Catholic Habits of the Mind

PowerPoint overview of Catholic Habits of the Mind:


By Denise Donohue, Ed.D., and Patrick Reilly


Catholic education integrally forms students in mind, body, and soul so they might know and love God and serve their fellow man. Because of this mission, Catholic education has a long tradition of excellence in harmoniously forming students’ intellects and characters through instruction in knowledge and formation in virtue. There are some well-known teachings on developing intellectual virtue in the Catholic intellectual tradition. In order to reinvigorate classroom teaching in Catholic schools and to assist teachers in delivering a deeper and more robust student formation, this paper advocates for the development of three Catholic “habits of mind” to elicit in students: thinking with faith, thinking philosophically, and seeking and valuing the transcendent.

Father Antonin Sertillanges, O.P., wrote substantively of the habits and behaviors of the Christian intellectual in his important work, The Intellectual Life.[1] St. John Henry Newman, in the 19th century, described education as cultivation of the “philosophical habit of mind,” developing greater understanding of both the parts and the whole of knowledge. And St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages reflected on the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s writings on habits, both moral and intellectual.

In the Catholic paradigm—and indeed in the classical terminology that has been foundational to both secular and Christian education for more than two millennia—we call good habits “virtues” and distinguish them from vices, which are consistent bad habits. The Catechism defines virtue as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.”[2] The development of virtue leads a student to both human flourishing and to Heaven. Sertillanges identifies “studiousness” as the key intellectual virtue, but it is a part of temperance; indeed, all the virtues that support academic and intellectual work flow from the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

In Catholic education, virtues overlap and occur throughout all levels and types of student formation. Learning a “pattern of intellectual behavior that leads to productive actions”[3] such as in the secular Habits of Mind program may have some utility in all schools, but a liberal education aims for much more, with even productive actions possessing an ethical dimension.[4] Catholic intellectual virtues help students do more than problem-solve; they help students seek and find the truth of a thing. In Catholic education, this inquiry into the truth ultimately leads to Truth Himself: God. This path is one that secular education cannot fully pursue. Our nature is designed to pursue truth through the inquiry of things, and in Catholic education, this truth is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. When illuminated by God’s grace, we understand and determine the interconnection of things, and learn something about the higher causes of things.

In Catholic education, the formation of moral virtue is not only an essential part of the written curriculum[5] but is modeled and taught through the lives and witnesses of its teachers and others who exhibit virtues such as faithfulness, docility, humility, piety, gentleness, compassion, and kindness, among others. Catholic schools are all about formation in virtue, as these dispositions are considered the means of acquiring the goods of this life and the gaining of heaven. Our Lord made explicit to us in his teaching of the beatitudes the result of acquiring specific dispositions: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:3-10).

The formation of intellectual virtues aligning with a moral formation conforms to the holistic approach of Catholic education, which seeks integral education of mind, body, and soul. Catholic education forms young people with a Catholic worldview and shows them that virtue has positive real-world consequences in this life. It teaches that virtues such as prudence are applicable to intellectual, moral, and physical challenges that may come their way. Most importantly, Catholic education teaches the virtues as the way of Christ and guides the path to sainthood.

Catholic Intellectual Virtues

The Catholic intellectual tradition—developed by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many others—distinguishes intellectual virtues. They focus on what one knows and how that knowledge is used, always within the framework of a moral purpose. These traditional five virtues are art, prudence, understanding, science, and wisdom. Teachers in Catholic education who employ these methods can rest assured of their soundness and heritage.

Art and prudence are considered practical virtues because they are concerned with two forms of action: making and doing. Art directs the intellect in applying certain rules or methods to make useful, practical, beautiful, and pleasing things. It is the capacity of knowing how to do something or knowing different techniques, such as knowing how to use a computer program or how to make a kite fly. Art involves applying knowledge to shape matter, whether that matter is an artistic sculpture or principles of arithmetic. Prudence directs the intellectual powers toward knowing what is best and assessing what ought to be done. It involves analyzing and evaluating the proper means of action with the direction of contributing to our long-term happiness and is the foundational intellectual virtue necessary for all the other moral virtues. According to St. Thomas, prudence is the “form” of the moral virtues, and the human passions and actions are the “matter.”[6] Thus, in any particular situation, “it is prudence that determines what the just, temperate and brave act is.”[7]

Understanding, science, and wisdom are considered speculative virtues, and these are connected by nature to man’s desire to seek and know truth. Understanding cultivates knowledge of first principles or truths that are self-evident, or that reason and logic add to our experience. This knowledge is intuitive and easily attainable, such as the law that something cannot both exist and not exist at the same time under the same conditions.[8] Science uncovers “knowledge of conclusions acquired by demonstration through causes or principles which are final in one class or other.”[9] Science, therefore, is the evident knowledge of something through demonstration. Still, it is much more. It is human reason acting upon knowledge to draw conclusions from sound premises, thereby multiplying knowledge of creation, humanity, and God. It involves the habits of careful observation, experimentation, and measurement to reach conclusions using demonstrative reasoning. Science demands evidence and properly ordered reasoning and this evidence and reasoning assist with determining a certain level of certainty about a thing. Wisdom is the knowledge of conclusions to life’s most profound questions. Its object is truth and is generally identified as the study of philosophy or metaphysics. It seeks the answers to the questions of humanity’s existence and that of the universe, such as, “Why is man the only rational creature?” and “Why are the planets ordered the way they are?” Catholic educators are called to facilitate discussion and to direct the student’s intellect toward grasping the relationship between humanity and these existential realities.

Generally, this is done through philosophical questioning and inviting students to contemplate reality in wonder and awe. Aristotle called wonder the beginning of a love of wisdom—the highest understanding of things, their first causes and principles. Wonder begins, he says, “in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progressions raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g., about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe.”[10] Students should not stop at intellectual curiosity, which is satisfied with answers to “How” and “Why.”[11] The type of wonder desired here is a deeper, contemplative wonder that is exemplified by a full-body emotional, aesthetic, and existential response. This wonder leaves one open to the uncertainty and the mystery still evident in the experience.[12] It is at this moment that one can “step off” into the realm of faith, accepting it as a valid way of knowing, a moment in which one can revel in the first cause of all created things: God.

While there is certainly a place for wonder as curiosity in Catholic schools – in all schools –contemplative wonder does not stop with answers in the material world. As Newman says, wonder should lead reason to “ascend” above the actual fact or experience and the strictly material. It should look not only to material causes, comparisons, relationships, classification, and principles but should also evoke a sense of humility and a sense of our powerlessness and adoration before the glory of God, the author and end of all that is true, good, and beautiful. Catholic education teaches students the use and skills of reason to rise toward the transcendent. We teach students habits of reasoning that elevate thought above information and experience. Secular education leaves students hanging at the peak of ascent since it cannot jump off into the realm of religious faith. A Catholic school that teaches religion but fails to form students with skills and habits of philosophical reason is leaving students unable to contend with the issues of post-modernity, where they can quickly fall prey to ideology despite conflicts with their consciences and sense of natural law. They can have years of experiencing God’s love and mercy in Catholic education, the sacraments, and the family, but then they turn away because their inadequately formed minds cannot find God in reality, and they are lost in confusion.

St. John Henry Newman points out that while materialists can experience fascination, wonder is fully experienced when it causes us to “Rejoice with trembling”[13] and focuses not just on creation but also on the Creator. There is a depth and mystery to creation and reality and to our relationship to God, which evokes “a feeling of awe, wonder, and praise, which cannot be more suitably expressed than by the Scripture word fear; or by holy Job’s words, though he spoke in grief, and not as being possessed of a blessing. ‘Behold, I go forward, but He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him: on the left hand, where He doth work, but I cannot behold Him: He hideth Himself on the right hand, that I cannot see Him. Therefore, am I troubled at His presence; when I consider, I am afraid of Him’ [Job xxiii. 8, 9, 15].” [14]

A greater emphasis on these true Catholic intellectual and moral virtues and on the transcendent can help ensure the development of habits to assist in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and cultivating wisdom for human perfection in the light of faith. These are critical goals in Catholic education, which understand that human nature is oriented toward unity with God the Creator, and man’s gift of reason is intended to serve the free search for truth about God, humanity, and creation. Without an appeal to truth, man’s free will and reason lack purpose, and human dignity is not respected. Catholic intellectual virtues move beyond an emphasis on problem-solving to prepare students as useful workers and citizens. This focus is insufficient to achieve Catholic education’s goal of virtuous living and sainthood.

Additionally, Catholic educators should ensure that their curricula and course plans include but are not limited to memorization, seeking knowledge from sound testimony, identifying first principles, asking about essence, asking about causes, division, and composition of ideas, classification, analogical thinking, communicating with proper language, communicating with elegant language appropriate to the circumstances, discerning the unity of knowledge and bearing of knowledge upon other knowledge, following the methods that are proper to each academic discipline, right use of freedom in intellectual pursuits, and concern for the common good. These approaches harmonize with human nature and aid in complete human flourishing.

Catholic Habits of the Mind

Three ‘habits of mind’ are needed to build the Catholic integrity of an educational program, honor the Catholic intellectual tradition, and put students on the path of true happiness in this world and the next.

Thinking with Faith

Faith is the trust we have in something we do not see, based on the authority and credibility of the source, which is generally a person.[15] An example of human faith is to believe that Alaska exists without ever having been there based on the credibility of others and their testimony. Certitude is not personally confirmed, but the will and the intellect join to assent to the truth that Alaska is a place based on the credibility of witnesses.

Faith becomes supernatural when we are disposed to it through the sacraments and grace, and the matter is based on Divine Revelation from God Himself. Here the will and the intellect are turned toward God, the evidence being the witness of holy men and women, the prophets, the saints, the Apostles, and Jesus Christ. St. John Paul II, in his discussion of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, writes:

According to the Apostle, it was part of the original plan of the creation that reason should without difficulty reach beyond the sensory data to the origin of all things: the Creator. But because of the disobedience by which man and woman chose to set themselves in full and absolute autonomy in relation to the One who had created them, this ready access to God the Creator diminished. (Fides et Ratio, 1998, 22)

While we have not seen the eternal kingdom, we believe, with the supernatural help of grace through faith, that it exists, so we continue to journey toward that deeper, fuller understanding of God’s plan for us as imparted in Divine Revelation. In faith, the indivisible unity between the intellect and will is more easily discerned. St. Augustine is credited with saying, “believe so that you may understand.”[16] This is the goal of Catholic education: to open the door of faith for students to behold the transcendental realities through learning, discussion, experience, service, and sacraments. It is essential that students cultivate the intellectual and moral habits of being that predispose them to an encounter with faith through learning opportunities and discussions of the importance and validity of faith as a way of knowing. 

In public education, the discussion of faith is limited. The material sciences are held up as the highest and most privileged ways of knowing, and students are taught that knowledge of truth is limited to what can be physically seen, weighed, or measured. While this is a valid way of knowing, it is not the only means of knowing.

Whereas modern society and most secular education today define truth according to consensus and experience, the Catholic educator understands that truth is the conformity of the mind and reality and that all truth proceeds from God. The human intellect is intended to be ordered to truth, and reason allows the intellect to rise above consensus and experience to better know God, His ways, and His creation.

Aquinas says that both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God and work to contribute to the understanding of Divine Revelation and ultimate truth. St. John Paul II writes:

Faith therefore has no fear of reason but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. (Fides et Ratio, 43)

What more fitting place to champion faith as a means of knowing than in a Catholic school? Enlightened by faith, Catholic education teaches habits that form students not only for knowing but also for apprehending the transcendental realities that give ultimate meaning to this life as souls are prepared for the next.

Thinking Philosophically

Saint John Henry Newman taught that the essence of education is cultivation of the intellect for its own sake. He argued that education should cultivate a “philosophical habit of mind” that reasons upon knowledge rather than simply accumulating information from experience and creatively expressing one’s feelings and desires. Education teaches the student to “ascend” above knowledge to new levels of understanding by the right use of reason. He wrote, “…in order to have possession of truth at all, we must have the whole truth; and no one science, no two sciences, no one family of science, nay, not even all secular science, is the whole truth…” (Discourse 4). Instead, God is “a fact encompassing, closing in upon, absorbing, every other fact conceivable.”

Reason needs to be cultivated not only as a logical tool for problem-solving but also as a means of attaining truths foundational to reality and larger than experience—as in contemplation of the natural and eternal law. Collaboration to find solutions and clear communication is necessary, but a Catholic school will want to put additional emphasis on dialectic and persuasion for the purpose of reasoning toward higher truths.

Dialectic is a discussion of seemingly conflicting things that appear to be true at the same time. It is a method of dialogue that aims to arrive at truth instead of defeating or persuading an opponent. It is associated with the Socratic method and the methods of medieval scholastics, including St. Thomas Aquinas. Educators can also teach the Topics of Invention.

The Topics of Invention are a method of classical rhetoric used to examine all aspects of a subject in the context of its circumstances, attributes, and relation to other subjects. Knowledge from an authoritative source – including the Catholic Church – is also used as a valid means of seeking the truth of a thing. Adding the habit of ‘thinking philosophically’ allows for rational dialogue and “ascending” to the higher truths of God, which ought to be the outcome of an integrated Catholic education.

Valuing and Seeking the Transcendent

Catholic education should also ensure that student thinking is oriented toward assigning value and meaning to what is being considered, and students should recognize that transcendent realities are among those things. Pope Francis has noted that:

For me, the greatest crisis of education, in the Christian perspective, is being closed to transcendence. We are closed to transcendence. It is necessary to prepare hearts for the Lord to manifest Himself, but totally, namely, in the totality of humanity, which also has this dimension of transcendence.[17]

Traditionally, in Catholic education, subjects are taught not merely as vehicles for the conveyance of content knowledge and technical skills. Catholic education helps “the pupil to assimilate skills, knowledge, intellectual methods and moral and social attitudes, all of which help to develop his personality and lead him to take his place as an active member of the community of man.”[18]

In Catholic education, the Catholic faith increases students’ understanding, and moral formation increases learning. Processes and methodologies should not thwart the opportunity for students to go beyond the pragmatic, utilitarian, and material world. Church documents are filled with discussions regarding the formative value of all education. For instance:

The Catholic teacher, therefore, cannot be content simply to present Christian values as a set of abstract objectives to be admired, even if this be done positively and with imagination; they must be presented as values which generate human attitudes, and these attitudes must be encouraged in the students. Examples of such attitudes would be these: a freedom which includes respect for others; conscientious responsibility; a sincere and constant search for truth; a calm and peaceful critical spirit; a spirit of solidarity with and service toward all other persons; a sensitivity for justice; a special awareness of being called to be positive agents of change in a society that is undergoing continuous transformation. (Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith, #29-30)

Catholic education focuses on the formation of the intellect, will, and soul of the student. It allows opportunities for students to ponder God’s omnipotence and love and his personal relationship with them. It is a specific charge for Catholic teachers to teach to the transcendent in a way that goes beyond abstraction, naming, listing attributes, and so forth and prepares a human soul for an encounter with real things—something secular schools cannot do.

The integral formation of the human person, which is the purpose of education, includes the development of all the human faculties of the students, together with preparation for professional life, formation of ethical and social awareness, [and] becoming aware of the transcendental, and religious education. (The Catholic School, #17)

The transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness can assist in determining value. Transcendentals are timeless and universal attributes of being. They are the properties inherent to all beings.[19]

The pursuit of truth, defined as the mind in accord with reality,[20] is a foundation of Catholic education and is a significant component of the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards. From the Congregation for Catholic Education (1997) we read, “Various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discovered. All of which demands an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth” (#14). Man, by his nature, is made to seek the truth.[21] For instance, the Catholic Curriculum Standards expect students to “Analyze how the pursuit of scientific knowledge, for utilitarian purposes alone or for the misguided manipulation of nature, thwarts the pursuit of authentic Truth and the greater glory of God.”

What is true is also beautiful. As a timeless and universal attribute of being, beauty helps evoke wonder, awe, and delight of the soul leading to philosophical and theological questions like, “How can something so beautiful exist?”  “Is this beauty only meaningful to me?” “Who created all of this?” and so forth. Catholic education—with its focus on the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness—already teaches wonder as more than an intellectual satisfaction; it is an invitation to think beyond creation and seek the reality – and mystery – of the wisdom of God who created all that we know and experience.

Finally, in Catholic education, we know that the true and the beautiful are also related to all that is good. A thing is “good” when it exercises the powers, activities, and capacities which perfect it. In Catholic education, we also call human action good when all components of the action are noble and virtuous. Habits of Mind tends toward some of these same ends in an aspirational sort of way, but a robust Catholic education can thoughtfully and wholly fulfill the mission of intellectual formation within its own paradigm that looks to the transcendent.


When choosing specific approaches to Catholic education, it is important to understand the nature of the human person and use that understanding as the foundation for any education program.[22] Humanity has been gifted with faculties that work in specific ways. Education works best when it follows a natural order and engages the student’s will and emotions in the learning endeavor. As an embodied soul, it is essential that the whole person—the intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual—be ordered so that students can better understand themselves as effective and flourishing human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, and heirs to the eternal kingdom.

Catholic educators interested in cultivating habits of mind might consider incorporating the intellectual and dispositional standards from the Catholic Curriculum Standards, in addition to a Catholic school’s virtue and catechetical program. Standards such as, “Evaluate how history is not a mere chronicle of human events, but rather a moral and meta-physical drama having supreme worth in the eyes of God,” and, “Display personal self-worth and dignity as a human being and as part of God’s ultimate plan of creation,” elevate a student’s thought from the here and now to the eternal.

Catholic schools choosing to highlight the transcendental concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness, which are also embedded in the Catholic Curriculum Standards, will naturally use and develop many of the intellectual behaviors appropriate to a well-formed Catholic student. The Catholic Curriculum Standards seek to form dispositions toward:

  • demonstration of Catholic moral virtues;
  • ardent pursuit of the truth of things and the rejection of relativism;
  • value of the human body as a temple of the Holy Spirit;
  • dignity of the human person and primacy of care and concern for all stages of life;
  • care and concern for the environment as part of God’s creation;
  • appreciation of the beauty of well-crafted prose and poetry, historical artifacts and cultures, the order of creation, and the proportion, radiance, and wholeness present within mathematics; and
  • appreciation for the power of literature, the story of history, and the discoveries of science and how through interaction with them one can identify and choose the personal and collective good.

Using faithful curriculum standards, teaching the Catholic habits of mind described here, and providing a solid virtue program will help ensure a proper Catholic education program.


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is Vice President of Educator Resources and Evaluation and Patrick Reilly is President and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

[1] A. D. Sertillanges The Intellectual Life (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1960) at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993) 1803.

[3] Arthur L. Costa, “Describing the Habits of Mind,” in Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick (eds.), Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008)16. Retrieved at (accessed on Oct. 15, 2020).

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Q. 57, Art.1 at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[5] See the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, Disciple of Christ: Education in Virtue program’s list of virtues to learn in a Catholic school at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, De veritate 27, 5 ad 5.

[7] Sr. Teresa Auer, O.P., Called to Happiness: Guiding Ethical Principles (Third ed.) (Nashville, Tenn.: St. Cecilia Congregation, 2013), 163.

[8] See Auer (2013) 156 for examples.

[9] See Martin Augustine Waldron, “Virtue,” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 15 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912) at (accessed on Oct. 23, 2020) for definitions of the intellectual virtues.

[10] Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.982b.

[11] Anders Schinkel, “The Educational Importance of Deep Wonder” (2017), Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 51, No. 2 (2017), 543.

[12] Schinkel, 544.

[13] Newman frequently references this passage from Psalm 2:11 in his works.

[14] St. John Henry Newman, “Sermon 2: Reverence, a Belief in God’s Presence” 26 at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[15] St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998) 33.

[16] Fr. David Pignato, “The Primacy of Faith and the Priority of Reason: A Justification for Public Recognition of Revealed Truth,” The Saint Anselm Journal, 12.2 (Spring 2017) 52-65.

[17] “Pope’s Q and A on the Challenges of Education,” ZENIT (Nov. 23, 2015) at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[18] Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (Vatican, 1977) 39.

[19] See “Educating to Truth, Beauty and Goodness” from The Cardinal Newman Society at

[20] Aquinas, De Veritate, Q.1, A. 1-3; cf. Summa Theologiae, Q. 16.

[21] See Fr. Robert Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God (Grand Rapids: MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010) 259-266.

[22] For further reading, we recommend the following resources: Auer (2013); Luigi Guisanni, The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995); Curtis Hancock, Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education (Mount Pocono, PA: Newman House Press, 2005); and St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998).

Copyright © 2023 The Cardinal Newman Society, 10432 Balls Ford Road, Ste. 300, Manassas, Virginia 20109, (703) 367-0333, Permission to reprint without modification.


General Education at Catholic Colleges and Universities

Executive Summary

Across the universe of American higher education, increasing attention is being given to the weakening of general education standards.  This study examines the general education requirements at Catholic colleges and universities.  It compares the general education programs at 184 Catholic colleges and universities to all other American colleges and universities, to see if the Catholic colleges are more comprehensive (that is, devote a larger share of the curriculum to general education) and more coherent (that is, provide their students with a fairly well identified set of courses that provide a unified vision of the body of knowledge that the institution believes that all educated citizens should be familiar with).  The study determines that Catholic colleges as a whole are more comprehensive and slightly more coherent than colleges and universities overall. Next, the study examines whether those colleges and universities included in the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College differ substantially from the other Catholic colleges.  The Newman Guide schools are, indeed, significantly more comprehensive and coherent than the other Catholic colleges and universities. Finally, the distinctive role of theology and philosophy in a Catholic education was examined. Catholic colleges and universities retain, to varying degrees, their commitment to the study of philosophy and theology, which serve as integrative disciplines within the curriculum.  A surprising finding, however, was the extent to which the non-Newman Guide Catholic colleges and universities allow students to fulfill their theology requirements without actually studying Catholic theology.

General Education at Catholic Colleges and Universities

Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2008 address to U.S. Catholic educators, reminded them of the high calling of a university in the overall economy of salvation:

Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.1

Throughout history and even today, in addition to supporting the intrinsic benefits of education for human development, the university plays a critical role in preparing students for successful careers.  Universities have consistently struggled to balance the educational goals of pursuit of truth and moral development with the more instrumental goals of career preparation and skill development.2

In most American colleges and universities today, it is in the pursuit of a major field of study that students focus on developing the career-related skills and knowledge that they will take with them into the world.  The more intrinsic benefits of higher education, such as those described by Pope Benedict, are emphasized and developed in the general education program which commonly precedes specialization.

A general education program attempts to provide an overview of the fundamental areas of human knowledge found in the traditional liberal arts.  The curriculum may further aim at integration of knowledge by requiring interdisciplinary courses or otherwise encouraging interdisciplinary approaches to human problems.  A well-designed general education curriculum will teach students to comprehend knowledge according to its proper order and in relation to other knowledge, developing what Blessed John Henry Newman called a “philosophical habit” of mind.

Historically, the means by which the American university (religious or secular) fulfilled its mission and oriented the student toward the unity of truth was through a core curriculum which gave all students in the university a common, integrated liberal arts education.  In a core curriculum, particular courses are required of all students, or at least a broad set of students (for instance, enrolled in a certain school within a university).  The university determines that every student should, at a minimum, have studied particular facts, concepts, themes, authors, literature, etc., while attaining an introductory or intermediate level of skill or knowledge in the disciplines of the liberal arts.  A Catholic university, for instance, might expect students to graduate with a common foundation in Catholic theology and Western philosophy, literature, and history by studying particular texts, authors, leaders, etc. The prescribed core ensures that all students share a common education and can dialogue on common themes, resting on the university’s judgment about the importance of certain subject matter.  Moreover, the courses in a well-designed core are highly integrated to illustrate the unity of truth across disciplines.

In 1884 the landscape of American higher education was changed forever, when Harvard University discarded its core and introduced an elective system at the heart of its curriculum.3 The unified set of courses that made up the core curriculum was replaced by a series of “distribution” requirements for graduation.  The distribution model allows students to choose among many courses introducing them to a variety of disciplines and methods of inquiry, with less emphasis on the integration of knowledge across disciplines.  The topics of the courses are varied; there is little or no effort to promote the study of common texts or topics.  Whereas the core curriculum emphasizes a shared body of knowledge and a common basis for dialogue—in the United States, typically requiring students to contemplate classical works and the ideas that shaped Western civilization and Christianity—the distribution model often encourages a student’s encounter with a variety of perspectives and arguments, independent of a university’s judgment about the value of particular subject matter.

This elective, distribution system of general education rapidly overtook the more traditional core model in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  While Catholic colleges and universities held to a core model longer than most other types of universities, by the 1960s most of the Catholic institutions of higher education had joined the mainstream movement away from a unified core curriculum to a distribution, elective-based model.  Unlike their secular counterparts, however, most Catholic colleges and universities retained vestiges of a unified, integrative curricular expression through their requirements that all students study philosophy and Catholic theology, ensuring that students recognize unifying themes and consider the great human questions when studying other disciplines.

This study will examine the ways in which contemporary Catholic colleges and universities approach the question of general education.  If it is true that, as Blessed Newman implies, it is through the integration of the specialized branches of knowledge that a student “apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them,” and that this represents “the special fruit of the education furnished at a University,” the state of general education is of paramount importance for all who are interested in Catholic higher education.4

This study confirms that Catholic colleges and universities today, by and large, remain committed to general education requirements, distinguishing Catholic institutions from their counterparts with generally weaker standards.  But most Catholic educators have embraced the distribution model of electives, abandoning the traditional core curriculum.  Some remnant of a distinctive role for philosophy and religious studies remains in place at most Catholic institutions, although there is evidence of a declining emphasis on Catholic theology.

General Education in American Higher Education

Even in the secular universities, increasing attention is being given to the disappearance of core curricula, the weakening of general education standards, and the need for attention to liberal arts education for undergraduates.  With the rise of the research university, with its hyper-specialization and concomitant growth of faculty allegiance to their specialties, there has been an overall de-emphasis on undergraduate general education, and in particular declining interest in curricular integration.  A National Association of Scholars (NAS) study in 1996 documented the diminishing role of general education in the undergraduate experience.5   This study demonstrates that not only has the distribution model of general education achieved near-total hegemony in the American higher education system, but also that the proportion of the overall curriculum devoted to any form of general education has been steadily shrinking over the course of the 20th century.  In 1914, the average student devoted about 55 percent of the credits needed for graduation to general education requirements; by 1993, this was down to 33 percent.

More recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) commissioned a study to analyze trends in this area, and this study reinforced the picture of a profound movement away from the concept of an integrative curriculum to a highly specialized, even fragmented, educational experience.6 The AACU study confirmed the reduced portion of the curriculum that is devoted to general education.  Only 6 percent of the respondents indicated that half or more of the credits needed for graduation are devoted to general education; more than 25 percent of the respondents indicated that a third or less were so devoted.  In most of these institutions, several of these requirements can be fulfilled in the course of pursuing a major, so there are even fewer credit hours that are specifically devoted to general learning, rather than the specialized education that makes up the major field of study.

The vast majority of institutions (80 percent) follow a distribution model of general education, in which students select courses from various categories to fulfill the general education requirements.  While most of these colleges provide some guidance to students with regard to specific courses or common experiences, the fundamental model is a choice-based approach to general education, with the emphasis on exposure to different fields of study rather than engagement with specific intellectual content.

One could conclude, then, that over time general education in America has become both less comprehensive (that is, less a significant and robust part of the overall educational experience) and less coherent (that is, less a unified and common set of courses designed to present an integrated approach to knowledge).

This report seeks to evaluate how the overall trends in American higher education are reflected in Catholic colleges and universities.  The general education programs at Catholic colleges and universities have been examined and categorized with respect to their coherence and comprehensiveness.  Since a distinctive attribute of Catholic core curricula has traditionally been a strong emphasis on theology and philosophy, this study also considers the role these disciplines currently play in the general education programs at Catholic institutions of higher education.  Finally, this study examines the correlation between the structure of the general education program and the Catholic identity of the institution.

The general education programs at 184 Catholic, four-year, co-educational colleges and universities in the United States were examined.  While there are 251 institutions of higher education recognized by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, many of those are not relevant to this study.  Excluded are exclusively graduate-level institutions, two-year colleges, seminaries, conservatories, and specialized health-care institutions.  Two colleges were eliminated because of insufficient information regarding their general education programs.

Data was collected online from college catalogs.  The information was drawn from the catalog that included the Fall 2009 semester.  The content of required theology courses was drawn from the information available online in August 2012.

Comprehensiveness of General Education at Catholic Colleges and Universities

The comprehensiveness of general education programs was determined simply by the overall number of credit hours required. The incredible complexity of many of today’s general education programs made even this classification difficult, so several methodological definitions and decisions were required.  General education was defined as required courses that all students had to pass in order to graduate.  If, as was the case in some large universities, there were different general education programs for different degrees (i.e., general education for the school of nursing, the school of business, etc.), the classification was based on the “college of arts and sciences” or equivalent degree program.

These general education requirements could be specific courses (all students must pass English 101, for example), distribution requirements (all students must take an English course), or an evaluated competency (all students must either pass English 101 or score an 85 percent or higher on the freshman writing exam).  Competency requirements were only counted as part of general education if they substituted for required coursework (so, for example, some colleges require students to demonstrate computer skills, but that was not counted toward general education, because no computer literacy class is required if they do not pass the test).  In most cases, courses taken to fulfill general education requirements may also count for major requirements (so American history might be a requirement for general education, but it could also count toward courses needed for a history major).  A few colleges do not allow any course taken in a student’s major field to count for general education, which has the effect of increasing the number of general education requirements; however, it was impossible to account for this given the wide variation in student majors.

The very nature of most general education systems, with their wide array of choices and possible substitutions, made it difficult to make uniform determinations of exactly how many credit hours were required to complete the program.  Within institutions there can be variation from student to student.  For example, many institutions require language to a third semester competency; some students need to take any language courses, while others take nine to 12 hours of language instruction.

It seemed best to classify programs in fairly broad ranges, rather than attempt a precise ranking based on a specific calculation of credit hours.  Therefore, those institutions which require, on average, 55 credit hours or more of general education (almost half of the credit hours required for a degree and the average amount of general education required 100 years ago) were classified as having a high level of comprehensiveness.  Those which require from 45 to 54 hours (more than a third, but less than half, and generally above the median 46.4 hours reported in the AACU survey) were classified as medium, while those which require 44 hours or fewer (roughly one third or less of the required credit hours) were classified as low.

While it is impossible to make direct comparisons with the studies done either for the NAS or the AACU, because the methodology was different, it is possible to draw some general conclusions.  Catholic colleges and universities tend to devote more of their curriculum to general education than is normal in U.S. higher education (see Figure 1).  As noted above, about half of the colleges in the AACU survey would fall into the low range in this classification, but at Catholic institutions, 76 percent fall into the medium or high ranges of general education comprehensiveness, indicating a distinctive commitment to general education requirements in Catholic higher education.


Coherence of General Education at Catholic Colleges and Universities

How coherent are the general education programs at Catholic colleges and universities?  General education programs were classified based on the proportion of general education credit hours that were elective (that is, a course chosen from a list of options) and what proportion were required.

In some cases, a small range of choice was allowed, such that the college or university retained significant direction over what the student learns.  Most institutions allow students to choose which language they will study for their foreign language requirement.  Most institutions will place students into the appropriate mathematics course based on their proficiency.  And, in some cases, students might choose between British and American literature to fulfill a literature requirement.  In situations like these, where the choice is either skill-dependent or limited to three or fewer options, this study classifies the credits as “required” even though there is some element of choice.7

Once again, institutions were placed within ranges.  Those which require particular courses for more than half the total general education curriculum were considered to have high coherence; those between one third and one half were considered medium; and those below one-third were considered low.

The results show that Catholic colleges and universities, much like their non-Catholic peers, have largely abandoned a strongly coherent core curriculum (see Figure 2 below).  Eighteen percent of the Catholic institutions assign half or more of their general education courses.  Only 44 percent require as much as one-third of the courses that comprise the general education curriculum.


Thus, while Catholic colleges and universities generally remain distinctive with regard to the comprehensiveness of their general education programs, they, like their non-Catholic counterparts, have embraced curricular choice as the dominant mode of delivering general education.  Many today lack a coherent vision of the subjects and knowledge that should be commonly learned by all students.

Influence of Strong Catholic Identity

Given the wide range of commitment to Catholic identity in Catholic higher education and the historical correlation between Catholic colleges and a strong core curriculum, it seems appropriate to analyze whether there are significant differences among Catholic institutions.  This study looks specifically at the 19 Catholic colleges and universities which were included in the online edition of The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College as of the fall of 20098,  which identifies colleges that “give priority to their Catholic identity and actively practice it.”

Although the Newman Guide colleges vary considerably from one another (some are extremely small and dedicated solely to the liberal arts, while others are much larger and have a wide variety of academic programs), as a group they are clearly distinctive when compared with the overall universe of Catholic higher education.  Not only do they demonstrate strong Catholic identity, but their general education programs are significantly more comprehensive (see Figure 3 below).


None of the Newman Guide colleges falls into the low category for comprehensiveness of general education, whereas 78 percent fall into the high category.  Nearly the same percentage of other Catholic colleges and universities are in the medium or low category.  The green “all” bar is included as a reminder of how the entire group, both Newman Guide and other Catholic institutions, is categorized.

Similarly, the Newman Guide colleges show strong coherence in their general education requirements, compared to other Catholic institutions (see Figure 4 below).  Sixty-eight percent of the Newman Guide institutions fall into the high category on the coherence scale, whereas 87percent of the other Catholic colleges and universities are in the medium and low categories.


Philosophy and Theology in General Education

Most Catholic colleges and universities require students to take some philosophy and theology courses.  As Alisdair MacIntyre has pointed out, this distinctive attribute of Catholic institutions reflects their commitment to helping students integrate knowledge and bring the tools of faith and reason to bear upon the fundamental questions they encounter in other disciplines, and so refine their capacity for sound judgment9.

Likewise Blessed John Paul II, in the apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae, indicated that philosophy and theology have a special role in providing the unifying framework for the pursuit of truth that should mark the Catholic university:

Aided by the specific contributions of philosophy and theology, university scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the Gospel, and therefore by a faith in Christ, the Logos, as the centre of creation and of human history10.

Thus, it is appropriate that these disciplines play a special and significant role in the curriculum of a Catholic college or university.  While the amount of philosophy and theology required varies significantly, from one course per semester in each discipline over four years to just one course total in either discipline11,  75 percent of Catholic colleges and universities require at least three courses in some combination of these two disciplines.

However, the size of the philosophy and theology requirement does not tell the whole picture.  The integrative function that theology plays in the traditional conception of the Catholic university is that it gives students the opportunity to examine all of their learning in the light of the truths of the Catholic faith.  For that to happen, obviously, the theology requirement would have to offer students those truths—that is, students would have to study genuine Catholic theology.

To be clear, it is not the purpose of this study to judge the quality or faithfulness of theology courses.  But the descriptions of courses permitted to satisfy the theology requirements of general education programs at Catholic institutions were examined to determine if they were Catholic theology at all, by their own definition.  In other words, if the description stated that the course covered Catholic (or, in fact, any Christian) theology, no further investigation into the content or approach of the course was carried out.

Also, the general education requirements were examined to ensure that theology courses are in fact required.  At almost every Catholic institution, students can study Catholic theology if they wish.  The question being considered is whether they are required to do so.  A requirement which could be satisfied by taking a course that is not Catholic theology, even if Catholic theology courses would also be accepted, has not been labeled a Catholic theology requirement.

According to these criteria, in 54 percent of the Catholic colleges and universities studied, the “theology” requirement could be satisfied without actually studying Catholic theology.  In a few of these institutions, there is no theology requirement at all.  Students may be required to take courses in either philosophy or theology, and so the requirement can be fulfilled entirely with philosophy courses.  Often the theology requirement is actually a “religious studies” requirement; religious studies is an academic discipline which focuses on the study of religion as a social phenomenon, but without any basis in a particular faith.  Or students may be permitted to study comparative religions or the theology of non-Christian faiths such as Hinduism or Buddhism.

The pervasiveness of the theology requirement, then, does not necessarily coincide with a commitment to ensure that all students are instructed in the truths of the Catholic faith.

Moreover, this area reveals the sharpest divergence between the Newman Guide institutions and other Catholic colleges and universities (see Figure 5 below).  While all of the Newman Guide schools require Catholic theology, 61 percent of other Catholic institutions do not.



This study shows that Catholic colleges and universities remain somewhat distinctive within the universe of American colleges and universities, with significantly more comprehensive general education programs.  But many Catholic institutions have followed their non-Catholic counterparts by embracing a distribution approach to general education and eliminating common core requirements.

Catholic colleges and universities retain, to varying degrees, their commitment to the study of philosophy and theology, which serve as integrative disciplines within the curriculum.  A surprising finding, however, was the extent to which Catholic colleges and universities allow students to fulfill their theology requirements without studying Catholic theology.

A closer look revealed that those Catholic institutions that most clearly and pervasively embraced their Catholic identity (specifically, those that were identified in the online edition of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College as of fall 2009) are much more likely to provide their students with a comprehensive, coherent general education program with a significant emphasis on philosophy and theology as integrative disciplines, and a definite requirement that students study Catholic theology.




Bioethics Studies in Catholic Higher Education

Executive Summary

This paper examines contemporary Catholic higher education and its unique role in preparing graduates, grounded in natural moral law, to respond to the increasing bioethical questions of the day.

The importance of both administrators and faculty articulat­ing and embracing the mission of Catholic higher education, as they prepare graduates for a culture of relativism, is presented.

Curricular objectives, content and teaching strategies are rec­ommended to address the most relevant bioethical dilemmas of the day. The importance of an integrated approach to examining these dilemmas, as well as a grounding in “core” content in phi­losophy and theology for all graduates regardless of discipline or concentration, are presented.

The interjection of government mandates into the void of bio­ethical resolutions is examined in relationship to the rights of conscience.

The paper concludes with examples of best practices, exempli­fying the role of Catholic higher education as uniquely suited to advance the common good.


The goal of higher education is to prepare informed citizens to contribute to society in an effective manner, as participants as well as leaders.  The nature of institutional sponsorship may dictate variances in the specific goals of higher education.  Educational goals of state-sponsored institutions of higher education may include preparing “all students with the knowledge, skills, and credentials necessary to succeed in the workplace, in the community, in further education, in living enriched lives, and in being globally competent citizens.”1 Catholic higher education has a unique role in helping shape a society that respects natural moral law.2

The secular relativism embraced by the American culture has raised more questions than answers for the participants in modern society.3  Increasingly, within all disciplines, the study of ethics, especially applied ethics, has become critically important to preparing students for the challenges of such a culture.4   Historically, a graduate of an institution of higher education had at least a foundation in philosophy, and graduates of religiously sponsored institutions received a grounding in the faith of the founding religious community.  Further, despite the discipline in which the student concentrated, he or she acquired a liberal education that fostered intellectual reasoning and provided a framework for ethical decision making effective for contributing to society.

A Catholic higher education institution, particularly one grounded in the liberal arts, should prepare its students to have some facility in the theological and philosophical principles that can shape secular debates.5  This also should be true for those institutions and departments that prepare graduates within applied disciplines, even if only achieved through prerequisite core courses for their major areas of study.  Consistent with canon law, each discipline should also include classes in theologically grounded applied principles (ethics) to enable students to integrate these principles within the disciplines they are studying.6  In this way, methods of ethical reasoning could be synthesized and applied within the particular disciplines for which the student are being prepared.7  Most importantly, graduates of Catholic higher education should be prepared to assume a critical role in shaping a secular environment regarding respect for the human dignity of all persons, especially the vulnerable.  This is one of the key aspects of Catholic bioethics education.8

Today medical research and technological developments outpace our ability to address easily the bioethical questions that necessarily arise.  Graduates of Catholic higher education, regardless of their fields of study, more than ever need to be academically prepared to address and shape the ensuing bioethical debates in our society. Graduates of Catholic colleges and universities should be prepared to:

  • understand the impact of current scientific advances on society’s appreciation of the human person;
  • identify trends in resolving bioethical dilemmas by means of governmental mandates;
  • analyze current trends in bioethical politics impacting the public’s perceptions of current bioethical issues;
  • approach these bioethical dilemmas in a manner consistent with natural moral law;
  • and synthesize philosophical and theological foundations for the understanding of the dignity of the human person.

Faculty members not only need to be prepared to assume these educational challenges, but they also need to be committed to the mission and vision of the institutional sponsors.  For theology faculty of Catholic institutions of higher education there is the additional requirement of the mandatum, first codified in canon law (can. 812) and subsequently reaffirmed in the apostolic constitution  Ex corde Ecclesiae promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1990.  The mandatum aims to ensure that Catholic theologians “assent to Catholic doctrine according to the degree of authority with which it is taught.”9  Furthermore, consistent with canon law all faculties within Catholic higher education, especially those responsible for ethics courses, be they core or integrated courses, should respect the truths contained in natural moral law embraced by the Catholic Church (can. 810 §1):

§ 3. In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching. In particular, Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.10

This paper, while not providing a curriculum framework for each discipline, will explore each of the challenges that professors at Catholic colleges and university face as   they address some of the most disputed ethical questions of the day: embryonic stem cell research, assisted reproductive technologies, sexual assault protocols, transgender surgery, and care of those in the persistent vegetative state.  Furthermore, this paper will identify the direction which Catholic higher education needs to take to ground its students in natural moral law, almost abandoned by today’s secular culture and its embrace of relativism.  In this way graduates of Catholic higher education, regardless of their academic majors, can not only address the bioethical challenges they face but assume a critical role in resolving these challenges.

Catholic Higher Education’s Unique Role in Shaping a Society Respectful of Natural Moral Law

Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to Catholic educators during his 2008 visit to the United States, indicated how Catholic higher education plays a unique role in shaping a society respectful of natural moral law:

The Church’s primary mission of evangelization, in which educational institutions play a crucial role, is consonant with a nation’s fundamental aspiration to develop a society truly worthy of the human person’s dignity. …The Church’s mission, in fact, involves her in humanity’s struggle to arrive at truth.  In articulating revealed truth she serves all members of society by purifying reason, ensuring that it remains open to the consideration of ultimate truths.  Drawing upon divine wisdom, she sheds light on the foundation of human morality and ethics, and reminds all groups in society that it is not praxis that creates truth but truth that should serve as the basis of praxis.11

Moral truth is grounded in natural moral law, which directs practice within the academic disciplines, including the applied disciplines such as bioethics.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides instruction on natural moral law:

Man participates in the wisdom and goodness of the Creator who gives him mastery over his acts and the ability to govern himself with a view to the true and the good.  The natural law expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie: The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin…  But this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and our freedom must be submitted.  (Leo XIII, Libertas praestantissimum, 597.)12

Natural moral law is not invented and then passed on through universities.  As Saint Paul tells us, natural moral law is written on the hearts of men.13  Aristotelian understanding of morality or the “good” demonstrates this reality.  As Aristotle observed, virtue is natural to humans.  Virtue is a perfection of one’s nature, achieved through contemplation and by acting reasonably on behalf of ends perceived as goods in pursuit of happiness.14  Saint Thomas Aquinas explicates these truths when he states that God is the ultimate source of happiness and that virtue, while revealed through revelation, is never contrary to reason.15

Historically, society embraced these truths and the medical community codified them in practice standards.  The Hippocratic Oath, now abandoned by most medical schools, reflected these standards: “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.”16  The oath was hailed as a pro-life phenomenon, not only by John Paul II,17 but also secular anthropologists such as Margaret Mead:

For the first time in our tradition there was a complete separation between killing and curing.  Throughout the primitive world the doctor and the sorcerer tended to be the same person.  He with the power to kill and the power to cure… He who had the power to cure would necessarily also be able to kill.

With the Greeks, the distinction was made clear.  One profession, the followers of Asclepius, were to be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances, regardless of rank, age, or intellect—the life of a slave, the life of an emperor, the life of a foreign man, the life of a defective child…

But society always is attempting to make the physician into a killer—to kill the defective child at birth, to leave the sleeping pills beside the bed of a cancer patient…18

In fact, the leadership of the Catholic Hospital Association (CHA) initially was able to endorse the American College of Surgeons’ “Minimum Standard” (1919) as a code of ethics for Catholic hospitals.  Rev. Charles B. Moulinier, SJ, CHA’s first president of the CHA, collaborated in the development of the “Minimum Standard.”19  This endeavor of the American College of Surgeons evolved into the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations in 1987, to which Catholic hospitals answer for accreditation today.  However, very quickly it was recognized that Catholic health care required its own minimum standard.  In 1921 CHA published its own set of requirements that established ethical standards for patient care while conforming to the “Minimum Standard.”20  Over the decades society began to embrace cultural relativism.  Objective standards of morality in society and ethics in health care delivery were traded-in for the subjective standards of situation ethics,21 consequentialism22 and utilitarianism.23  Thus, it was not the Catholic Church that changed its understanding of professional obligations; society abandoned centuries of tradition that had protected the vulnerable from a redefinition of human dignity.  By 1948,24 this necessitated Catholic health care to adopt its own ethical standards, consistent with the Catholic Church’s understanding of the good25 and the definition of the human person as a bearer of rights.26  The current version of these standards, promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and adopted as particular law by each diocesan bishop, is the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.27

Phenomenal developments in medical technology have entered into a culture that has lost its rudder in terms of its obligations to the vulnerable.  This is where the role of a Catholic university can have its greatest impact.  The secular relativism embraced by contemporary American culture has raised more questions than answers, especially in the bioethical domain.  Catholic university graduates who are grounded in philosophy, theology and applied bioethics regardless of their concentrations of study, are critically necessary for reclaiming a virtuous society, i.e., one that is natural to humans and grounded in natural moral law.  As professionals, consumers of health care, and citizens who direct public policy, the potential contribution of Catholic university graduates to reshaping a society that is respectful of natural moral law is immeasurable.

Bioethics Competencies of Graduates

Graduates of Catholic institutions of higher education need to be able to dialogue meaningfully and contribute to resolving contemporary dilemmas concerning bioethics within a secular society.  Regardless of the academic major, all graduates of Catholic higher education have a role to play not only in resolving the bioethical questions of the day, but also in shaping these bioethical debates.  Before debating any bioethical question, graduates need to be able to identify the theological, philosophical, scientific, sociological and legal principles which guide the debates and provide direction to society. To do so requires an understanding of the aforementioned disciplines and the medical advances of the day, as well as a grounding in history pursuant to these very disciplines.  When technological developments in medicine have outpaced society’s ability to answer ensuing bioethical questions, it is critical that graduates of Catholic colleges and universities have an accurate historical perspective of societal influences that impact and even create these bioethical dilemmas.  Thus, all graduates of Catholic higher education need to be prepared for the five competencies cited in the introduction above.

Whether through an integrated approach within or among disciplines, within specific courses, or a combination of both, students will acquire the aforementioned competencies by gaining facility in the following areas.  This creates obligations for faculty, faculty hiring practices, faculty retention and faculty development.  The introduction above addressed the foundations of such obligations; the final section of this paper will provide more specific suggestions pursuant to these areas.

1st Competency:  Understand the impact of current scientific developments on society’s appreciation of the human person.

Discovery of Oral Contraceptives28
Cybernetic, nanotechnologies, biotechnologies29
Assisted reproductive technologies30
Genetic therapies versus genetic engineering31
Embryonic cell research33
Vaccine development; cell lines from aborted fetuses.34
Organ transplantation and definitions of death
Rejection of aging
Advanced life support and persistent vegetative state35
Faith and Reason36 not faith versus reason
Human acts as moral acts37

Teaching Strategy

Teaching methods should be tailored to the cognitive and affective levels38 of each competency.  Students need to understand fully the impact that scientific developments have on our understanding of the human person.  Lecture/discussion and case studies, using current examples from the content listed, are suited to developing this competency.  For example, the discovery of the oral contraceptive has changed the understanding of the role of human sexuality in relationships, marriage, family and society, creating numerous ethical dilemmas related to the engendering of children.  Focus on these issues can be integrated among a number of disciplines, such as the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities, including philosophy and religion.  Understanding the impact of current scientific advances on society’s appreciation of the human person can be enhanced through case analyses, developing affective competencies such as valuing (belief systems, natural law, human dignity).  Acquiring competencies, which can be exercised in real life situations, requires practice similar to that required of psychomotor domain competencies.39  For students in the applied disciplines (e.g., nursing), clinical experiences and pre- and post-conferencing discussions for those experiences, provide invaluable opportunities to develop competency in applying the knowledge they are acquiring.

2nd Competency:  Identify trends in resolving bioethical dilemmas by means of governmental mandates.

The First Amendment: what it really means
Judicial redefinition of Constitutional rights
The History of health care: A ministry or an industry40
“Table of Legal Mandates, State by State”41
Erosion of religious liberty through the courts
Efforts to restore religious liberty42
Efforts of the Church to protect religious liberty43
Federal role in protection of human subjects in research44
Creation and enforcement of new “rights:” sexual orientation, gender identity, same-sex marriage, privacy as the foundation for the right to an abortion, the right to be parents, rights over the fetus, the right to die.45

Teaching Strategy

Knowledge in the social sciences is involved in the cognitive task of being able to identify trends in resolving bioethical dilemmas by means of governmental mandates.  Lecture/discussion and debates are suited to developing this student ability, by using current examples from the content listed.  For example, the changing laws protecting sexual orientation have created mandates on employers, for example Catholic schools, which impact the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion.46  Legal mandates can cause the government to be the source of the violation of religious liberty, which government was created to protect.47  Focus on these issues can be integrated among a number of disciplines, such as the social sciences, particularly political science and communication, and the humanities, including philosophy and religion.  Herein the cognitive ability to identify trends in resolving bioethical dilemmas by means of governmental mandates can be developed through case analyses and field experiences.  These experiences can develop in the student affective competencies, such as responding and contributing as a citizen to resolving the political controversies about such mandates. For students in the applied disciplines (e.g., pre-law, law), internships with faculty oversight and conferencing provide tangible opportunities to witness government attempting to resolve an ethical debate through legal mandates.

3rd Competency:  Propose resolutions to selected bioethical dilemmas in a manner consistent with natural moral law.

Aristotle and the ethic of the good48
Aquinas and natural moral law49
Ethical theories: deontological and teleological50
Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services51
Meaning of suffering52
Ordinary (proportionate) versus extraordinary means (disproportionate to benefit)
Cooperation in moral/immoral acts53
Principle of double effect
Moral certitude

Teaching Strategy

Application of knowledge is involved in the cognitive task of being able to propose resolutions to selected bioethical dilemmas in a manner consistent with natural moral law.  Case studies are suited to developing this ability in students, by using current examples from the media.  For example, the use of abortion in a pregnancy in which there are multiple fetuses and fetal or maternal health, or both, are at risk, would be a challenging case study.  Competency to propose ethical resolutions requires prerequisite knowledge in the content areas listed under this competency, particularly natural moral law.  Herein the role of philosophy and theology, as prerequisite courses regardless of the student’s discipline, is critical.  The cognitive ability to apply theological principles and philosophical reasoning can be enhanced through case analyses that develop affective competencies such as problem solving and concern for others.  As stated earlier, acquiring cognitive and affective domain competencies, which can be exercised in real life situations, requires practice similar to that required of psychomotor domain competencies.  For students in the applied disciplines (e.g., pre-medicine), clinical experiences and pre- and post-conferencing for those experiences, provide invaluable opportunities to develop competency in applying the knowledge they are acquiring.

4th Competency:  Analyze current trends in bioethical politics impacting the public’s perceptions of current bioethical issues.

Extremes: secular relativism and theocracy; versus democracy and religious liberty54
Managed care and health care costs
The Sexual Revolution and the Women’s Movement: changing views on human sexuality, human life and marriage
The embryo and fetus as a commodity/property
Growth of the homosexual, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered advocacy movement
Professional standards of practice and religious liberty
Role of Catholic laity55

Teaching Strategy

The ability to analyze societal culture and its embrace of particular ethical theories (deontological, teleological, the ethic of the good, or natural moral law) is the requisite cognitive task needed to analyze current trends in bioethical politics impacting the public’s perceptions of current bioethical issues.  A secular relativism56 and a utilitarian economic57 frequently dictate public perception and thus direct bioethical politics.  Cross-discipline case studies are suited to developing this higher level ability in students, by using current examples from the content listed.  For example, a required team-taught interdisciplinary course could be required of all students.  Faculty from philosophy, theology, political science, sociology and psychology could engage the students in problem-based instruction in such areas as gender equity, human rights and religious liberty.58  Herein the cognitive ability to analyze current trends in bioethical politics impacting the public’s perceptions of current bioethical issues can also facilitate the development of affective competencies such as the organization of a value system (philosophy of life).59  Again acquiring cognitive and affective domain competencies, which can be exercised in real life situations, requires practice similar to that required of psychomotor domain competencies.  For students in the applied disciplines (e.g., bioethics, chaplaincy, law), internships with faculty oversight and conferencing for those experiences, provide invaluable opportunities to directly analyze the bioethical politics shaping public perceptions of current bioethical issues.

5th Competency:  Synthesize philosophical and theological foundations for the understanding of the dignity of the human person.

Human organisms versus human beings
Human nature and the virtues
Person as object
Theology of the Body60
Apportioning moral worth
Definitions of human dignity
Cooperation in moral/immoral acts61

Teaching Strategy

The ability to integrate learning from a number of disciplines is the requisite cognitive task needed to synthesize philosophical and theological foundations for the understanding of the dignity of the human person.  Regardless of the concentration of study, graduates need a solid grounding in philosophy and theology not only to contribute to contemporary society, but also to function in society effectively.  Respect for human dignity, as explicated in natural moral law, enables one to engage the world with a consistent and predictable value system, demonstrating the affective competency of having a value complex.62  After the foundational core courses have been completed, the same cross-discipline case studies cited above are suited to developing this higher-level ability in students.  Again, acquiring cognitive and affective domain competencies, which can be exercised in real life situations, requires practice similar to that required of psychomotor domain competencies.  For students in all of the applied disciplines, clinical placements or internships with faculty oversight and conferencing for those experiences provide invaluable opportunities to synthesize the knowledge they are acquiring.

For all of the identified competencies and content, faculty from all disciplines need to be involved in enabling students to be successful.  Whether through an integrated approach within or among disciplines, or within discrete courses, or ideally a combination of both methods, faculty must be able to guide students to these ends.

Current Bioethical Challenges

Phenomenal developments in medical technology have outpaced society’s ability to engage in a moral analysis of their impact on the human person and the commonweal.  The rudder has become the utilitarian ethic within this void, endangering those who are seen as not contributing to society.  These vulnerable human beings are frequently those who have no voice or no advocate.

Most interestingly, there are attempts to silence those who provide a voice for such vulnerable human beings.  This is particularly true if those advocates speak from a faith-based perspective.  The opposing outcry bases its arguments on a misrepresentation of the First Amendment, claiming violations of the separation of church and state.  Thus, increasingly, the very government charged with the protection of religious liberty is being used to silence these advocates for the voiceless, violating the very rights government is charged to protect.  As the constitutional scholar Stephen Carter stated, “The potential transformation of the Establishment Clause from a guardian of religious freedom into a guarantor of public secularism raises prospects at once dismal and dreadful.”63  Furthermore, those who refuse to engage in violating the human rights and dignity of the vulnerable are being coerced to do so by government mandates.

There have been efforts to assure the constitutionally protected rights of conscience.  In December 2008 the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a final rule to ensure that HHS funds do not support practices or policies in violation of existing federal conscience protection laws.64  Very quickly, however, efforts to abrogate these rules were initiated, with seven state attorneys general joining the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, suing the federal government to accomplish this end.  A significant number of members of Congress and President Barack Obama have advocated for passage of the federal Freedom of Choice Act, which will make abortion an entitlement.65  Thus, individual health care providers and Catholic health care agencies could be required to violate conscience and cooperate in the provision of abortions.  The burgeoning list of such mandates is formidable, and how they impact the bioethical challenges at hand will be addressed in relationship to each respective area below.

Of great dismay is the fact that professional organizations, created to protect the professional practices of their members, are advocating for the violation of individual conscience in the provision of care.  For example, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has advanced a policy which requires the violation of physicians’ consciences.  They admonish that conscience only may be accommodated if first the duty to the patient is met; and even then physicians of conscience are required to refer patients to other providers who are willing to offer the morally illicit procedures.  Such physicians of conscience are to locate their practices in proximity to these other providers, for easier access for their patients.  Furthermore, in emergencies when a referral is impossible, the physician is to act against conscience.66  The American Medical Association’s Board of Trustees “supports legislation that would require individual pharmacists and pharmacy chains to fill legally valid prescriptions or to provide immediate referral to an appropriate alternative dispensing pharmacy without interference.”67

What becomes increasingly apparent is that Catholic higher education can and should be a critical force in preparing citizens, and particularly professionals, who are capable of articulating and asserting not only their own rights in the face of such coercion, but the rights of the voiceless as well.

Assisted Reproductive Technologies

With the delay in parenting, brought on by widespread use of contraception in our society, more persons find themselves beyond the age of maximum fertility when they decide to become parents.  The average age of American women having their first child has increased from 21 years of age in 197068 to 24.9 years of age in 2000.69  The peak of female fertility occurs before age 30.70 Approximately two percent of women of childbearing age in the United States had an infertility-related medical appointment in 2002.71 Furthermore, individuals are choosing to be single parents, and homosexual couples are seeking parenthood by engaging assisted reproductive technologies, resulting in a separation of the marital conjugal act from the engendering of children.

In 1987 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith provided moral guidance to married couples seeking medical assistance with their fertility with its instruction Donum Vitae (DV).72 This instruction addressed the evolving questions of the day concerning respect for the origin of human life and the dignity of procreation.  DV elucidated two fundamental values connected with assisted reproductive technologies: “the life of the human being called into existence and the special nature of the transmission of human life in marriage.”73  It condemned heterologous technologies (use of sperm or egg from at least one donor other than the married spouses74) while providing moral guidance for homologous technologies, including criteria to be used to evaluate the moral legitimacy of such therapies.  Citing Pius XII, DV instructed, “A medical intervention respects the dignity of persons when it seeks to assist the conjugal act either in order to facilitate its performance or in order to enable it to achieve its objective once it has been normally performed.”75(II, B, N. 7)  DV continued:

On the other hand, it sometimes happens that a medical procedure technologically replaces the conjugal act in order to obtain a procreation which is neither its result nor its fruit.  In this case the medical act is not, as it should be, at the service of conjugal union but rather appropriates to itself the procreative function and thus contradicts the dignity and the inalienable rights of the spouses and of the child to be born.76

DV anticipated the abuses perpetuated on the human embryo (to be addressed in the next section) when it spoke against non-therapeutic human research on the embryo and fetus, and eugenic prenatal diagnosis. (I. 2.)  Finally, the instruction called for all persons to be involved in assuring that civil law is reflective of moral law:

All men of good will must commit themselves, particularly within their professional field and in the exercise of their civil rights, to ensuring the reform of morally unacceptable civil laws and the correction of illicit practices.  In addition, “conscientious objection” vis-a-vis such laws must be supported and recognized.77

In vitro fertilization opened the flood gates of abuse of the human embryo, from pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to unscrupulous multiple gestations, abortion, the creation of human-animal hybrids, and the legitimization of non-therapeutic fatal research on the “spare” embryos left un-implanted by their parents.  Persons of goodwill sought to intervene and rescue the abandoned embryos through prenatal embryo adoption.  Most notably, the Snowflake Program provided organized and life protecting methods for married couples to adopt, implant, gestate and raise these embryos into adulthood.78  Since this involved the condemned heterologous implantation of abandoned embryos, a dilemma was raised: was it morally licit to save the lives of these embryos through embryo adoption?

In 2008 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Dignitas Personae (DP).  DP provided new guidance in the areas of techniques for assisting fertility, new forms of interception and contragestation, gene therapy, human cloning, the therapeutic use of stem cells, attempts at hybridization, and the use of human “biological material” of illicit origin.  It provided more specificity pertaining to the illicit nature of certain assisted reproductive technologies, e.g., in vitro  fertilization, intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), freezing of oocytes, pre-implantation diagnosis, the reduction (abortion) of embryos in multiple gestations, and the freezing of embryos (and the dilemma of their futures).  Specifically, while not condemning embryo adoption, DP did not affirm it as morally licit:

The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood; [DV II, A, 1-3] this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature.

It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of “prenatal adoption”.  This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.79

Similar to DVDP calls for action stating that there is an “urgent need to mobilize consciences in favour of life.”80  Assisted reproductive technology has been one focus for legislative and judicial mandates impacting conscience.  Increasingly state legislatures are requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for in vitro fertilization in employee health plans.  Furthermore, the courts are dictating the violation of the physician’s conscience in providing these technologies to patients.  In August 2007, the California Supreme Court ruled that the anti-discrimination rights of an infertile lesbian take precedence over the religious liberty of physicians who had limited their in vitro fertilization practice to married heterosexual couples.81  Catholic higher education should play a major role in awakening and forming consciences to contemporary and evolving moral dilemmas and equipping future citizens, professionals and scholars to address these dilemmas personally as well as in the public square.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The first embryonic stem cell was not extracted until 1998,82 eleven years after DV.  Although animal cloning was first successful in 1996 with the cloning of Dolly the sheep,83 cloning of a human embryo was not achieved until 2001.84  Thus, while DV condemned non-therapeutic research on the human embryo and fetus, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning remained unaddressed.  As the search increased for embryonic stem cells that would not cause rejection in their recipients, human cloning was seen as the answer.  The creation and destruction of human embryos for research was justified.

DP clearly addresses this violation of human life:

Human cloning is intrinsically illicit in that, by taking the ethical negativity of techniques of artificial fertilization to their extreme, it seeks to give rise to a new human being without a connection to the act of reciprocal self-giving between the spouses and, more radically, without any link to sexuality.  This leads to manipulation and abuses gravely injurious to human dignity. [DV I, 6]85

In less than a quarter of a century since DV, the speculated-upon Brave New World has become a reality.86 Despite the historic protections in federal law of the embryo, efforts have been successful in dehumanizing the embryo, erroneously calling the creation and destruction of the embryo with the support of tax dollars not only acceptable, but laudable.  Where this has occurred, such public funding has placed a mandate on citizens, requiring the support this intrinsic evil with tax dollars.

Historically Congress has provided the same protection to the embryo and fetus as is provided to an infant.  In 1975 the federal government established federal regulations for the protection of human embryos from the time of implantation in the womb.87  In 1985 Congress further clarified this standard by amending the National Institutes of Health reauthorization act providing research protections that are “the same for fetuses which are intended to be aborted and fetuses which are intended to be carried to term.”88  In 1996 Congress passed legislation to provide the same protections to the embryo; the Dickey-Wicker Amendment stated that federal funds are not to be used for the creation of human embryos for research purposes or for research in which embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero.  The ban defined “human embryo or embryos” as including any organism that is derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning or any other means from one or more human gametes (sperm or egg.).89

Yet federal protections are being eroded, and state legislatures are funding embryonic stem cell research in the name of economic development.  This is despite the fact that embryonic stem cell research in humans has not been demonstrated to be clinically effective in humans.  The ethical stem cell alternatives using adult sources of stem cells (including umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid and placental sources) successfully have treated thousands of patients, from those with cardiac disease and pediatric brain tumors to the widely-known successes with blood diseases.  Scientists have demonstrated that they are able to induce pluripotent stem cells from somatic cells without creating or destroying human embryos.90  All of these morally licit methods can obviate the problem of tissue rejection.

More fundamentally, however, government must respect and protect human life regardless of any utilitarian scientific advance.  It cannot single out certain human beings as disposable, simply because their parents or society in general do not want them.

DP addressed this discrimination against embryos, abandoned to fatal research by their parents after pre-implantation diagnosis labeled the embryos unsuitable:

By treating the human embryo as mere “laboratory material”, the concept itself of human dignity is also subjected to alteration and discrimination.  Dignity belongs equally to every single human being, irrespective of his parents’ desires, his social condition, educational formation or level of physical development.91

Catholic higher education can be of substantial assistance in demythologizing these public policy debates.  Legislatures and the public have been misled by technical terminology into believing that falsely-labeled cloning bans actually ban cloning, when in fact they allow (and in many cases fund) the creation of human embryos for research and destruction.  New and false terminologies, such as “pre-embryo,” have been created to deceive the public into believing that the embryo is not a human being.  Those educated in the sciences, grounded in truth and natural law, not only can expose these falsehoods but also can articulate the resulting assault on the common good.

Sexual Assault Protocols

In 2006 the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the dispensing of emergency contraception, Plan B, by a pharmacist without a prescription to male and female adults.  In 2009, the FDA lowered the age to from adulthood to 17 years of age.[92]92  A number of states also promulgated legal provisions pertaining to pharmacist dispensing of emergency contraception.

Only a few states provide a pharmacist refusal provision based on conscience.  When such provisions do exist, they are tenuous at best and require some mechanism for timely alternative access to emergency contraception.  Increasingly, state legislatures mandate that emergency departments provide information about administration of, or arrangement for transportation to another facility for, emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault even when there is an indication that the medication could impede implantation of an engendered embryo.

State statutory conscience exemptions for such requirements are nearly non-existent.  This is extremely problematic, particularly since the recent instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae states:

It is true that there is not always complete knowledge of the way that different pharmaceuticals operate, but scientific studies indicate that the effect of inhibiting implantation is certainly present, even if this does not mean that such interceptives [intrauterine device and “morning-after pills”] cause an abortion every time they are used, also because conception does not occur after every act of sexual intercourse.  It must be noted, however, that anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly have been conceived and who therefore either requests or prescribes such a pharmaceutical, generally intends abortion.93

Catholic health care has been in the forefront of compassionate care in the treatment of sexual assault victims.  In fact, due to the possibility that treatment can impact two victims (the woman assaulted and the human being potentially being engendered), Catholic hospitals had holistic policies in place long before secular hospitals.  Such policies include physical, psychological, spiritual and forensic parameters of care.94

The health care provider, however, must achieve the moral certitude, through appropriate testing, that the object of preventing ovulation with each administration of the emergency contraceptive can be achieved, rather than a potential post fertilization effect.  By not testing to achieve the moral certitude that fertilization can be prevented when administering the emergency contraception, the health care provider could engage in immediate material cooperation with those intending the intrinsic evil of abortion.  This would be true if the administration of emergency contraception is upon the request of the victim, or in response to a mandate from government, either of whose intentions are to prevent implantation of the embryo if fertilization cannot be prevented.95

State legislatures are dictating health care protocols that demand administration of emergency contraception without allowing for diagnostic testing to determine what effect the medication will have on the particular patient in question.  This is not only a violation of conscience, but also the violation of informed consent as well as sound medical practice.

In situations such as these, informed citizens, consumers and professionals are key to informing the general population of the dangers of a constitutional government that violates its own constitution, by selecting which powerful groups are granted favoured status, e.g., those demanding reproductive “rights” over the rights of religious liberty.  To articulate these constitutional violations requires some sophistication in a climate that does not want citizens to be confused by the facts.  Catholic higher education is known for its pursuit of truth through scholarship and is well suited to accomplishing this end.

Transgender Surgery

The sexual culture is being defined by an international movement that equates all human sexuality as a “good,” regardless of whether it involves acts that are heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, within marriage or non-monogamous.  Such a philosophy radically redefines the nature of human sexuality, divorcing its proper unitive and procreative purposes.  The societal role of heterosexual marriage and the children it begets is becoming marginalized, equated to all other unions in which people choose to engage.  Numerous permutations of “marital rights” are being legislated, with corresponding obligations on others: reciprocal beneficiaries, domestic partnerships, civil unions and same-sex marriage.

There are new “rights” also being extended through what are called “gender identity” laws.  All states prohibit discrimination based on gender.  Thus, the newer “gender identity” legislative protections are being promoted in such a way that any attempt to allow for religious exemptions is being labeled a violation of civil rights.  These new legal categories of relationships and behaviors are being legislated as “protected classes”96 equal to race, color, religion, sex or national origin and increasingly taking precedence over the rights of religious liberty.  An example of this is the loss of the New Jersey tax-exempt status by a Methodist-sponsored camp ground which refused to allow a same-sex union ceremony in its marriage pavilion.97

The implications for employers and providers of services are significant.  Gender identity “protections” could require employers such as Catholic schools to allow the first grade teacher to be identified as Ms. Jones on Monday and Mr. Jones on Tuesday, with respective appearances to match the identity.  Furthermore, in the delivery of health care services, mandates pursuant to transgender surgery already have been faced by Catholic providers.98  Some states expressly prohibit discrimination against same-sex couples in adoption policies.  This has had a significant impact on the ability of diocesan Catholic Charities to provide adoption services; for example, in March 2006 after 100 years of providing adoption services, Catholic Charities of Boston had to cease such services rather than comply with this mandate.  More recently Catholic Charities of Worcester experienced the same fate.

Here, again, one of the major roles of Catholic higher education is to prepare graduates who are able and willing to articulate the moral and legal principles involved when legally created rights conflict.  Those responsible for developing social policies need to have an appreciation that a viable society must be grounded in natural law.  Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, graduates of Catholic higher education need to be able to shape these debates consistent with the truth that natural moral law is not a religious belief, but a practical reality the acknowledgement and acceptance of which  allows a society to survive.

Care of Those in a Persistent Vegetative State

The case of Terri Schiavo brought the issue of care of persons in a persistent vegetative state into the public domain.99  Much of the controversy surrounded whether or not her wishes concerning her care were being respected, especially since she had no advanced directive.100  Another controversy surrounded whether or not she truly was in a vegetative state.  Politicians and judges and advocates for “death with dignity” and the “right to life” became involved with this case.  The central question was whether Mrs. Schiavo had given her consent to the continuance of assisted nutrition and hydration, which were keeping her alive.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, there are fundamental moral principles operable in providing assisted nutrition and hydration to those in a persistent vegetative state.  These principles were explicated in a response from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to a dubium from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  This response was not addressed to any one patient situation, but did address the moral questions generated by the Schiavo case.  Specifically, the response stated:

The administration of food and water even by artificial means is, in principle, an ordinary and proportionate means of preserving life.  It is therefore obligatory to the extent to which, and for as long as, it is shown to accomplish its proper finality, which is the hydration and nourishment of the patient.  In this way suffering and death by starvation and dehydration are prevented… A patient in a “permanent vegetative state” is a person with fundamental human dignity and must, therefore, receive ordinary and proportionate care which includes, in principle, the administration of water and food even by artificial means.101

Society has embarked on the slippery slope of situation ethics, equating a person’s ability to lead what others determine is a “meaningful life” to human dignity.  Human dignity is a redundant phase; such dignity is innate and synonymous with being human.  It cannot be lost or taken away.  Yet studies show that those who request physician assisted suicide fear the loss of such dignity.102  This translates into not wanting to be a burden and thus rejected by loved ones.  The societal impact is significant.  In jurisdictions where assisted suicide has become accepted policy, such as the Netherlands, there now is the provision for euthanasia for those who cannot consent, such as disabled infants.103

Public policy should be in the hands of the public, but an informed public which has been given all of the truths and the skills to uncover the truth, needed for shaping policies that impact the public good.  Education focused only on the “how” and not the “why” has led to the ethical dilemmas of the day, be they biomedical, economic or social.  This is where Catholic higher education, using an integrated theological and philosophical approach to ethics education, can be of immeasurable service to the commonweal.   Below this paper will address more specific suggestions pursuant to these areas, concluding with a discussion of best practices.

Social Politics Impacting Bioethics Education

The fruits of the civil rights movement are good and bountiful in so many ways.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against persons based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  Incrementally, federal legislation was passed to protect other classes of persons facing discrimination, e.g., the 1968 Fair Housing Act added familial status and people with disabilities to such protected classes.104  Initially, these laws may have forced persons to change immoral and inhumane behaviors toward others, but eventually the changes in behaviors and associations led to positive changes in perceptions and beliefs.  For the first time in history, with the election of Barack Obama, we have a president of the United States whose father was African and whose mother was Caucasian.  Two women were advanced by their political parties for nomination or as a candidate for president or vice-president of the United States.105  The willingness of society to embrace diversity is palpable.

However, the civil rights movement has been hijacked by those attempting to advance their own cultural agendas which will redefine society as we know it.  With these new agendas, non-discrimination only applies to those having the power to control the agenda.  Thus the unborn human being with a disability who cannot speak for herself has no power and no rights.  Those advocating for these vulnerable human beings become labeled as religious fanatics.  Thus religion becomes marginalized and in effect the object of discrimination.

Case law is pitting religious liberty, supposedly constitutionally protected, against an increasing state interest in fostering equality between the sexes.106  Most alarmingly, gender identity is redefined to mean anything one chooses it to be at any time, and marriage and family are also so redefined.107  Again, any group advocating for maintaining heterosexual marriage and family as the social institution that is the fabric of society from its origin is labeled a bigot.

Health care professionals who wish to exercise conscience in the delivery of health care are labeled discriminatory.  In fact they often are impeded from invoking their consciences in the exercise of their professions.108  Laws are advanced, such as the federal Freedom of Choice Act, with language that is a misnomer; the only free choices that will be protected are those choices which will violate the lives of the vulnerable.109  Conscience protections for health care professionals, enshrined in federal law since the 1973 Church amendments,110 are in jeopardy.

This is where the role of Catholic higher education enters: to help the future shapers of society to sort through the rhetoric, the misuse of terminology (deliberate and otherwise), and the misinterpretation of the federal and state constitutions which allow for the violation of human life, the Hippocratic practice of medicine and the role of marriage and family in society.

However, somewhere along the way, the mission of Catholic higher education has been attenuated.  Herdershott attributes this secularization of mission to what she terms “status envy:” the attempt of Catholic higher education to achieve elite status at the expense of mission.111  She cites as the origin of this phenomenon an essay by Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, written over half a century ago.  Ellis accused Catholic campus faculty of giving priority to students’ moral development over scholarship and intellectual excellence.112  Hendershott proceeds through an historical analysis in which Catholic higher education’s Catholic identity has been “defined down,” the mission secularized, theology confused and boundaries blurred.  Most telling is her report of a survey of 7,200 incoming students of thirty-eight Catholic institutions of higher education, with a repeat of the same survey four years later.  Between admission and graduation, student support for the following socially destructive behaviors increased as follows: legalized abortion (37.9 percent to 51.7 percent), premarital sex (27.5 percent to 48.0 percent), and same-sex marriage (52.4 percent to 69.5 percent).113

Many bioethical issues touch upon an understanding of the sacredness of human life from its engendering until natural death, human sexuality, and the sacredness of marriage and family.  Clearly, social politics has impacted Catholic higher education and most notably in the area of bioethics education.  With the results of the aforementioned survey one is left asking how well-versed are these graduates in natural moral law?  How grounded are the faculty, and the curricula for which they are responsible, in natural moral law?

Faculty Obligations to Prepare Graduates Capable of Resolving Bioethical Dilemmas of the Day

The need to prepare graduates of Catholic higher education who are capable of resolving contemporary ethical dilemmas creates obligations for faculty, faculty hiring practices, and faculty retention and development policies.

There has been much confusion over the years concerning faculty rights, pursuant to academic freedom, and faculty obligations to embrace the mission of the institution for which they have agreed to be an agent of education.  The need for educating students consistent with the mission of any institution with which faculty engage is not a parochial standard.  Educational accrediting standards, regardless of the sponsorship of the institution of higher education, require that an institution has a mission statement which is manifested through its curriculum.114  This is not an invention of Catholic higher education administration.

Yet all one has to do is attend to the media to see some faculty in Catholic colleges claiming that such a requirement is a violation of academic freedom.  A recent example can be seen in the outrage some faculty expressed when crucifixes were placed in classrooms of Boston College, claiming that this traditional Catholic practice creates an environment hostile to open intellectual discourse, thereby asking that we accept the absurdity of their implication that a Catholic college cannot implement its own mission.115

The concept of academic freedom is as misunderstood as the concept of the separation of church and state.  The American Association of University Professors and Association of American Colleges and Universities agree that:

Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.

Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.  Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.116

While Dignitatis Humanae hails the right to freedom, both individual and communal, it also states that:

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons—that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility—that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth.117

Somehow in the age of cultural relativism, the concept that academe is to be in search of eternal truths has been lost.  Freedom, whether academic or social, became defined as freedom to do what one wants, not the more accurate definition consistent with natural law: freedom to act toward the good.  Educators sometimes envision themselves as agents of social change, dissent and even civil disobedience.  In recent history, colleges and universities were in the forefront of the 1960s civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement.  While many engaged in laudable non-violent protests, for some the rallying against authority included violence which was praised as a strike for social justice.  Enter the sexual revolution through the discovery of oral contraception,118 with the Church’s teaching on the inseparable unitive and procreative gifts of married love,119 and the Church became the target for scholarly dissent.  Father Charles Curran sued The Catholic University of America for suspending him for his dissent from Church teaching.  The Superior Court of the District of Columbia ruled against Curran, citing the pontifical nature of the university, and found that that there is “an ecclesiastical limit” on theological dissent.120  However, throughout the United States the conflicts continue, leading to confusion by students and often dismay by parents whose intent in sending their children to a Catholic institution of higher education may have been usurped by the unresolved tension between institutional mission and academic freedom.

There are Catholic institutions of higher education that have embraced this opportunity to clarify their unique role in education.  In so doing, they have acknowledged that not all faculty upon hiring were grounded solidly in Catholic dogma, or were even Catholic.  Such an acknowledgement recognizes the obligation to provide ongoing faculty development in Catholic doctrine.  Some of the best contemporary practices also prepare faculty to be versed in the Church’s teaching on contemporary bioethical dilemmas, to enable them to prepare their graduates for the challenges they face in our culture.

Holy Apostles College and Seminary121 is a residential seminary and a commuter college located in the diocese of Norwich, Connecticut.  The seminary was originally operated by the Missionaries of the Holy Apostles, an order of priests.  In 1984 the order invited the three Roman Catholic diocesan bishops of Connecticut to join the Board of Directors, along with lay men and women.  The bishop of the Diocese of Norwich serves as the school’s chancellor.

The integration of the college and the seminary enables the cultivation of lay, consecrated and ordained Catholic leaders for the purpose of evangelization in the modern world.  There are four Bachelor of Arts major concentrations: Theology, Philosophy, English in the Humanities, and History in the Social Sciences. A firm grounding in the tradition of Catholic moral teaching and a clear understanding of the Church’s teaching on contemporary bioethical issues is essential for all students, enabling them to be leaders in evangelization.  Every undergraduate and graduate class, whether in theology, philosophy, humanities or social sciences, is taught from the perspective of natural moral law with applications to key contemporary issues of human life and sexuality.  Courses in sociology, psychology and biology, for example, reaffirm the truth of the person in light of the anthropology articulated by Pope John Paul II in the Theology of the Body.122

The goal of the undergraduate program is to provide a philosophically based Catholic honors liberal arts curriculum to prepare students for graduate study and most especially for life.  Each student is required to take eight courses in philosophy: logic, ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of man, and ethics and contemporary issues in philosophy.  These courses educate in the true sense of the word: “to draw out from the students,” enabling them to discover the truth, the beauty and the good in the natural moral law accessible by right reason.  A key goal is to enable each graduate to articulate correctly the basis in reason for Catholic moral teaching on contemporary bioethical issues.

Furthermore, each undergraduate student is required to take seven courses in theology.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church123 is studied in its entirety over two semesters.  Special emphasis is given to the “pillar” of moral teaching as this is the locus at which the Church faces most present-day difficulties in catechesis and culture.  Courses in scripture, liturgy, spirituality and Church history are rooted in Pope John Paul’s exegesis of Genesis124 on sexuality, complementarity of the sexes, and the sacredness of every human life.

Holy Apostles has a very qualified and dedicated core of undergraduate professors.  The small size of the student body, and thus its faculty, enable interdisciplinary collaboration and cohesiveness.  This allows for a sharing of expertise. While courses are not team taught, it is not uncommon for faculty members to become guest lecturers in each others’ classes, bringing their particular expertise to the subject at hand.  For example, a professor of philosophy conducted a seminar on the philosophical underpinnings of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.125  The same kind of collaboration occurred with the study of the philosophical basis of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on human life, Humanae Vitae.126  Philosophy is recognized as the “handmaid” of theology, and the two disciplines remain closely linked.

The focus of the undergraduate program is to provide an honors liberal arts curriculum with a view to specialization in graduate school.  The school does not offer concentrations per se within the undergraduate majors.  The student can, however, choose to exercise his or her elective courses to enhance preparation in bioethics.

The Pope John Paul II Bioethics Center was founded at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in 1982.  The Center offers graduate courses in bioethics and a concentration of bioethics in the Master of Arts Degree in Theology.  In addition, the Center sponsors lectures for the community at large and has published a number of important articles and monographs.  The undergraduate students benefit from the public lectures and, with the permission of the Academic Dean, may enroll in advance placement graduate bioethics courses.  The courses offered by the Bioethics Center are available on campus or via distance learning.

Faculty members of Holy Apostles are committed to ongoing education.  Faculty are active participants in the Fides et Ratio summer seminars for undergraduate professors of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.127  An important outcome of the summer seminars is to continue the seminar discussions at the institution of each participant.  Ensuing campus-based faculty discussions have focused on important contemporary issues facing the Church.  Common readings are prepared by each faculty member to facilitate quality discussion and mutual enrichment.  The faculty also attend public lectures and conferences on bioethical issues.

In addition to the many formal educational opportunities offered to undergraduate students on bioethical topics, a culture permeates the campus in which a love of the Church and her teachings is palpable.  The life of the College and Seminary is centered in the chapel.  There is a Holy Hour for Life and Mercy each Saturday afternoon which includes readings and reflections from Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.128  Students have the opportunity to pray and reflect at Adam’s Tomb on campus where a pre-born child is buried.  The Holy Apostles Life League is very active with many lay and seminarian members participate through volunteering in life affirming activities.  Through these experiences the undergraduate students have the opportunity to face contemporary bioethical issues firsthand.  Furthermore, through organized contact with public officials students and faculty have become engaged in the political processes that shape public policy.  As future professionals, consumers of health care, and citizens who direct public policy, Holy Apostles graduates, be they clergy or laity, are being prepared to reshape a society that is respectful of natural moral law.

We find another example of “best practices” at the University of Saint Thomas, an archdiocesan university in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  The University of Saint Thomas sponsored a week-long seminar for faculty, funded by a Lilly Foundation Grant,129 “The Church and the Bioethical Public Square.”  The seminar was conducted out of the Catholic Studies program and attracted faculty from diverse disciplines, as well as students and members of the surrounding community.  This seminar was part of an organized effort to assure the incorporation of mission into efforts of the academic community.

Students, regardless of their major, are required to take two core courses in philosophy (“Philosophy of the Human Person” and “Ethics”) and three core courses in theology sequence.  The theology sequence is quite unique in its sequential focus on assisting the student to integrate theological concepts into their encounter with culture. The first course is “The Christian Theological Tradition.”  The other two courses can vary: the second-level course introduces students to the actual practice of theology through one of the major theological sub-disciplines (Scripture, morals, systematics).  In the third course, the student is asked to examine the relationship between faith and culture in some aspect, e.g., “Theology and the Biomedical Revolution.”  Recently initiated are what are termed “bridge courses” which pair theology and non-theology faculty in an examination of some cultural or professional topic, e.g., “Theology and Literature,” “Theology and Engineering,” “Theology and Medicine,”  “Theology and Mass Media,” etc.

The University’s ongoing commitment to a liberal arts core course sequence is one of the key ways in which Catholic identity is promoted.  As the director of the Masters Degree Programs in Catholic Studies stated: “You obviously don’t need to be a Catholic to appreciate the liberal arts, but as more and more colleges and universities simply give up on the notion of a ‘core’ tradition of liberal/humanistic studies, the very idea begins to take on a distinctively Catholic patina.”130

Likewise bioethics education devoid of grounding in natural moral law becomes an exercise in the subjective ethics of situation ethics, consequentialism and utilitarianism.  Without a “core” tradition which also allows for “bridge courses” preparing graduates for the cultural relativism they are facing, graduates of Catholic higher education will be no different from other graduates.   The mission of Catholic higher education will be lost, and the purpose for its existence extinct.


*The author wishes to express her appreciation to Dr. Stephen Napier, Ph.D., Staff Ethicist, National Catholic Bioethics Center, for his assistance with this paper.


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Enhancing a Catholic Intellectual Culture

Executive Summary

Rejecting secular and Protestant norms and ideals, Catholic universities today must assert a distinctive Catholic intellectual culture featuring the unity of faith and reason, the acceptance of magisterial teaching and an active critique of culture. Such a Catholic intellectual culture will foster Catholic intellectuals and dispose students to the truth, and has the potential to preserve and restore elements of reason and humanity that are being lost in Western civilization.

Specific institutional strategies for promoting a Catholic intellectual culture are suggested.  These include promoting the disciplines of theology and philosophy and integrating them across the curriculum; developing a holistic approach to Catholic identity; integrating faculty into the Catholic and overall academic environment of the university; recruiting Catholic scholars who live out their faith; guarding against outside research and professional pressure; and promoting Catholic identity through a senior official for Catholic mission.

Enhancing a Catholic Intellectual Culture

This paper encourages Catholic universities in the development of a genuine Catholic intellectual culture by identifying the main features of such a culture and suggesting specific institutional strategies to promote them. First, however, it is necessary to address a certain set of cultural obstacles which impede the realization of a Catholic intellectual culture.

I. Understanding the Catholic Difference

Almost two decades after the publication of Ex corde Ecclesiae (hereafter ECE), very few Catholic universities can be said to have fully implemented the norms and goals envisioned there. This is not, for the most part, for lack of trying. Indeed, despite some initial opposition to ECE, the large majority of Catholic university faculty and administrators has recognized the need, and has sincerely sought, to recover a genuine Catholic identity in the intellectual life of their institutions. Much effort and creativity has been invested in this task, with some success overall and notable success in some places.

Yet the reform has not, in most places, been as successful as it might have been, nor made as much progress as it could reasonably have been expected to have made. Recently (2006) Melanie Morey and Father John Piderit, S.J., reported, based on representative interviews with 124 administrators of Catholic universities, that despite the fact that “[a]lmost all Catholic institutions are currently seeking ways to be more ‘Catholic’ . . . most administrators in the end admitted that their colleges and universities [sic] had rather weak Catholic cultures.” The leadership of Catholic universities, it appears, despite widespread attempts to express an institutional culture that is vibrantly Catholic, has generally been impeded from fully realizing this goal by persistent obstacles or roadblocks.

From the perspective of an administrator, these obstacles are visible in the organizational or interpersonal dynamics that often resist change, collegiality or coherence in an institution. Such forces are particularly strong in any university and present real challenges to reform. If this were not the case, after all, it would not be worth considering, as we do at length below, what Catholic institutions can do to reform and improve their Catholic identity. Yet the failure of reform, particularly as it pertains to Catholic intellectual culture, is also made possible, and the institutional forces of opposition are strengthened, by the particular susceptibility of Catholic universities in America to corrosive cultural forces that operate upon them from outside by means of institutional ecology or cultural context.

Morey and Piderit observe, “The dominant culture, despite obeisance paid to cultural diversity, wants religious institutions to provide the same services as secular ones, and they expect to judge them according to the same standards.” These standards then become internalized: “Senior administrators at Catholic universities. . . .gave witness to the strong pressures they experience to conform to the practices of their nonsectarian counterparts. The legitimacy of these institutions as colleges and universities is claimed on the basis of how similar they are to all other colleges and universities.” This pressure to conform to a secular model of being a university constitutes, I suggest, a broad roadblock that tacitly undercuts institutional programs or efforts for reform in American Catholic universities. This expectation is particularly effective in impeding the reform of the university’s intellectual culture, because the blockage here is at root intellectual and cultural, not institutional. In order to have any hope of establishing a vibrant Catholic intellectual culture, then, administrators at Catholic universities must first critically re-evaluate the prevailing secular understanding and standard of what constitutes a university, and thus of what constitutes the distinction between a Catholic university and a secular one.
Because it is the dominant cultural form, it is natural and common to think of the university as typified by the absence of a dominant intellectual commitment, a “marketplace of ideas” in which free inquiry leads to a variety of fundamental conclusions about the universe. On this view there are, on the one hand, generic, mere or normal universities, which work to preserve the absence of a dominant intellectual commitment, and on the other hand religious, including Catholic, universities, which embody a prior commitment to particular truths about the universe. The designation “Catholic,” then, is a qualification of the idea of a “university” generically.

However, whether acknowledged or not, every university, just as every culture, embodies particular intellectual commitments and perspectives in its common life. A secular university pursues a particular way of being a university, just as a Catholic university pursues a particular way of being a university. A secular university is just as committed, in its own way, to a particular view of the universe as is any religious institution.

The idea that the intellectual culture of a secular university is open-minded and tolerant while that of a religious university is, by comparison, narrow and intolerant is almost axiomatic for the leaders of secular institutions, who studiously marginalize religion. It is also reflected in the leaders of Catholic universities, however, when they strive to assure observers that their institution is just as tolerant and open as a secular school. Yet the premise is demonstrably false, not (only or necessarily) on theoretical grounds but on empirical ones. As the experience of numerous religiously-minded faculty members and students attest, the range of acceptable opinions in a secular university is quite narrow, while that in a religious institution is quite wide, to the point that the notion that a secular institution is open while a religious one is closed has no basis except, ironically, in the intellectual prejudice of secularists.

Many have noted this irony of the modern academy, but perhaps none better than the French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu observes that while the formal structures of a modern secular university, centered in the ideal and operative mechanisms of academic freedom, provide powerful protection against imposing views on scholars, the informal structures of a secular university operate just as (and perhaps more) powerfully to dispose scholars to affirm a relatively narrow range of acceptable opinions, hypotheses, judgments, lifestyle choices and political views. The prescriptive power of political correctness in professional settings, well-known to American academics, provides a good example of this dynamic; and any religiously-committed scholar who has tried to integrate her faith and scholarship in a secular institution can testify to the powerful, if informal, institutional controls that are placed on violations of such tacit secular orthodoxy.

How does a secular university impose such conformity? Not by explicit rules or faculty selection, but by its intellectual culture. As Bourdieu points out, the ideas which can be discussed and taught in a secular university’s academic culture are circumscribed by understandings, ideas and values which everybody knows, which are “taken for granted,” and are all the more powerful because they are uncontroversial and unstated. Such axiomatic assumptions are compelling for persons in a culture, not because they are rigidly enforced or defended, but because they need no enforcement or defense whatever. They are not merely unquestioned, but unquestionable. They are the things that go without saying. Such undiscussed assumptions, which Bourdieu collectively terms “doxa” set the limits for both formal orthodoxy and heterodoxy regarding what can be discussed, researched or taught in the secular university.

For those concerned about a university’s intellectual culture, whether secular or religious, this is a crucial point, to which I will return below. At the root of any university’s intellectual culture lies a tacit consensus about fundamental matters that limits and directs its intellectual life far more powerfully than any overt administrative or formal faculty actions or programs. The implications of this for the reform of university intellectual culture are clear and stark: Just as the open formal structures of the secular university, as necessary as these are, cannot prevent the development of a narrow and restrictive doxa, so the imposition of formal mechanisms to promote Catholic identity and culture in a Catholic university, as necessary as these may be, cannot by itself or necessarily bring about a doxa that supports truly Catholic teaching and research.

In practice, just as the secular university sincerely proclaims an ideal of open inquiry while unconsciously fostering a restricted intellectual culture, so many Catholic universities, while sincerely professing to seek a distinctive Catholic intellectual culture, have unconsciously adopted the informal norms, the doxa, of secularity. They have done this, not because they wish to be secular, but because they wish to be a university, and have uncritically accepted the false assumptions noted above, i.e., that the secular university is more open-minded than a religious one, and that this is the pure or normal form of the university. In order to be a genuine university, respected and successful among its peer institutions (and among a secularized Catholic laity from which come its prospective students and parents), many Catholic universities have tried to combine a Catholic faith commitment with the implicitly secular academic structures of a “normal” American university.

The result was, and continues in many cases to be, a tense and uneasy mix of incompatible norms. The tension between the norms is reflected in institutional and interpersonal tension that accompanies such a strategy to instill a genuine Catholic culture. The efforts to resolve or manage this tension have resulted in various often-noted partial and ineffective results for these institutions, such as the balkanization of Catholic intellectual life, with some departments determinedly secular and others just as persistently Catholic; relegating Catholic identity to campus ministry and occasional liturgies which have minimal effect on the intellectual culture or formation of the university; and confining student formation in the Catholic intellectual tradition to one or two required courses in theology or philosophy, which may or may not actually address the Catholic faith.

Compared to other religious universities, Catholic universities in the United States experience added definitional tension because, where the institutional norms of higher education in the 20th century have not been secular, they have been largely Protestant. As Kathleen Mahoney chronicles clearly, in the late 19th century “liberal Protestant leaders of the university movement linked the newly created modern university with the cause of a Protestant America.” On the other hand, “Catholics’ status as members of a religious minority complicated the ways in which they could respond to the reforms that remade much of higher education.” Subsequently, the effect of the Second Vatican Council, for better or for worse, was to lessen or remove many of the features of Catholic life and thought that distinguished Catholics from Protestants. Catholic universities today therefore face the double forces of conformity not only to a dominant secular civic culture but also to a dominant Protestant religious culture, which have together shaped the intellectual culture of the modern academy.

The worst result of living in tension with secular and Protestant universities is the tendency for Catholic universities to minimize the true distinctiveness and difference that Catholic faith and commitment makes to the business of being a university. The basic problem with many current attempts to restore a university’s Catholic intellectual identity is that the attempt itself expresses only a secularized, eviscerated notion of what it is to be Catholic. Morey and Piderit observe that Catholic universities “are willing to put a dash of religion in their collegiate stew, but, wary of having it overpower, they put just enough to make it interesting, not enough to make it truly distinctive.”

Such attempts at accommodation do not preserve Catholic identity, but, on the contrary, result in the eventual loss of anything distinctly Catholic. Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to Catholic educators on the occasion of his recent (2008) visit to the United States, suggested that such nominal Catholic institutions may not be worth continuing. As R. E. Houser succinctly summarizes his argument: “American Catholic colleges and universities are needed, but only if they exhibit a strong and vigorous sense of Catholic identity.” It is important, therefore, that Catholic administrators consider carefully what constitutes the distinct features of a Catholic intellectual culture.

II. Features of a Catholic Intellectual Culture

The previous section raised a crucial point about intellectual culture with respect to Catholic reform: a genuine Catholic intellectual culture cannot be something “added on” to fundamentally secular norms of university life. Such norms carry with them a doxa that is inimical to Catholic life. Rather, implementing or seeking a genuine Catholic intellectual culture changes everything about the nature of a university. The goal of such reform, then, must be to introduce, not just new norms and structures, but a new doxa in the university. This section attempts to define some of the common features of a Catholic intellectual culture so conceived. While each of these features, I suggest, are sine qua non for the intellectual culture of a genuine Catholic university, some institutions may emphasize some of them more than others.

Unity of Faith and Reason

The central affirmation of a genuine Catholic intellectual culture is that faith and reason, doctrine and discovery, piety and learning are mutually enlightening and reinforcing modes of life and knowledge. In a direct rejection of secularism, a Catholic university begins with the assumption that the convictions of faith and the conclusions of rational observation and reflection are never incompatible. This fundamental assumption underlies (and integrates) the activity of a Catholic university. Like most fundamental assumptions, it has the strongest influence on scholarly activity when the teachings of faith and the findings of reason seem most irreconcilable. By way of analogy, the fundamental assumption of order and regularity in nature that underlies physical science operates most powerfully when such order is not apparent, thus stimulating research to seek to discover the underlying order involved or transcendent order implied.

For Catholics, faith and reason are not only compatible, they are not severable. Faith enlightens reason, as Augustine affirmed; and reason completes faith, as Aquinas affirmed. To paraphrase Kant, reason without faith is empty, and faith without reason is blind. For this reason theology, which attempts to express faith in a reasonable way, and Christian philosophy, which explores reason in a faithful way, are essential disciplines of a Catholic university.

The affirmation of the unity of faith and reason in this way is distinctively Catholic. For Protestant thought, since salvation is by faith alone (sola fide), human reason can add nothing essential to faith, which is fundamentally nonrational. Modern Protestant thought, therefore, has tended to assert that faith is subjective, a matter of feelings (Schleiermacher), a “leap across the abyss” (Kierkegaard) or an affirmation of the will (Barth). Liberal Protestants, therefore, welcomed the secularization of the university so long as the nonrational activity of faith was not excluded. Evangelical Protestants, by contrast, have strived to uphold the reasonableness of faith, arguing that, while faith is nonrational, it is not irrational. On this basis some evangelical universities have managed in impressive ways to inhibit secularization and foster a generic “Christian world view”. Evangelicals have been less successful, however, in exploring the faithfulness of reason, since they lack consensus on many points regarding the intellectual content of the faith. In sum, Protestants are hampered in achieving the goal of a university by a deficient view of faith and reason (and, correlatively, Scripture and Tradition) as being separate modes of knowledge that can operate critically upon each other. The full integration of faith and reason that a university requires is today only possible among Catholic universities.

This should not be overstated, however. A Catholic university does not exist “over against” non-Catholic Christian colleges and universities in the same sense that they may stand over against schools of other denominations. Protestants protest Catholicism, by definition, but Catholics do not protest Protestantism. Indeed, Vatican II teaches that the church, in its most basic sense of communio fidelium, includes those “separated brothers” of Protestant faith. Thus, a university that comes “from the heart of the church” will seek to explore and express, not only those truths that are particular to Catholics, but also, and perhaps especially, those that are common to faithful Catholics and Protestants alike.

Fostering Catholic Intellectuals

In practical terms, the first and foremost task for the development of a Catholic intellectual culture in a university is fostering an environment that supports the formation and sustenance of Catholic intellectuals. Ex corde Ecclesiae calls for a majority of the faculty to be Catholic, a point upon which much effort and energy have been expended in the past two decades. The achievement of a statistical majority of Catholics, however, will be ineffective in producing a genuine Catholic culture of the intellect, if the “Catholic” faculty are merely nominal Catholics, who think essentially like secular persons, rather than persons informed with a Catholic world view, who actively seek to discover truth within the context of revealed truth.
The tensions which can easily undermine the university’s mission—between faith and reason, autonomy and authority, dogma and academic freedom—cannot be resolved by the institution until they have first been resolved in the minds and wills of the faithful scholars who comprise the faculty. It is in the hearts of the faculty that the integration of knowledge, the unity of faith and reason, is first and fundamentally achieved. As John Henry Newman puts it:

Some persons will say that I am thinking of confining, distorting, and stunting the growth of the intellect by ecclesiastical supervision. I have no such thought. Nor have I any thought of a compromise, as if religion must give up something, and science something. I wish the intellect to range with the utmost freedom, and religion to enjoy an equal freedom; but what I am stipulating for is, that they should be found in one and the same place, and exemplified in the same persons. I want to destroy that diversity of centres, which puts everything into confusion by creating a contrariety of influences. I wish the same spots and the same individuals to be at once oracles of philosophy and shrines of devotion.

Clearly, on this ideal, to be such a scholar/worshipper, or what I have called throughout this essay a faithful Catholic scholar, does not mean (necessarily) that a scholar favors religious topics or questions in her research, or selects a research agenda that supports the teachings of Christianity in some instrumental way. Rather, it means that, in whatever questions are pursued, the scholar’s orientation is toward seeking wholeness and understanding of her path of inquiry within the larger understanding, and mystery, of God’s creation, incarnation and engagement with the world as revealed by the Church. Stanley Jaki, writing on “The Catholic Intellectual”, applies Newman’s ideal more directly to the modern research setting. It is not the case, he says,

. . . that only those Catholic intellectuals qualify for being considered Catholic who work on specifically “Catholic” topics. [But when research raises ultimate questions] … [a] Catholic intellectual must be ready to face up to such questions and in a genuinely Catholic sense. And if he has not acquired the ability to cope with such questions, he at least must have a vivid conviction that Catholic answers can be given to such questions, and indeed have been given time and again. And, most importantly, the Catholic intellectual must not turn the truth of those answers into a function of the measure of their acceptance in secular academia, which is well nigh zero in most cases.

Such scholar/worshippers cannot be sprinkled among the faculty in an isolated way, where they may be tolerated or marginalized by the prevailing culture of the university. Rather, for a genuine Catholic intellectual culture to exist, such scholar/worshippers must comprise the prevailing culture of the university. They must form a genuine community of scholars devoted to the common service of faith and truth, who encourage, challenge, exhort and dispute one another in collective pursuit of their common commitment to the truth about God and the world. As noted above, all scholars pursue their vocation within an intellectual and institutional context, which shapes their scholarship in ways that are no less powerful for being often unrecognized. In a truly Catholic university, faithful Catholic scholars must become for each other what sociologists call a “plausibility structure”, in which the Catholic world view of each scholar is confirmed, sharpened, refined and extended by ongoing interaction with others who operate from a shared faith commitment, a doxa that presumes Catholic faith.

Submission to the Magisterium

The advantage a Catholic university has in being able to integrate faith and reason is lost entirely if the intellectual culture of the university is not predicated upon a full and free submission to the truths proposed by the Catholic Magisterium. The acceptance of magisterial teaching cannot be only a collective policy of the institution; it must be instantiated in the thinking, research and teaching of each scholar in the university. After all, an institution cannot believe; only persons can freely offer the voluntary assent which magisterial teaching calls for. Such assent must be part of the doxa of the university, that is, those elements of common life that are unquestionable and given.

Jaki explains clearly why this is essential for Catholic scholarship:

“Catholicism means above all the surrender to the greatest fact of history, Jesus Christ, or the flesh and blood, and therefore very provincial (Catholic) reality of the incarnation of the Son of God. But an integral part of that reality was His intention to teach with universal authority and, in all evidence, to have that authority of his concretely (that is very provincially) perpetuated. Therefore the Catholic intellectual’s submission to Christ must be preceded by a submission to those who today are the concrete factual voice of Christ’s authority, which renders their teaching strictly authoritative. Only then can the Catholic intellectual begin the task of unfolding the conceptual implications of the fact of the Incarnation for an understanding of Catholicism in its full range. . . . A Catholic intellectual must have for his foremost standard of reasoning an unconditional, total commitment to the voice of Rome as the only factor that puts him in proper contact with the greatest fact which is Christ.

The particularity of such a faith commitment has always been scandalous to secular reason, and it is understandably difficult for scholars, accustomed to relying on their own reason and expertise, to humbly come to the Church to be taught. Yet in order to find what it can know, the Catholic university must be able to know what it does not know. In order to teach the world, its scholars must humbly come to the Church to be taught. Without this, the university—notwithstanding fine chapel services, social service efforts, or other elements of Catholic life—remains at best essentially Protestant in its intellectual life, suffering the same deficiencies of that form of Christianity for achieving the goals of a university noted above.

Due to the special mission of the Catholic university within the Church, however, its relation to the magisterium is not simply one of being given the faith, on analogy with being catechized. On this point, both those who support and those who oppose the submission of the university to magisterial oversight have tended at times to misread Ex corde Ecclesiae’s “from the heart of the church” as “from the heart of the Magisterium.” The university does not merely take delivery of the deposit of faith, but also participates in certain ways in appropriating, expressing, framing and developing the truths of faith. This function is explicit in canon law, which states that the the Church establishes universities, in part, “to complement the Church’s own teaching office.” There is, in a real sense, a give and take. The work of Catholic theologians and philosophers often finds its way, sub rosa, into the formal declarations of the Magisterium; but the same dynamic is true for scholars in all fields of inquiry. Popes and bishops often consult scholars in Catholic universities, speak at their forums, and request them to undertake particular initiatives to help develop and apply Catholic truth. Church councils and commissions seek out the best scholarship of the Church’s universities in order to better address the truths of faith to the issues of the day.

This mutual exchange is a vital part of the reception of the faith theologically understood, or its articulation in a cultural sense. In this situation Catholic scholars do not serve the Church well by being merely passive to its teaching. They are called (more or less, depending on their field of inquiry) not merely to receive the faith with the receptivity proper to the Church’s teaching authority, but also to join with the Magisterium in a common assent to the truth of Christ and the Gospel.

Disposing to the Truth

The secular mind objects on principle to the idea of a university pursuing its mission in light of religious truth. On this view, to privilege religious truth is to distort the very freedom of inquiry for which the university exists, and to impose adherence to religious tenets on the mind of its faculty undermines academic freedom altogether. A university, it is said, cannot be a church. Its object cannot be to indoctrinate, but to encourage the exploration of truth in many realms, unencumbered by dogma and tradition.

This objection misunderstands the purpose of a university, but begins by misunderstanding the purpose of the Church. It is true that the purpose of a Catholic university cannot be to indoctrinate, but not because the university is not part of the Church, but because it is, and the purpose of the Church is not to indoctrinate—at least, not in the manner intended by the objection. The Catholic Church insists that all men and women be free from every constraint in the area of religion, so that religious truth can be freely and genuinely chosen by the believer consistent with the dignity of conscience. As Pope John Paul II stressed, “The church proposes. She imposes nothing.”

If it is the work of the Church to propose the truth, then I suggest that it is the work of the university within the Church to dispose to the truth. A successful Catholic intellectual culture will create an environment in which the truth proposed by Catholic faith “rings true”. It builds a cultural disposition to the truth by seeking the comprehension and integration of knowledge, not merely its pursuit and acquisition. It thus aims at truth, not merely truths; that is, an intellectual structure by means of which all knowledge, wherever derived, can be understood. As the name implies, a university is premised on the conviction that knowledge forms a universe, and thus some knowledge is universal.

The university fosters a personal disposition to the truth in its faculty and students by the formation of what has been called the liberal mind. This is not a mind that necessarily knows and understands the truth, but it is one that is disposed to be open to the truth wherever it is encountered. In classical language, the university seeks the formation of minds that are ordered to the truth. The fruit of such formation is the ability to recognize and dismiss shallow reasoning, the intellectual fads of the day, the peril of easy answers, the sophistry of self-deception, and a thousand other intellectual and moral impediments to knowledge; and to consider what presents itself as truth sincerely, deliberately, judiciously and without prejudice, cant or cavil. The possessor of such a mind, being still alive and growing, will not have apprehended all of the knowledge that, in the destiny of her life, it will be her task to discover. She may not comprehend all of the Catholic faith (does anyone ever?). But she will be disposed to hear, understand, and integrate into her life that which validly presents itself as true, in whatever context it may come.

The goal of such formation is not, as I have said, the acquisition of all truths, even all of the truths of faith. As St. James reminds us, it is quite possible to know and believe the specific truths of the faith, yet not have a mind or life that is ordered to truth itself. The goal of a Catholic intellectual formation is not to know many things, but to be able to know how to know. This goal militates against the practice—nearly universal among Catholic universities, copying their secular counterparts—of exposing undergraduates to a smattering of many different areas of knowledge, as if such an education produced a comprehensive understanding of the world. From the standpoint of a Catholic education, it would be better if students studied less broadly and more deeply. In coming closer to mastering one discipline, or at most a few, they would be more likely to acquire the skills and liberal outlook by means of which they could more readily apprehend other areas of knowledge.

Exposing the False

Any culture, but especially a minority subculture, thrives not only by preserving its core identity and by cultural reproduction but also by vigorous boundary maintenance. As noted above, too often religious universities have tried to minimize or elide their differences from nonreligious ones. The predictable result of this failure of nerve is a weakened and inconsistent intellectual culture in the religious university. On the contrary, a vigorous religious intellectual culture needs to clearly articulate—inoffensively yet unapologetically—what distinguishes it from secular models, the depth and profundity of that distinction, and the advantages the difference conveys.

Catholic universities need to engage in a double critique; a wide-ranging critique of secular academic culture, and a more narrowly focused debate with Protestant (and other) religious alternatives. An exploration of the elements of these critiques is beyond the scope of this essay, although some have already been noted, and the main points can be briefly stated. Secular thought is increasingly showing itself to be empty and incomplete for addressing the human condition; and cannot correct itself, since among the consequences of positivism, i.e., the rejection of metaphysics and mind, is the loss of the ability to expose the hidden presuppositions of positivism. The Protestant mind can go a long way toward an integrated universe of knowledge, but is impaired, from a Catholic point of view, by a defective notion of the relation of faith and reason and by an abstract, partial notion of the Church.

Catholic universities need to articulate, with humility and respect, such a boundary critique, or “apology” in the classical sense of that word, for the good of their own self-definition, irrespective of the real prospects of convincing or changing those who hold alternate views.

Such a stance does not preclude, and is in fact enhanced by, an active critique of Catholic life and culture at the same time. The difference between these areas of criticism, we must confidently hope, will be that secularism and Protestantism will be shown to be deficient due to their principles, while Catholic culture fails when it opposes or neglects its principles. In this way Catholic culture can show its integrity and fearlessness in the face of criticism, and its willingness to be held to account for its convictions and to change when necessary.

By the same token, with appropriate prudence, and while faithfully affirming the truths taught by the Church, a genuine Catholic intellectual culture must be willing, even eager, to dialogue with those hostile to the faith. To do this itself expresses faithfulness to the Magisterium. As the fathers of Vatican II said:

the desire for such dialogue, undertaken solely out of love for the truth and with all due prudence, excludes no one, neither those who cultivate the values of the human spirit while not yet acknowledging their Source, nor those who are hostile to the Church and persecute her in various ways.

By engaging in boundary debates and critiques, Catholic universities simultaneously build up their own identity and tear down the false misconceptions of non-Catholics. Confident that truth is whole, and that all truth is God’s, the intellectual culture of the Catholic faith is unafraid to face challenges to its convictions from any quarter.

Whatever else comes of such engagement, it demonstrates that, despite secular prejudice otherwise, Catholic thought is truly the most democratic, open-minded system on offer today. While appealing to the highest authority and warrant for its claims, it submits itself for free ratification to the conscience of each person. In affirming tradition both Christian and classical, it does not discount or ignore any reasoned contribution to knowledge on the merely adventitious grounds that the author happens to be dead. In valorizing revelation, the Catholic mind prefers concrete historical experience—the witness of shepherds and fishermen—to the abstract theories of elites.

Restoring Civilization

As noted above, only a Catholic intellectual culture can fully unify faith and reason in the kind of coherent understanding of reality in which the work of a university can be grounded. In separating faith and reason, Protestantism and secularity respectively devolve into a faith which does not fully understand itself or a reason which is blind to the things that matter most: mind, meaning and the nature of human life. Empirically, both secularity and Protestantism have tended, in their intellectual cultures, to fragmentation in a kind of truce among ultimate commitments, out of which has not come any unified notion of reality. Today only the Catholic tradition possesses fully the intellectual and faith-related resources to form a true university of discourse.

The implications of this for the mission of a Catholic university, in recovering and sustaining a genuine Catholic intellectual culture, are profound. Surely in expressing and exploring this unique unity of knowledge that it possesses, the university will be both serving the Church and recovering its own raison d’etre, the meaning of its own life. Just as the application or transmission of faith takes place through knowledge, so the integration of knowledge takes place through faith. But it will also be doing much more than this. In taking on the task of forming a genuine Catholic intellectual culture, the university will be advancing, as no one else can, the true interests of Western civilization.

The historian Christopher Dawson is probably the best known proponent of the view that a persistent Christian culture has been expressed alongside the increasingly secular political culture of the West. Whether or not this is the case, it is an expression of the larger and more general view that, as religion is at the heart of culture, so culture is the carrier of religion. If this is true, then the Catholic university must recover a genuine Christian culture not only for the sake of Catholicism but also for the sake of Western civilization itself. This was Dawson’s view. It is also the view of Pope Benedict XVI, who sees the intellectual task of the Church to be nothing less than the restoration of reason to the culture of the West.

Although Protestants will (naturally) protest and secularized academic culture will not appreciate the point, today it is only in Catholic institutions that the intellectual heritage of the West has any chance of developing, and therefore surviving. As Catholic monks famously kept the light of civilization burning in earlier ages of barbarism, so today Catholic scholars have the opportunity and challenge to preserve the intellectual heritage of the West, the coherence of knowledge and indeed reason itself, in an age which has lost the ability to recognize the truth.

III. Specific Suggestions

The following are some specific practical and programmatic suggestions for supporting a Catholic intellectual culture. They are derived from the ideas outlined above, pertinent magisterial teaching and suggestions and thoughts from other Catholic scholars. This list is not intended to be comprehensive.

1) Favor theology and philosophy.

These two disciplines should receive special emphasis in a genuine Catholic intellectual culture, as those that deal most directly with the integration of faith and reason. A Catholic university without strong offerings and leadership in these two fields will be less likely to succeed in instituting a vibrant Catholic intellectual culture.
As already noted, philosophy that presupposes revealed truth has a special function in a Catholic intellectual culture, which suggest an essential role for a department of philosophy that engages the rich tradition of Christian philosophy proper. More than this, however, it implies a special role for philosophical thinking about the relation of each department of knowledge in the university to the larger truths that fulfill and integrate each specialty into a coherent view of the life and the world. Such intentional application of philosophical norms to today’s specialized branches of knowledge may or may not be done by those in the philosophy department. As Fides et Ratio (paragraph 30) states, “The truths of philosophy, it should be said, are not restricted only to the sometimes ephemeral teachings of professional philosophers.” This point leads to the next suggestion:

2) Don’t confine theology and philosophy to departments of theology and philosophy.

Academic departments or schools of theology and philosophy cannot provide the comprehensive integration of knowledge which a Catholic university seeks. As academic disciplines, neither theology nor philosophy is integrated in themselves; there are many different and competing theologies and philosophies, even among faithful Christian scholars. Moreover, theologians and philosophers are limited in making applications to other academic specialties, both because theologians and philosophers are generally as limited in their understanding of other specialties as those in other specialties are in their understanding of theology and philosophy, and because, no matter how knowledgeable, theologians and philosophers function according to the autonomy, norms and interests of their own disciplines rather than those of some other discipline.

Indeed, the best contribution of philosophy departments may not be to “solve” the problems of the humanities or social sciences, but to stimulate a culture of philosophical reflection by practitioners of the other fields. What is needed is not philosophers crossing disciplinary lines (though this has its own value), but philosophical thinking on the part of political scientists, psychologists, linguists, historians and all the other specialized scholars of the university.

The critical analyses and unifying connections that are the special province of theology and philosophy need to be disseminated broadly among all the disciplines of the university in order for a genuine, coherent intellectual culture to be expressed.Each member of the faculty should carry some theology and philosophy, and some devotion, into her/his classes and research. Indeed, they already do so by default, whether they know it or not.

This model of integration, rather than leaving it up to theology/philosophy departments, is clearly envisioned by Ex corde Ecclesiae. For example, regarding dialogue between faith and science, ECE (46) notes: “This task requires persons particularly well versed in the individual disciplines and who are at the same time adequately prepared theologically . . . .” Likewise, canon law calls for “lectures which principally treat of those theological questions connected with the studies of each faculty.” All the academic specialists—scientists, engineers, mathematicians, economists, etc.—of the university should also be theologians and philosophers, to the extent needed to perceive and articulate the horizon of ultimate truths to which their particular research and teaching leads. Achieving this may involve special interdisciplinary efforts and conversations involving philosophy and theology.

3) Involve the whole institution in Catholic identity.

The notion that a university’s Catholic mission can be carried by a campus ministry or a few departments, or a well-crafted mission statement that is generally ignored, is probably the greatest single source of failure to fully reform Catholic universities today. In order to foster a genuine Catholic intellectual culture, Catholic principles, aims and ideals—a Catholic doxa, in Bourdieu’s sense—must permeate every aspect of educational and institutional life. The impress of Catholic life and thought should be evident, not just in the mission statement, but in the administrative procedures, student and faculty handbooks, honor code, institutional review board, personnel policies and so on; not just in the campus ministry, but in every lecture, classroom, dining hall and dormitory; not just in the Board of Trustees, but in every administrator, board, committee, academic council, school, department and student organization.

4) Fill the faculty with scholar/worshippers.

The commitment of the faculty to a life of faith is sine qua non for a genuine Catholic intellectual culture. Not that every faculty member has to be Catholic—in fact a minority of other faiths can enhance the development of a Catholic intellectual culture—but every member should be a person of active faith, and concerned about the faith formation as well as the intellectual development of each student. The large majority of faculty should be Catholic; the bare majority envisioned in ECE should be considered a minimum standard. And, consistent with the previous suggestion, the majority principle should be applied at the level of the department (or smallest academic unit), lest there develop some “secular” departments and some “Catholic” ones, thus impeding the full integration of knowledge and providing mixed experiences for students.

5) Promote departmental integration, faculty sharing and cross-registration.

Strong walls between academic departments reflect and further the secular fragmentation of knowledge. Today widely disparate fields often cover the same intellectual ground, with slightly different emphases, with little awareness of the duplication. Replacing departmental competition with cooperation in a common task helps scholars to work together to seek unifying themes in their specialties. Being able more easily to cross departmental boundaries helps both faculty and students to integrate and find unity in the various areas of knowledge. The resulting interdisciplinary discussion and reflection serves both the development of a liberal mind and the discovery of common truths by which knowledge can lead to genuine understanding.

6) Define faculty identity and success with reference to the university rather than to the academic field.

Modern scholars envision the possibility of changing institutions, but rarely of changing fields, in the course of their careers. As a result, institutional goals and distinctives become secondary to those of the academic professions, their journals and professional associations, which are almost uniformly secular. Sadly, the standards for faculty productivity and career advancement in Catholic universities routinely collude with this dynamic, explicitly encouraging faculty achievement and reputation in secular academic fields, to the detriment of their own mission. The most
committed faithful Catholic scholar will be hobbled in the pursuit of a genuine Catholic intellectual culture as long as s/he defines career success in terms of recognition in an (secular) academic field.

A Catholic university which promotes such a definition of success among its faculty, therefore, contradicts its own mission. In the long run, identifying with the goals of the institution will often provide scholars an intellectual advantage in their academic fields, where the questions and synthesis possible in a Catholic intellectual culture are not generally addressed. It will also encourage more productive scholars to remain with the Catholic institution rather than trading up to a more commodious appointment in a secular university.

7) Be very selective about extramural research and grant funding generally.

External research grants are awarded in order to promote research in particular areas and topics; for a Catholic institution it can easily turn into a case of the tail wagging the dog. Of course, research that serves agendas hostile to Catholic teaching (abortion or alternative forms of marriage come to mind) should not be considered. But even benign, defensible research can distract the university from its central mission and become an attractive nuisance with regard to fostering a Catholic intellectual culture. In some fields, of course, there are agencies that promote Catholic oriented research; but in most there are not. In the hard sciences, for example, it is doubtful that any agency can even articulate what questions arise from a Catholic view of the universe as opposed to a secular one. It would not be a bad idea, though perhaps not feasible or prudent, to simply reject all extramural funding, or perhaps funding from certain agencies, on principle.

8) Resist the encroachment of technical, occupational and professional level skills on the liberal arts.

This suggestion should be considered more or less, as some Catholic universities have a greater mission to the professions than others; what I am concerned with here is the tendency for instrumental education and pragmatic concerns to displace the ideal and practice of intrinsically valid learning. In a Catholic intellectual culture, knowledge must always be an end, and not merely a means. The most important knowledge may be “useless” in terms of career success. A faithful Catholic university, therefore, must subsume the acquisition of skill to the inculcation of truth. Regardless of whether they learn how to make a living, it is paramount that students are formed in how to live.

9) Institute a senior administrative position devoted to strengthening and assuring the Catholic ature of the institution.

The important goals of a university today are expressed in vice-presidential appointments. A Vice President—or other senior administrator—for Catholic Mission who has genuine administrative authority powerfully communicates the resolve of institutional leaders to develop and sustain a genuine Catholic intellectual culture. This office can oversee and provide resources for the integration of Catholic thought in all the activities of the institution, as outlined in the suggestions and themes discussed above.

IV. Toward a Truly Human Culture

A culture is an expression of human aspirations, ideas and relationships. The best policies and programs imaginable will still be ineffective to recover a vigorous Catholic intellectual culture if those who administer and enact them do not aspire, in their deepest selves, to the great vision of good that such a reform entails. In the busy round of demands and pressures of university administration and management, it is easy to lose sight of the larger purpose of our actions. The urgent particular needs in front of us can crowd out our awareness of ultimate purpose of our work. But the unfinished task of Catholic university reform requires more than technocrats, or those merely skilled in the processes of education. It calls for those who can also imagine or envision a fully formed Catholic intellectual culture, be personally committed to it as a great good, and nurture it into reality with devotion and passion. I invite you, therefore, for just a moment, to imagine.
Imagine with me a world in which hundreds of universities maintain a vibrant intellectual culture that stands athwart the shallow, sterile secularism of our day; in which the classic culture of the West is probed, inculcated and extended, not as a historical curiosity, but as a living conversation; in which wonder and wisdom, the integration and the synthesis of knowledge, complete the accumulation of facts; in which the full range of human life, being and value is explicated in every particular discipline of knowledge.

Imagine degrees in which the acquisition of technical skill is made to serve the attainment of a good life, focusing on how to live, not just how to make a living; in which a college education does not corrode, but strengthens and deepens the apprehension of revealed truth; and where intellectual development is matched with moral formation.

Imagine an active community of such schools, which earn the respect (perhaps grudgingly) of their secular counterparts by the insight of their scholarship and the integrity of their students; and which engage in endless discussion, debate, rebuttal and exploration of all the facets of knowledge, life and belief that offer themselves for research and examination.

Today this vision is being fulfilled in some places and in some respects. Imagine the power for good it can be when it is brought to pass in all places in all respects. It is nothing less than the power to renew the world.


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A Rekindling of the Light: The Past, Present and Future of a Catholic Core Curriculum

Executive Summary

In his Washington address to Catholic educators, Pope Benedict XVI argued that three “goods”—those of the Church, political society and education itself—require the Church’s institutions of higher education have a strong Catholic identity. Although the Holy Father only touched on curricular matters incidentally, his argument entails important consequences in favor of curricula with robust cores in the liberal arts and sciences, philosophy and theology.

The history of Catholic higher education sheds light on Pope Benedict’s Ex corde Ecclesiae vision and its application to the current American scene. Six features of the medieval university curriculum working together remain essential. These six features are: (1) a bi-level nature; (2) an initial core followed by specialized, advanced training; (3) a curriculum that centers on books; (4) a curriculum that offers doctrine; (5) a curriculum that is Catholic; and (6) a curriculum that is integrated.

The present “rekindling” of traditional Catholic curricula at new colleges provides models from which larger Ex corde Ecclesiae universities may develop.

A Rekindling of the Light: The Past, Present and Future of a Catholic Core Curriculum

As part of his apostolic journey to the U.S., on April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to Catholic educators assembled in Washington, D.C. The Holy Father was not breaking new ground, but building on Pope John Paul II’s Ex corde Ecclesiae (1990) and Fides et ratio (1998). His task was to inspire an Ex corde vision for American “institutions of learning,” which had already been somewhat thrown into relief by The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College (2007).1

The 21 Catholic institutions recommended in The Newman Guide may surprise some readers, because the highest profile Catholic universities are absent. Administrators, faculty and alumni from these and other schools from among the 200 or so Catholic colleges and universities may challenge their non-inclusion.

But Pope Benedict embraced some of the recent trends captured by The Guide in his own vision of the “nature and identity of Catholic education today.” History helps to understand applying papal principles to the current American situation. It is useful to begin by looking at the history of Catholic colleges and universities, then briefly turn to the American scene, and on this basis attempt to “listen” to Benedict’s Washington address, including its hard truths—some explicit, others implied.

Universities Through Time

Core curricula in Catholic colleges and universities have developed and changed frequently, but never as dramatically as in recent history. Historians have already begun to recognize that the twentieth century saw changes in universities more rapid and extensive than any period since Catholics first created them in the European Middle Ages. Fortunately, two astute modern observers help with the American experience.2  Philip Gleason and Father James Burtchaell, C.S.C., both begin with the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum, the blueprint for the Society’s schools formulated in 1599, but it is instructive to go back even farther in time.

The Medieval University

While most educational experiments have not stood the test of time, the university—first created around the year 1200 in Paris, Oxford and Bologna—has done so because it possesses certain features that are essential to the central task of higher education, which is creating, preserving and passing on knowledge, even wisdom.3 Here I isolate six aspects of the medieval university’s curriculum.

These six features are: (1) a bi-level nature; (2) an initial core followed by specialized, advanced training; (3) a curriculum that centers on books; (4) a curriculum that offers doctrine; (5) a curriculum that is Catholic; and (6) a curriculum that is integrated.  The medieval university provides my illustrations, but my argument is that these six features are essential to the very nature of Catholic universities, which teach both undergraduate and graduate students, and Catholic colleges, which teach undergraduates.

The medieval university curriculum was modeled on the medieval craft guild—with its apprentices, journeymen and “master” craftsmen. This educational structure is still familiar: undergraduates pursuing a “Bachelor’s” degree and graduate students pursuing a “Master’s” (comparable to today’s Ph.D.). The curriculum was separated into two levels—undergraduate and graduate—because medieval professors, called “Masters,” understood that advanced intellectual training needed to be grounded in what we would now call general education. There would be no physics without mathematics and no philosophy without grammar, then and now. The medieval university curriculum, therefore, was bi-level because general undergraduate studies were separate from specialized graduate studies. Centuries later the undergraduate curriculum in both colleges and universities would itself become bi-level, divided into general or core courses required of all students and specialized “majors” pursued by fewer than all.

The whole curriculum of the medieval undergraduate Faculty of Arts was required of all students. Such a mandatory or core curriculum is sharply different from requirements that can be filled in a number of ways, nowadays called “distribution components.” The medieval core originally consisted of the seven “liberal” arts—the trivium of language arts (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and the quadrivium of mathematics and science (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music)—so called because they “liberate” the mind for higher studies, then limited to theology, law and medicine. This practice recognized that illogical lawyers lose cases, and surgeons who cannot follow the geometry of the human body kill their patients.

The medieval curriculum was a books curriculum. Masters self-consciously preferred primary sources, many non-Christian, to textbooks written by one another. To the few classical and patristic sources available earlier, in the thirteenth century was added a vast array of Aristotle’s books. Aristotle’s works on logic and the “sciences,” both practical and theoretical, became incorporated into the medieval curriculum. University requirements were spelled out in terms of books.  To graduate, the student would be tested on them to determine if he—for centuries it would only be men—were “approved in science and morals (scientia et moribus).” The schoolmen were humble and wise enough to see in a books curriculum the basis for life-long learning, because they read other books like they read the book, the Bible.

The reason for laboring over books, especially master works, was to understand the truth they are thought to contain. This is what I mean by doctrine, which is not limited to Catholic topics, because the medieval scholars found doctrine in all the disciplines. In medicine, for example, learning correct “doctrine” about the geometry of lines and the nature of light resolved the centuries long dispute over whether seeing is accomplished by rays of light moving from the object to the eye or the reverse. The books in the medieval core were chosen because they imparted both intellectual skills and doctrinal content.

The medieval university was Catholic, but its curriculum was not limited to explicitly Catholic subjects. Centuries earlier Augustine had decided the issue: Greek learning would be integrated into Catholic education, in the way the ancient Hebrews had “spoiled” or appropriated the gold of the Egyptians when Moses led them to the Promised Land. Medieval curricula in theology and canon law were explicitly Catholic, but since these were graduate courses Catholic doctrine was taught to undergraduates less directly. Masters taught through lectures, “reading” books written mainly by classical pagan authors, through disputations on topics of current interest, and through sermons on Sundays and the many feast days on the university calendar.

In all three venues undergraduate students saw the dialectical interplay between faith and reason played out by their Masters, most especially in sermons that were more like essays on scripture and doctrine than what we have today. As one might expect, the Catholic character of medieval universities led from the beginning to disputes over books and doctrines (for example, in Paris, 1210). In the thirteenth century, the changing attitude toward some of Aristotle’s books—accepted, banned, accepted again—can stand as a sign that Catholic concerns guided the curriculum.

Integration is my term for how the curriculum and, more broadly, different strands in the tapestry of knowledge, fit together to produce a unified whole whose parts can be seen to complement each other. In one way, integration is a process of personal development, never complete because each of us must come to see for ourselves if there is such an order and what it is.  The medieval curriculum was designed to expedite this personal achievement.

But how the seven liberal arts, early Church Fathers and Aristotelian philosophy fit together was not obvious.  In the 1250s, the Franciscan Bonaventure and the Dominican Thomas of Aquino argued that theology stood first among the disciplines and integrated the “arts and sciences” into an ordered whole by providing them a goal beyond themselves.4 Thus was set the idea that the whole undergraduate curriculum would somehow open the mind to theology and to an active Christian life beyond the university.

These six features—bi-level, core, books, doctrine, Catholic and integration—characterized the medieval curriculum. Though manifested in different ways and degrees in various institutions, these features go to the very essence of what constitutes a Catholic university. All six working together are necessary for the university to achieve its proper “outcomes,” that is, graduates who will be Catholic professionals wise “in knowledge and morals,” and in the masters, books and artifacts that embody the wisdom those graduates need.  If so, these six features can be used as criteria to make judgments about Catholic colleges and universities, then and now.

The Jesuit Ratio Studiorum

Over the centuries, the expansion of knowledge put pressure on the university curriculum: at first the re-discovery of the past (Aristotle and the classics), and also new discoveries, whose pace quickened with the scientific revolution. The Jesuit Ratio Studiorum was designed to solve the problem of an expanding core by expanding time in school. The classical studies introduced by humanists from Petrarch to Erasmus were turned into a five-year “humanities” course (Latin, Greek, classical history and literature), designed as preparation for a three-year scholastic “philosophy” course (Aristotelian philosophy and mathematics as taken by Ignatius’s first Jesuits at the University of Paris), which culminated for Jesuits themselves, but not for laymen, in a three-year “theology” course.5

Jesuit schools were not part of the older universities, but built from the ground up, their “colleges” being an extension of their “humanities” schools, which we might think of as secondary schools. Typical was the Jesuit school at La Fleche, France, where from 1606 to 1614 René Descartes followed the Jesuit Ratio in humanities and philosophy, which qualified him to study law at the University of Poitiers (1614-16).  Two centuries later, the seven-year course of study at the Jesuit school in “George-Town on the Potowmack-River” by the 1830s contained the five years of “Humanities,” book-ended by a first year of “Rudiments” for backward Americans, and a last year of “Philosophy,” reduced from the three in the Ratio.6

The Jesuit Ratio covered only core subjects. It was also doctrinal and Catholic. Its humanistic bent had older students reading books, but relegating the classics to younger boys inevitably drew the pre-collegiate curriculum toward textbooks, a change exacerbated when Jesuits opened courses of study in vernacular languages and sciences.

In comparison with the medieval university, one thing was clearly absent—Jesuit education was not bi-level; it contained only core. And integration was another problem. Theology was still thought of as the “integrating” discipline, but since it was taught only to Jesuits, not laymen, the de facto integrating discipline in the Ratio was philosophy.  Descartes’ decision to separate rational knowledge completely from theology grew out of his Jesuit education. His “tree” of knowledge had three parts: its roots were metaphysics, its trunk the “new physics” and its branches and leaves would be scientific engineering, scientific psychology and scientific medicine. For Descartes and his heirs, philosophy would now integrate a secular curriculum.

President Eliot’s “Elective” System

In 1884, a crisis in American education was precipitated when President Charles W. Eliot introduced the “elective system” that eliminated the core curriculum at Harvard. Not for the first time, an American was attempting to imitate the Europeans, but without understanding them. Eliot saw that over time European universities had become devoted to specialized knowledge, but he failed to understand that Europeans had developed the lycée / gymnasium system, which downloaded the core liberal arts education from university to the secondary school level, something Americans had not done.

At first, Eliot proposed his elective system for colleges, and then even for secondary schools. In an Atlantic Monthly article in 1899, Eliot dismissed opposition to his proposal as retrograde religiosity and slammed the Jesuits:

There are those who say that there should be no election of studies in secondary schools…. This is precisely the method followed in Moslem countries, where the Koran prescribes the perfect education, to be administered to all children alike…. Another instance of uniform prescribed education may be found in the curriculum of the Jesuit colleges, which has remained almost unchanged for four hundred [really 300] years, disregarding some trifling concessions made to natural science. That these examples are both ecclesiastical is not without significance.7

Eliot’s elective system eventually predominated, reaching its high water mark in the 1960s, when some schools finally swept away all required courses. The elective system preserves none of the six features of the Catholic curriculum, which is why Eliot took after the Jesuits so viciously. Eliot’s curriculum would not even be bi-level; everything would be sacrificed to specialization.

Reaction against Eliot was determined. Samuel Eliot Morison, the chronicler of Harvard’s history, later wrote: “It is a hard saying, but Mr. Eliot, more than any other man, is responsible for the greatest educational crime of the century against American youth—depriving him of his classical heritage.”8 But in 1900 responding fell to a feisty philosophy professor and president (1894-98) at Boston College, Father Timothy Brosnahan, S.J. The Atlantic refused to print his reply to Eliot, so Father Brosnahan had to content himself with the Sacred Heart Review, in which he wrote:

The young man applying for an education is told to look out on the whole realm of learning, to him unknown and untrodden, and to elect his path…. He must distinctly understand that it is no longer the province of his Alma Mater to act as earthly providence for him. Circumstances have obliged her to become a caterer. Each student is free to choose his intellectual pabulum [nourishment], and must assume in the main the direction of his own studies. If he solve the problem wisely, to him the profit; if unwisely, this same Alma Noverca [Step-mother] disclaims the responsibility.9

That Father Brosnahan foresaw the debacle that would not fully develop until the second half of the twentieth century is a tribute to his foresight. But what kind of curriculum did he support? It was squarely based on the Ratio. American Jesuits quite rightly refused to demote humanities completely to the secondary school, and they knew that without humanities American collegians would not be prepared for the Ratio’s three years of philosophy. So for Americans, Georgetown’s version of the Ratio was best: begin with humanities, that is, Latin and Greek classics, and end with “philosophy,” as what we would now call a “capstone experience.”

At Father Brosnahan’s Boston College, the curriculum was core, doctrinal and Catholic. Following Jesuit tradition, it eschewed bi-level education and textbooks often replaced primary source books. In 1900, integration through theology was still reserved for Jesuits. Philosophy would remain the integrating discipline for laymen, and in the 1920s at Boston College, “[p]hilosophy provided the finishing of one’s collegiate education, the worldview which allowed and goaded each undergraduate… to organize all that he or she had learned… within the integrative way of thinking that was provided by Thomist philosophy.” And as late as “the 1950s a student would still take ten courses for a whopping twenty-eight credits in philosophy during his or her last two years: logic, epistemology, metaphysics, cosmology, fundamental psychology, empirical psychology, rational psychology, natural theology, general ethics, and special ethics.”10 In the first half of the twentieth century, the Ratio still guided Jesuit and many other Catholic colleges, but changes were coming.11

The Catholic Light Dying

Already in 1898, Father Read Mullen, S.J., successor to Father Brosnahan as president of Boston College (1898-1903), had introduced an English track that included English, modern languages and sciences, rather than classics, though it still held tight to the philosophy requirement. In 1935, Holy Cross and Boston College dropped the Greek requirement from the B.A. degree, and in 1955 the American Jesuits requested permission to drop the Latin requirement.  But if a good core can be run in the vernacular tongue (a reasonable assumption, since Latin was no longer the language of educated people), the Jesuit curriculum still held very much to the Ratio, with one significant improvement: place was made for undergraduate majors, which made the undergraduate curriculum bi-level.

Then came the fateful 1960s, with its vehement rejection of tradition, including philosophy, theology and even the very notion of a common core. In its centennial year (1963-64), Boston College cut its philosophy requirement in half to five courses, further reduced it to two in 1971. Throughout the Catholic system, core courses began to be replaced by distribution components fulfilled from a number of options, an application of Eliot’s elective system to required courses. The Catholic university became Father Brosnahan’s “caterer” at the same time one began to hear the phrase “cafeteria Catholic.”

The effect can be seen in courses currently required for a B.A. in Arts and Sciences at St. Louis University, to pick but one and arguably the most traditional of the major Jesuit universities. At St. Louis, the required curriculum is large, roughly half of one’s courses (16 to 21 out of 40, depending on foreign language). Vestiges of the Ratio can still be discerned. “Humanities” show up in requirements in English, world history and foreign language. Science (including mathematics) and philosophy fall under the Ratio’s conception of “philosophy.” There is also theology.

Such requirements seem to produce a bi-level curriculum, but only of a sort. Of the total required, only six are truly core courses, all the rest are distribution components for which any number of courses might suffice.  Indeed, there are 13 variations available for the first required English course; students may choose from 87 courses to satisfy the Cultural Diversity requirement; and the number of offerings that meet the Social Science component is even higher.

The net result is clear.  St. Louis no longer has a core curriculum of the sort found in Catholic universities from the 1260s to the 1960s.  Distribution components make a books curriculum for all students impossible. Nor is the curriculum doctrinal or Catholic, in the sense that it ensures every student the opportunity to encounter the wealth of the Catholic (or any other) intellectual tradition. It follows that the St. Louis curriculum is not integrated, but fragmented into myriad little pieces. As interesting as they may be individually, they do not add up to a whole, even if a particularly clever or well-advised student can devise a curriculum with all six of these traditional traits. The most important point: St. Louis University is but one example of a widespread problem.

*    *    *

Along with cathedrals, veneration of the Virgin, Franciscan poverty and knightly chivalry, the university is a world-historical gift from medieval Europeans to the whole human race. The university has been exported around the globe and shows no signs of diminution, because with it humans created a superb educational institution. It has changed over time, however, producing successive “models” of Catholic higher education.

In a papal bull issued in 1231, Pope Gregory IX called the university in Paris “parens scientiarum,” the parent of the sciences, in homage to its role as a model. And Paris begat the Jesuit Ratio, which begat the nineteenth century Neo-scholastic model, which in Hegelian fashion begat what I call the “Freewheeling” 1960s model. From Paris we can learn that Masters and their books are good even though it is unfortunate that universities eclipsed the thriving schools in Benedictine nunneries. The first Jesuits teach us that core and doctrine are good, but they also gave us Descartes and the term “Jesuitical.”

From Pope Leo XIII and Americans like Father Brosnahan came pugnaciously Catholic colleges, with curricula integrated by philosophy and theology. But they also gave us awful textbooks that eclipsed wisdom in pursuit of uniformity. The Freewheeling period showed that specialization and professionalization could produce a bi-level undergraduate curriculum. Specialization need not entail secularization, but secularization rode into American Catholic colleges and universities on the coattails of the Freewheeling model. This unhappy fact cannot be denied.

Will the Freewheeling model of a Catholic university be with us for a long time? No, it is already is dying because it cannot deliver the kind of truly Catholic education as could its predecessors. Such changes are not unusual; indeed, they are the iron law of history. We should attempt to preserve what is good in the Freewheeling model, especially that research universities must be staffed by the most accomplished researchers.

But imagine yourself in 1229 trying to convince Philip, Chancellor of the University of Paris, that there are no Dominicans professionally qualified for the Chair in Theology he has just secured for the fledgling order. History shows how shallow is this attitude, at that time espoused by the secular Masters of Theology then on strike and what we might now call the “Ivy League syndrome.” The first Dominican appointed was Roland of Cremona, whose name is all but forgotten, but within twenty years the Dominicans sent to Paris both Albert of Cologne and Thomas of Aquino.  The rest is history.

Rekindling the Catholic Light

The dissolution of the Catholic character of the curriculum at Catholic universities has not gone unchallenged in the post-Vatican II era by individual Catholic faculty in many places and by some reformers. Quite striking during this era have been the “new starts,” small, even tiny, institutions begun during the “dying of the light.” Several were founded in the 1970s, and a second wave is underway, including a few now in the planning stages.  Their founders have and still work very much against the common consensus of the American Catholic educational establishment, and for the first time many of them are laymen.

In looking at these efforts to restore Catholicity to curriculum, I would like to distinguish three kinds of institutions, all found in The Newman Guide, what I call: (a) the “Great Books” Catholic college; (b) the “Doctrinal” Catholic college; and (c) the Ex corde Catholic university.

The “Great Books” Catholic College

Catholics were not the only educators to react against President Eliot’s elective system. At Columbia, the gifted polymath John Erskine created the first “Great Books” course in 1920. When Robert Hutchins took over at The University of Chicago in 1929, he teamed up with a firebrand philosopher from Columbia named Mortimer Adler to produce the “Chicago Plan.” Neither Catholic nor committed to doctrine, the latter had other central features of the Catholic university: an undergraduate college with a core curriculum featuring books, combined with advanced learning in graduate school.  In 1937, near-defunct St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, changed its whole curriculum into a four-year Great Books B.A.

In 1941 Brother Austin Crowley, F.S.C., introduced a Great Books curriculum at St. Mary’s in Moraga, California. By 1968, St. Mary’s was in trouble and, in an oft-repeated error, the curriculum was blamed for problems that had other causes.12 A vocal minority of the faculty argued that the problem was that the curriculum was not traditional and Catholic enough. Its manifesto, “A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education,” became the founding document for a new Great Books college, Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), founded in 1971.

What Ronald McArthur and his fellow rebels from St. Mary’s did at TAC was to accept the fact that students would no longer be able to read the classics in the original, a lesson that had been very hard for the Jesuits to accept. It seems to me that despair over losing the original Ratio led the Jesuits to conclude that the sky was the limit on curricular change. TAC took the opposite view—since mastering Latin and Greek would not return, the content of the Ratio should be delivered in English.

The key curricular issue at TAC was: Would the curriculum follow a bi-level model or would it follow the Ratio and only have core? The college opted to follow the Jesuits and St. John’s—core and core alone. The next question was how to deliver this curriculum. Here TAC followed the St. John’s books curriculum, with the addition of Catholic doctrine. Vestiges of the Ratio abound. Under the Ratio’s humanities fall Latin (but only for two years) and “Seminar” (an eclectic four years of texts in literature, history, politics and modern philosophy). The Ratio’s philosophy is divided into four different four-year courses: in mathematics, science, philosophy (which means Aristotle) and theology (Thomas Aquinas).

The result is a fine updating in the spirit of the Jesuit Ratio. TAC’s curriculum has core, real books, doctrine and Catholicity. Integration is achieved in both the traditional Catholic ways, through theology and philosophy. TAC’s curriculum is resolutely and proudly not bi-level, which makes it like the Jesuit college and the medieval undergraduate school of Arts. It is for those uninterested in career preparation within undergraduate education, though it is clearly designed to provide its graduates a fine basis for graduate education elsewhere. For this reason, like St. John’s College, TAC will remain a minority option and cannot be the model for expanding John Paul II’s vision of an Ex corde Catholic institution from a small college to a larger university.

The Newman Guide lists other schools that attempt a Catholic Great Books curriculum. Notable among them is the University of Dallas (UD), founded in 1956 by laymen and a group of Cistercian educators who had escaped from Hungary during the Cold War. The curricular issue at Dallas was how to incorporate the Great Books into a curriculum divided into majors, and UD’s answer was to distribute their chosen list of Great Books among a set of required courses that are housed in the standard academic departments. This choice makes the Dallas curriculum bi-level, and shows the Great Books option offers real promise for larger universities. But Dallas does not yet have the size and breadth to prove the case.

The “Doctrinal” Catholic College

A second approach is exemplified by Christendom College, founded in Front Royal, Virginia, in 1977. Its core curriculum concentrates on delivering doctrine that is Catholic, but not tied to particular books.  This is why I call this category of colleges “doctrinal.” Christendom’s curriculum devotes the first two years to 24 required courses, while the last two years are devoted primarily to the major. This makes the curriculum fully bi-level, which is the predominant model for The Newman Guide institutions.

The language requirement is a distribution component, but all other courses during the first two years are core courses housed in departments. Under the Ratio’s humanities fall the subjects of English, history, foreign language and political science.  The math and science requirement is minimal.   Distinctive are large cores in philosophy and theology. The curriculum at Christendom is nicely bi-level, core, doctrinal and Catholic. Integration is to be achieved in the traditional ways—through theology and philosophy—and these two requirements are large enough to do the job.

However, the curriculum is not a books curriculum. On this point, Christendom and TAC are point and counterpoint to each other, with UD lying between them. In addition, while the curriculum is technically bi-level, the small size of the college means only a small number of majors are offered, making it impossible for Christendom’s curriculum to be bi-level in a robust sense. While Christendom is a fine example of an Ex corde Catholic college, its small size prevents it from being the model for an Ex corde Catholic university.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae Catholic Universities?

Perhaps the most striking statement in The Newman Guide is that it recommends only one institution, The Catholic University of America (CUA), that is large enough (about 3,300 undergraduates) and with a substantial enough graduate school to count as a “university” according to contemporary standards. None of the largest American Catholic universities make the list.

One major reason for this fact is because institutions that have been the most successful according to the usual measures—size, endowment or prestige—have curricula that have suffered most from that very success. For size and wealth have brought pressure for specialization, multiplication of majors and especially development of graduate programs at previously undergraduate institutions, accomplished by imitating current practices at non-Catholic institutions. There also is the Ivy League syndrome, the desire to follow the elite American universities, even if that means following them down the path that in the nineteenth century transformed Protestant religious institutions into secular ones, a phenomenon well documented by Burtchaell. All of these factors have combined to bring pressure to bear against the traditional Catholic core.

On this point, Catholic University is the exception that proves the rule. Its history shows it to be out of the ordinary in almost every respect. CUA opened in 1887, as an American initiative in the neo-Thomistic revival begun with Leo XIII’s Aeterni patris (1879). It started as a purely graduate university devoted to serving the needs of the Church in America for graduate training, at a time when other Catholic institutions were undergraduate. To staff its schools of philosophy, theology and law, CUA turned to Europe for help and has maintained close connections there ever since.

So when it expanded into undergraduate studies, these ties led CUA to follow the older European university tradition of bi-level education, with a strong undergraduate core. Over time, administrators have remained attached to CUA’s European roots, in no small part because many of them were educated there. They have been more committed to core, and especially to philosophy within the core, owing in part to the fact that at CUA philosophy is a school, not a department.

During the era of post-Vatican II problems, CUA was affected mainly at the graduate level, as in the affair of Father Charles Curran, who led dissent from Humanae Vitae (1968). The removal of Father Curran from the theology faculty in 1986, by then Cardinal Ratzinger, had symbolic impact, the value of which cannot be denied. A more recent symbol was the choice by the same man, now Pope Benedict XVI, to speak at CUA, rather than another Catholic university. So the example of CUA underlines how serious is the problem at large Catholic universities, which thus far have shown themselves willing to follow their Protestant brethren down the road to secularization, offering clever but specious arguments in their defense.

*    *    *

This brief survey of the American situation yields important results. First, real progress toward “rekindling” the Catholic light has been made at some institutions. I have merely picked four examples, and The Newman Guide has not captured all the signs of progress; absent are improvements made in institutions that did not make its list. Second, what these schools have in common is that Catholic identity is central to their educational endeavors and has led them to the kind of curriculum found in the earlier Catholic university tradition, characterized by the six features outlined above—bi-level, core, doctrine, books, Catholic and integrated. These schools package these features in the traditional way, with core courses in the liberal arts, philosophy and theology.  Third, if rekindling is to take hold, it next needs to move to medium and large Catholic universities. This is the challenge to which Benedict XVI responded in his Washington address in April 2008.

Enter Pope Benedict XVI

In his address to Catholic educators, Benedict called himself a “professor” and offered his audience a theological argument.13 Ever the realist, he courageously focused on the underlying but too often avoided existential question: Why have Catholic schools in the first place? He put the issue this way because “some today question the Church’s involvement in education, wondering whether her resources might be better placed elsewhere.”

“Some” here certainly includes leaders within the Church in America. The last of Benedict’s specific injunctions is directed expressly to them: “Here I wish to make a special appeal to Religious Brothers, Sisters, and Priests: do not abandon the school apostolate; indeed, renew your commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas.” While many in the Vatican II generation may have closed their ears, their time is rapidly passing away and Benedict understands that younger religious and priests are listening to him closely.

In dialectical fashion, the “professor” himself raises the strongest objection. In a rich nation like the United States, “the state provides ample opportunities for education.” So should Catholic education fade away like the Catholic hospital? Benedict’s address is an extended argument in reply, supporting a fundamental conclusion: American Catholic colleges and universities are needed, but only if they exhibit a strong and vigorous sense of Catholic identity.

Benedict’s understanding of Catholic identity emerges gradually in his message, but for the sake of clarity I shall begin with it. For Benedict, Catholic identity is wide-ranging and comprehensive, including all the essential features of college or university life. At each step of his argument, he weaves together three related themes: how the individual cannot afford to ignore the wider community; how the good of the intellect is tied to the good of the will; and, above all, how reason cannot afford to ignore faith. He uses all three to explain Catholic identity because he is well aware of the temptation to reduce this complex reality to one of its parts.

He rejects the earlier neo-scholastic tendency to reduce Catholic identity to “orthodoxy of course content,” often confined to the departments of philosophy and theology, and the later tendency—widespread after concern for orthodoxy waned in the post-Vatican II period—to rest Catholic identity “upon statistics.” “A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction,” that is, institutional conviction, not just personal choice. He asks, “Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools?” Benedict advocates using many measures of Catholic identity, but understood as signs radiating from its center, the institutional conviction of the truth of the Catholic faith made tangible.

In support of Catholic identity, Benedict offers three distinct lines of argument, or “steps,” following his order of presentation. Step One: For the good of the Church, its colleges and universities should have a strong Catholic identity.  Step Two: For the good of communities outside the Church, notably the wider civic good, Catholic colleges and universities should have a strong Catholic identity.  Step Three: For the good of their own intellectual work, Catholic colleges and universities should have a strong Catholic identity.

Each of these steps involves consequences for the curriculum, some of which Benedict draws explicitly, while others are left implicit. What emerges from Benedict’s message is not a relaxing of standards in comparison with Ex corde Ecclesiae, but a strengthening of them. In response to current problems, Benedict’s comprehensive picture of Catholic identity entails a curriculum with the six traditional attributes featured above, one that involves some version of the liberal arts, as well as theology and philosophy.   These steps should be considered in turn.

The Good of the Church

Crafted to his audience, Benedict’s argument begins outside, not inside, the schools: “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News.” This one terse sentence sums up the argument of Step One. Catholic colleges and universities are parts within a wider whole—the Church itself. Proclaiming the Gospel to humankind, that is, evangelization, is the fundamental function of the Church; this task absolutely requires education in a broad sense. No education, no evangelization, no Church. Since the part (the school) fits within the whole (the Church), it follows that the goals and activities of the part should serve the whole.

What links evangelization outside the school to teaching within it is what Benedict calls “the ministry (diakonia) of truth.” Benedict selects examples of evangelical truths that are directly relevant to teaching. “God’s revelation offers every generation the opportunity to discover the ultimate truth about its own life and the goal of history… guiding both teacher and student towards the objective truth which, in transcending the particular and the subjective, points to the universal and absolute.”

This first step in Benedict’s argument moves at the level of faith. If evangelization outside the Catholic school requires education, education within the Catholic school should open students to evangelization. He tells us, “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.” Fostering this encounter requires Catholic identity in a strong sense of the term.

The Civic Good

Strong Catholic identity also contributes to “a nation’s fundamental aspiration to develop a society truly worthy of the human person’s dignity.” U.S. Catholics have proven their value in the public square, a value now widely acknowledged. “It comes as no surprise, then, that not just our own ecclesial communities but society in general has high expectations of Catholic educators,” he says.

As throughout his address, Benedict here accentuates the positive from the past and for the future while never understating the challenges. He continues: “The essential transcendent dimension of the human person,” traditionally taught in philosophy courses, offers the wider society “objectivity and perspective” to respond to a host of current problems: the “relativistic horizon” that fosters “a lowering of standards,” a “timidity” about the difference between good and evil, “aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom,” a flattening of values that assumes “every experience is of equal worth,” and finally, the “particularly disturbing” wholesale “reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality,” where, as Marx put it, “the human becomes animal and the animal human.”

But there is a catch here, since these lofty ideals also serve as standards for judging Catholic institutions. The college or university that does not teach the “transcendent dimension” and what it entails is one that lacks a strong Catholic identity and cannot justify its existence by contributing to the civic good. Father Brosnahan’s Boston College could pass this test, but that is no guarantee 110 years later.

The Intellectual Good

The focus of Benedict’s address concerns the heart of the university–the intellectual good of knowledge. Here the experience of the “professor,” who personally has lived through what he calls “the contemporary ‘crisis of truth’,” dovetails with his deep understanding of the Church’s university tradition. What results is a brief but luminous description of both problem and solution.

The problem originated in Europe and has spread round the globe, now affecting many “societies where secularist ideology drives a wedge between truth and faith.” Popularizers of this ideology abound—think of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker or the ACLU. But the problem is deep and can be envisioned using Descartes’ tree of knowledge. Descartes devoted himself to its metaphysical roots and scientific trunk; its branches and leaves had yet to develop. But today they now surround us: gigantic cities stretching up and out are the modern monuments of scientific engineering, our great hospitals are the emblems of scientific medicine, and we are surrounded with the results of scientific psychology, from television advertising to popular journalism to huge prisons unknown in earlier ages.

The intertwined growth of its branches, however, has affected the tree of knowledge itself, and not for the better. Benedict points to three problems of “secularism.” First, the “fragmentation” of knowledge means students and their teachers confine themselves to smaller and smaller parts of the whole, become swamped by specialization, and finally lose sight of the whole. Second, the lush growth of the sciences has led many “to adopt a positivistic mentality,” where knowledge is thought to progress in linear fashion, original myths and religions superceded by philosophy, which in turn was left in the dust by modern or “positive” science. Third, fragmentation and positivism have produced a “relativistic horizon” that undermines all claims to know the truth with certitude, both theoretical and practical.

On the theoretical side, “critical” thought, positivism and Derridean “deconstruction” have taken an axe to the tree’s metaphysical roots, so it has come crashing down, ushering in an era of hyper-critical “post-modernism.” On the practical side, scientific psychology has teamed up with scientific socialism and utilitarianism to teach “praxis creates truth,” a relativistic conclusion that has snapped branches overladen by their own weight, like a giant Southern live oak. In sum, for Benedict “secularist ideology” involves fragmentation, positivism, and relativism.

Since the problem originates in science and philosophy, Benedict expands his solution accordingly, to incorporate modern science and the traditional liberal arts, as well as philosophy and theology. His solution tracks the problem point for point. Distilled to one sentence, it is this: “With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness.”

In response to “secularism” taken as a whole, Benedict counters with the “confidence” that comes from Catholic faith in Jesus Christ. As the incarnate logos of God, Christ is both God and man and therefore an appropriate emblem for the harmony between faith (which comes from God’s revelation) and human reason.

In response to fragmentation and positivism (the latter a term students do not know but a mindset that has captured American culture), Benedict responds with the “essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth.” This “unity” is found, not by reducing the various disciplines to one type—this is the positivist error—but through acquaintance with the full range of knowledge in all its variety. This is a large topic and Benedict does not tarry over the details.

As a sign pointing to the answer, he mentions “metaphysics” and “Catholic doctrine,” one of many names for theology. But it is doubtful these two disciplines, as important as they are, can do the job by themselves. His choice of the term “liberation” seems an intentional echo of the “liberal arts.” So the “unity of knowledge” seems to involve the full range of the disciplines, as present in the Catholic university tradition: from the linguistic arts to the arts and sciences and on to philosophy. “Receptivity to the truth” begins with rational truth, but then can expand to openness to revealed truth about God, in theology.

In response to relativism, Benedict points to “intellectual charity” which “guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do.” An ethics that is rational but also open to knowledge coming from revelation, and an ethics that involves practice as well as theory, is what Benedict here offers in response. He says, “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will.” The remedy is that strong Catholic identity must involve Catholic practice as well as doctrine.

In sum, this third and most important step in Benedict’s argument is that only a strong Catholic identity in the Church’s American colleges and universities will offer an adequate response to the “contemporary ‘crisis of truth’.” It also underscores how thoroughly teleological Benedict’s overall reasoning is, for all three “steps” argue from end to means. If the good of the Church requires theology be part of “Catholic identity,” the good of civil society requires philosophy, and the good of knowledge requires science and the liberal arts be combined with theology and philosophy to produce a robust Catholic identity.

*   *   *

While the applications and examples Benedict uses in his argument are completely contemporary, the three steps in his overall teleological argument—the good of the Catholic faith, the good of civil society and the good of knowledge—build directly on earlier Catholic and papal doctrine, notably that of his predecessor Leo XIII.

Leo’s promotion of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas is well known, but Benedict has built his Washington address on a less recognized feature of Leo’s Aeterni Patris, its three staged teleological argument: “While, therefore, We hold that every word of wisdom, every useful thing by whomsoever discovered or planned, ought to be received with a willing and grateful mind, We exhort you, venerable brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.”14

Curricular Conclusions

Many consequences for curriculum follow from Pope Benedict’s Washington message. In the course of his speech he only touches on curricular matters incidentally; but the main line of his argument offers wide-ranging support for the traditional Catholic university curriculum. And Benedict adds some specific injunctions directed to different groups at the end of the speech. One of these is a specific moral obligation concerning Catholicity: “Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice.” It seems appropriate, then, to arrange the curricular consequences of Benedict’s Washington speech under three headings: (a) Catholic doctrine; (b) Catholic practice; and (c) unity of knowledge.

Catholic Doctrine

The injunction to “teachers and administrators” is to “ensure”—that is, to require of students—“instruction in Catholic doctrine.” In an academic setting, instruction means courses, so this obligation is for courses in Catholic theology, crafted so as to support the truth “as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium.” The rapid growth of “Catholic studies” in Catholic institutions, as a response to perceived deficiencies in “religious studies” or theology departments, is a sign Benedict is responding to a felt need.

The numerous theological topics Benedict mentions range over three areas: doctrine, scripture and morality. A reasonable inference is that the minimum number of courses be three, because superficial instruction amounts to no instruction at all. But great variation in students, teachers and texts is the reason why such decisions are usually made locally. What is uppermost in Benedict’s mind, however, is absolutely clear: providing students the opportunity to encounter orthodox Catholic content presented in a serious and supportive way. This requirement implies a curriculum with several of the traditional features. To have a place for theology, in addition to “major,” the undergraduate curriculum must be bi-level, with a true core that mandates theology for all students, and not as a distribution component. At a minimum, theology in the core must be doctrinal and Catholic, a significant departure from current practice in many institutions.

Catholic Practice

Benedict’s injunction about Catholic “practice” shows his openness to innovation. Courses in moral theology or philosophical ethics would be appropriate, to be sure. But Benedict also seems to be looking for more. Beyond the school itself, he seems to advocate what are usually called “social service” (he might prefer “Catholic service”) requirements. Such “practices” can even be brought into the curriculum, when combined with reading and classroom discussion of books in the long Catholic tradition of social justice.

Equally important, on the “practice” side also fall the many social and moral problems affecting campuses themselves, problems teachers and administrators all too often are too timid to tackle: from speaker policies to overnight visitation in dorms, from gay and lesbian clubs to condoms to The Vagina Monologues, from discounted tuition to scholarships to endowment investment, to say nothing of drinking and driving. Institutions that provide a campus environment in accord with Catholic “practice” teach ethics by example, always the most effective way to do so. In short, this injunction strikes me as a revival of the medieval idea that students should be educated “in morals” as well as “sciences.” To the extent “Catholic practice” enters the curriculum, this requirement is a step in the direction of integration, through integrating Catholic theory with practice.

The Unity of Knowledge

The problem of the “essential unity of knowledge,” when put in curricular terms, is nothing other than the problem of integrating the curriculum. So the consequences for the curriculum that flow from Benedict’s argument based on the “unity of knowledge” are numerous and important.


The one philosophical discipline Benedict mentions by name is “metaphysics.” The traditional function of metaphysics in the curriculum, of course, concerns the existence and nature of God.  Setting out “the division and methods of the sciences” is also a properly metaphysical task. Benedict turns to metaphysics as a direct reply to positivism.  “Recognition of the essential transcendent dimension of the human person” is a topic treated in what is now often called “philosophy of the human person.” And an ethics that is philosophical but open to revelation is a hallmark of Catholic philosophy curricula.

It is hard to see how this much philosophical content can be presented in fewer than three core courses. Benedict’s argument readily lends itself to courses in metaphysics, ethics and the human person; but other ways of presenting this content are also possible. The effect of adding philosophy to theology requirements in order to achieve “Catholic identity” is to make the curriculum exhibit more fully the traditional features of being bi-level, core, doctrinal and Catholic. In addition, a metaphysical response to positivism necessarily promotes an integrated curriculum, in arguing that human knowledge itself is “integrated” or “unified.”

Far from abandoning the traditional roles of theology and philosophy in the curriculum, Benedict argues for their expansion in comparison with current common practice. And his way of arguing from end goals to curricular means undermines the current practice of turning the few remaining philosophy and theology requirements into non-standard electives bereft of consistent content. Such courses cannot ensure the ends of Church, civil society and knowledge itself are addressed.

The Liberal Arts

A great advantage of Pope Benedict’s mode of argument is that it promotes philosophy and theology, not by papal fiat or as isolated requirements, but by putting them into their real context, the larger whole he calls the “essential unity of knowledge.” This “unity” involves three points. First, Benedict rejects the positivist rejection of non-scientific disciplines; there is knowledge beyond the limits of the scientific method. Second, Benedict recognizes that truths acquired in the various disciplines can exist in harmony or “unity” with each other, even if our contemporaries have despaired for this unity. Third, Benedict realizes there is a hierarchy among disciplines, because there is a hierarchy among truths, all stemming ultimately from Truth itself as found in God.

An unstructured curriculum is but another sign of the false sense of freedom Benedict rejects. So the first curricular conclusion here is that Catholic identity requires core beyond theology and philosophy, spread over some variety of disciplines, as the necessary base for a humane and religious intellectual life.

Acquainting students with all disciplines and all world traditions and all the great books is impossible. For a curriculum that is bi-level and has core, there must be a canon, choices must be made among disciplines, books and authors. Here the traditionalist may immediately turn to the humanistic subjects that have had a preponderant place in the Catholic teaching of the liberal arts, to the neglect of modern science and its offshoot, the social sciences. Benedict’s teleological argument, by contrast, is not taken from a history some educators have rejected, but from what the various disciplines can accomplish—their ends.

Even when most successful, each discipline succeeds in capturing only part of the complexity of truth, which is why over the centuries humans have invented a variety of ways of knowing. Such large-minded wisdom is the antithesis of small-minded positivism. A second conclusion, then, is that a Catholic core curriculum should include a selection of disciplines (or authors or books) that cover the range of ways of knowing reality, both for the sake of seeing its diversity, and also to see the “unity” that lies on the other side of diversity.

This second conclusion immediately generates the next question: What disciplines must be included? The reason the linguistic studies of the medieval trivium and the mathematics of the quadrivium were core is because they are skills courses providing the “language” of thought—both literary language and mathematical language—that makes possible knowledge gained in the higher disciplines. Deficiencies in these basic skills are the primary complaint “marketplace practitioners” have about American education, problems brought on where specialization trumps general education. So such “arts” should still be mandated in a “Catholic core.”

The remaining terrain—the vast expanse of specialties and sub-specialties—is huge, but Benedict helps us negotiate it by using the classic distinction between theory, whose task is to explain the world, and practice, whose task is to act in it. All students must be given the opportunity to see that the kind of theoretical knowledge achieved in literature or physics is not the same kind as the practical knowledge in ethics or finance or engineering, and that one cannot supplant the other.

On the theoretical side, the curriculum should show the student that explanations in humanities like literature or history or fine arts, which “portray” individuals in ways that implicitly or explicitly carry universal messages, are different from “sciences” (whether ancient or modern), that explicitly articulate universal messages (through principles, or laws, theories or equations) covering a multitude of individual cases. And students should see that practical disciplines are different still, because designed to produce individual and corporate actions. There is no algorithm for determining the exact mixture of skills courses, humanities, theoretical sciences and practical disciplines the curriculum requires. This is why traditions, once put in place, tend to last. But what is clear on Benedict’s argument is that a sufficient and organized sample should be required, in order for students to see “the essential unity of knowledge.”

Benedict’s argument requires some set of “liberal arts” in a “Catholic core,” for two reasons. First, the liberal arts highlight the different, but legitimate, modes of knowing—a lesson directly contrary to all reductionisms, especially positivism. Second, the liberal arts also show the diverse disciplines cohere together as an ordered whole, both in comparison with each other and by pointing beyond themselves, to philosophy, which articulates that order, and to theology, which shows the ultimate source of that order.

A curriculum that exhibits both the diversity and unity of knowledge must have the six traditional traits. In order for such a curriculum to teach the “essential unity of knowledge” it must be integrated, which in turn requires that it also be bi-level, core, doctrinal, Catholic and—I would also add, though this is less obvious—a books curriculum. If not, the curriculum will not be able to achieve the ends of supporting Church, civil society and knowledge itself.

While these six criteria certainly validate a curriculum whose liberal arts follow Catholic tradition that is heavy to humanities, giving less weight to modern “science” and “social science”—as do many of The Newman Guide colleges—they also can provide standards for Catholic identity apart from that traditional course structure, even for a curriculum that strikes out in very new directions with a non-traditional conception of “liberal arts,” perhaps one weighted much more toward modern science.

In similar fashion, I believe Benedict’s argument certainly supports a more traditional liberal arts curriculum; but it is also open to innovations about what should count as liberal arts, subject to an important caveat. Any new liberal arts must perform their central task of “liberating” the mind to see the unity as well as the diversity of the various modes of knowing, thereby opening the student to philosophy and ultimately theology.

Interdisciplinary Studies

If the multiplicity of intellectual disciplines has produced the problem of the “crisis of truth,” it stands to reason that moving through multiplicity to unity is the answer. Pope Benedict certainly advocates turning to the disciplines that make up the traditional Catholic liberal arts. But there is a second alternative to disciplinary study of the liberal arts—interdisciplinary studies—that have grown as another way to overcome the “fragmentation” Benedict finds such a problem. John Paul II clearly recognized both the promise and the problems interdisciplinary studies present, in the way he recommended them in Ex corde, para. 20:

While each discipline is taught systematically and according to its own methods, interdisciplinary studies, assisted by a careful and thorough study of philosophy and theology, enable students to acquire an organic vision of reality and to develop a continuing desire for intellectual progress.

Examples of non-departmental “core” programs abound, but they do not play a major role in the curriculum of The Newman Guide schools. John Paul II’s idea of using interdisciplinary studies, combined with philosophy and theology, seems to me quite consistent with Benedict’s vision of Catholic identity.

Academic Freedom

From Benedict’s comprehensive conception of Catholic identity comes another injunction that concerns the curriculum, one directed toward faculty: “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.” Here he rejects an absolutist conception of academic freedom that derives from faculty foreshortening their gaze to self or discipline, to the detriment of the greater good of the university itself and, beyond that, the “unity of knowledge.”

Such a cramped view of the freedom to pursue one’s discipline is but part of the broader “contemporary ‘crisis of knowledge’.” It can indeed lead to the perception that there is a contradiction between discipline and Catholicism; but Benedict is confident that in the long run there will be no real contradiction. What seeming contradictions invariably uncover is error, such as the error of positivism; and to hold that academic freedom means the freedom to espouse what is false is a direct assault, not just on the “unity of knowledge,” but on knowledge itself. Faculty, as well as students, can have a confused notion of freedom. “Catholic identity,” in short, has absolutely no obligation to give way to error.


Benedict’s Washington address coheres nicely with the lessons that come from Catholic university history and from the current state of American Catholic colleges and universities. Neither the medieval university nor the Jesuit Ratio nor the contemporary Freewheeling American university provides a detailed blueprint for every feature of a contemporary institution with strong Catholic identity. We need the virtue of prudence to shape principle to problem and circumstance. Let us recognize that graduate courses are no longer confined to theology, law and medicine, Latin is no longer spoken in the classroom and Jane Austen is unfamiliar to many undergraduates.

But on the other side, it is simply shallow nominalism to call an education “Catholic” that does not require Augustine’s Confessions or Dante’s Comedy, housed within a core curriculum devoted in part to the “liberal arts,” philosophy and theology. The six features of the curriculum that history shows are central to the Catholic university tradition are worth preserving because they lie at the very heart of a Catholic college or university. So far as I can tell, history, current good practice and now Pope Benedict XVI all point in the same direction. The next model for the Catholic university, as well as the Catholic college, will be the Ex corde model already emerging at some Catholic colleges. Staffed by professionals, it will include a curriculum that will be bi-level, core, books, doctrinal, Catholic and integrated. I think I see it developing, but time will tell.