ASK FATHER: How to build Catholic identity at a Catholic college?

ex-corde-ecclesiaeFrom a reader…

I am a dean at a Catholic college in the US. The majority of faculty and administrators are not Catholic. How does one work to make progress on Ex Corde Ecclesiae when there is passive / semi-active resistance against strengthening Catholic identity and a disheartening air of indifferentism on campus?

Ah… Ex corde Ecclesiae… nearly as ignored as Veterum sapientia!

GUEST RESPONSE from a priest friend in college level admin:

The first rule of war is “Know your enemy.”

In this case, the enemy is legion. It’s all of the academic administrators, deans, and tenured faculty who are objectively hostile to and reject the Church and Her teaching. This enemy takes the form of search committees intentionally formed to reject those candidates who take seriously the Church and Her teaching, the departmental hierarchies intentionally put in place to hire those made in their image and likeness, the college hierarchies and deans intentionally hired to further ensure that only those candidate who are make in their image and likeness are recommended for hiring, and the academic administrators who intentionally hired those deans and department chairs to ensure this outcome. All the while, the enemy claims that “At XYZ university (or college, it matters not), we hire for mission.”

That is the enemy.

The second rule of war is “Disarm your enemy.”

In this case, disarmament comes through the judicious and wise use of power, meaning, “the ability to get people to do what otherwise they ordinarily wouldn’t do.” It took decades for the enemy to build institutions of Catholic higher education in their image and likeness; therefore, to seek to overturn the system that is currently in place would be a fool’s errand, one causing a palace revolution and rendering the one seeking to wage war dead. Instead, the one seeking to wage war must disarm this enemy slowly but ever so effectively, with intense focus, patience, and persistence. In this regard, academic administrators and deans can be most effective if the measure of success they use to assess themselves in waging war is building a small nucleus of sympathetic senior faculty who mentor junior faculty and who themselves will form a larger nucleus of senior faculty, perhaps only long after those academic administrators and deans who hired them have departed the institution.

The third rule of war is “Have a serious strategy that will strike at the enemy’s heart.”

To disarm this enemy effectively, those academic administrators and deans who seek to wage this war must consider themselves “interim servants” of the mission of Catholic higher education. Their role is not to mount a direct, frontal assault, only to be surrounded on all sides and be decapitated. No, the strategy is to leave the institution better off as Catholic than if those academic administrators and deans hadn’t been there. Any academic administrator or dean who seeks to decapitate and eliminate the enemy in this war will fail, leaving the institution no better off as Catholic than if this individual hadn’t been there. This strategy will slowly strike directly and effectively at the enemy’s heart by sapping it of power as that small nucleus of junior and senior faculty replicate and form a community of professors who, as Bl. John Henry Newman wrote, “think as Catholics do.” From this group will emerge the academic administrators and deans who will slowly surround the enemy, rendering it irrelevant in the institutional decision-making process and begin the process of freeing the liberal arts from the prison in which the enemy has interred them for at least several decades.

The fourth rule of war is “Provide the necessary tools to wage battle.”

The tools that nucleus of faculty require include: a clear and articulate vision of where they’re headed; a sound strategy to guide their decision-making processes; encouragement as well as the freedom to make decisions; and, challenge to hold themselves and one another accountable for their successes and failures. Administrators and deans are perfectly positioned to provide all of this—to serve their warriors—while they battle on in the trenches. What those administrators and deans need to keep in mind:
• Success in this endeavor requires character not money…the exact opposite of what the enemy offers its warriors.
• Their clarion call is to serve the Church not to change the church…the exact opposite of the enemy’s clarion call.
• Prestige is measured in terms of conversions to the Truth not aversion from the Truth…the exact opposite of the enemy’s measure of prestige.

In sum:

“Rome wasn’t built in one day” and, it should be added, “Rome wasn’t destroyed in one day.” No, the barbarians knew their enemy, disbarment the enemy, and had a serious strategy that struck directly at the enemy’s heart.

As this observation concerns Catholic higher education, “Catholic higher education wasn’t destroyed in a day” and “Catholic higher education won’t be rebuilt in one day.” Academic administrators and deans who seek to reconstitution Catholic higher education must keep that in mind, as it constitutes their primary mission.

I’d commend the reader to consider carefully von Clausewitz’s “On War” inserting “Catholic higher education” where applicable:


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    One of von Clausewitz’s chief insights was that attack should be prompt and concentrated. The first, we lost in Catholic academe DECADES ago; but the second, concentrating resources in a few salvageable places, is much more feasible.

  2. Papal Fan says:

    I remember years ago reading an article from my “catholic” college that discussed Ex Corde Ecclesiae. What was interesting about it was that I could not remember if it argued that the school would follow it or if it rejects it. It was more or less gobbledygook to me.

    I tend to think that it was written to acknowledge its existence and nothing more.
    It would explain all the shenanigans that the college did during my time there, such as a gay club endorsing homosexual events and other bizarre things.

    Maybe the reader went to the same college I did?

  3. hilltop says:

    I recommend reading an early 2017 article in Commonweal written by Mr. John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America. In it he addresses this very question. Perhaps I link can be provided by our esteemed Fr Z.?

  4. Unwilling says:

    The description of the status quo is fair enough. And I do not mean to oppose any part of the post. But I would plead for the efficacy of something perhaps too obvious to have mentioned: personal holiness. No doubt Clausewitz’s points, or for that matter those similar ones we find in the Rules for Radicals, are worth keeping in mind and using where appropriate. In seeking institutional change, the Catholic should first turn to God in deeply pious devotion, exercises of strengthening like the Stations, Rosary, post-Communion silences, visits to the Sacrament, regular Confession, and so on, in the spirit of the Nunc, Sancte, nobis Spiritus at Terce [love light up our mortal frame, till others catch the living flame]. Without disregarding Clausewitz or Alinsky, the greatest manual of authentically Catholic change (and especially relevant to schools) for me remains The Soul of The Apostolate by Jean-Baptiste Chautard O.C.S.O.

  5. Moro says:

    I went to Boston College, often called BC, or as my friends and I often called it Barely Catholic. I went to mass where potentially invalid matter was used, invalid formulae of absolution invented, liberation theology (and other bad stuff) paraded and pranced all about campus. The issue of the day was the university’s failure to recognize a gay group, one that while not officially recognized, received funding and meeting spaces. They have the largest Jesuit community in the world and its a disaster. The few solid Jesuits that are there Jesuits suffer greatly.

    Now, I would be inclined to tell young people to transfer out. Take your money elsewhere to an academically sound secular school. It will be easier and more effective to evangelize when you don’t have clergy with PhDs contradicting the Gospel daily. You’ll avoid the poison of heterodoxy that you would have to shift through. It will be an uphill battle to reform campus ministry because at a “Catholic” school clergy and religious with an agenda will run it. But at a secular school, it is often left to students to work stuff out with the assigned clergy. In fact, I dare say that Boston University, BC’s hockey rival, that is just down the street had and likely still has a far superior campus ministry to that of my alma mater.

  6. dholwell says:

    Here is a link to the Commonweal article referenced by Hilltop.

  7. Alanmac says:

    Advertisements for new staff should clearly state
    “Preference will be given to Catholic applicants” as many employers do with other minorities.

  8. Charles E Flynn says:

    The entertaining although crackpot interpretation of this posting is that Father Z is in fact an ordained reincarnation of Sun_tzu. We Catholics do not believe in reincarnation, as Father Z would be the first to agree, and put on a mug.

    [Did you see that this is a GUEST response?]

  9. lmgilbert says:

    The thing that kills me about this situation is that we still have good, hardworking Catholic parents knocking themselves out to send their kids to Catholic colleges, and pushing them in that direction, yet in effect by doing that they are undermining the the faith of their own children.

    What seems unconscionable to me is that bishops are not rising to the occasion and saying now, as they should have said forty years ago, DePaul University ( Boston College,etc, etc) is no longer a Catholic institution.

    The other thing that needs to happen is for the pope to call in “the black pope” ( the head of the Jesuits) and say to him that under holy obedience he wants him to pull all his men out of BC, Gonzaga, Georgetown, etc. the following day, institutional collapse be damned. Those who won’t leave will be exclaustrated and laicized. The same for the Vincentians pulling out of DePaul. With souls at hazard, there is no time for slow, incremental, possible changes. In other words, force the moment to its crisis now and let the chips fall where they may.

  10. Stephen Matthew says:

    Nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure…

    Failing that, be cunning as serpents, sly as foxes, pray without ceasing, and much apply the virtue patience and persistence.

    I really wish I had a real answer, in my experience of much more minor institutional battles, progress can be made, but progress seems to be more easily lost. Perhaps the key thing is to recruit or train a replacement that can carry on your legacy, otherwise, whatever you build will just be swept away once those who no longer care (or are hostile) take on your duties.

  11. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    I come from a very different culture, so I hesitated before chipping in – but not for long.

    I’m afraid I agree with those who think this response inadequate. Like Unwilling, I saw nothing about personal holiness. Like Lmgilbert, I grieve for the souls being lost today.

  12. Monk McG says:

    We are slowly rebuilding a Catholic university here in Montana. President, VP for Academics, Dean and one of the Division Chairs are all Catholic. The new core curriculum is straight out of Ex Corde and Catholicism is integrated throughout (core is called :lumen de lumen). Even the chair of the faculty is being received on the Easter vigil. By 1 July we change our name from the University of Great Falls to University of Providence.

  13. csc says:

    I also went to Boston College. When I was there, they pulled the crucifixes off the classroom walls so they could accept federal money.

    At that time, they were also playing with the idea of changing the branding of the school to incorporate the word “University.” I suggested to a Jesuit priest that they should consider the name “Boston Catholic University,” which would still enable the school to retain the “BC.” emblem. “Don’t be ridiculous!’ he said.

  14. Legisperitus says:

    Is the word “disbarment” supposed to be in there?

  15. mluiz says:

    It’s no fun watching a university disintegrate before your eyes. When I hired on as theology faculty there were five in the department and now that they have laid me off they only have one left. It is ostensibly a Catholic university but they sold out that identity for money that is no longer coming.
    Without at least someone in the administration willing to fight for the identity it will disappear fast. It only took five years for this university to completely sell out and end up losing a great deal of faculty. The worst part is that they still present themselves as a Catholic university and parents still send their children here. It is a sad time for Catholic higher education and I have tried but failed and, for now at least, I am out of higher ed all together.

  16. Semper Gumby says:

    Thanks to guest Father for this response- the enemy is indeed Legion. Legisperitus: I think disbarment should read: disarm.

    Anthony Esolen in his new book Out of the Ashes has a chapter on “c”atholic colleges (and another chapter on schools). Esolen suggests building a cross-country network of Catholic administrators, recruiters etc., who hire Catholic professors and staff, enroll Catholic students, and aid graduating students in finding jobs.

    On the other hand, Esolen wrote that some “c”atholic colleges may have to be abandoned and new Catholic colleges built. This doesn’t seem to be defeatism on Esolen’s part, rather a recognition that finite resources are best employed elsewhere to provide a Catholic education for future generations. Here I’d like to chip in a military rule from Frederick the Great: “He who defends everything defends nothing.” Hard choices have to be made sometimes, and while trying to rescue a college is noble, the point may be reached where our time, money, and students are deployed in a far healthier environment elsewhere.

    Esolen listed about a dozen colleges as exemplars such as Christendom College, Grove City College, Hillsdale College, and Saint Vincent College.

    If I recall, Franciscan U. in Steubenville OH went from “c”atholic to Catholic. My guess is that it took a dedicated core of both students and faculty leaders to make that happen, but I may be wrong.

    Here’s a quote from Esolen, p. 76: “When I was a student at Princeton, the most popular course on campus was the freshman course on Shakespeare, taught by a brilliant actor and professor, Daniel Seltzer. That course has been supplanted by one in Young Adult Fiction- basically guerillas, vampires, sluts, and suicides- a course with a greater enrollment than all other English courses combined.”

    And to close on a positive note, p. 89: “At Benedictine College…big-band and ballroom and folk dances every week. All we need is a big room or two and the musicians. We can have them. We can have science classes that actually go outdoors to see the world God made, or where they can plow the earth to plant corn. We can have students learn to sing four-part harmony…We can have a course, taught by a biologist and a Thomist philosopher, on what it means to be an organism rather than a machine…We can have anything we please…It has been done before. We can build it again.”

  17. Grateful to be Catholic says:

    The questioner is not alone in wanting his college to rebuild its Catholic identity. The number of such colleges is growing and they are helping one another. He should contact Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, and ask to be put in touch with colleagues who can offer advice and support.

  18. hwriggles4 says:

    Oftentimes, one fails to mention that at any college, there will be some “troublemakers”, and one of the biggest challenges is for students to choose the “right” friends. While some colleges will expel students for immoral acts and bad grades, quite a few will not. This is true not just for state schools, but also for private schools. Therefore, a student, either male or female, has to discern what he or she wants for a peer group.

    Part of the campus culture is the students. If Catholic students are attending Mass, Holy Hour, and Confession voluntarily (either at a public or private school, including a Catholic college) that helps motivate non Catholics (and one hour Catholics as well as nominal Catholics) to dig deeper to learn more about their faith – it did in my case.

    On the other hand, if a majority of Catholic students are blowing off Sunday Mass, drinking to excess frequently, cheating on exams, and participating in the hookup culture, something needs to change.

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    To begin with, this problem of the exclusion of Catholic identity is not a symptom of current higher education, only, but of medical schools, seminaries, city politics, and Fortune 500 companies, as well – in other words, any place where there is a hierarchical structure of governance in place. The strategies presented by the guest responder are the sort of strategies I would have offered, as well, back in my more innocent days. Sadly, I don’t think they will work in the current conditions of society.

    One must, absolutely, make a distinction between small colleges that have closed, terminal, practical degrees, and research institutions. Any strategy one might recommend for Christendom College absolutely will not work at Notre Dame and that has to do with funding. Everyone at a research institution seeking money, from the president on down to the lowly post-doc has to conform to the expectations of the grant-providing institution. One cannot seek a grant to do a psychology experiment from an agency that considers the homosexual life-style be a right, instead of a disordered and sinful life-style. Try getting a grant from Apple Computers to do computer science research if your college does not tow the morality of Apple Computer. Try getting a large grant to run experiments that have as the null hypothesis that anthropogenic climate change is wrong. You would be fired or denied tenure if you are a junior faculty who didn’t bring in large grants because the conditions of the grants violated your Catholic sensibilities. You won’t do CRSPR modifications on human genes? Fine, they will fire you and find someone else who will. You won’t attend the manditory, “sensitivity,” training? To bad for you. You are out. You won’t let that trans-sexual boy take your woman’s gymnastic course – you could be fired and bankrupted.

    Smaller Catholic colleges have the luxury of seeking funding from exclusively Catholic sources and can isolate themselves from the influences of the modern moral corruption. They can develop a strong and pure Catholic identity, but any sufficiently large college that, by its nature, must be engaged with society-at-large, will never be able to maintain a pure Catholic identity because, for one thing, the Board of Trustees will not be composed of Catholics of a pure identity, and it controls the purse strings.

    It doesn’t matter how much one tries to develop individual Catholic deans in a large college, because they must answer to a higher level that will, almost inevitably, be secular in outlook.

    There are, in this present climate, only a few ways to attack this problem. Liberalism, unless it is entirely defeated or converted, will, eventually, re-assert itself. It is like a virus that is both parasitic and opportunistic. So, if you want a true and pure Catholic identity at an institution of higher education, here are some things that can be done (stealth techniques do not work, since they will not eliminate the root causes which, if they have even a small foothold, will, eventually, grow back):

    1. Accept absolutely no government funding of any kind. There is a direct correlation between government funding and loss of a Catholic identity.

    2. Get rid of a strongly structured hierarchy. Before the late 1960’s, administration was not the top-heavy behemoth that it is, today. Administration was much more flexible and amenable to influence from the bottom-up, rather that what it is, today – the imposition of fiats from the top-down. This is, absolutely, one of the things that killed seminary programs – the immediate growth of post-Vatican II structured administrations, populated by liberals, who had the foresight (since they set it up to be that way) to grab power and create a structure that mirrored their view of the Church. Liberals had a plan long before Vatican II.

    3. Change society. I did not say that these methods were easy, just that they are the only practical means of giving Catholic identity a chance to grow. The biggest problem with many educational institutions, from junior high schools to graduate schools, is that most Catholics simply have the level of Catholic knowledge of a six-year old from 1930. Parents would withdraw their support from pseudo-Catholic institutions if they were really both knowledgeable and serious about living the Catholic Faith. Who would send their child to a, “Catholic,” institution (and there are many of them) that had the same hook-up mentality among students as a secular institution?

    4. These problems are affecting not only Catholic institutions, but any Christian institution that takes the teachings of Christ seriously. This is not only a Catholic problem. It is, in the end, a problem of answering the question – “Who shall speak for Truth?” As long as a false scientism reigns in contemporary culture, especially among the young, Christianity, in general, and Catholicism, in particular, will be relegated to nice ideals from a by-gone era. Catholicism has done a very poor job of assuming the leadership in directing the moral progress of science, despite the fact that this was one of the goals of Vatican II – a task at which it spectacularly failed (it is, after all, possible for a Council to be both valid and a failure). Parents have done a very poor job of training their children to counter the arguments of modern materialistic science – especially, in matters of ethics. Modern psychology has a veneer of science and a respectability that theology once had. It has become the arbiter of modern morality because the Church has abdicated that responsibility in the eyes of many.

    5. Realize that no accommodation is possible. This is the central mistake that the conservatives made with the neo-Modernists in the 1950’s and 1960’s – they tried to be collegial with the liberals. Liberals were never interested in working together. They were interested in winning. It does no good to remove them from faculty positions, such as were done with some of La Nouvelle Theologie supporters in the 1950’s if they were only brought back, unrehabilitated, a decade later. Their firing was supposed to be medicinal, to bring them back to orthodoxy, but it allowed them to go underground and recruit in secret.

    6. Kill the lawyers (sorry, Ed Peters). A lot of the problems in modern education come from the fear of lawsuits, which, even if winnable, are often settled quietly because the Board of Trustees is absolutely terrified of attracting bad publicity. They are like modern Scribes who do things for show.

    7. Finally, and this might not seem obvious, one of the biggest reasons Catholic identity is lost at a Catholic colleges is because of the prevalence of sexual sins among the students. Contraception should be non-existent at a Catholic College, but its use at most large institutions probably mirrors that of society-at-large. How can one develop a strong Catholic identity among students who sin, habitually, and have almost no recourse to Confession? Even the most liberal of administrations will not last long before a penitential and informed student body.

    There are other things that can be done, but these are some of the core things. It is no accident that things are the way they are, today. Anyone with an understanding of history could have seen this coming back in the 1950’s, but post-WW II was a time for conciliation rather than consolidation. In other words, General MacArthur was right – we should have marched into China when we had the chance and the Church should have expelled the neo-Modernists, when they had the chance. From the movie, “Enchanted,” – “Don’t every stop to bargain with happiness, for, in one wasted moment, a train might leave, a ship might sail, a man might die.” Recently, the Church has been guilty of many wasted moments and the education train has left the station.

    The Chicken

  20. Brian Cannon says:

    Love your enemy has got to be in there somewhere.

  21. SpesUnica says:

    Father Guest Columnist seems to be writing about how to reclaim the Catholic identity at an institution where that identity has slipped, been ignored, or demoted to a peripheral concern since Land o’ Lakes. Many of the respondents seems to be of the opinion that those sorts of institutions are lost causes and that all available resources and attention should be concentrated on the “good” institutions that are left, a la the Cardinal Newman Society.

    This can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Individual parents, of course, have to make decisions about how to guide individual children toward college. There is no “one size fits all.” However, if all conscientious Catholic parents universally steer their good, faithful kids away from “slipping institutions,” that will render the bulk of Father Guest’s battle plan impotent. If there are no faithful students, you won’t be able to build up a base. You won’t be able to get any faithful faculty to teach there. There is left only the very far-fetched chance of Trustee-level revolutions for orthodoxy. The possibility of a gradual gaining of critical mass and incremental change are abandoned.

    But maybe that is the Cardinal Newman Society’s real goal; give up on the older institutions and invest only in the newer ones without the baggage. I prefer to pray for reformers like God gave to some of the Religious Orders. I don’t think that that has to be done at the expense of also supporting the new, small, orthodox schools that are easy to love.

  22. hwriggles4 says:

    Fr. Z often says that change often comes “Brick by Brick.” Catholic University of America really came up with a new president, and over a four year period single sex residence halls returned. Students found they preferred single sex living accommodations too. Years ago, a good priest assigned to a Jesuit college in Maryland was teaching the nuts and bolts that are true to the Church, and his Theology classes filled up fast (no, it wasn’t for an easy A).

    Quite a few Catholic Student Centers at secular colleges have also done Brick by Brick turnover. Many went from being nothing more than social halls to a place with theology, Bible study, lines for Confession, reverent Masses, and a balance of spiritual, social, and physical development. Many bishops have been much better during the last 25 years at assigning good priests true to the magisterium to staff these Catholic Student Centers. Seminarians and priests have come from the University of Nebraska, the University of Kansas, Texas A and M University, University of South Dakota, Virginia Tech, Texas Tecj, Oklahoma State University, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to name a few.

  23. Elizabeth D says:

    I feel like this also applies to things like Catholic Charities, who hire for mission and then there wind up being more or less no actual Catholics doing “Catholic charity”. It actually makes me feel embarrassed because the appearance is that Catholics have plenty of money but not all that much direct interest in serving the poor, so we pay non-Catholics to do it for us. In the meantime the needy in contact with such programs rarely encounter Catholics who would offer them example, witness or counsel that would draw them toward Christ and His Church. I maintain that what is DIFFERENT about FULLY GENUINE Catholic service to the poor is love for the whole person, body and soul. There is concern for bodily and human needs and also and integrally the need for spiritual life and growth and salvation. In practice there is usually great care taken to never let these two concerns overlap. I think there is fear about really integrating these two things which are in actuality A UNITY of mercy and love and I think there is a lack of understanding or imagination or will about how that could happen without any disrespect for people’s conscience. Normally there is totally secular service for human needs, and separately there is care for the spiritual life usually physically at the parish with no outreach. When there are consecrated persons involved it is a huge help. But I have sometimes wondered why the zealous laity of the sort who want to have true Catholic identity in education, don’t start antipoverty programs with the same determination about Catholic identity. Yes there is more room in doing corporal works of mercy for ecumenical and interreligious cooperation, and that can be a positive thing, but the saints didn’t become saints by doing secular social work much less hiring non-Catholics to do secular social work.

  24. Semper Gumby says:

    Unwilling: Interesting point. If I could, an observation. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals might not be “worth keeping in mind and using where appropriate.” The use of a book dedicated by its author to Lucifer/Satan would seriously undermine your excellent call to personal holiness.

    Brian Cannon: Yes. And as I’m sure you know, while doing that we can simultaneously develop a plan of action (individually or collectively) to deal with the present situation, and implement specific methods/techniques, e.g Masked Chicken, Grateful to be Catholic, Alanmac, hwriggles4, and Stephen Matthew. (Though I am skeptical that one of Mr. Matthew’s suggestions, “nuke it”, is of long-term benefit. But that is definitely thinking outside the box.)

    I don’t mean to say you are implying this or unaware of this: “love your enemy” can at times be a rationalization for appeasement, complicity, or inactivity.

    Elizabeth D: Good point. To address your wonder at why some are zealous for hard-identity Catholic education rather than serving the poor: by forming and educating the current generation of students, these youths will be better equipped to assist the poor in the future.

  25. panamagranny says:

    Our leaders in 1967 started the decline of Catholic higher education on purpose. Were we told about the Land O’ Lakes Conference when it occurred? I do not think so.

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