Catholic Higher Education: Ministry of the Head and Heart

Nelson Mandela, the world renowned South African who led the fight to end apartheid in his nation, once stated, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” But what manner of education do we seek for our students at a Catholic college or university? The answer to this important and profound question is wrapped inside the question of Catholic identity, an idea that has had much play in higher education over the past 25 years, since the publication of Ex corde ecclesiae in 1990. Is there an essential aspect of learning, a contribution that Catholic education makes, that is different and, more importantly, a positive addition to the education process? A Catholic education must enliven the head, but it also must transform the heart.

The Present Situation Explained
In their exhaustive 2006 study, Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis, Melanie Morey and John Piderit, S.J., sounded a warning: “Catholic colleges and universities face dramatic threats to the vibrancy of their religious culture and, perhaps, to their survival.”1 This clarion call needs to be renewed, as the fabric of American Catholic higher education continues to wear thinner with the passing of time. For approximately 400 years, beginning with the work of the Jesuits and their classical method of ratio studiorum, Catholic higher education largely served its clientele well, initially preparing future clergy and, later, a broader student constituency to be prepared in mind and heart to serve society at large and, in many cases, the Church specifically. Catholic higher education understood its role; educators, administrators, and the hierarchy were “on the same page” in their common outlook on the purpose and realization of Catholic colleges and universities.

By the mid-20th century, however, winds of change were clearly blowing and began to raise the roof of the Catholic higher education system. In 1955, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis published a seminal article that berated Catholic higher education for its failure to produce any number of notable scholars. He claimed that because the efforts of Catholic educators were too fractured and splintered amongst a host of various colleges and universities, these institutions could not develop great scholarship. The Second Vatican Council indirectly brought about significant changes in Catholic higher education through its strong promotion of the advanced role of the laity in the Church. As a result, sponsoring religious communities had less control, leading to a diminution of Catholic identity. The elimination of in loco parentis, and the substitution of departments of religious studies for theology, were initially thought to be positive ways to move Catholic higher education forward. In a similar vein, the desire to lessen Catholic distinctiveness in the area of education, to be assimilated more into the mainstream with secular institutions, while bringing some needed and significant economic benefits, also moved Catholic colleges and universities away from their root purpose and function. The process of canonical alienation, by which religious communities or local dioceses ceded control of the institution to a lay board of trustees, was even more problematic. These changes allowed Catholic colleges and universities to compete on a higher level academically, receive government funding, and find greater prestige within the scholarly community. However, this progress has been achieved at a heavy and significant price, namely the diminution, or at worst, the loss of Catholic identity. Additionally, the simultaneous turmoil present in United States society, at large, throughout the decade of the 1960s, and the ramifications of the general trend toward secularism added significantly to the rupture in the fabric of Catholic higher education that remains today.

In its long and proud history, Catholic higher education has made great strides, especially in the post-Vatican II era (after 1965), but progress has come with a heavy price. The aforementioned canonical alienation brought about the most significant change, both positive and negative. Starting with Notre Dame and Webster College in 1967, Catholic institutions of higher learning welcomed the laity, both men and women, to share in every avenue of this educational endeavor, but especially as administrators, professors, and members of the governing board. Their contributions have been invaluable in transforming Catholic education, allowing it to compete and stand equal to, or in many cases, above, similar non-faith based institutions. One of the primary architects of this revolution in Catholic higher education was Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, a Holy Cross priest who served as president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987. In 1967, Hesburgh gathered a group of Catholic higher education administrators for a conference at Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. The statement published at that meeting suggests that Catholic schools are to be the best possible in providing a proper education for students today. It is very important to note, however, that this statement also speaks of the difference Catholic education must make: “Distinctively … the Catholic University must be an institution, a community of learners, or a community of scholars, in which Catholicism is perceptively present, and effectively operative.”2  Unfortunately, while intentions were good, this latter idea has slowly evaporated from the campuses of most Catholic colleges and universities which struggle to define and manifest a strong Catholic identity.

The ramifications of the loss of Catholic identity are, indeed, multiple and significant. The historian of Catholic higher education, Sr. Alice Gallin, OSU, has concluded, “The danger to the identifiable Catholic character of most colleges was, and is, not imaginary.”3 The Catholic theologian and historian, James Hitchcock has lamented this loss of identity in terms of the perception that Catholicism cannot stand with the academic community on its own merits:

The growth of purely secular influences within the institution is justified on grounds of the school’s liberality—students need to be brought into contact with living representatives of other traditions. Even more important, the Catholic tradition itself is sometimes taught from a dissenting standpoint, on the grounds that official dogma does not adequately reflect the modern human experience and, finally, because dogmatic claims themselves are simply unsustainable in the modern academy. The standard by which the university measures itself is not that of the larger Church, certainly not that of the hierarchy, but that of an intellectual community so ecumenical that it includes a preponderance of nonbelievers.4

Even Fr. Hesburgh wrote, “Guard your Catholic character as you would your life.”5

A Proposed Solution
Education at a Catholic institution of higher education must be different than what is offered at secular, non-faith based institutions. We live in a highly secularized, first world environment in the United States, and the marks of what general society considers important are clear: power, wealth, and prestige. These have been, and always will be, the three great temptations of our world. It was the same in the time of the Roman Empire in Palestine, but Jesus, as St. Matthew (4:1-11) describes it best, offered something different. Rather than bending to these temptations, Jesus offered virtue. It is the mission of Catholic higher education collectively to say that, while the general goal of educationnamely, to prepare young men and women to live productive lives in our societyis central, we can, and must do more.  Indeed, what makes a Catholic college or university education different is its call to center education in a faith-based perspective. This certainly does not mean that all who participate in the endeavor need to be Roman Catholic, but fostering the mission is essential. Catholic institutions of higher learning call students to ask deep and profound questions about themselves and their world. Such an education must challenge students to go beyond what secular society says is most meaningful or relevant. David M. O’Connell, bishop of Trenton, New Jersey, and former president of The Catholic University of America, put it this way: “Catholic schools are places, as the saying goes ‘where faith and knowledge meet,’ but unless that meeting inspires, unless that meeting engages, unless that meeting lights a fire, unless that meeting changes lives, our schools are simply that: just ‘schools.’”6 Indeed, as the Jesuit priest William Rehg states, “The distinctiveness of Catholic higher education will lie in how its Catholicity impinges on the understanding and carrying out of its academic mission.”7

What is it that makes a Catholic college or university unique; what must Catholic institutions of higher learning exhibit to provide an alternative to secular education? The answer must be to provide an education of the mind and heart. Fr. Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, understood this two-fold purpose of education. He wrote, “We shall never forget that virtue … is the spice that preserves science. We shall always place education side-by-side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart. While we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall, likewise, do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.”8 Lest one think that Moreau spoke more as a priest than as an educator, he also wrote, “Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we will confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries. No, we wish to accept science without prejudice and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times. We do not want our students to be ignorant of anything they should know. To this end, we shall shrink from no sacrifice.”9

Catholic colleges and universities, therefore, must continue the tradition of Catholic higher learning expressed specifically through education of the mind and heart. Catholic education must arise, as Ex corde ecclesiae states, “from the heart of the Church.” Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., even more recently explained, “On a Catholic campus, the faith should be woven into every fabric of university life. That is the only way the university can help the student engage the culture from a uniquely Catholic perspective.”10  Our present Holy Father, Pope Francis, when speaking of this added dimension of a Catholic education, wrote, “Another temptation is to prefer head values to heart values. That should not be the case. Only the heart unifies and integrates. Intellect without a sense of piety tends to divide.”11

The present situation in Catholic higher education is a reality that cannot be denied, but those in positions to resolve the situation cannot, as has been the case for far too long, continue to wring their hands, asking “What can be done?” The aforementioned reality in Catholic higher education has grown to its present state through a failure of the collective leadership of Catholic colleges and universities to properly guide their institutions away from the prevailing tidal wave toward the secularization of the academy, seemingly oblivious to the gradual diminution away from the basic purpose of Catholic education that this slippery slope has created. Possibly due to a desire to avoid confrontation, fear of economic ramifications through loss of students, or uncertain as to what steps should be taken, senior leadership in many Catholic colleges and universities has failed to challenge those who seek to separate institutions from their Catholic roots.  Unfortunately, as scholars of American Catholic education, Melanie Morey and John Piderit, S.J., have written, “Not all senior administrators … (are) convinced that Catholic colleges and universities have a responsibility to educate students about the Catholic tradition.”12

The leadership failure that requires resolution comes on two fronts: senior administration, and boards of trustees. Senior administrators must acknowledge the dilemma and courageously act to resolve it. For far too long, those in positions to act have done little, largely because of confusion concerning their charge.  Philip Gleason has accurately stated the reality, “The crisis is not that Catholic educators do not want their institutions to remain Catholic, but they are no longer sure what remaining Catholic means.”13 Bishop O’Connell, suggesting that the administrators must lead the charge for Catholic identity, presents a positive way forward:

To do so the administrator must understand and believe in the Catholic identity of the school; must see its mission determined, supported, and motivated by its Catholic identity; must lead the school effectively—its faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, and benefactors—toward the accomplishment of its mission; and, must motivate his/her collaborators in the process of institutional assessment or evaluation so that everyone will recognize that the school is what it says it is, does what it says it does, and is excellent at both.14

Morey and Piderit suggest that serving as a senior administrator “imposes a burden and the clear expectation of fidelity to the Church and its teachings, and (for Catholics) active participation in its sacramental life.”  They continue, “Providing leadership for religious, cultural advancement is the responsibility of presidents and boards of trustees, not sponsoring religious communities.”15 These officials must be given the authority to act decisively to enhance the Catholic culture on campus in every venue. Such authority must be given by boards of trustees who carry a heavy burden of responsibility for promoting the Catholicity of their institutions. Morey and Piderit suggest that boards are highly attuned to civil legal compliance, because failure to comply may place the institution in jeopardy. A similar attitude is necessary, but largely absent today, with respect to the institution’s spiritual dimension. They write, “Ignorance of the law of the Church, or disregard for its obligations, also can have serious implications for Catholic colleges and universities.  Both trustees and presidents have a responsibility to make sure the college is fulfilling its obligations.”16  Senior leadership must take up the challenge to recognize the reality of the dilemma, and then have the courage to act as necessary to return their institutions to ones that promote education of both the mind and the heart.

Catholic colleges and universities can, and must, move forward, proclaiming proudly their Catholic identity. It is time to reclaim what was lost, by adhering to the basic purpose and mission of Catholic education, as articulated before and now, during this period of dilemma; action and courage are absolutely necessary. We can learn a lesson from John Tracy Ellis, who, when calling for action to advance intellectualism in Catholic colleges and universities, wrote, “Any effective remedy will require plain speaking and courageous action.”17 One might also take a lesson from the words of Edmund Burke: “It is better to run the risk of falling into faults in a course which leads us to act with effect and energy, than to loiter out our days without blame and without use.”18 Without attention and action to resolve the dilemma, the prediction of Fr. James Burtchaell, CSC, may not lie too far down the road:

If our account of alienation as a repeating process is reliable, the American Catholic institutions of higher education are nearing the end of a process of formal detachment from accountability to their Church, and instead of exerting themselves to oblige the Church to be a more creditable patron of higher learning, they are qualifying for acceptance by, and on the terms of, the secular academic culture, and are likely soon to hand over their institutions unencumbered by any compromise and accountability to the Church.19

From the foundation of Georgetown University by Bishop John Carroll in 1791 to the present early 21st century, Catholic higher education in the United States has evolved from institutions for minims as a pipeline to seminary training and priesthood, to some nationally known institutions noted for both scholarship and state-of-the-art research. Catholic higher education in the United States can rightly be proud of its progress, acceptance in the academy and general society, and, most especially, the millions of graduates who have made significant contributions to our world. Yet, the recent significant progress made has come with a high price that, for many institutions, has led to a loss of focus, direction, identity, and purpose. A combination of several factors, all of which actually sought to positively develop Catholic colleges and universities, have led, through many unexpected consequences, to a dilemma in Catholic education, as manifested today most prominently in a general acceptance of the secular academy’s ideas as normative, an increasingly tangential and strained relationship with the hierarchical Church and Magisterial teaching, a rise in anti-Catholic rhetoric as an acceptable prejudice, and a loss of identity, namely, what it means to be Catholic.

The situation is serious, but there is a solution, and it is not complicated. There is no possibility and, therefore, no need, to return to the pre-Vatican II Church, and the then contemporary understanding of Catholic higher education. But Catholic institutions of higher learning today, served by those in leadership roles, must reimagine and recapture the traditional purpose and identity of their schools, which were lost when an overemphasis on the perceived need for change and updating, one might say an aggiornamento for Catholic higher education, transformed these institutions over the past 50 years. When these institutions have resolidified their purpose and identity to their original foundations, then reasserting that the basic premise of Catholic higher education is to develop both the mind and the heart of students can become a reality. Such an endeavor requires people of vision and courage to challenge a tidal wave of opposition which has grown higher and stronger over time. The time to act has arrived!

  1. Melanie M. Morey and John J. Piderit, SJ. Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 282.
  2. “Land O’Lakes Statement: The Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University,” in American Catholic Higher Education: Essential Documents, 1967-1990, ed. Alica Gallin, OSU (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.
  3. Alice Gallin, OSU, Negotiating Identity: Catholic Higher Education since 1960 (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), 22, 51.
  4. James Hitchcock, “Saving Truth: Catholic Universities and Their Traditions,” in Shea and Van Slyke, Trying Times, 126.
  5. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, “Catholic Education in America,” America 115 (October 4, 1966), 164.
  6. David O’Connell, CM, “Catholic Schools, Our Hope—Keynote Address,” Catholic Education: A Jounral of Inquiry and Practice 16(1) (September 2012), 160.
  7. William Rehg, SJ, “Catholic Education in the Public Sphere” in Trying Times: Essays on Catholic Higher Education in the 20th Century, eds. William M. Shea and David van Slyke (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999), 185.
  8. Basil Moreau, CSC, Circular Letter #36. Found in Kevin Grove, CSC, and Andrew Gawrych, CSC, eds. Basil Morerau Essential Witings (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2014), 417.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Donald Wuerl, Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living Our Faith (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), 135.
  11. Pope Francis, “The Faith that Fires Us,” In Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus (New York: Crossroad, 2014), 27.
  12. Morey and Piderit, Catholic Higher Education, 94.
  13. Philip Gleason, Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 320.
  14. O’Connell, “Catholic Schools, Our Hope,” 156.
  15. Morey and Piderit, Catholic Higher Education, 241, 307.
  16. Ibid., 304.
  17. John Tracy Ellis, “No Complacency,” America 95 (April 7, 1956), 25.
  18. Larry Chang, ed. Wisdom for the Soul (Washington, D.C.: Gnosophia Publishers, 2006), 301.
  19. James Burtchaell, CSC, “The Decline and Fall of the Christian College, Part II,” First Things 13 (May 1991), 38.
Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC About Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC

Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC, is a Holy Cross priest, presently serving as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts. He has written extensively on American Catholic history.


  1. Avatar Jon M. Ericson says:

    Father Gribble raises issues and concerns important to any church related college or university. A beginning towards a “solution” , if indeed one is needed, is a clear acceptance of two scriptural truths: First, as the hymn so beautifully reminds us, This is My Father’s World ; this is God’s creation given to us to know and love. By it very nature, it is secular. Second, Catholic higher education shall be known by its fruits, not by who is on the faculty or governing board. While my knowledge of those fruits is limited to a handful of graduates from Notre Dame, I know that one of the brightest and best of those is teaching disadvantaged students in Harlem. If he exemplifies the graduates, I would say, all is well with Catholic Higher Education.

  2. Avatar Alan L. Woods, MD, PhD, ND says:

    What is missing across the board in education, Catholic or otherwise, is “Stewardship” or “the responsible care for something that has been entrusted to you”. Whether it is other human beings, animals, plant-life or the gifts given to us through creation, as stewards, we are among the worst that has ever occupied God’s Gifts to us.
    One has to learn, it is not about you, but, everyone and everything else. You come last! And, by living one’s life in this manner, you are placed first by everyone and everything else, including and most importantly, God.
    In education today, stewardship is not even an afterthought. From kindergarten through 12th grade and then in college, it should be and integral part of the curriculum.
    Industry and corporations in general, should have to, under law, abide by two guiding principles.
    1- Anything you make must benefit humanity in some significant way, and
    2- You cannot cause any pollution or damage to the environment, air, land or water, in the process.
    We have lost respect for life and environment and are being taught, “Move to your own beat”.
    I think this best describes the “mind and heart” approach that has been lost in all education.

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    The confusion as to what Catholic higher education should be and accomplish is well represented.
    The ‘Father’s World’ is, or should be, anything but ‘secular’. Considering it as such is a major part of the problem.
    Producing ‘teachers of handicapped children in Harlem’ is certainly an admirable calling but if one teaches nothing different than secular subjects it is no different than any other Protestant, Agnostic or Atheist effort at helping people.
    The guiding principles of ‘benefitting humanity’ and ‘no damage to the environment’ , if you could ever come up with a reasonable explanation of what they mean, relate to nothing that is specifically Catholic.
    Herein lies the state of thinking of those that are supposedly Catholic — nothing that is uniquely different from any other person of good will. This reflects precisely the points of the article: we can no longer distinguish ourselves as Catholic from anyone else that seeks excellence as defined by this world in which we are living.