Stripping Catholic universities and colleges of their “Catholic” identity: Is it “forfeiting a valuable resource”?

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When the Vatican recently informed officials of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PCUP) that the institution could no longer be called either “Pontifical” or “Catholic,” many wondered whether this action was a “signal” intended to get other Catholic universities and colleges in line soon or face similar consequences.

For those who would hope that the edict is a signal, the Vatican didn’t issue the edict precipitously.  Decades of listening and discussing the issues proved fruitless.  In the end, the Vatican acted decisively, leaving the door open to reconciliation on the Vatican’s terms.



In the weeks following the announcement, many observers of U.S. Catholic higher education who would hope that the edict is a signal have mused about whether and what it would take for the Vatican to strip an institution’s status as a Catholic university or college.

What interests The Motley Monk isn’t all of that speculation, but the fear expressed by some of those observers about the consequences—the fall out—of the Vatican decision to strip one institution of its status as Pontifical and Catholic.

For example, of those U.S. Catholic universities and colleges that appear to be “Catholic in Name Only,” the editor of Catholic World News, Phil Lawler, recently wrote:

We could easily supply a long list of colleges and universities that should no longer be allowed to parade as “Catholic” institutions—if only for the sake of truth in advertising.  But before indulging that daydream too long, stop and consider the possible consequences.  If a bishop were to take the bold step of declaring that, say, Georgetown (or Boston College or Fordham or Loyola—take your pick) is no longer a Catholic institution, would the Church be forfeiting a valuable resource?

At one time all these universities were genuinely Catholic. Built up by the contributions of loyal Catholics, they nourished generations of students in the faith before something went terribly wrong. These schools exist because faithful Catholics wanted a solid Catholic education for young people. The campus, the buildings, the proud traditions: these are all part of a patrimony, handed down by our forefathers in the faith. Are we willing to give them all away now?

Yes, I know; these institutions already largely controlled by professors and administrators who are at best indifferent to the Catholic faith, and at worst hostile. But that could change. Just as the culture of dissent took over the schools in the late 20th century, a resurgence of orthodoxy could recapture them in the 21st. If the schools were officially stamped as non-Catholic, it would be much more difficult to reclaim them.


Lawler raises issues that many have been discussing for a very, very long time.

But, The Motley Monk asks:

  • If a Catholic institution isn’t providing students a distinctively Catholic educational experience as the Church defines that, what “valuable” resource would the Church be losing?
  • If that institution’s campus, building, and proud traditions—the “patrimony”—are nothing but mausoleums testifying to a dead past and which the majority of its administrators and faculty wish would disappear into the dustbin of history, what “valuable” resource would the Church be losing?
  • And what evidence is there that those who control most of these institutions today have in place succession plans to ensure they will be replaced by authentically Catholic academics—that so-called “resurgence of orthodoxy”?


Speculating about the answers to these questions isn’t necessary.  After all, the answers are already in.

Consider George M. Marsden’s “The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.”

  • All of those once eminent Protestant universities and colleges in the United States he studied are now abundantly-endowed, nonsectarian, and secular institutions.
  • The patrimony has been eviscerated from their institutional cultures.
  • Any hoped-for resurgence of orthodoxy hasn’t happened for 100+ years and, quite likely, won’t happen any time soon, given the state of U.S. Protestantism.


The Motley Monk is wondering whether the fear of losing a “valuable” resource is a chimera, one engendering cowardice in those who bear a moral responsibility for U.S. Catholic higher education.

What’s at stake?

The soul of U.S. Catholic higher education, what may have once been a valuable resource.



To read Phil Lawler’s article, click on the following link:

To read The Motley Monk’s daily blog, click on the following link:

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  1. Marsden’s account was preceded by 5 decades by the inimitable WFB, Jr with “God and Man at Yale.”

  2. Maybe if a couple of smaller ones are axed, the bigger ones who wish to correct their courses will do so.

  3. This seems like a false dichotomy. The choice isn’t between stripping the colleges of their Catholic label (the Motley Monk’s proposal, I think) and doing nothing (the coward’s choice). There’s another possibility: declaring that Catholic colleges are a valuable resource and doing something to make them more Catholic. There’s nothing cowardly about that.

    Lawler makes a mistake if he’s simply hoping that things will change. Change has to be a transitive verb. Triage is a pointless exercise if you’re just labelling which patients are incurable. Once you have identified the ones that can be saved, you have to do something to help them. So, what can the Church, or its faithful members, do to pull a school like Georgetown out of its rut? If nothing, then by all means strip it of its designation. If there is something, however, we need to figure it out and get to work. Lawler mentions the teachers and administrators. There’s a good starting point.

  4. “This seems like a false dichotomy. The choice isn’t between stripping the colleges of their Catholic label (the Motley Monk’s proposal, I think) and doing nothing (the coward’s choice). There’s another possibility: declaring that Catholic colleges are a valuable resource and doing something to make them more Catholic. There’s nothing cowardly about that.”

    No, though very hard and, for some, probably too late.

    The same problem is going on with Catholic hospitals though not yet to the degree that universities have been hit. I work at a Catholic hospital. We are setting up a bioethics curriculum to teach residents. I am struggling to get the Catholic perspective on bioethics taught. No one wants to allow it.

  5. Phillip, my prayers are with you. This could be the most important testimony of your faith that you give in your entire life. I hope that it’s not too late for Catholic schools or for your employer.

  6. Phil Lawler says in his article:

    “A resolute bishop might not need to strip a wayward school of its “Catholic” status. He might only need to remind administrators of that possibility. Imagine that a bishop warned a Catholic university president that he (the bishop) was thinking of making a public announcement that the school was no longer Catholic; wouldn’t that have an impact? Or suppose the bishop said that he was prepared to call a few wealthy Catholic donors, and encourage them to suspend their contributions? This might be one of those cases in which the threat is more potent that the execution.”

    To the contrary:

    A “Catholic” college scheduled a conference on its campus including workshops by Planned Parenthood. The local bishop asked the Jesuit president to cancel the conference, but he would not do such. The bishop then said that he would take that response into account when considering the future of the Catholic status of that college in his diocese. The president called the bishop’s bluff and went ahead with the conference. The bishop “blinked” and did nothing. At that college’s commencement the following spring, the bishop was on the dias, sitting next to the president, and delivered the benediction.

    At another “Catholic” college a conservative Jesuit was chosen president by a fluke. When the liberals (both clerical and lay) realized what he would do, they asked a number of wealthy donors to suspend their contributions. The donors did such, and the new president resigned after nine months, never to take another position (teaching or administrative) in any academic institution (Catholic or otherwise).

  7. As one currently employed by a catholic university, I would say that talk of ‘retaking’ the universities is pointless. Usually it’s the admin who have some attachment to catholicism and once in a while try to make catholicism felt. But the faculty are not catholic or sympathetic to catholicism, especially in the humanities. Faculty hiring is almost never by merit but almost always by previous connections and by who seems the best ‘fit’. The liberals and anti catholics control the hiring process, and can to hire people like them, which the ivy leagues turn out every year. I would say it’s best to support the smaller, newer catholic colleges, that may not have many faculty or big endowments, but at least actually are catholic.

  8. I wish the Vatican would start pretty soon a scanning of what Pontificial Catholic Universities, Seminaries and catholic labelled high schools are doing to the teaching of ou faith! Many faithful families would rather send their children and youth to non-catholic schools today. A cleanse is badly needed in the area.

  9. lee faber, you mention that “(f)aculty hiring is almost never by merit but almost always
    by previous connections and by who seems the best ‘fit. The liberals and the anti
    (C)atholics control the hiring process…”. I’d point out that not only is this especially
    true in the humanities, as you mention, but that it also applies for those Catholic
    universities that continue to have theology departments.

    Our bishops have largely ignored Canon #812 of the 1983 Code that states that
    Catholic theologians must seek and obtain a mandatum from their bishop.
    In doing so, they have for thirty years removed themselves from the process of
    determining just who may claim to be a “Catholic theologian”. Into that vacuum
    have stepped precisely the liberals and anti-Catholics on the hiring and tenure
    committees you described above. Nowadays, anyone may teach and claim
    to be a “Catholic theologian” if they can find a journal to publish them and an
    administrator to hire them. They need never even know the name of their bishop,
    let alone seek his license to teach in the name of the Church. I repeat, it is the
    university hiring and tenure committees that decide just who is a Catholic theologian,
    and our bishops have removed themselves from all decision-making about who
    may teach in the name of the Church.

    I think it is ridiculous to believe that our once-Catholic universities will ever regain
    their orthodox identities. Our bishops have not shown much leadership in re-estab-
    lishing the Catholic identities of our colleges, and until they do, the breakdown will
    continue, not magically reverse on its own.

  10. The issue is frought with complexity, and is best considered on consultation with/deference to faithful Catholic professors. Having gone through 2 closures of private schools in our family, both contentious, I have learned that the two most inportant things at stake in any school are (1st) the good teachers – they are “the primary good” that needs to be preserved, and (only 2nd) the resources they need to teach. Sometimes – we elevate #2 to primacy with #1. No. 2 can always be mustered.

    Now by “good teachers” in a Catholic context, I would define them as those who willingly pledge themselves faithful to the Church led by The Pope and guided by The Magisterium. An example of teachers that must be supported are those professors in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, by virtue of their statement of purpose (excerpts below):

    ?”We accept as the rule of our life and thought the entire faith of the Catholic Church… not merely in solemn definitions but in the ordinary teaching of the Pope and those bishops in union with him, and also embodied in those modes of worship and ways of Christian life, of the present as of the past, which have been in harmony with the teaching of St. Peter’s successors ….
    ?”The questions raised by contemporary thought must be considered with courage and dealt with in honesty. … We wish to accept a responsibility which a Catholic scholar may not evade: to assist everyone, so far as we are able, to personal assent to the mystery of Christ as made manifest through the lived faith of the Church, His Body…”

    I am sad to admit that most “Catholic Schools” are now bastions of new age heresy, materialism and secular progressive politics. If a school can be reclaimed, like a lost sheep, I rejoice. Meanwhile, let us support faithful professors everywhere, faithful schools where they exist, and new schools that are trying to get established/survive. The objective is this: real Catholic education for parents, teachers and students, and a place for real Catholic teachers to work and thrive.

  11. This thread makes me think about Catholic history. At any time, there are a few religious orders that are small, holy, and booming. Some of the others are fat and complacent, and some of them are slowly sinking. Of course, sometimes an established order can experience a revival. I imagine the same is true about Catholic schools. And if the Carmelites can fall into complacency, how much more likely is it that Georgetown University would? So, yeah, foster the promising new ones, fix the fixable old ones, and terminate the unfixable ones, just as you would with religious orders.

  12. Censoring “Catholic” colleges and universities seems to me to be too little too late. The same goes for many “Catholic” primary and secondary schools which are “Catholic” in name only but do not catechize students in the Catholic faith beginning with the basics taught in the Catechism. This is not new. It seems to me to have gone on since Vatican II and was given little more than lip service. Now there are nearly 2 generations which wonder what all the fuss in the Church is now about. Is it any wonder? They only know what they have been taught.

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