When Christian Universities Lose Faith

Just what is a Christian university? The question is as complex as it is pressing, in no small part because of the increased secularization of higher education. As historians James Turner and Jon Roberts argue in The Sacred and the Secular University (Princeton University Press, 2000), Protestant universities founded on religious principles in the early days of America had, by the late twentieth century, largely abandoned these convictions. This change occurred in the span of about 200 years, a relatively short window of time. Institutions once dedicated to the faith now serve as contemporary temples of secularism.

One would hope that Catholic universities would have a different story. After all, Catholicism has one of the most vital and identifiable intellectual traditions in human history. Any cracks in the edifice could potentially have an impact around the globe. Unfortunately, in my experience, some Catholic universities are likewise on uncertain ground. Take, for example, a recent exchange between a faculty member and the president of his university. (I will refer to this president as "John Williams" and to the school as "St. Barth's University.") A staff member at St. Barth's emailed me the text of the exchange. Although this particular instance is anecdotal, I would argue that the underlying problem plagues many Catholic universities.

The forum was a Q&A in which faculty members asked questions, and President Williams offered answers. The faculty member's original question, although long, is quite poignant:

As a professor who teaches a required course, I regularly interact with a representative cross-section of our student body. It has become apparent to me over the past decade that many of our students know very little about Catholic theology, the Bible, or Christianity (more generally). You would be surprised, I think, at the level of ignorance about these matters among our students, including our upperclassmen. While I am not Catholic, I do think a Catholic university has a moral obligation to at least educate its students about basic Catholic teachings—and not just its social teachings, but its theological teachings as well. Of course, students should be presented with these views in a way that is sensitive and leaves them free to form their own opinions.

I raise this concern not because I am particularly interested in making our students Catholic or anything of the sort. I'm interested in St. Barth's maintaining its basic integrity—we say we are a Catholic institution, but many of our students graduate after four (or five) years still largely ignorant about basic Catholic theology. If a Catholic university doesn't bother to teach students its own tradition, then we had better stop selling ourselves as "Catholic" in a robust sense of that word. We can be whatever we want; but we can't make "Catholic education" just whatever we want. So here's my question: "Should we require students to take a basic course in Catholic (or Christian) theology?" If the answer is "no," then here's a follow up question: "What are the objective boundaries that constitute a Catholic education? Or do we just get to make up whatever suits us and then label that a 'Catholic education'?"

Answer 1: Anything Goes

The question is spirited, if not aggressive. A relaxed tone would probably have been more helpful to foster dialogue, but nonetheless the question is worth asking. President Williams seemed to agree. He regards himself as a committed Catholic and so took the question seriously. His three-part answer begins with an acknowledgement that the inquiry "raises many issues, including how does one define a Catholic university, and what are its essential characteristics and boundaries." He suggests starting with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's extended reflection on the purpose and mission of a Catholic university. Then he gives his own take on Ex Corde as well as "any" study of Catholic higher education. His answer:

What emerges from any study of Catholic higher education is the recognition that Catholic universities are a diverse group both in their governance structures and institutional missions and philosophies.

From his perspective, no matter what the study, Catholic universities are "a diverse group" with their own "institutional missions and philosophies." Apparently, each school has its own mission and philosophy; each university decides its own identity. The heart of a Catholic university is whatever each individual school chooses. In other words, there are no essential characteristics and objective boundaries of a Catholic university. Anything goes.

One might wonder if theology should have something to do with the essence of a Catholic university. Doesn't it matter what members of a Catholic university believe any more? But that, too, is precluded. In the very next sentence, President Williams continues:

Now let me focus on the central question posed today. Should St. Barth's require all students to take a basic course in Catholic (or Christian) theology? My first observation is that there is no unified "Christian" theology. Indeed, the differences that exist have resulted in wars, schisms, and other major disagreements that continue to be argued today.

Let's consider what's being said: there is no unified Christian theology. In one sense, the president is quite correct that there are significant doctrinal differences among Christian denominations and these differences have at times led to wars, schisms, and the like. But still, no unified Christian theology at all? That means, apparently, that Christians don't agree on anything distinct to their worldview. What about the divinity of Christ? If that's not essential to Christianity, it's difficult to say what is. How about the basic content of the gospel? Is that optional, too? Apparently, statements like the Apostle's Creed—which are expressly designed to articulate essential Christian beliefs—are mere suggestions. According to President Williams, a "Christian" would not even need to believe that a man named Jesus of Nazareth existed in the first century. "No unified Christian theology" implies that no beliefs are essential and that nothing is out of bounds. In the end, atheists can be as "Christian" as Evangelicals.

In the spirit of his initial remarks, perhaps he believes that Christian theology, like Catholic higher education, is marked by "diversity" so that each believer, church, or denomination can do right in its own eyes.

Answer 2: Optics Matter Most

While President Williams isn't concerned with theological depth, he is concerned with the school's superficial appearance. In the next sentence, he writes:

My second observation is that about half of our students are not Catholic, and a required course could be perceived as proselytization, something which St. Barth's has historically avoided. Our first extant catalog "welcomed non-Catholics" and promised, "It would not attempt to proselytize them."

So the idea is that St. Barth's must diligently avoid even a possible perception: a required course "could be perceived" in a negative light. Never mind whether that perception is accurate. What really matters is the school's image. This image just happens to conform to what secular thinkers find pleasing.

But the faculty member who raised the original question suggested that students should be presented with Catholic (or Christian) theology "in a way that is sensitive and leaves them free to form their own opinions." There's clearly no proselytization intended here, just basic religious literacy. Surely, students will be served if they have some idea about the beliefs of a billion Catholics around the globe. After all, familiarity with prominent views is a basic goal of a liberal arts education. But President Williams ignores all of this and instead is concerned with the optics of it all.

Of course, in this exchange there's no hint of the possibility that Catholics (or Christians generally) ought to try to convert non-believers. If St Barth's is to avoid the perception of proselytization, then it would be inappropriate, apparently, for its administrators and faculty to be enthusiastic enough about Catholicism (or Christianity) to commend it to others. The good news of the gospel is entirely optional. It's just another entrée in the buffet at Café Postmodern: serve yourself whatever looks good and move on. For President Williams, it's all a matter of preference—and perception.

At a deeper level, I wonder about a lurking double standard at St. Barth's. I have talked to enough faculty members, administrators, and students at the school over the last ten years to know that many of St. Barth's required courses include an uncritical liberal slant. These courses do not consistently and fair-mindedly expose students to serious conservative thinkers, much less to traditional Catholic thinkers. Instead, students are taught the usual progressive social, moral, and political perspectives. Yet all students, including conservative ones, are required to take these courses. Moreover, students are not required to take a single course that is predominantly conservative in its ideological orientation. Isn't this lopsided exposure an actual case of proselytization, as opposed to a merely perceived one? Students are given a myopic lens through which to view the world. And professors unashamedly promote this perspective as the way, the truth, and the life.

Just to be clear, I think that all students at schools like St. Barth's—including conservative ones—should be required to take at least one course that teaches a progressivist view. But I also think that all students, including liberal ones, ought to be required to take at least one course that teaches a conservative view, including a traditional Catholic one. At a Catholic liberal arts university, one would hope for a bit of ideological balance as a bare-bones minimum. Instead, St. Barth's is clearly involved in its own kind of proselytization. Why isn't President Williams worried about that?

The answer, of course, is that proselytization into the "correct" worldview is regarded by President Williams as entirely acceptable. For him, when St. Barth's students are trained to think exclusively like liberals, they are being educated, not proselytized. The dreaded p-word only surfaces when an optional perspective threatens to become required. Catholic theology falls into the "optional" category; progressive ideology does not.

Answer 3: It's an Elective

Having distanced the school (and himself) from any hint of proselytization of the wrong kind, President Williams ends his remarks with a final thought:

That said, I do believe that a Catholic university should offer to all students an opportunity to study Catholic theology. If they wish, students at St. Barth's can minor or major in Catholic Studies.

Besides the gospel of progressivism, it turns out that there is another objective element that helps mark the essence of a Catholic university: "all students" have "an opportunity to study Catholic theology"—that is, "if they wish" to do so. Evidently, two thousand years of reflection on Scripture, the church fathers, creeds, and tradition—distilled into Catholic theology—are entirely elective. If a student wants it, fine. But if not, that's fine too.

This is another way of saying that, while President Williams won't require exposure to Catholic (or Christian) theology, he magnanimously won't prohibit it. So for him a Catholic university can hold its head high when it does not forbid the study of its own tradition. That standard is so low it's pathetic.

These same double standards are apparent in the school's curriculum. St. Barth's offers an optional course called "Perspectives on Atheism." The course has a favorable take on non-belief. This is no surprise: it is taught by a committed atheist. Any student who wishes can take this class. St. Barth's does not prohibit this course. Indeed, any student can currently obtain a bachelor's (or master's) degree at this school all the while focusing on secular perspectives and avoiding religious ones. So, I wonder if President Williams's final remark applies here: if St. Barth's need only offer optional Catholic studies in order to be a bona-fide Catholic school, then, by the same standard, why not consider St. Barth's a secular school? After all, it offers to all students the option of immersion in secular thinking with only slight nods, if one chooses, towards religious views.

In the end, is St. Barth's meaningfully Catholic, or is it just a secular knock-off coated with a religious patina? Over the years, the students and faculty I have talked to at St. Barth's have had a genuinely difficult time answering this question. And that is exactly the problem.

is a professor of philosophy.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #43, Winter 2017 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo43/quo-vadis-u