Catholic Higher Ed Under Fire

Patrick Reilly takes a turn on the NCReg site to promote his Cardinal Newman Society as the solution for the “crisis” of Catholic higher education. He’s referring to (I presume) the recent release of a CARA working paper “Catholicism on Campus.” (I’ll note that CARA referenced Mr Reilly’s piece, but the favor wasn’t returned.)

Mr Reilly focuses on two important moral issues that do not appear in the Creed. In each case, we have the bystander approach seemingly coming out of Catholic-educated young adults: I wouldn’t have an abortion or marry someone of my sex, but I’m not willing to adopt the political approach for others. An argument can be made against these stances, but do they reflect faith so much as politics or morals?

Mr Reilly takes a swing at CARA (“CARA deserves much of the blame for how it interprets — spins, really — its own data.”) but I don’t think he’s engaging the working paper with decent logic. CARA seems to be skeptical of the influence of college administration on students. Obviously, it would be great (and CARA agrees) that imparting a strong Catholic identity from the top down would be a good thing.Is it reasonable to think it can happen where the parental example has been lax?

I’ll grant that in a mature believer, faith informs one’s politics and one’s moral outlook. So don’t misread me: I’m not criticizing Mr Reilly for being totally off-base. As founder of the Newman Society, he certainly has it in his interests to promote his brand (“Franciscan University of Steubenville, Christendom College, Thomas Aquinas College”) of Catholic higher education. But if he’s promoting the CNS good citizenship list as being the solution, let me offer a three brief observations:

The CNS brand attracts a certain kind of college student, your hardcore Catholic young people. Like Mr Reilly I would expect his institutions to do better because they self-select for the kind of orthodoxy they promote.

It’s not just or accurate to pick on universities alone for erosion in Catholic identity, morals, or faith. A case could be made for the parish grade school, especially the top two or three grades. A stronger case could be made for Catholic high schools. Lots of parents send their minor children to Catholic schools. And they may even take them to church on Sunday. But that doesn’t guarantee that external participation in the Catholic school culture aligns to an adult faith.

If the Church were serious about growing Catholic identity as our children grew up, there would be more emphasis on parish-based youth ministry. Not youth ministry in schools or regions or specialized centers.

How about any talking points of your own? Feel free to comment … liberally.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Catholic Higher Ed Under Fire

  1. John Hinshaw says:

    Catholic Universities fail in exactly the places they claim to excel. The level of discourse they allow for on the important issues of the day is pathetic. I do not ask for a Catholic Church atmosphere (though someone should ask) but I would like some depth on the challenging questions. A student at a Catholic University once told me that she and her fellow students were “too young” to be discussing contraception and abortion. Yes, I said, best leave those questions to the 50 year olds. She was one of the leading theology majors at the time. It is probably too much to expect an institution of 57% female students and 30+ years of bending to feminism to actually man-up, so I guess Reilly is wrong.

  2. Chris from Maryland says:


    You undermined your own appeal to “logic” with the absurd statement that: “Mr Reilly focuses on two important moral issues that do not appear in the Creed”. That statement is equivalent to saying “My dog has no hands.”

    The statement is not sensible, and its implications are not Catholic.

    In Christus Veritas,


  3. Chris from Maryland says:

    And Todd:

    Would you list 3 main characteristics of the people you label “the hardcore Catholic young people”? And then by implication what are 1 or 2 other demographic groups of students that are not “hardcore,” and their 2-3 characteristics?

    It would help to make the thrust of your opening in the discussion sensible.

    In Christus Veritas,


  4. Todd says:


    Abortion and same-sex unions are moral issues, primarily. They affect assessment of faith, but not directly. It is possible for a believer to be ignorant of a moral issue, but still be a person of faith.

    I have seen a subset of Catholic youth I would describe as “traditional-leaning enthusiasts.” I know some of them personally, so my intent is not meant to be insulting. They generally show some or all of these signs: attend daily Mass and practice devotions, exhibiting outward and inner reverence in doing so, are committed to chastity, are strongly anti-abortion as well as pro-life on other issues, among others.

    There are other Catholic young people who are active in the social structures of the Church, possibly as an extension of good youth ministry experiences as adolescents.

    And there are many service-oriented Catholics, sort of a neo-P&J crowd.

    Most young people I know have a “specialty” they are drawn to because of their personal gifts and experiences, but they often practice their faith across the board, as it were.

    My argument is that CNS schools tend to select for the kind of students they see as ideal, and that applicants are drawn to these schools because of the distinctive Catholic culture they offer.

    So comparing Georgetown and Steubenville (to give one example) on Catholic identity is sort of like comparing their basketball teams.

  5. smf says:

    The ideas of Catholic identity and Catholic culture have been running around in my head lately in regards to several matters. I haven’t quite formed a thesis, but this is just the sort of thing that sets me thinking. To some degree the demise of the Catholic ghetto, and the attempt to engage the world are all tied up in this, but I am still trying to work it out.

    As for myself, I don’t really fit any of the usual molds very well, nor do I think that many others do either. The labels and abstractions have a use, but it is a limited one. While many might call me a more traditional leaning type, that isn’t quite true (evidenced by a learned friend that is convinced I am a modern, among other things).

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