Catholic Higher Education in the United States: A Modern Retrospective

Editor’s Note: The Cardinal Newman Society is releasing several articles marking the 50th anniversary of the devastating Land O’Lakes Statement, in which several Catholic university leaders declared Catholic universities independent from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself”. In considering the future of Catholic education, it’s impossible to ignore the past. “How did we get here?” is a question essential to determining how many American Catholic colleges and universities can overcome their conformity to secular norms for curriculum, campus life, governance, and academic freedom. Ultimately, these articles serve as hope that the mistakes of the past can be corrected and that God will bless the renaissance of faithful Catholic education in the United States that is underway.

This article was originally published in The Enduring Nature of the Catholic University, a collection of essays released by The Cardinal Newman Society in 2009. 


On April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Benedict XVI arrived on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to deliver a much anticipated address to Catholic college and university presidents and diocesan education administrators. As president of The Catholic University of America, I was honored to be his host that day.

Although some observers predicted a “pontifical spanking” for those gathered, the Holy Father’s speech was anything but that. In carefully planned and beautifully delivered remarks, Pope Benedict XVI both praised and encouraged Catholic educators for their great service to the Church in our country. At the same time, he presented a vision of and for Catholic education that was clear and compelling:

Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4). This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good, and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of our Lord’s disciples, the Church.1

With respect to the meaning of Catholic identity, the pontiff observed:

Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom (cf. Spe Salvi, 23). In this way our institutions make a vital contribution to the mission of the Church and truly serve society. They become places in which God’s active presence in human affairs is recognized and in which every young person discovers the joy of entering into Christ’s “being for others” (cf. ibid., 28).2

He also presented an insightful and instructive understanding of academic freedom, born from his own experience as a university professor and, now, as Chief Shepherd and Teacher in the Church:

In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.3

His address was well-received and deeply appreciated. As I sat there, listening to Pope Benedict, I could not help but reflect how far Catholic higher education has come in this country in the past more than half-century.

Doubting the Catholic university

In 1955, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, professor of Church history at The Catholic University of America, wrote a scathing criticism of the quality of American Catholic intellectual life in a paper that he delivered at the annual meeting of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs in St. Louis. In his presentation, later published in the Fordham University journal Thought, Ellis gave voice to the belief noted in a popular text of his day on American institutions that

… in no western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful.4

Ellis went on to observe that:

No well-informed American Catholic in this country will attempt to challenge that statement. Admittedly, the weakest aspect of the Church in this country lies in its failure to produce national leaders and to exercise commanding influence in intellectual circles, and this at a time when the numbers of Catholics in the United States… and their material resources are incomparably superior to those of any other branch of the universal Church.5

Ellis presented these ideas over fifty years ago. If his stinging indictment were considered to be true at that time or up to that time, we should wonder why. Much of the fault, I believe, lay not so much in a fear that Catholic scholars demonstrated for Church authorities as some have argued but, rather, in a fear of the judgments of their secular academic counterparts. The lack of courage to present the teachings of the Church with conviction in their inherent truth within a broader scholarly community evidenced a not-too-subtle belief among our own Catholic scholars that religious faith and scholarly activity based upon it was an embarrassment that relegated Catholic intellectuals to a second-class status. Faith, after all, was considered in the secular arena to be the true enemy of reason in an “enlightened” intellectual world.

There was, no one can honestly doubt, an anti-Catholic prejudice at work in the United States from the time of its foundation and a genuine hostility “to all things Catholic,” as Monsignor Ellis noted.6 Even Harvard professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., once labeled “bias against your Church as the most persistent prejudice in the history of the American people.”7 For that reason, among others, much of the energy within the American Catholic community in general and the American Catholic professorate in particular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was devoted to “apologetics” rather than pure scholarly endeavor. The audience to which they made their appeals was largely an immigrant population that did not place primary value on Catholic intellectual advancement let alone creating great Catholic institutions of higher learning. One needs look no further than the history of The Catholic University of America to verify that assertion.8

The concept of a national Catholic research university was hotly debated within the American hierarchy itself. And, yet, although visible efforts were made by many within the Catholic academy to promote Catholic higher education as their existing colleges expanded into universities, as late as 1938 the challenge was presented to the Church and Catholic scholars that “research cannot be the primary object of a Catholic graduate school because it is at war with the whole Catholic life of the mind.”9 American Catholic “universities” were popularly viewed as concerned not so much with the penetration of truth as they were with passing on a given tradition of truth, the Catholic tradition, in which little in the way of addition, alteration, or development was deemed necessary.10 It was an unfortunate perception that higher education within the American Catholic academic community was an “either/or” proposition rather than “both/and.”

When Ellis authored his now famous essay, he had no idea that a Vatican Council would soon be convened to address the situation of the Church in the modern world. The pope who would call for that council was still the cardinal archbishop of Venice. When he assumed the papacy in the fall of 1958 and a year later announced the 21st ecumenical council, Pope John XXIII would usher in a new era in the history of the Catholic Church and with it, a new urgency to reform its structures and institutions throughout the world. Catholic higher education was not spared the effects of this “aggiornamento.”

In his apostolic constitution Humanae salutis convening the Council, Pope John XXIII wrote that the Church at that moment was:

…witnessing a crisis under way within society. While humanity is on the edge of a new era, tasks of immense gravity and amplitude await the Church, as in its most tragic periods of history. It is a question in fact of bringing the modern world into contact with the vivifying and perennial energies of the gospel, a world which exalts itself with its conquests in the technical and scientific fields, but which brings also the consequences of a temporal order which some have wished to reorganize excluding God. This is why modern society is earmarked by a great material progress to which there is no corresponding advance in the moral field.11

The Holy Father addressed the hierarchy gathered in Council on October 11, 1962, stating that “the greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously.”12 Notice the phrase “guarded and taught!”

That concern, as it related to Catholic institutions of higher learning, had been voiced some thirty-one years earlier by Pope Pius XI in his apostolic constitution Deus Scientiarum Dominus where he wrote that the Church’s chief concern in all of Catholic education had always been the correct teaching of doctrine.13 Anyone well acquainted with Church teaching and its development in history could hardly argue that this process was ever or could ever be legitimately envisioned as a static enterprise.

Defining the Catholic university

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) dealt specifically with the broad topic of formal Catholic education in their 1965 declaration Gravissimum educationis. It has been said that the underlying concern of the Council was “education,” “Catholic education” in one form or another.14 The situation of Catholic universities and colleges received specific attention. The declaration stated that:

The Church is preoccupied too with schools of higher learning, especially colleges and universities and their faculties. In schools of this sort which are dependent upon her, she seeks in a systematic way to have individual branches of knowledge studied according to their own proper principles and methods, and with due freedom of scientific investigation. She intends thereby to promote an ever deeper understanding of these fields, and as a result of extremely precise evaluation of modern problems and inquiries, to have it seen more profoundly how faith and reason give harmonious witness to the unity of all truth. The Church pursues such a goal after the manner of her most illustrious teachers, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. The hoped-for result is that the Christian mind may achieve, as it were, a public, persistent, and universal presence in the whole enterprise of advancing higher culture, and that students of these institutions may become men (and women) truly outstanding in learning, ready to shoulders society’s heavier burdens and to witness the faith to the world.15

One should notice the emphasis given here to proper disciplinary methodology, due freedom of inquiry, growth in understanding, students outstanding in learning, advancing higher culture and witness to faith.

During the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, Catholic universities and colleges throughout the world engaged in an effort to define their nature and mission in the Church and world more clearly. That process witnessed the eager participation of members of the American Catholic academy, chastised as they had been by Monsignor Ellis over ten years earlier.

In 1967, a gathering of Catholic educators in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, sponsored by the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU) produced a document that set forth its own credo on the nature of Catholic colleges and universities:

The Catholic university today must be a university in the full modern sense of the word, with a strong commitment to and concern for academic excellence. To perform its teaching and research function effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical external to the academic community itself. To say this is simply to assert that institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth and indeed of survival for Catholic universities as for all universities. The Catholic university participates in the total life of our time, has the same functions as all other true universities and, in general, offers the same services to society.16

Notice the emphasis given to authority “external to the academic community itself.” The stage was now set for what would become a decades-long effort to resolve growing contemporary tensions between the teaching Church and Catholic institutions of higher learning that existed in a variety of forms within its embrace in the post-conciliar era. Other international meetings would continue to occur but nowhere, at least in my opinion, were these tensions as keenly felt as within the American Catholic academic community.

The controversy surrounding the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae17 in 1968, again in my opinion, distracted educators from the process of addressing the issue of the nature and purpose of Catholic institutions of higher education. In the minds of some, however, especially in the United States, Humanae Vitae was precisely the type of Church teaching that provided a timely example with which to frame the debate. Dissent over this encyclical crystallized the polarization between the faithful presentation and teaching of Church doctrine that Pope John XXIII saw as the “greatest concern” of the Council he convened and  “the true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind” that was the mantra of those who subscribed to the assertions of the Land O’Lakes manifesto. In many respects, The Catholic University of America at the time was the epicenter of the storm.

In 1972, at the invitation of the Holy See and IFCU, Catholic universities and colleges were invited to send delegates to an international congress in Rome, the second such gathering in Rome since Land O’Lakes. Their deliberations resulted in a document, “The Catholic University in the Modern World,”18 which accomplished two major things:

  1. it defined six basic types of Catholic post-secondary institutions that existed within the Church:
    1. those directly established by ecclesiastical authorities and those which were not;
    2. those with statutory relationships to ecclesiastical authorities and those which had none;
    3. those with a formal, explicit commitment to Church teaching and beliefs and those whose commitment was merely implicit.
  2. it also provided a framework for Catholic identity and mission later cited by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae.19

Responding to this document, the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education at that time, Cardinal Gabriel Marie Garrone, wrote that although the statement envisioned the existence of Catholic institutions of higher learning without formally established or statutory links to ecclesiastical authority, Catholic institutions should not consider themselves removed from those relationships with the hierarchical structures of the Church which must characterize institutions that call themselves Catholic.20 A clear point of difference with the Land O’Lakes statement!

Ten years later, the revised 1983 Code of Canon Law,21 also mandated by Pope John XXIII along with the Second Vatican Council at the beginning of his papacy in 1959, introduced specific legislation intended to address all Catholic colleges and universities, those canonically dependent upon the Church as well as others that claimed a Catholic foundation, character, and purpose but which lacked an explicit canonical establishment. Pope John Paul II had already addressed the former type of institution before the new Code appeared in his apostolic constitution Sapientia Christiana (April 15, 1979).22 It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of Catholic universities and colleges in the United States were of the latter variety. Needless to say, the provisions of the new Code received a chilly reception within the American Catholic academic community.

Magna Carta for Catholic higher education

Himself a Catholic university professor, Pope John Paul II evidenced a great concern for Catholic institutions of higher learning. Following on the heels of both Sapientia Christiana and the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Holy Father published a second apostolic constitution in 1990 intended to address Catholic universities and colleges that were not ecclesiastical in nature. Ex corde Ecclesiae (August 15, 1990) was, in my opinion, the beginning of the “great thaw” in “the winter of our discontent.”

While not original in the sense that they first appeared in a 1972 document “The Catholic University in the Modern World” produced by the Second International Congress of Delegates of Catholic Universities referred to earlier, the observations of Pope John Paul II summarized what he considered the “bottom line” for Catholic institutions of higher learning. These “essential characteristics” are particularly significant not only because the Holy Father made them his own in Ex corde Ecclesiae but also because they are the reflections of a body of international Catholic educators that helped make the case for a strengthening of the meaning of Catholic identity in Catholic post-secondary academic institutions. Pope John Paul II wrote that:

Since the objective of a Catholic university is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture, every Catholic university as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics:

1. Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such;

2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;

3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;

4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.23

To assist in providing that assurance, the Holy Father noted, perhaps in part an answer to “Land O’Lakes” and other responses of similar kind:

Every Catholic University, without ceasing to be a university, has a relationship to the Church that is essential to its institutional identity. …One consequence of its essential relationship to the Church is that the institutional fidelity of the university to the Christian message includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals. Catholic members of the university community are also called to a personal fidelity to the Church with all that this implies. Non-Catholic members are required to respect the Catholic character of the university, while the university in turn respects their religious liberty.24

With the deftness and insight that have characterized his pontificate and all his writings, drawing upon extraordinary human experiences including that of being a university professor, Pope John Paul II provided in Ex corde Ecclesiae a “magna carta”25 for Catholic higher education throughout the Church, including the United States. Calling for a clearly recognizable relationship between Catholic colleges and universities and the universal and local church in which they exist,26 the Holy Father has wisely required that these institutions “operationalize” their Catholic identity through the assistance of a formal, juridical association with the Church. This juridical dimension and its accompanying call for greater accountability to the Church, unfortunately for some, dominated the discussions that would follow within the American Catholic academic community. I say “unfortunately” because the text and substance of the Holy Father’s apostolic constitution—recognized by many, including those outside of the Catholic academic community, as a magnificent exposition of the unique mission of Catholic higher education—have often been reduced by some to a mere set of legal norms.

When the constitution appeared in its final form, after three drafts and the widest, most extensive public consultations to accompany any Church document, it was generally well received in America. Bishops and Catholic educators in the United States appeared appreciative of the opportunities afforded them by the Congregation for Catholic Education to be involved in its formulation. Some hesitation still lingered in these and other circles with respect to the idea of any juridic norms at all—general or particular—but the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that “there was little to cause anxiety and much to enable and inspire” those involved in Catholic higher education.27

For the better part of the past fifteen years, the bishops and the Catholic academic community in the United States have been engaged in a dialogue regarding the regional application or implementation of the constitution required in its “General Norms.” Here again, several drafts and extensive consultations have accompanied the entire process.

From the beginning, two important presuppositions regarding the outcome of the process have been present: (1) that the application document would include juridic norms; and (2) that the application document would be the product of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops or NCCB (now, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or USCCB) as an episcopal document.

Although these “understandings” were present, their implications were not always clearly appreciated, even among the bishops. One could legitimately claim that they were often avoided or ignored in the hopes they would simply “go away.” In the months immediately preceding the 1999 NCCB meeting, these elements seemed to be all but forgotten, especially within Catholic academic circles. Discussions among Catholic university presidents for which I was present were openly hostile to the idea of episcopal juridic implementation.

The NCCB established an Implementation Committee of bishops in 1991, and several Catholic university presidents were invited to participate as consultors to the committee. An application document was developed, circulated for consultation, revised, approved by the NCCB with a vote of 224-6 on November 16, 1996, and forwarded to the Holy See for the recognitio required by canon law.28 The Congregation for Catholic Education praised the application but indicated that it needed further juridic refinement, especially with respect to Canon 812’s provision regarding the mandate to teach theological disciplines, before it could be passed on to the Congregation for Bishops.

Although the Holy See’s critique was not well received in the United States, the NCCB Implementation Committee set out to respond positively to the Vatican request. A subcommittee was created in 1997 and revised drafts of an application document were developed and circulated in 1998 and 1999 respectively, again accompanied by extensive consultations. A strong argument was made in the Catholic and secular press by critics of the application, including several university presidents and even some bishops, that its provisions would yield “disastrous” results for Catholic universities and colleges in the United States if approved. Concerns were voiced that the new text was, at best, risky and, at worst, destructive of whatever progress had been made in the ongoing dialogue about Catholic identity that had been occurring among bishops and Catholic educators since Ex corde Ecclesiae was first issued in 1990.

Anyone participating in American Catholic academic life since the Code of Canon Law was revised and promulgated in 1983 has heard these concerns before. In fact, some of the more controversial elements now found in the document of implementation known as The Application29 are already contained in canon law’s treatment of “Catholic Universities and Other Institutes of Higher Studies (807-814),” although they were deemed by educators and some canonists as doubtfully applicable in the American Catholic academic context. Similarly, as Ex corde Ecclesiae progressed through its own draft stages in the late 1980s, these same concerns surfaced again.

It would be a mistake to separate The Application as it currently exists from the constitution itself. The “General Norms” accompanying Ex corde Ecclesiae require “local and regional” implementation of the constitution.30 A very concerted effort was made by those concerned with drafting The Application to insure that this text remained directly focused on the constitution, its exhortations and canonical provisions. In fact, several Catholic university presidents explicitly made that recommendation, myself included, during the consultation. Hence, what is required as normative in the resulting juridic text must always be viewed through the broader lens of the constitution itself for accurate interpretation and implementation.

It would equally be a mistake to separate the constitution and The Application from “the teaching of Vatican II and the directives of the Code of Canon Law” upon which it is based, as Pope John Paul II himself has stated.31 Ex corde Ecclesiae, he wrote, “was enriched by the long and fruitful experience of the Church in the realm of universities and open to the promise of future achievements that will require courageous creativity and rigorous fidelity.”32 In the minds of some, these two concepts—courageous creativity and rigorous fidelity—can make strange, even difficult bedfellows. I certainly do not believe that to be the case.

Hope and vision for the future

Apart from a few members of a vanishing generation of Catholic academics, there has been no revolt as had been predicted. In fact, Catholic institutions of higher learning in this country have been unusually quiet given recent history. Catholic universities and colleges continue to possess what the Church has called a “rightful” autonomy and a “legitimate” academic freedom. There have been no major legal battles as had been predicted and the allegedly adverse financial consequences have been exposed as myths. We have witnessed no “pastoral disaster” as one bishop claimed or anything even slightly problematic.

And Catholic teaching continues to be faithfully presented in our institutions by those who are faithful, although it is still challenged by some who view faith and reason at odds. I doubt very much that we will ever make converts of them, no matter what is said or done. The rigorous fidelity of their peers, a new generation of creative Catholic intellectuals and students seeking the truth, and, ultimately, time itself will work together toward the long hoped for renewal in Catholic higher education. The greatest evidence of renewal, however, is present on our campuses within the Catholic students themselves. It has been my experience that they are eager for leadership, hungry for truth, seeking to pray, and open to service to their neighbors. In many ways, they are teaching us.

Ex corde Ecclesiae and The Application promulgated to implement it, in my opinion, spearheaded and inspired an attempt to present a coherent vision that continues to unfold for and within our Catholic universities and colleges in this country. It is up to all of us to replace the tired, negative rhetoric of the not so distant past—when political and polarized ideologies seemed to dominate the conversation—with voices of Catholic scholars and leaders who are faithful and who are “convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter,” joining knowledge to conscience;33 voices of Catholic scholars and leaders who do not, in the words of our Holy Father’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, “run from the truth as soon as they glimpse it because they are afraid of its demands”34 but who stand and serve the truth in charity.

New leadership in the Church brings new emphases. Building upon the strong legacy of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has addressed the value and importance of Catholic higher education several times. Even before his election to the papacy, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote to me of the importance of involving our Catholic universities and colleges in confronting the pressing moral issues of our day. “Universities,” he stated, (should) “organize symposia, possibly with the participation of representatives of different confessions, religions and cultures, in order to identify currents and points of agreement which may be productive in renewing an understanding of the natural moral law.”35 He sees Catholic universities and colleges as an effective element for positive social and cultural change, a “positive choice,” in his words, for all that Catholicism and Christianity represent.

In a speech at Rome’s Sacred Heart University in 2005, Pope Benedict remarked that “The Catholic university is a great workshop in which, in keeping with the various disciplines, new lines of research are constantly being developed in a stimulating encounter between faith and reason… This then is the great challenge to Catholic universities: to impart knowledge in the perspective of true rationality, different from that of today which largely prevails, in accordance with a reason open to the question of the truth and to the great values inscribed in being itself, hence, open to the transcendent, to God.” 36 And when our students graduate, he continued, “How do they leave? What culture did they find, assimilate, develop?” Addressing himself to administration, faculty, staff and students, Pope Benedict encouraged all Catholic universities and colleges “to give life to an authentic Catholic university that excels in the quality of its research and teaching and, at the same time, its fidelity to the Gospel and the Church’s Magisterium.”37

At his Angelus address on January 20, 2008, the Holy Father responded to a protest that, despite the invitation previously extended, occasioned him not to speak on the campus of LaSapienza University in Rome. His words in St. Peter’s Square that day gave us a glimpse into his view of the mission of Catholic higher education in our world today:

The university environment, which for many years was my world, linked for me a love for the seeking of truth, for exchange, for frank and respectful dialogue between differing positions. All this, too, is the mission of the church, charged to faithfully follow Jesus the Teacher of life, of truth and of love. As a professor, so to say, emeritus, who’s encountered many students in his life, I encourage you… to always be respectful of other people’s opinions and to seek out, with a free and responsible spirit, the truth and the good.38



American Jesuits Are in a Free Fall, and the Crisis is Getting Worse

Excitement is building for Jesuits worldwide as their general congregation to elect a new superior general is quickly approaching this fall. The election presents an important opportunity for them to reflect on the future of the Society of Jesus — and to address serious concerns. Even under a Jesuit Pope, the order suffers from a steady decline in membership, dissent and moral confusion within its ranks, and a widening gulf between many Jesuit universities and the Church.

Perhaps that’s why there has been so much attention lately to the announcement that 20 new Jesuit priests were ordained this year in the United States, Canada and Haiti. That’s good news, with the hope that these new priests will be true Soldiers of Christ and embrace the fullness of Church teaching, like their predecessors of old and some notable giants today.

Unfortunately, the ordinations have given rise to misleading claims that the Jesuits’ membership woes are coming to an end. Last month, a Jesuit official told the National Catholic Register that “the trends of new Jesuit entrants show demographic stability is on the horizon.” As best I can determine, that’s fantasy. It’s easy to understand why the Jesuits would look for any sign of hope after decades of decline, but exaggeration is dangerous if it diverts attention away from a very real crisis that is deeper than the numbers alone.

Again, someone seems to have spun a tale to Catholic World Report, which last week declared that, contrary to warnings in recent years, “there never really was an ‘implosion’ of the Jesuits worldwide.”

But there was … and still is. The “implosion” claim was made by Matthew Archbold of The Cardinal Newman Society in 2013, when he cited predictions of “a demographic free fall with declining ordinations and former Jesuits outnumbering active Jesuits in the United States.” Most convincingly, he cited hard data published in 2011 by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) that clearly supported the forecast.

I checked the CARA data again — including a newer study of Jesuit numbers released in 2015 — as well as both Jesuit and Vatican sources, and the numbers remain dismal. Jesuit membership has been spiraling downward for more than 50 years. It’s possible that new entrants and ordinations during the three-year pontificate of Pope Francis could help slow the rate of decline in the Jesuit order, but that’s yet to be proven. What’s certain is that the Jesuit order has a membership crisis, and there’s no reason to predict stability or growth anytime soon.

First, let’s take a look at the local numbers. It’s suggested that this year’s 20 Jesuit ordinations is a high number for the North American region, and therefore we should be excited about it. Perhaps so, but there’s not much data to confirm the long-term impact on the order. According to the website for the North American Jesuit provinces, the continent had 28 new Jesuit priests last year, 19 in 2014, and 16 in 2013. Therefore, 20 is relatively good, and yet it’s a substantial decline from last year’s 28 — the largest number of Jesuit ordinations for North America in 15 years.

Should Jesuits be concerned that last year’s number was not sustained? Or should they be excited, because 20 ordinations is significantly higher than in prior years? Is it just a momentary benefit of having a Jesuit pope, or is it a trend? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find data for North America earlier than 2013, when Pope Francis went to Rome. After a fruitless Web search, I requested information from the communications secretary of the North American provinces, but I was only given numbers of Jesuits worldwide.

Another Jesuit official told the Register that there’s a second reason for hope: Although the number of U.S. entrants to the Society of Jesus declined from 102 in 1982 to a low of 45 in 2010, it has since increased to the “mid-50s” this year. Here we’re not talking about ordinations to the priesthood, but novices preparing to be priests and brothers.

That’s indeed hopeful, yet uncertain. While the Register was told there have been no fewer than 45 entrants in the U.S. alone since 1982, CWR reports that 44 men entered novitiates in both the U.S. and Canada in 2015. CARA documents Jesuit membership in the United States (including Jamaica, Belize and Micronesia) and reports 177 entrants from 2009 to 2013, which is an average of just 35 per year. The numbers don’t match up.

Regardless, the numbers of entrants do not tell us as much as we’d like about the future of the Jesuits. If the numbers of new entrants and priests is increasing annually, that’s a hopeful sign. But ultimately, showing growth in the Society of Jesus requires producing a net gain of their membership numbers. This means counting not only new additions but also subtracting the many novices who depart each year before completing their studies. Furthermore, we must subtract the number of Jesuits who pass away each year.

If we take the deceased into account, any prediction of approaching “stability” in the Society of Jesus seems ludicrous. The Register reports that the average age of the North American Jesuits is 65. In the period 2008-2013, CARA counts 445 Jesuit deaths in the United States, an average of 89 per year. In the same period, the U.S. Jesuits had a net gain of just 10 novices per year, subtracting those who departed from those who stayed.

Putting it all together, American Jesuits are still in a free fall. CARA reports that the number of Jesuits in the United States declined by more than half in just 25 years, from 4,823 in 1988 to 2,395 in 2013. Presented in five-year increments, the data shows much sharper declines in the most recent two periods (15.2 percent in 2003-2008, 14.4 percent in 2008-2013) than in the prior three periods (hovering around 12 percent). That’s not improvement by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a worsening crisis.

Are things any better for the Jesuits worldwide? Well, some regions are certainly doing better than others. As CARA notes, “The clear majority of younger Jesuits are now coming from Asia and Africa.” The Center adds, “As Jesuits gather in 2016 for a General Congregation and to elect a new Superior General, the demographic center of the Jesuits will be in South Asia and the global South.”

That’s true, but somehow CWR cites the CARA data wrong when it reports: “… the number of Jesuit priests in East Asia (including Australia, Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, China, Thailand, and Myanmar) as well as the number of Jesuit priests in Latin America have stayed steady since the 1980s.” In fact, CARA’s study of Jesuit membership finds a 33 percent decline in Latin America and a 13 percent decline in East Asia during the period 1988-2013.

CWR also exaggerates its case for stability in the Society of Jesus with this statement: “Although Jesuit priests in Europe and United States declined in number, there was an increase in the number of Jesuit priests in South Asia (including India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and Africa.” The implication is that the membership decline in Europe and the United States (7,057 Jesuits from 1988 to 2013) was somehow offset by the much smaller increases in South Asia and Africa (880 Jesuits during the same period).

Instead, the huge declines in Europe and America — together with the significant declines in Latin America and East Asia — have driven a worldwide decline in Jesuit membership since 1965. Over the prior 425 years, the order had grown to its largest number of 36,038 priests and brothers, as reported in the Vatican’s Annuario Pontificio. But from 1965 to 2015, membership dropped precipitously to 16,740. That’s a fall of more than 50 percent in just 50 years.

I’ve been told by the spokeswoman for the North American provinces that this year’s membership is 16,376 worldwide. That makes perfect sense; it’s consistent with the trends. By contrast, recent news reports claim “more than 17,000” and “just over 18,000,” but they cite no sources for their data. Those numbers couldn’t possibly be correct.

So there was a sharp decline over the last 50 years — but perhaps most of the drop occurred during the late 1960s and the 1970s, that tumultuous period following Vatican II, when there was widespread dissent from Humanae Vitae? Surprisingly, that’s not the case. The decline in Jesuit membership was indeed steepest (19.5 percent) during that first decade (1965-1975), when many priests and religious abandoned their vows. But the most recent decade (2005-2015) has also seen a sharp decline of 15.7 percent. Over the last three decades, the loss as a percentage of members has been getting worse, from a decline of 10.4 percent in 1984-1995 (no numbers are available for 1985), to 13.3 percent in the next decade and 15.7 percent most recently.

How about raw numbers? The Vatican reports that from 2005 to 2015, the Jesuits declined by 3,110 priests and brothers, which is less than half the actual decline (7,020) in the troubled decade of 1965-1975. But still, there were twice as many Jesuits in the first decade as the last. And the membership decline has worsened over the last three decades: from a drop of 2,665 in 1984-1995, to 3,035 in 1995-2005, to 3,110 this past decade. Again, that’s no sign of revival; the loss of members has been getting worse.

Moreover, those losses are not sporadic. Jesuit membership has declined every year since 1965, except for a brief uptick from 1984 to 1986.

Facts are facts. Maybe there are glimmers of hope in recent numbers, but overall the Society of Jesus is losing ground. Instead of counting on a bump in numbers thanks to Pope Francis, Jesuits might do better to consider whether these numbers reflect a greater instability in the order and a loss of reputation in the Church. While there are a number of exceptional Jesuits, the Society suffers from repeated controversy and moral confusion among others in its ranks. The reputation of the Jesuits as the “foot soldiers” for Christ is repeatedly undermined by many of their Jesuit universities, which are rapidly losing their Catholic identity and fidelity.

Normally we would celebrate the Memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola on July 31, but this year it yields to the Sunday feast. This Sunday might be an opportunity for wayward Jesuits — instead of the usual celebration of the great Saint and his Company — to focus attention on the Eucharist and the unity of all the Faithful with the Magisterium of the Church, which should be the foundation for Jesuit education and spirituality. I bet that St. Ignatius would approve.

This article was originally published by The National Catholic Register.

For Catholic Schools to Survive, Their Catholicity Must Thrive

We hear a lot about the decline of Catholic schools, but maybe not enough.

The numbers are staggering: Catholic school enrollment has declined more than two-thirds in the last 50 years, from 5.2 million to 1.9 million students.

Even so, Catholic homeschoolers perceive significant growth in their numbers, with the freedom to explore a vast menu of resources that improve upon the stale textbooks used by many schools.

Catholic classical educators likewise see an increase in their ranks, not only among homeschoolers but in schools that have shifted toward the classical model or have been newly founded.

At The Cardinal Newman Society, we hear regularly from parents who are excited by the changes to Catholic schools promoted by their bishops.  These include the hard-won teacher standards championed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.

So why the contradiction?  In certain quarters, families and educators are embracing faithful Catholic education with great enthusiasm.  And yet Catholic schools are still closing; we’ve lost nearly 20 percent of the schools that were in operation just 10 years ago, especially elementary schools.

The answer doesn’t come easily to those who define the crisis simply as a lack of students and money.  These are symptoms of deeper problems in our schools.  There have been too many misguided attempts to attract students and increase tuition revenues, donations and government subsidies.

These strategies are necessary and yet can harm Catholic schools if they ignore the far more serious problem: the diminishment of Catholic identity in recent decades.

Catholic schools in America once were the envy of the Western world, not because they sought prestige, but because they responded directly to the needs of Catholic families.  They embraced goals and methods of forming the mind, body and soul that could only have sprung from the Catholic faith.  Catholic education was excellent, precisely because it was Catholic.

Therefore, attracting families by reaching for secular standards and embracing the goals, methods, curricula and even textbooks of public education can be damaging to Catholic schools.  Ultimately, it fills schools with students who don’t value what we value.

The same can be said for attracting donors by the same methods.

Worse, in an age when both state and federal government are turning increasingly secularist, the pursuit of government aid can be, at best, a short-term solution to financial needs.  The day seems to be coming rapidly when Catholic schools may be permitted to uphold Catholic values only if they are free of government support.

So how do we address the crisis?

As evidenced by the success of many faithful Catholic schools today, I believe that the only path forward for schools that wish to both survive long-term and remain Catholic is to more robustly embrace the Church’s vision for Catholic schools.  I believe this for three reasons:

First, a secular society will only permit religious freedom—if it is permitted at all—to the most consistently and fervently religious schools.  In this, at least, the intolerance of the present age is having some positive impact, by motivating sincerely Catholic schools to establish clear and firm policies that are directly tied to Catholic teaching.

Second, the character of a school is determined largely by its teachers.  If Catholic education is to genuinely form young people to be fully human, it requires teachers who witness to the faith and morals, both inside and outside the classroom.  In today’s culture, hiring such teachers takes a special resolve on the part of school leaders who are firmly committed to faithful Catholic education, even in the face of potential lawsuits and pressure from both outside and within the Church.

Third, as more Catholic families turn to public schools and succumb to the zeitgeist of the age, the remaining market for Catholic schools will include higher concentrations of families who appreciate genuine Catholic education.  Already we are seeing how seriously Catholic schools are attracting students, donors and even local acclaim for their “old-fashioned” methods.  Other schools that strive for students by shedding Catholic identity may find the strategy short-lived, at least if they intend to continue as Catholic schools.

(A scholar recently commented to me that the closing of secularized schools represents the sort of “pruning of the vine” that Pope Benedict XVI predicted in the Church.  I suggested that it may be more akin to dead branches withering and falling away of their own accord, since every effort is being made to save them.  But the scholar’s point was that the Church ultimately benefits from the fruit of the healthy branches.)

No matter how desperate a school’s effort to gain students or financial support, it is even more important that it remains true to its mission and regains anything that has been lost in past years.  Catholic schools should:

Hire only teachers and leaders who embrace that mission and the Catholic faith.

Study and observe the key principles of Catholic education found in the Church’s rich teachings on the nature of the Catholic school.

Subscribe only to school and curriculum standards that explicitly uphold the Catholic school’s emphasis on evangelization and formation.

Establish student and personnel policies that explain and uphold Catholic moral teachings.

Fight vigorously for religious freedom, and permit no government encroachment on Catholic education.

Listen to parents and serve them in their task as the primary educators of their children.  Help children know and love their Savior.

Years from now, the surviving Catholic school is unlikely to be satisfied with meeting minimal obligations for retaining the Catholic label.  That’s not enough.

It’s the school where leaders and teachers are eager to provide the very best Catholic formation—to lead young people to Christ and to accompany them on the road to Heaven—that exemplifies the truly healthy Catholic school.  That’s something that families can rally around.

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.