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Catholic Action

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Current State of Catholic Higher Education

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"Finally, there is the conservative and traditionalist Catholic blogosphere and media, which descends like a flock of Furies on the degeneracy and heresy at Catholic schools."

Editor’s Note: This excellent talk was delivered here in St. Paul at April Argument of the Month. We’re grateful to Dr. Russell for allowing us to reproduce it here. Many thanks to our allies at the AOTM for their kind permission, as well.  MJM

I want to thank Michael Matt, The Remnant, and the Argument of the Month Club for having me up here to chilly St. Paul. It is good to be back in Viking country with my fellow Scandinavians and Germans. I want to talk a little bit tonight about what Catholic higher education should be and what Catholic higher education actually is as well as how Catholic education got to the state into which it has now sunk. But I also want to talk a little bit about what my experience, as well as the experience of friends and colleagues, has been studying and working at both secular and Catholic institutions of higher learning. There is a certain sense in which personal experience and one’s own personal thoughts mean nothing; if my already ominously-frequent use of the first person singular pronoun has not already hinted, portions of my talk are going to sound a lot like Rod Dreher’s hyper-confessional blog posts. However, having had revelatory conversations with parents as well as prospective employees of Catholic universities, I have found that sharing many of the things that I have seen personally and have heard of have had a positive and sobering effect on people's desire to either attend or work at these schools.

I will give you a warning, I was raised by Norwegian Lutherans, so I have a bad habit of telling the truth.

Let’s talk a little bit first about what a Catholic college or university should ideally be. Answering this question provides us with the answer as to why the university system itself arose in medieval Europe. The original purpose of a university was to teach two subjects, primarily: theology and canon law.


Because when we know who God is and what he wants of us as well as what Holy Church wants of us, we can figure out how to get to heaven.

Thus, the first point I want to make is that Catholic education should be, at heart, tasked with helping Catholic students to fulfill their purpose in life, which as St. Ignatius of Loyola says in his Spiritual Exercises “ praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save…[their] soul[s].” It is very easy for us in our age in which the heresy of universalism is so rampant to accept this idea, but indeed, this is the entire raison d’etre of human life: to serve God and get to heaven, for, as the Church repeatedly reminds us drawing from the words of Our Lord Himself, hell is a very, very bad, awful place. St. Ignatius continues explaining that we are to use other things on earth as means to obtain the end for which we are created. While in the age of carpe diem and YOLO (is that term still used?) we often forget this very sobering truth, we must remember that the Church has always taught that education is among these things that we make use of in order to get us to heaven.

To argue that the goal of education is to prepare souls for heaven is not to engage in the armchair theology that is so common in our own day. Rather, we have the wisdom of the Church fathers to guide us in this issue.

One of the earliest and most often forgotten works on Catholic education is St. Augustine of Hippo’s De Doctrina Christiana in which the Holy Doctor of the Church lays a blueprint for a true Christian education that would prepare one as student for heaven. St. Augustine argues that the basis of the search for wisdom is “the fear of God,” which should lead us “to seek the knowledge of His will, what He commands us to desire and what to avoid. Now this fear will of necessity excite in us the thought of our mortality and of the death that is before us…” If we spend some time thinking about this, it should make us tremble with holy fear. The whole point of a Christian’s search for wisdom is to uncover the will of God and obtain salvation.

If this sounds strange to us, it both should and shouldn’t. What I mean by that statement is that we are used to hearing Catholic education described in terms of a liberal arts or great books education--even at Newman Guide schools.

Well, this is not entirely incorrect. A truly Catholic education is going to be a liberal arts education, but it should be, if it is truly Catholic, a Christian liberal arts education.

What would this Catholic education look like?

Cardinal Newman (here I am, quoting from him despite myself) would tell us that such a liberal arts education would entail “a comprehensive view of truth in all its branches, of the relations of science to science, of their mutual bearings, and their respective values.” This liberal education, Newman further argues, has, as its goal “the cultivation of the intellect.” A cultivated intellect would then equip an educated person “to have a connected view or grasp of things,” which would produce, in turn, “good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candour, self-command, and steadiness of view.” This is a good definition of what study of philosophy, literature, history, and even the sciences should effect. It should help equip the soul with intellectual virtues and prepare it for the acquisition of moral virtues. There is a clear difference between intelligent, educated people and simply intelligent people. If we link Cardinal Newman’s definition of a liberal education with St. Augustine’s emphasis on education as an important step on the way to salvation, we come close to what a Catholic education should be.

However, what should Catholic students be given to read to make them both truly wise and prepared for death?

There is probably a phrase that is ready to jump out of your mouths.

Great books! We have to make our children read Great Books or the classics. We want our children to be cultured.


Well, again, yes and no, or, at least: yes, with some qualification.

There is a sense in which the great Victorian thinker Matthew Arnold’s definition of education or becoming “cultured” as “getting to know the best which has been thought and said in the world” is true. However, like Cardinal Newman’s notion of “expansion of mind” is inadequate for us here because we are not simply talking about being cultured, educated, or enlightened, we are talking about the salvation of souls--something Newman himself knew, but many in Catholic education who follow the great English convert often forget.

Thus a Great Books education is an inadequate Catholic education.

The great books program is at heart a fundamentally secular or Romantic with a capital “R” plan of study, and I am not necessarily saying this is a bad thing. Let me explain. The great books programs that arose in the Ivy League universities in the early 20th centuries were the product of the a distinctly secular and post-Christendom mentality that grew out of Romantic, Victorian, and ultimately Enlightenment notions of elevating human thinking through the digesting of ideas that empowered the reader. The idea behind the original Great Books program was to produce an enlightened intelligent person for participation in a modern liberal democratic republic. It should be noted that there are many works that are included in, for example, University of Chicago professor Mortimer Adler’s list of great books that are brilliant, but are, at the same time, dangerous for young, untutored minds, and have been, in fact, banned by the Church at one time.

Thus, an unpruned list of great books as is offered at secular and even allegedly conservative Catholic colleges can be a very dangerous thing.

But don’t let the stuffy prejudices of a traditional Catholic from Montana convince you. Let’s take a look at what Holy Church has said about what has been called the Great Books, dusting off St. Basil the Great’s famous but under-read “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature.” First of all, as St. Augustine does, St. Basil argues that Christian education is not simply about improving the quality of this life, and Christians do not “hold that this human life is...a supremely precious thing, nor do we recognize anything as unconditionally a blessing which benefits us in this life only.” Rather, as Christians, St. Basil writes, “we place our hopes upon the things which are beyond, and in preparation for the life eternal do all things that we do.”

As we have mentioned, then, Christian education should then of course be geared to equipping students to get to heaven. Nonetheless, St. Basil does not restrict Christian education to reading of the Bible and theology. St. Basil argues that “profane writings” in which the truth can be perceived “as it were in shadows and mirrors” can be misused by the immature who lack the ability to understand the “deep thought” of scripture. Thus, in profane classical literature there are some truths that, however obscured, may be useful to a Christian education. At the same time, Basil warns against reading everything that Greek and Roman poets have written. On the contrary, St. Basil argues that in the writings of the poets, which, he admits are full of “all degrees of excellence” there are worthy objects of study; however, a Christian should “not study all of their poems without omitting a single word.” Rather, only when these poems “recount the words and deeds of good men” should they be read and imitated. St. Basil continues, cautioning that “the soul must be guarded with great care, lest through our love for letters it receive some contamination unawares, as men drink in poison with honey.” Ironically drawing from Plato’s Republic, St. Basil specifically condemns poetry that is satirical or immodest or depicts drunkenness, gluttony, or even the bad behavior of the pagan gods. Giving a very beautiful image, itself derived from pagan classical literature, St. Basil states, “For just as bees know how to extract honey from flowers, which to men are agreeable only for their fragrance and color, even so here also those who look for something more than pleasure and enjoyment in such writers may derive profit for their souls.”

Like bees, busy little bees, Catholic students should read literature that benefits their souls.

Let’s just add one element to the mix here, for we can’t forgot St. Thomas Aquinas in our discussion of education. In his famous, but again, much neglected 1879 encyclical, Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII, after affirming that Catholics should receive with a “willing and grateful mind” “every word of wisdom” and “every useful thing by whomsover it may have been discovered or planned,” exhorts his audience “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.”

So, St. Thomas Aquinas’s “golden wisdom” is at the heart of a Catholic education as well. It is, in fact, the foundation, the stock, the trunk of a truly Catholic education.

At one point, the University of Notre Dame, Fordham, Georgetown (well Georgetown has always been liberal), DePaul, Marquette, Gonzaga University, and the University of St. Thomas once provided a Catholic education as I have just laid out.

What happened?

How did these once great Catholic schools become Catholic in Name Only colleges and universities?

Like most of the evil things that happened in American in the 20th century, the decline and fall of the old school Catholic university in America can be attributed to one family: the Rockefellers. Like many in the WASP establishment the Rockefellers saw tightly knit conservative ethnic Catholic families as a threat to American liberalism, which by the mid twentieth century had gotten even more progressive than the founding fathers could have ever have dreamed of. Having successfully founded the University of Chicago and having infiltrated many Protestant seminaries, the Rockefellers and the WASP they represented knew that if they destroyed the Catholic mind, they could destroy the Catholic soul, so they went after Catholic universities.

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The Rockefellers found their man in Holy Cross priest, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, who had taken the helm at America’s most important Catholic University, Notre Dame, in 1952. Fr. Hesburgh was offered a chance for fame and fortune if he simply handed over the Catholic University to America’s most powerful family. Beginning in the early 1960s, John D. Rockefeller III and Fr. Hesburgh orchestrated a series of secret seminars at Notre Dame on population control, which were attended by representatives from Planned Parenthood and the Population Council. Confident he would find a sympathetic hearing with the bishop of Rome, Hesburgh introduced John D. Rockefeller III to Paul VI in 1965 to encourage the Holy Father to support population control. Unable, we assume, to get the answer they wanted from the Roman Pontiff, Fr. Hesburgh and John D. Rockefeller returned to the state to detonate an ideological bomb. As the howling storm of progressivism brewed in Rome at Vatican II, Fr. Hesburgh secreted away a group of scholars and administrators to Wisconsin (of all places) to craft the 1967 Land O’ Lakes statement, which among other things argued for “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical” for Catholic universities. Hesburgh further did his part at Notre Dame by handing over the American Catholic University par excellence to a lay board of directors. Hesburgh was rewarded for his efforts with a position on the board of directors of the Rockefellers own Chase Manhattan Bank as well as money from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations for Notre Dame. He also was made part of the World Policy Institute and wrote a book arguing for world government, but I don’t want to get too deep into conspiracies: that’s not something that people from Montana are really into.

The Land O’Lakes Statement is truly the Magna Carta for dissenting Catholic Universities. The statement was supported by administrators and faculty from two of the other “Catholic Ivy” schools, Georgetown and Fordham.

The second major catalyst for the creation of the CINO school is the Charles Curran affair at Catholic University. Fr. Curran, curiously, like Fr. Hesburgh, first fired his line of dissent from the Church on the issue of contraception, which got the priest fired from New York’s St. Bernard's seminary in 1965. Fr. Curran was picked up by Catholic University in Washington, DC, a pontifical institution founded by Pope Leo XIII. As Fr. Curran continued his open dissent, Catholic University trustees voted against reappointing the priest in 1967, due to Fr. Curran’s opposition to the Church’s teaching on contraception. Students and faculty at Catholic U. protested and Fr. Curran was in fact reinstated with promotion and tenure. Who knows how many legions of souls Fr. Curran corrupted during his reign of terror for nearly two decades at Catholic U. Finally, thanks be to God, Fr. Curran was removed for good from CUA in 1986.


In response to the Land O’Lakes disaster and the Charles Curran Affair, about which much, much more could be said by a Montanan with an inquisitive mind, there arose a series of colleges and universities in the United States (and later elsewhere) that sought to provide students with the authentically Catholic education they were being denied at Notre Dame and Catholic U.

These schools, which included Christendom College, The Franciscan University of Steubenville, St. Thomas More College, Magdalene College (now called Northeast Catholic college), and Thomas Aquinas College in California, quietly grew and collected students from homeschooling and conservative and traditionalist Catholic families who valued the eternal salvation of their children’s souls throughout the Reagan 80s and Clinton 90s and were later joined by Ave Maria in 1998 and finally (for now) St. John Paul the Great and Wyoming Catholic college.

What makes these colleges and universities (and those I did not mentioned that have since sprung up and disappeared) unique is that they were founded in reaction to the Land O’Lakes Conference and sought to distill an authentically Catholic alternative to CINO only schools. These schools are joined by a host of other schools that attempted to either reform (or perhaps even “save” themselves from closure, which include Walsh, De Sales, the University of Mary, Mount. St. Mary’s and others, which contain a mixture of authentically Catholic faculty and staff as well as old liberals, and a few odd balls that I’ll mention in second. There are also a number of Catholic colleges and universities that are currently rebranding themselves as “authentically Catholic” in order to gain the Newman Guide’s attention.

Despite their large endowments and successful Division I sports programs, The Catholic in Name Only schools, however, have learned that many, perhaps even most Catholics in the United States are not content with outright rebellion against the Catholic Church. Whatever criticism may be levied against John Paul II, there is no question that, especially in America, he was able to affect a moderately conservative revolution, and many Catholic conservatives have a lot of power and influence. There are also a number of conservative American bishops who take umbrage when a Catholic school dissents. Finally, there is the conservative and traditionalist Catholic blogosphere and media, which descends like a flock of Furies on the degeneracy and heresy at Catholic schools.

As a result, to save face, Catholic in Name Only Schools have gotten smarter and craftier in their dissent. In many ways they have followed the lead of Pope Francis himself who is able to “gaslight” Catholics around the world through manipulation and sleight of hand by pronouncing some outrage one day and then back track the next. Moreover, nowhere is this revolution of tenderness more apparent than at old school Catholic colleges and universities that protect their support of degeneracy with cries of tolerance, mercy, and openness.

Let’s take the University of St. Thomas here in the Lovely Twin Cities, the largest urban era in the second best state on the Canadian border (after Montana, of course), as a sign of how Catholic in Name Only Schools practice their tricks on students, donors, and ecclesiastical authority.

Let’s take a look at the mission statement of St. Thomas, which, in all honesty is more carelessly honest than it is a piece of Orwellian linguistic trickery. St. Thomas’s mission reads: “Inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition, the University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely, and work skillfully to advance the common good.”

What does this mean?

What does being “inspired by Catholic intellectual tradition” mean?

Wasn’t the Protestant Reformation inspired by the Catholic intellectual tradition?

The University of St. Thomas also mentions that it seeks to educate students to “advance the common good.”

This term of course is drawn from scholasticism and St. Thomas Aquinas in particular, but I’m willing to bet that the common good here is not how St. Thomas would envision it.

Rather the common good at the University of St. Thomas has its roots in what has been called “therapeutic state” as well as notions of radical equality and justice encapsulated by the philosopher John Rawls in his works A Theory of Justice (1971) and Justice as Fairness (2001).

Or to put it more plainly, the common good as envisioned at the University of St. Thomas, in the name of diversity, equality, and social justice, gives preference to non-Catholics over Catholics, foreigners over Americans, and degenerates over people who follow the natural law.

How do I know this?

uni of ThomLet’s take a look at what University of St. Thomas president Dr. Julie Sullivan said at her now-infamous 2013 convocation address:

“It pains me to think that a gay student, staff or faculty member would ever feel unwelcome or a need to ‘hide’ at St. Thomas. As Pope Francis reminds us, we are not called to judge. We are called to love and support everyone in our community regardless of their sexual orientation. And, I might add, regardless of the gender of their spouse.”

This is all coated in the therapeutic language of welcoming and tolerance and diversity, but it is not Catholic at all, and such a school should not be contained in the Newman Guide if it doesn’t want to follow Catholic teaching on marriage.

However, does this mean that St. Thomas will not provide an authentically Catholic education?

Well, yes and no. While preparing for this talk, I spoke with a friend who is a famous Catholic writer and educator who told me that his experience as an undergrad at St. Thomas was excellent and he received very solid formation.

I have heard similar things about many Catholic schools that are not included in the Newman Guide.

This leaves us with a troubling quandary.

Many Catholic institutions that have largely abandoned the faith still have a number of good people who work for them, and, moreover, these schools often provide excellent academic educations.

Let me give a personal example.

My brother (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this) attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, where he was indoctrinated in Jesuit social justice warrior garbage. At the same time, he received a very good education and with the prestige of a Jesuit school, he was able to enter an excellent graduate business program, which, in turn, granted him a very successful position at an investment management group. I must say that both he and his wife have had to spend years relearning the faith after being poisoned by old liberals at Gonzaga, and, by no means am I endorsing the school or the idea that one should jeopardize his or her salvation for the sake of a big paycheck.

On the other hand, I know many people who graduate from Newman Guide schools with degrees in theology or Catholic studies or English who are crushed by student loan debt and work low paying office or blue collar jobs and deeply regret some of their education choices.

There are also some disturbing things about Newman Guide schools, even those that have an impeccable reputation in conservative and traditionalist Catholic circles.

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We all now know the story of Holy Cross Theology professor Tat-Siong Benny Liew’s disgusting, blasphemous gender theology, but is it possible that tucked away at a Newman Guide school somewhere there are similar things taught? Can gender theory theology courses be taught at a “conservative”, “orthodox” Newman Guide school to unsuspecting homeschoolers and conservative and traditional Catholics?

Is inclusion in the Newman Guide a guarantee that a Catholic college or school is a spiritually and morally and even physically safe environment for students and staff? Do all or even most Newman Guide schools provide an authentically Catholic education?

To answer these questions we must first answer another: What does it mean that a Catholic school is included in the Newman Guide?

In one sentence, what inclusion in a Newman Guide school means is that some of the faculty at a Catholic college or university at a Newman Guide School are attempting to provide a genuine Catholic education to the best of their ability. It is not a guarantee that all or even most faculty and staff are Catholics, conservatives, or even competent in their field.

Many of these schools are genuinely Catholic, but some simply look Catholic.

Remember, these schools pay photographers and marketers to sell the school to you. They need your money. They know you want an on-campus grotto to Our Lady. They know you want daily mass and adoration. They know you love the term “Great Books” and “Liberal Arts.” They know you like to see bundled Catholic college students marching in Washington DC at the end of January.

It is true that some of the Newman Guide schools have daily masses overflowing with students and provide an authentic education, but at others it is merely smoke and mirrors.

If CINO schools are mostly fake in their presentation of their Catholic identity, Newman Guide Schools are only kind of fake. There are several schools that are run basically by old liberals but have transformed themselves into “conservative Catholic schools” in a last-ditch effort to recruit students and save the schools from financial disaster. They know that the small Catholic liberal arts school will not survive unless it has an international reputation for academic excellence or it can recruit conservative Catholic students.

Most of us know stories about gay student cliques, mentally ill professors, and cat fights among faculty and administrators. When I speak of problems at these schools, I am not talking about peccadillos or faults or the occasional absent-minded philosopher professor or conservative Catholic professor who suffers from same sex attraction but who lives a chaste life. I am talking about systematic corruption and degeneracy that threatens the spiritual, moral and, yes, even physical wellbeing of students at these schools.

What sort of bad things go on at some of the Newman Guide schools? Well here is an incomplete list.

1) I know of a professor at a Newman school who during his tenure there, was divorced from his wife, hit on and even dated students, coaching two of them to become lesbians, and who openly taught heresy and philosophical errors.

2) At Newman Guide schools, there are openly pro-choice faculty who publicly express their support of euthanizing children with Down Syndrome.

3) There are departments at Newman Guide that include homosexual faculty who teach “Catholic” gender theory in theology classes.

4) There are not only Catholic Newman Guide schools that are having financial trouble, there is at least one Newman Guide school which will be entering into a period of financial probation next year due to a catastrophic financial situation.

5) At some Newman Guide schools, there are classrooms led by professors who expose students to soft core pornography in both print and on film.

6) There are faculty and staff and even administrators at some of these schools who suffer from severe mental health issues which affect not only their job performance but cause tremendous harm to students and coworkers.

7) There are gay cliques at some of these schools not only among the students but among the faculty, that is, the “conservative” Catholic faculty.

8) There are situations at these schools were students are subject to emotional abuse and manipulation by professors. I know of a specific situation where a parent phoned a former professor at one of these schools and complained about the way his daughter was being treated.

9) There are many, many faculty at these schools who are not only deficient in knowledge of basic Catholic teaching and completely ignorant of the Western tradition, but are oblivious of much in their own specialized field.

10) At at least one Newman Guide school, faculty (including non-Catholic faculty) are coerced into attending mass during days in which the school is being advertised to the outside world to make it seem like more people go to mass. At the same school, coaches force their largely no- Catholic players to fill up the pews, so it looks like the sports teams all go to mass in front of visitors to the school.

11) This one is my personal favorite: there is even a Newman Guide school at which there has been operating a Satanic cult for decades and which performs animal sacrifices on the grounds of the school. Several exorcisms have been performed by the diocese, and faculty, staff, and students have repeatedly brought this situation to attention to the administrators who have responded with orders to “be quiet.”

Some of you know about the specific cases to which I am referring and generally speaking there are two responses that people give. The first is “nobody's perfect” and “everyone has issues.” The second is “it's a lot worse at state schools and liberal Catholic colleges and universities.” The simple fact is that it is hard if not impossible (and I use that word intentionally) to recruit good people to teach and work in these schools. Many people know this and often use the opportunity to exploit a desperate school to their own advantage.

I am saying these things about Newman Guide schools because other faculty who currently work at these schools want me to say them. I am saying them because they are true, and I am saying them because if you plan on attending a Newman Guide school or sending your children there or even working at a Newman Guide school, you need to be very, very careful and smart before you make that choice.

I know many of the things seem shocking or bizarre, and, to answer your question, there is more to the story in many of these cases, but the details of them are in fact much worse than what I shared or feel comfortable sharing out loud. These cases are not present at all Newman Guide schools, but the main takeaway I want to give is that when you go to a campus to visit, use your sensus catholicus as well as your common sense as parents. If it seems like the philosophy department is full of cocky, smooth talking professors who seem to have no idea what they are doing, they probably don’t. If everyone in an English department seems gay, they just might be. If you get a bad feeling about a campus no matter how smiley and touchy-feely a campus tour guide is, it just might be a bad place--even if EWTN and The National Catholic Register assure you that it is a rock solid place.

In the end, the most important thing is that we save our souls and perform our duties to Almighty God. Good night. Thank you.


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