Orthodox US Catholic colleges and universities continue to flourish

Orthodox US Catholic colleges and universities continue to flourish

Julia Duin

Increasing numbers of parents among the United States' 63 million Catholics are turning their backs on the traditional powerhouse Catholic universities such as Notre Dame and Georgetown. Instead, they are gravitating towards a new breed of college that aims to attract students who place God's truth, moral absolutes and loyalty to Pope John Paul II above parties, sexual hookups and winning football programs.

The trend has not gone unnoticed among orthodox Catholic groups with the wherewithal to found their own schools. All five Catholic colleges that opened in the past five years, or are set to do so by next year, are quite conservative, says Michael James, associate executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU).

Students at these schools, and their instructors, wouldn't be caught dead attending Jesuit-founded Georgetown University, where the Vatican's Cardinal Arinze, who briefly criticised homosexuality during a graduation speech in May, drew protests from 70 faculty members.

Neither do these more traditional students and professors honour Jesuit-founded Boston College, which has a support group for homosexuals and a "queer resources directory" on its Website.

Patrick Reilly, founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, a campus watchdog group, identifies what he calls a fundamental challenge.

"[I]n the 10 years we've been working on this," he says, "we've not been able to [convince] Catholic educators to admit these things are problems that need to be addressed. Until they admit that, we do not expect significant changes."

Does the antidote mean a return to traditions and rites such as Lenten fasts, holy days and daily Mass?

Definitely, say administrators at Thomas Aquinas College, on 130 acres of eucalyptus trees and mustard fields just outside the dusty California town of Santa Paula. Nestled against the Los Padres National Forest 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the school's Spanish-mission revival architecture breathes tradition and stability.

Student life at Thomas Aquinas includes three Masses a day, nightly recitations of the Rosary and grace said before classes and meals. Processions on campus mark holidays honoring the Virgin Mary.

The freshman classes of 102 students both this fall and last are the largest in the college's 32-year history. Twelve percent of graduates become priests or religious.

Administrators at new-breed Catholic colleges interviewed by The Washington Times describe their role as similar to that of the monasteries of the Dark Ages: trying to maintain vestiges of civilisation in the face of the barbarians of modernity.

America's 222 Catholic universities and colleges have come a long way since beginning as schools for poor immigrant children in the 19th century. By the 1950s, typical fare included mandatory chapel, prayers before class, crucifixes in the classrooms, teaching on Thomistic philosophy, meatless Fridays, Saturday confessions, eucharistic adorations and, in the main, priests and nuns as instructors.

However, in 1967, leading Catholic university presidents gathered for a meeting convened by the Rev Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame. They produced the "Land O' Lakes statement" declaring independence from Church control. More and more big-name Catholic universities decided to admit increasing numbers of non-Catholics.

Pope John Paul II, perceiving that Catholic universities around the world had drifted far from their roots, in 1990 issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a document insisting that authentic doctrine be upheld in purportedly Catholic schools.

The most nettlesome requirement for academics ordered theology professors to obtain a mandatum from the local bishop certifying their doctrinal purity. Ex Corde also required that at least half the faculty at any college be practising Catholics.

Although many academics charged the Vatican with threatening their freedom, few if any American bishops booted out dissenting faculty during the 1990s.

Christendom College

Christendom College in Front Royal, 60 miles west of Washington, DC, is named after the medieval European concept of the Catholic faith being the cornerstone of civilisation.

"Parents have figured out what's being offered around the country in terms of Catholic education is a fraud," Christendom theology professor William Marshner says, "so these smaller places are getting a second look. These schools are the genuine article. Parents know their children won't lose the faith there."

Christendom's 50 faculty members take an oath of loyalty to Church teachings and all but one of 370 students is Catholic. A respectable 10 percent of graduates become priests or nuns.

"Most Catholic universities and colleges are indistinguishable from secular schools," Christendom President Dr Timothy O'Donnell argues. "They may have a bit of Gothic architecture, but that is all."

Christendom retains several customs long since discarded at other Catholic institutions: dress codes, single-sex dorms and a ban on public displays of affection.

"I'd been raised Catholic," says Jen Coleman, 21, a literature major from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, "but had never been immersed in such a Catholic setting. [Being Catholic] is integrated in the lives of students, which was a refreshing change."

"We've shown what can be done," Dr O'Donnell says. "Every Catholic family used to have a black sheep, but in the social chaos of the 1960s we lost whole families who didn't practise the faith.

"The founder was determined that people learn history. We've a generation suffering from cultural amnesia; we don't know who we are."

This is a shortened version of what was first published in 'The Washington Times'.

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