almost sadistic delight in this classroom of destroying a student’s childhood religiosity. God remains in this classroom, but now God is “critical thinking,” which ultimately means every dimension of Catholic life can be explained away through the categories of power and social construction.

Neither of these approaches to theology is ultimately helpful to the student. If we are to operate out of a proper sense of faith and reason, then the theology classroom (even for young children) should deal with the actual material of divine Revelation. Both catechesis and theology proper exist as a response to what has been revealed by Jesus Christ. This divine Revelation has changed how human beings reflect on the meaning of existence. Theology classrooms should prepare students to engage seriously with the intellectual, even contemplative, implications of divine Revelation for what it means to be human.

Catholic schools are not yet prepared for this task—partially because of the equally thin sense of reason operative within the academy. Especially in the humanities, the work of reason or intellectual inquiry is often absent in the encounter with the cultural memory of the West. A strong social constructionism has become normative, in which there is no truth but the experience of the individual person reading the text.

Don’t get me wrong: the act of textual interpretation involves the totality of a person including their history! A student from the South, immersed in the very world still dominated by race and rural poverty, will see Flannery O’Connor’s short stories differently than the student from Weston, Massachusetts. The southern student will have interpretative possibilities that other students may not possess.

This does not mean that the northern student is bankrupt, incapable of understanding O’Connor’s work. For O’Connor’s work is not concerned simply with social construction but an encounter with truth. The northern student may have to attune oneself to the truth of O’Connor’s narrative, to do a bit of work to get inside the bone and marrow of the story. But the story exists, it makes a claim, that all readers must encounter.

This strong social constructionism has seeped into each level of Catholic education. University professors have formed their students to believe that every studious encounter with a cultural practice or text may be analyzed exclusively through the lens of power and social control. Personal experience is the only ground to stand upon, not the quest for truth as an illumination of the person’s very being. One can see why various humanity programs at colleges and universities have bled students, who long to read books and argue about themes, instead of deconstructing texts, revealing hidden bias as a way of dismissing them.

The reasonable option is not to return to a “great books canon” of exclusively dead, white authors (though, some of these dead white authors are worth reading!). Rather, we read books, we encounter texts, we think because we are learning to be fully human. There is an objectivity to this encounter. And the world itself has an objectivity to it too. We as human beings are meant to search for this truth, to ask what constitutes the good life, and to encounter and to become beautiful creatures.

Reclaiming at least some objectivity for the use of reason will be salutary not simply for the Catholic school but for society. If the present political moment reveals anything, it is that our polis has given up on the quest for truth. It is enough to exert one’s will-to-power, to shape answers to great questions that appeal not to reason but to the polls. Until we recognize the possibility of a truth that transcends praxis, the politics of this age will continue until we destroy the very cosmos.

Third, Catholic schools will be governed by love rather than efficiency. To a certain extent, all schools are governed by love. I never met a public-school educator who describes their relationship with their students as mere efficiency. Many of these educators are quick to respond to the needs of their students, educating the whole person not just a floating mind.

Still, education risks forgetting about the art of love, of true encounter between teacher and student, focusing instead on standards and learning outcomes. Now, articulating objectives is not an intrinsic evil. An artist has a sense, a vision of what he or she is hoping to accomplish. So too should an educator.

But the adapting of these standards risks turning the classroom into a monstrous place, a space where student and teacher no longer operate in the common search for truth through love. They fulfill goals, objectives, getting through as much material as possible so that students may excel on standardized tests.  

If the search for truth is integral to education, then love is the engine that drives this process of inquiry. Teachers must love the material that they study. They must delight in the common task they engage in with their students.

In some ways, this is the most difficult dimension of education in the present. As the dad of a six-year-old, it is saddening for me to see that the child who loves going to school at present, in learning to compose numbers, recognize words, and to discover the beauty of form and color in art, will one day despise the task of education. He will be subjected to constant measurement, perpetual assessment, having his very personhood measured by his ability to excel on this or that test. He will no longer learn words because he wants to know something about existence, to know what this or that thing is. Instead, he will be forced to learn vocabulary because the state of Indiana (or whatever state he abides in at that time) has determined that this vocabulary is essential. When he asks why he must learn this mathematical formula or this concept from physics, he will be told that he will need to know this if he wants to get a job. Of course, this is a lie, and he will know it right when it is uttered.

Catholic schools should be places governed by a freedom oriented toward love. This is where real creativity is necessary, reversing the technocratic and bureaucratic dimensions of contemporary education. Just last week, a student sat down with me to read a poem together. I had no special expertise in the poem, certainly not more than the student. We had no learning objective except to read, to encounter the text, to perceive the sound of the words as they echoed in my office. In the course of our conversation, we began to discover there a meaning that came from outside of us. We began to love this meaning, love this text. This insight would have been impossible without the intersubjective encounter that took place. This is the kind of loving encounter that the Catholic school should promote.

Clearly, the source of love within the Catholic school is not either the student or the teacher. The Catholic professes that all love comes from the God who is love, who entered fully into the human condition, who dwells in the Church through the Eucharist and the sacraments, and who has revealed his presence in the least of these. In this sense, the Catholic school must place at its center the activity of divine worship, of offering that return gift of love to the God who first loved the human family.

This emphasis on worship may seem strange. But as David Foster Wallace once noted, we all worship something. The Catholic school that underplays this fact is just telling the students a lie. Worship is integral to the human person, because in the end, we each must decide what the meaning of life consists of. We each have the freedom to choose what we will give ourselves over to.

If a Catholic education does not reveal what we believe the ultimate source of that gift is, what our ultimate concern should be through divine Revelation, what we should adore, then we are ultimately doing a disservice to our students. They are still receiving a catechesis, just not one grounded in what we Catholics see as the ultimate truth—that the Word became flesh, dwelt among us, and revealed that the meaning of life is the gift of love unto the end.


In the end, we are right to wonder about how we can integrate the next generation of residents of the United States into our Catholic schools. It is a shame that so many of these schools are experiencing the kind of financial precarity that may result in their closure. Perhaps, the problem though is not a marketing strategy nor better communication. Instead, it is our philosophy of Catholic education. We have created schools oriented toward excellence in socially reproducing a certain elite culture that is insufficient. Our poor schools often do not have access to these students, and thus are doing the best they can with little funding. However, this gives us a chance to re-imagine the nature of Catholic education at these schools, to re-think what we are doing when we welcome a child or young adult into these schools.

The task of re-imagining the nature of Catholic education will not just be the result of academics sitting in their ivory tower, articulating abstract principles that schools can adopt. It will involve a dialogue but one grounded in a Catholic understanding of existence, enshrined in the disciplines of philosophy and theology.

There is much work to do in this regard. Composing manifesto after manifesto like this one about Catholic education is not enough. The renewal of Catholic education, its future, will be found in experiments carried out in Catholic schools throughout the United States. The time has come for this experimentation, rather than simply perpetuating the status quo. This is what comes next.

Featured Image: Yanov Alexandr, Monk Painter, 1885; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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