It’s About Navigating Life: The Importance of Philosophy & Theology

Here is one of the clearest criteria for choosing or judging a college: you can be almost certain that any college that has dropped philosophy and theology from its core curriculum is not serious about a liberal arts education. And in my experience I find that this is true of many of the colleges in America.

This raises two questions: (1) What are philosophy and theology, and why are they crucial to a young person’s education today? (2) Aren’t they outdated, impractical, abstract, irrelevant, elitist, superfluous and even dangerous to faith and sanity?

Some Definitions

“Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” Wisdom is the knowledge of ultimate causes, explanations and principles. It includes knowledge of values, not just facts. It gives you a “big picture,” a “world-view” and a “life-view.” It explores such questions as these: What is the essence of a human being? What is the meaning (value, goal, purpose) of human life? What is a good life? What is a good society? Are there higher laws than man’s laws? Are we here by chance or design? Are we fated or free? How do we know what is good or evil? How do we know anything? Is anything certain? Can reason prove (or disprove) the existence of God? Why do we suffer? Why do we die? Is there life after death?

Anyone who is simply not interested in these questions is less than fully human, less than fully reasonable. Reasonable persons, even if skeptical about the possibility of answering them, will not dismiss them as unanswerable without looking (that is not reason but prejudice) but will examine the claims of philosophers to have given reasonable answers to these questions before settling into a comfortable, fashionable skepticism.

Theology comes in two forms, philosophical and religious. Philosophical theology (“natural theology”) is a subdivision of philosophy. It uses natural human reason to explore the greatest of all questions, the questions about God. Religious theology (or “revealed theology”) is a rational exploration of the meaning and consequences of faith in a revealed religion—in our case, the “deposit of faith” or “Sacred Tradition” of the Catholic Church which comes from Christ and His apostles, and the scriptures they wrote.

In most Catholic universities today, Sacred Tradition is no longer sacred. It is treated as something to be “dissented” from (“diss” is the first part of “dissent”), as an enemy to enlightenment, progress, maturity and liberation, or at least as an embarrassment to be “tweaked,” “nuanced” or “massaged” rather than as a gift to be gratefully, faithfully and lovingly explored.

Most Catholic universities today have philosophy departments that are excellent spiritually as well as academically, but have deeply compromised theology departments. Their effect on students is much more often to weaken their faith than to strengthen it, not only in controversial moral issues such as abortion, contraception, cloning, euthanasia and sexual morality, but even in fundamental doctrines such as Christ’s divinity and resurrection and the historical truth of the Gospels.

We badly need good philosophy and theology. But why? To answer this question, look at where they are taught. They are taught in colleges and universities. So to find the “why” of philosophy and theology, we must find the “why” of colleges and universities.

The Goal of Education

Considering the trillions of dollars spent on universities by parents, governments and foundations, it is amazing that most of the people who go there (the students) and most of the people who pay for them (the parents and the government) never even ask, much less answer, this question: What is the purpose of the university? It is the most influential institution in Western civilization, and most of us don’t really know exactly why we entrust our children to them.

The commonest answer is probably to train them for a career. A B.A. looks good on your resume to prospective employers. That is not only a crass, materialistic answer, but also an illogical one. Consider what it means. It means that the reason students should study in universities is so that they can get high grade-point averages and thus get better jobs when they graduate.

What does “better jobs” mean? It means first of all, to most of them, better-paying jobs. But why do they need better paying jobs? For the money, of course. Silly question. But why do they need money? That is an even sillier question. Life has expenses. What life? Most of them hope to marry and raise families, and it takes a lot of money to do that. Why does a family need a lot of money? The two most expensive things a family needs money for are a house and a college education for the kids.

Ah, so a student should study to get high grades to get an impressive resume to get a good job, to finance his family when it sends his kids to college to study, to get high grades, et cetera, et cetera.

This is arguing in a circle. It is like a tiger pacing round and round his cage in a zoo. Is there a better answer? There is if you know some philosophy. Let’s look.

Probably the most commonsensical and influential philosopher of all time was Aristotle. Aristotle says that there are three “whys,” three purposes, ends or reasons for anyone ever to study and learn anything, in school or out of it. Thus there are three kinds of “sciences,” which he called “productive,” “practical” and “theoretical.” (Aristotle used “science” in a much broader way than we do, meaning any ordered body of knowledge through causes and reasons.)

The purpose of the “productive sciences” (which we today call technology) is to produce things, to make, improve or repair material things in the world, and thus to improve our world. Farming, surgery, shipbuilding, carpentry, writing and tailoring were examples in Aristotle’s era as well as ours, while ours also includes many new ones like cybernetics, aviation and electrical engineering.

The purpose of the “practical sciences” (which meant learning how to do or practice anything, how to act) is to improve your own behavior in some area of your own life. The two most important of these areas, Aristotle said, were ethics and politics. (Aristotle saw politics not as a pragmatic, bureaucratic business of running a state’s economy, but as social ethics, the science of the good life for a community.) Other examples of “practical sciences” include economics, athletics, rhetoric and military science.

The third kind of sciences is the “theoretical” or “speculative” (contemplative), i.e., those that seek the truth for its own sake, that seek to know just for the sake of knowing rather than for the sake of action or production (though, of course, they will have important practical application). These sciences include theology, philosophy, physics, astronomy, biology, psychology and math.

Theoretical sciences are more important than practical sciences for the very same reason practical sciences are more important than productive sciences: because their end and goal is more intimate to us. Productive sciences perfect some external thing in the material world that we use; practical sciences perfect our own action, our own lives; and theoretical sciences perfect our very selves, our souls, our minds. They make us bigger persons.

And that is the reason for going to college in the first place: not to make money, or things, or even to live better, but to be better, to be more, to grow your mind as you grow your body.

The Big Picture

What we have been doing for the last several paragraphs is philosophy. We need philosophy because we need to explore such reasons, reasons for studying, reasons for universities’ existence, even (especially) reasons for your own existence. For one of the primary questions all great philosophers ask is: What is the meaning of life, the reason for being, the point and purpose and end of human existence in this world?  If you don’t know that, you don’t know anything because you don’t know the point of everything. If you don’t know that, you may get all A’s in all your subjects, but you flunk Life.

The answer to that question for any intelligent, honest and serious Christian, Jew or Muslim is God. Supreme wisdom is about knowing God. And philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. So philosophy is ultimately the pursuit of God, using the tools of natural human reason and theology by faith in supernatural divine revelation.

The “wisdom” philosophy pursues is not a factual knowledge like physics or history; but a knowledge, and understanding, and appreciation, of values, of what ought to be rather than merely what is. For instance, we need to know whether career (work) or family is more important, because most of us will invest enormous emotional and physical energy in both, and they will always compete and conflict to some extent.

We want to know the meaning of falling in love and romance and sex. What is its meaning, its purpose? For two generations now we have been asking every conceivable question (and many inconceivable questions, too), but not this one, not the very first and most basic one.

You see? Philosophy and theology raise the mind’s eyes to The Big Picture. If we can’t see that, we miss the forest and see only the trees; we count the syllables in the book of life but don’t know what kind of a story we are in.

Good Philosophy, Good Theology

One philosopher tells this story. (I paraphrase.) I was raised in a New York City slum. There were no books in my house. No one in my high school cared about education. I found an escape in the great 42nd Street library, where I devoured books indiscriminately. One day, I happened to read the famous “allegory of the cave” from Plato’s Republic. It changed my life. I found my identity. My life was that cave, and philosophy was the way out into another, bigger world. My mind was born that day. For the rest of my life I have explored the world outside the cave, the world of ideas, and taught others to do so. The biggest thrill in my life is finding among my students someone like me whom I can show that there is a way out of the cave, and that there is a bigger world outside.

That is why we all need to study philosophy (and, even more obviously, theology): because it is the discovery of another world, another kind of world, another kind of reality than the material world: the discovery that ideas are real, and that (in the words of a great book title) “ideas have consequences.”

The only alternative to good philosophy is bad philosophy. “I hate philosophy” is bad philosophy, but it is a philosophy: egotism. “Philosophy isn’t practical” is a philosophy: pragmatism. “Philosophy doesn’t turn me on” is a philosophy: hedonism.

Everyone has a philosophy, just as everyone has an emotional temperament and a moral character. Your only choice is between “knowing yourself” and thinking about your philosophy, or hiding from it and from yourself. But what you do not think about will still be there, and will still motivate you, and have consequences, and those consequences will affect all the people in your life up to the day of your death and far beyond it.

Your philosophy can quite likely and quite literally make the difference between heaven and hell. Saint Francis of Assisi and Adolf Hitler were not professional philosophers, but both had philosophies, and lived them, and went to heaven or hell according to their philosophies. That is how much of a difference thought can make: “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Buddha said, “All that we are is determined by our thoughts: it begins where our thoughts begin, it moves where our thoughts move, and it rests where our thoughts rest.”

Philosophy can lead you to God, and theology can lead you further into God (or away from Him). And God is the source of all truth, all goodness and all beauty; that is, of everything we value. (If that is not true, then God is not God.) All truth is God’s truth; when an atheist discovers some scientific truth, he is reading the mind of God, the Logos. All goodness is God’s goodness; when an agnostic secularist loves his neighbor, he is responding to divine grace. All beauty is God’s beauty; when a dissipated, confused and immoral artist creates a thing of beauty, he is using the image of God in his soul, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, however anonymously, and participating in God’s creative power.

Philosophy is a necessity if you want to understand our world. Bad philosophy is the source of most of the great errors in our world today. Errors in philosophy are devastating because they affect everything, as an error of an inch in surveying the angle of a property line will become an error of ten yards a mile down the line.

Most of the controversies in our world today can be understood and solved only by good philosophy and theology; for instance, the relation between world religions, especially Islam and Christianity; human life issues such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning; the justice of wars; the meaning of human sexuality and of the “sexual revolution”; the relation between mind and brain, and between human intelligence and “artificial intelligence”; the relation between creation and evolution; how far we are free and responsible and how far we are determined by biological heredity and social environment; the relation between morality and religion, and between religion and politics; and whether morality is socially relative or universal, unchanging and absolute.

Revealed theology claims to have the answers, or at least the principles that should govern the answers, to many of these questions. So theology is even more important than philosophy, if answers are more important than questions. And of course they are, for the whole point of asking a question, if you are honest, is the hope of finding an answer. It is nonsense to believe that “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive,” and good philosophy refutes that self-contradiction. If it’s not better to arrive at your goal of truth than to strain after it, then truth is not really your goal at all, and the straining after it is a sham.

That is not, of course, to say that it is easy to arrive at the goal of truth, or that all we need is a set of answers we believe on the Church’s authority but do not understand. The truly respectful attitude toward the authority of the Church—which is an extension of the authority of Christ—is to let revealed truth permeate our minds and our lives like light, not simply to preserve that light by hiding it under a bushel basket. All “ideas have consequences,” especially divinely revealed ideas; and it is our job to lovingly draw out those consequences, like philosophers, and not to fear them, like heresy hunters, or to claim them as our own in a spirit of superiority to our divine teacher, like heretics.

Answering Objections

But there are objections to philosophy and theology out there. If this were not so, the teaching of these subjects would not have declined so precipitously. Let us briefly consider and answer some of them.

What can you do with philosophy and theology anyway? We have already answered that question by noting that it is the wrong question. The right question is what they can do with you.

But they’re so abstract! Yes, and that is their glory. To be incapable of abstraction is to be less than human, or a less than fully developed human. Animals and small children, for instance, are incapable of abstraction. They do not talk about Fate and Freedom, or Good and Evil, or Divinity and Humanity, or Life and Death (all abstractions). They talk only about hamburgers and French fries, boo boos and bandages, malls and cartoons. These things are not “the real world.” They are the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. Philosophy and theology are not fantasy. They are the escape from fantasy.

But philosophy is a dinosaur—it isn’t up to date, modern, popular, etc. No. Neither is wisdom, virtue, happiness, piety, fidelity, courage, peace or contentment.

What does philosophy have to do with real life? Everything. It is more important to know the philosophy of a prospective employee or employer, landlord or renter, friend or enemy, husband or wife, than their income, social class or politics.

Philosophy is elitist. It speaks of “Great Books” and “Great Ideas” and “Great Minds.” Yes, it does. At least good philosophy does. If you prefer crummy books, stupid ideas and tiny minds, you should not waste your money on college. If you believe that all ideas are equal, rather than all persons, you are confused and need a philosophy course. (Is the idea that all ideas are equal equal to the idea that they are not?)

“Philosophy bakes no bread.” It does not make you rich.  It is contemplative, like monasticism.  True. But why do we make money and bread? Is money our means (of exchange) to our end? Money is for bread, and bread is for man, and man is for truth. The ultimate end of human life is contemplative: knowing and appreciating the truth. We will not be baking bread or making money in Heaven, but we will be philosophizing.

Religion makes philosophy superfluous. If you have faith, you don’t need reason.  Yes, you do: you need reason to understand your faith. And you need reason to know whether your faith is the true faith. There are many fakes. And how do you know that unless you think about it? And if you don’t want to think about your faith, then either you aren’t really very interested in it, or you are afraid it is so weak that it will not endure the light. In that case you need a faith-lift.

But philosophy can be a danger to faith. Many have lost their faith through philosophy. Yes, and many have gained it, too. Of course, philosophy is dangerous. So is love, and trust, technology and money. Bad things are always misuses of good things. Wherever great harm is done, great help could have been done.

Final Things

This is especially true in theology. I know a chaplain who was ministering at the bedside of an old, dying man who had “lost his faith” and left the Church decades ago. The chaplain asked him what he believed about life after death, and the man replied that he had no idea where he was going and he didn’t think anyone else did either, because no one had any idea where they came from in the first place or why they are here.

The chaplain disagreed. He said, “You know the answers to those questions. You learned them as a little boy. You forgot them. But you can remember them now. It’s not too late. You learned the Baltimore Catechism, didn’t you? Yes, you did. Do you remember how it begins?”

The man wrinkled his brow, retrieving an old memory. “Yeah. It went like this: ‘Who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” The man paused, lifted his eyes, and said, “You’re right. That’s true!” And a smile appeared on his face. And then he died.

You need philosophy and theology now because you will need it on your deathbed later.


Common Core Assessments May Be Cost-Prohibitive for Catholic Schools

This is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and its potential impact on Catholic education.

Of key importance to parochial, private, and public school administrators and superintendents is the question of how to address the costs associated with the technological requirements for assessing students under the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Looking into what is being asked of schools by the two companies producing the CCSS assessments, one quickly sees that the expense associated with implementation of the new evaluation instruments is in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  In addition to the cost of training teachers and purchasing the testing materials, school districts and private schools that choose to use Common Core Standards will find hardware costs taking a significant chunk out of their operating budgets.

Cost Drivers

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smart- er Balanced Assessment Consortium are both designing assessments for use with computers that have at least one gigabyte of memory and a screen display of 9.5 inches (10-inch class) at a resolution of 1,024 X 768 or greater (Norris & Soloway, 2013).  For optimal use, Smarter Balanced recommends at least an 80-GB hard drive or at least one GB of hard drive space be made available (Smarter Balanced, 2013a).  These requirements eliminate popular Netbooks and iPad minis or any of the new versions that have display sizes smaller than the required 9.5 inches.  Smarter Balanced recommends the iPad 3+ running iOS6 (Smarter Balanced, 2013a).

Additionally, many of the school systems and private schools are falling short of the recom- mended hardware-to-student ratio of 1:6-7 (Kantrowitz, 2013; Davis, 2012).  While there may be adequate technology available for Internet access, the support systems may be outdated or not compatible with the new assessment software.  For example, the testing software is not able to run on Microsoft XP systems. Thus these popular, well-functioning computers are not eligible for use with tests for this particular assessment.  Some states may initially choose to continue to use paper and pencil for their annual high-stakes tests, but this will not be an op- tion for schools that choose advanced techniques to master the Common Core assessments.

Inadequate bandwidth can also rule out some eligible computers and schools. At a minimum, additional bandwidth will be required along with the associated costs to enable simultaneous testing of multiple grades and sections.  What happens when not enough money is available? Will there be a divide between the “haves” and the “have nots?”  Who gets the new tests and other tools necessary to properly prepare students for these assessments?  How will these af- fect issues of adequacy and equity?  Will the lack of technology create a bigger achievement gap?

Of concern to administrators is the degree of technology dependence that has occurred throughout most programs associated with all schools. This reliance is evident and necessary, as there can be as many as five different tests administered within the year.  PARCC is developing three separate diagnostic tests (reading, writing, and mathematics) and both a mid-year and end-of-year assessment. In addition, two other performance tests associated with speech and listening are in the development stages (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers, 2013).   Smarter Balanced has similar requirements with both an interim and end of year assessment. Needs are enhanced when there is a quick turnaround time for school administrators and teachers to receive results, analyze them, and implement necessary instructional changes and interventions. In addition to student assessment, assessments will also be attached to some teacher evaluations whose deadlines vary throughout the year.

Teachers, as well as students, will need to become proficient on the use of testing software so that these variables are minimized when students are testing.  Nuances include kindergarten students being required to respond through a keyboard and students in grades four to five asked to type their responses in a minimum one-to two-page document (Carr & Dreilinger, 2013).  Time and money will need to be allocated toward teacher and student proficiency in online test-taking skills prior to any testing.

The per-pupil cost for PARCC assessments is quoted to be between $22.50 to $29.50, which is one reason why Florida opted out of these assessments (Chieppo & Gass, Aug. 15, 2013; Kantrowitz, October 15, 1013).  Georgia withdrew from PARCC, citing skyrocketing cost and loss of local control.  The GADOE intends to develop its own in-state tests aligned to Com- mon Core standards and is looking to other states to form possible partnerships in this development (Shearer, July 22, 2013).  Smarter Balanced tests are estimated to run from $22.50 to

$27.30, including scoring services (Smarter Balanced, 2013b).  According to Jacqueline King, Ph.D., (email communication, November 2013) private schools interested in participating in the Smarter Balanced testing option must be located in a state that is working with Smarter Balanced. Each state Department of Education has the option as to whether this arrangement exists.

Alternate Testing Possibilities

Options to the PARCC assessments include the new Aspire test being field tested by ACT. Scheduled for release in April 2014, Aspire was recently adopted by the state of Alabama (Stacey, 2013; ACT, personal communication, October 17, 2013).  This test will eliminate concerns about having to purchase computer software and hardware, as it offers an option of pencil and paper administration.  For scoring, schools can either mail in assessments with a turnaround time of 4-6 weeks or submit immediately through online access.  Aspire is being developed only for grades 3-8 and early high school (9th/10th  grade).  It is aligned to the Common Core Standards, and the reports will be coded to the pre-existing 1-36 scale of college readiness already used for the ACT exam. Per-pupil cost has yet to be released, but one can sign up on the ACT Website to receive immediate updates about the test’s release. Subject area exemplars are given on the website, and Common Core skills are evident, especially in the math exemplars where questions are asked as to how the student arrived at his or her answer.  At this time, ACT has not released how or who will grade these student self-response items, or if there is a local grading option. This test is available on the open market and not restricted to states that have signed on to one of the national testing consortia.

Private-school administrators who currently use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills may consider upgrading to Iowa Form E. Form E is the newest edition to the assessment suite of Iowa tests and was developed in 2010, before the Common Core Math and Language Arts Standards were finalized (Michele Baker, personal communication, Sept. 17, 2013). Norming for the 2010 Form E was performed in 2011, before most schools fully implemented CCSS. New norms for Form E can be expected every five years and according to Michele Baker, Senior Assessment Consultant for Riverside Publishing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Form E will probably be available for 10 years or longer, at which time a newer edition will be released along with a new set of norms. By purchasing the Form E or Form F version (a parallel version in development) of the Iowa assessments, administrators would have the newest test based on pre-CCSS norms and full implementation.

Currently, Iowa Assessments have a turnaround time of about two weeks.  When tests are given in the fall (generally late September or early October) using a prescriptive approach for learning, it is not until November, after the administration reviews test results, that teachers are able to make classroom instructional changes.  By this time, 40 percent of the school year has passed.  With the new Iowa Form E assessment, a quick turnaround is now a possibility with the use of DataManager. This program is a robust online reporting system that provides administrators and teachers with almost immediate online reports.  While learning the system and how to request the reports might be a little time-consuming, anyone who has been granted access can generate a student report.  The Iowa Form E has also been aligned to the Common Core with a report option to print out a typical or traditional report, instead of the CCSS report.  This is beneficial for schools that may be in transition to new standards or that are waiting until the “dust has settled” before deciding to implement the CCSS.   Students can test in the traditional pencil and paper format, or the school can use an online computer testing option.  The per-pupil cost ranges from $7.43 to $10.08 for full DataManager reporting services, with an additional $3.00 for the Cognitive Abilities Test (Michele Baker, personal communication, September 17, 2013).  An additional benefit of using the Iowa tests is the use of standard scores students receive on Iowa tests, which have been validated and found to have a strong relationship with ACT college benchmark scores for college readiness (University of Iowa, n.d).

Private schools can also continue using the reasonably priced Stanford 10 for annual assessments.  These assessments were developed from a variety of professional organizations (International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and were normed in 2007, prior to CCSS.  The Stanford 10, Form A has been aligned to the CCSS.  The cost is between $7.78 and $9.28 per student test with answer sheets costing $2.00 each.

It seems that for parochial, private, and public schools that are committed to any of the testing consortia, little can be done to escape the costs and time necessary for technology upgrades and teacher and student training.  For schools that are considering the CCSS assessment options and are in states governed by one of the consortia, considerations including computer upgrades, additional per-pupil testing costs, and possible additional testing time need to be budgeted and allotted.  Additional time is also required to train the students and teachers on the test-taking.  Until the impact of the CCSS initiative along with the newly designed testing instruments is realized, and in consideration of the research reported on this topic, schools can find a safe haven, at least for the time being, in the Iowa Forms E & F and Stanford 10 traditional assessments.


Carr, S. & Dreilinger, D. (September 29, 2013). “A Core dilemma: Will the littlest learners be able to type?”, The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from core-dilemma-will-the-littlest-learners-be-able-to-type_13198.

Chieppo, C. & Gass, J. (August 15, 2013). “Why states are backing out on common core standards and tests,” The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from why-states-are-backing-out-on-common-standards-and-tests_12895.

Davis, M. (2012). “Are You Tech-Ready for the Common Core?”, Education Week. Retrieved from

Kantrowitz, B. (October 15, 2013). “Testing the Common Core in Tennessee,”The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from nessee_13468.

Norris, C., & Soloway, E. (2013). “Common Core Technological Standards: They Are the Tail, Not the Dog,” The Journal. Retrieved from Common-Core-Technological-Standards.aspx?p=1.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (2013). PARCC Test Administration Policies. Retrieved from

Shearer, L. (July 22, 2013). “Georgia will drop out of Common Core-aligned testing consor- tium.” Retrieved from out-common-core-aligned-testing-consortium.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (February, 2013a). “Hardware and Software Requirements Overview.” Retrieved from

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (2013b). “Frequently Asked Questions.” Retrieved from

Stacey, E. (February 13, 2013). “Alabama Exits National Common Core Tests.” Retrieved from

University of Iowa (n.d.). “Tracking Growth towards Readiness with the Iowa Tests.” Retrieved from Final.pdf.

Catholic Identity Should Be at Heart of Common Core Decisions

This is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initative and its potential impact on Catholic education.

As a former Catholic school administrator, of interest to me are the countless articles detailing the controversy surrounding the Common Core which are dominating educational news stories throughout the United States.  While passionate authors express their concerns regarding everything from the federalization of education to compromised standards, of most concern to those who share a passion for the mission of Catholic education are suggestions that adoption of the Common Core could compromise the mission of the Catholic education and ultimately secularize its schools.

Detailed throughout the magisterial teachings of the Church, the mission of Catholic education is described in the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education’s document, Lay Catholics, Witnesses to Faith (1982):

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, becoming aware of the transcendental, and religious education.  Every school, and every educator in the school, ought to be striving “to form strong and responsible individuals, who are capable of making free and correct choices,” thus preparing young people “to open themselves more and more to reality, and to form in themselves a clear idea of the meaning of life” (#17).

How the Catholic Church fulfills its role in Catholic education is outlined in the Code of Canon Law.   The Church has a duty and right in education in fulfilling its mission (Canon 794) and considers schools to be of great importance in assisting parents to fulfill the responsibility associated with the education of their children (Canon 796). Acknowledging parents have freedom in their choice of schools (Canon 797), the Church has the right to direct schools (Canon 800), “secure that in civil society the laws which regulate the formation of the young,” (Canon 799), and strive to keep alive the mission of Catholic education (Canon 801).

In regard to the Common Core, how do these standards impact the mission and Catholic identity of schools?  As a former accreditation chair for the Southern Association of Independent Schools (offering a dual accreditation from AdvancEd & SAIS), I found that those not entrenched in educationaleze often used terms such as standards and curriculum synonymously. The Foundation for Educational Excellence defines standards as expectations as to what is to be learned at each grade level and discipline.  A curriculum is the actual program, textbooks, materials, assessments and resources selected by the school to teach and ensure standards are achieved or “a means to the end”. Standards do not dictate how or by what means a concept is taught but present, at a minimum, concepts to be mastered.

Historically, schools have been evaluated for quality since 1895 (AdvancEd website).  More than one-hundred years later, regardless of the accreditation agency (secular, independent, Catholic), guidelines for accreditation include purpose or mission, leadership, teaching and learning, resources, and opportunities available for continuous improvement.  Under teaching and learning, schools must adopt academic standards that set expectations for learning, provide for continuity of instruction across subject areas and grade levels, benchmark progress, and create a foundation for standardized testing.  In our data-driven world, standards actually provide the measurable outcomes many parents equate with academic excellence. Standards do not provide a ceiling on what a student can learn; they provide a framework for the minimum of what must be achieved during a given year. It is important to note, accreditation guidelines do not dictate curriculum or pedagogy but look to see if the curriculum guides chosen (along with materials and resources) support the purpose or mission of the school.

What is clear about non-public schools, is the flexibility to choose a curriculum with goals in line with the mission of the school and that of Catholic education. How a curriculum is chosen in a Catholic school is primarily determined by how it is governed (archdiocesan, independent, regional, parochial, etc…). Most importantly, Catholic schools are under the authority of an ecclesiastical authority (Canon 803) with instruction and education required to be grounded in Catholic doctrine (Canon 803 § 2).  Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Principal/ Head of School to closely oversee and monitor the implementation of the academic program to ensure that the mission of the school is supported and Catholic identity is not compromised.

From a Catholic identity perspective, a debate could be suggested as to whether the mission of Catholic education is truly at the center of the controversy surrounding the Common Core. If we take to heart the integral formation of each child and consider the goals set forth by the USCCB in Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium (2005), efforts surrounding the nuances of the Common Core need to be directed to ensuring that Catholic school leadership understands and supports the mission of Catholic education, that parents are considered partners in the education of their children, and ecclesiastical authorities (or their delegates) ensure that the standards and curriculum used in ev- ery school support and strengthen Catholic identity.  A discussion as to how Catholic school leaders assess excellence in education should be at the forefront of conversations surrounding Catholic education.  Are academic outcomes (SAT, PSAT, ACT, college acceptance) how we measure the success of Catholic education?  How do Catholic school leaders gauge whether the integral formation of each child has been achieved?

The Common Core has brought to the attention of countless individuals, many the product of a Catholic education, the need to refocus efforts to ensure that Catholic identity is at the fore- front of discussions related to adoption of the curriculum in Catholic schools.  Ecclesiastical leaders must give consideration to educational mandates not created by the Catholic Church. Governing boards, clergy, and superintendents need to carefully weigh who is placed in the position of Principal/Head  of School and entrusted with the academic, managerial, and spiri- tual leadership of the school.  Catholic parents have both the obligation and the right to edu- cate their children in the Catholic faith (Canon 793) and must act as an advocate for their child by working in partnership with the school.  It is the obligation of all constituencies to protect and defend Catholic education, as it is one of the primary evangelization arms of the Church with a legacy that spans over a century.

Catholic Education in America: Accountable to the Church or the Feds?

This is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initative and its potential impact on Catholic education.

Catholic schools in America have flourished in large part because of their relative independence from outside influences. But the recent adoption by many Catholic schools of the Common Core standards and tests threatens their ability to fulfill their mission and be faithful to a Catholic vision of education.

The Common Core is a bureaucratic effort to further centralize control over education in America.  Seduced by federal incentives, 45 states agreed to adopt the Common Core in 2009. As schools implement the standards one thing grows clear: the Common Core weakens their ability to direct what they teach the children in their care.  This is particularly problematic for Catholic education.

Heather Crossin’s third-grade daughter goes to a Catholic school in Indiana.  Heather says that when her daughter came home from school with a text book aligned with Common Core, she realized control over what her child was taught had not only left the school building—it had left the state.

In the 45 states that have signed on to the Common Core, parents who send their children to public schools will soon see this scenario play out.  But it is increasingly a reality in private and Catholic education too.

Many dioceses and archdioceses have decided to implement or “adopt” the Common Core national standards.  Last May, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) issued a statement offering its full support of the standards, arguing that implementation would not hinder the teaching of the Catholic Church.

However, Common Core standards are problematic for all of America’s schools—private and public.  Since the majority of Catholic children are educated in our nation’s public schools, Catholic parents should be concerned about whether their local school district, their local principal and their children’s primary teachers have ceded authority to bureaucratic “experts” in Washington, D.C.

A true “common core” teaching of Catholic social thought is the principle of subsidiarity, which counsels that decisions be made at the most effective local level.  The principle of subsidiarity empowers parents, in consultation with local teachers, schools and churches, to decide which sort of education is best for their children.  The Common Core national standards say the opposite: that educational decision-making is best made at the national level.

Common Core aims to impose one set of standards defining what every public school student in America will learn.  As a result of textbook spillover, state regulations and concerns about college-test preparations, many private and parochial schools will be subject to Common Core as well.

They shouldn’t.

The mission of Catholic education is to cultivate the moral and intellectual development of all students, forming their hearts and minds by orienting them to their identity in Christ and His Church while providing an excellent academic education.  Catholic education, by its very nature, requires that local parishes and parents be in charge of the educational decision- making that prepares students for this life, and the life after.

But Common Core is oriented toward different ends.

Since Washington got involved in education with the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government has spent over $2 trillion on K-12 education, tying the hands of local school leaders with red tape and further burdening education with the bureaucracy of an ever-growing administrative state.

Educational achievement has flat-lined despite a near tripling of inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending by the federal government.  High school seniors are no better off today than the seniors of the 1970s.  Graduation rates for disadvantaged students have remained stagnant. The United States continues to fall behind international competitors.

The federal government’s solution?  Spend more money and usurp more authority from states and parents over what children are being taught.  The Common Core is an extension of this misguided logic—and it is covered with federal fingerprints.

Developed in 2009 by private interest groups in Washington, Common Core was immediately incentivized by the federal government.  The Obama administration offered $4.35 billion through Race to the Top, a competitive grant program.  Perhaps even more enticing, the administration circumvented Congress by offering waivers to states—and now local school districts—from the No Child Left Behind law if they adopted Common Core.

Nearly every state that received a waiver used Common Core to meet the federal requirement to adopt “college and career-ready” standards.  The government also directly financed the two national testing consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment—tasked with designing Common Core-aligned assessments.  Finally, the U.S. Department of Education created a bureaucratically titled “Technical Review Panel” to oversee assessment items.

Not only is Common Core costly in terms of educational liberty, it will also financially strap states and schools.

A study released by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy estimates that the cost to states of implementing Common Core will reach $16 billion over the next seven years.  Nearly half of the states that have agreed to adopt Common Core already are seeing their testing costs double under the Washington-approved standards.

Despite evident threats imposed by Common Core, states, schools, and districts press on with implementation.  But concerns are growing louder and harder to ignore.

In October, 132 Catholic professors signed a letter sent to each Catholic bishop in the United States, outlining the threat Common Core poses to Catholic education.

The professors’ plea:

We write to you because of what the particular deficiencies of Common Core reveal about the philosophy and the basic aims of the reform. We write to you because we think that this philosophy and these aims will undermine Catholic education and dramatically diminish our children’s horizons. Promoters of the Common Core say that it is designed to make America’s children ‘college and career ready.’ We instead judge Common Core to be a recipe for standardized workforce preparation. Common Core shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible democratic self-government. Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education.

The deficiencies in Common Core noted by the professors stem from analyses by James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford, and Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform emerita at University of Arkansas, both of whom sat on Common Core’s review committee.  They dismissed themselves before the release of the standards because of their concerns with the content.

Dr. Milgram says the mathematics standards will put American students two grades behind international peers by the time they reach seventh grade.  Common Core’s sequencing pushes Algebra I off until ninth grade, when most states had been moving toward Algebra I in eighth grade.  The delay makes students less ready for most four-year universities.

Dr. Stotsky has similar concerns with the content of the English standards.  The diminished emphasis on literature, she says, “makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation.” She also argues that emphasizing informational text over literature “may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.”

Catholic schools should not turn over control of curriculum to anonymous boards of experts. Catholic education should recognize the potential in all students and the value of liberal learning regardless of career choices.

Some may argue that because the SAT and ACT college entrance exams have been aligned to the national standards, Catholic schools must adopt them so that their students do well on those exams.  This is unlikely to be so.

By and large, Catholic school students outperform public school students by a significant margin.  According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 49 percent of Catholic school eighth-graders are proficient in reading compared to 31 percent of public school students.  Also, 33 percent of Catholic school eighth-graders are proficient in mathematics compared to 26 percent of their peers in public school.

If Common Core pushes back Algebra I by two grade levels for most public schools, what effect will it have on math achievement in Catholic schools?

If Catholic school students significantly outperform public-school counterparts in English because Catholic curricula emphasize literature, what will happen when Catholic schools implement Common Core with its emphasis on informational text such as EPA manuals and executive orders?

The letter from Catholic professors expands on this point:

The history of Catholic education is rich in tradition and excellence.  It embraces the academic inheritance of St. Anselm, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Blessed John Henry Newman.  In contrast to such academic rigor, the Common Core standards lack an empirical evidentiary basis and have not been field-tested anywhere.

What great works will Catholic school teachers have to give up to make room for the mandated dose of bureaucratically sanctioned informational texts?

It’s not too late for Catholic schools to reject Common Core, this latest federal overreach. It’s not too late to reclaim all that makes Catholic education unique and reflects the values of Catholic families.  It’s not too late to ensure that local parishes and schools are in the driver’s seat when it comes to defining curricula for our children.

The Common Core vs. the Classical Roots of Catholic Education

In 1977, National Review reprinted a 30-year-old speech given by English mystery author, Dorothy Sayers, on the topic of education. In it, she pointed out evident deficiencies in public discourse that revealed fundamental flaws in British education at the time.  She whimsically proposed as a remedy a return to the Trivium-based education that formed some of the greatest minds in history, little dreaming that her proposals would be taken seriously.  Forty years later, American parents frustrated with an even worse educational situation took her proposal as the basis for a grassroots renewal of a classical approach to education.  Beginning with Douglas Wilson’s Logos school in Idaho and the homeschooling efforts of people like Laura Berquist (Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum) and Susan Wise Bauer (The Well- Trained Mind), classical education has become the way for hundreds of schools and tens of thousands of homeschooling families.

At the heart of Sayers’ proposal was the idea that primary and secondary education should be less focused on passing on the information needed to master prescribed subjects and more focused on making students capable and desirous of life-long learning. The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) for English Language Arts and Literacy, at first glance, might appear to share her goal.  The standards seem less concerned with passing on particular in- formation than with forming a certain kind of person, the “critical thinker.” Looking to make students ready for “college and career,” the CCSSI begins with the view that success in our information age demands the ability to sort through, make sense of, and judge the “staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally.” This raises the question for classical educators and any Catholic schools that value their naturally classical roots: Should they embrace the Common Core?  Is the secular world finally waking up to the needs that motivated parents have been trying to address for the last 35 years?

Catholic schools’ success historically has been based in a classical approach to education, even where substantially compromised by state standards and new theories of education.  Today’s best schools retain at least some key elements of classical education, especially with regard to the study of religion, history, and literature.  A closer look at the goals and methods of the Common Core reveals that they are fundamentally at odds with the discovery of Truth at the heart of an authentically Catholic education.

Ironically, it seems that the developers of the CCSSI would be sympathetic to Sayers’ criticism of the failures of modern education:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass pro- paganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined?

Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?

The Common Core aims to address these issues by habituating students to “reflexively dem- onstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic.”  The CCSSI states that “(s)tudents are engaged and open-minded—but discerning—readers and listeners. They work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but they also question an author ’s or speaker ’s assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning.”

So far, so good. But a deeper look shows that Sayers was not on the minds of the authors (nor were Adler, Hirsch, Bauer, etc., who are conspicuously missing from the extensive bibliographies cited in the Appendices).   The thousands of contemporary classical educators inspired by Sayers should take a hard look at the approaches proposed to achieve these goals.  Some of these will be found in the standards themselves, even more in the assessment-driven, industrial way the CCSSI has begun to be implemented.  One important difference they will notice is that Sayers emphasized that a renewed Trivium-based education would approach language development in a way natural to the young. In the grammar stage younger children (up to around age 11) naturally learn by absorbing language and facts.  They are not ready for critical thinking; they are ready to trustingly accept whatever is presented to them in an orderly, engaging manner.  Learning by heart and careful observation are key powers to be developed, not just with facts and vocabulary, but with the beautiful rhythms and rich images of the best poetry and prose. By contrast, though the CCSSI proposes some excellent works be introduced to the young, learning by heart seems to play no role.  The Common Core intends to make critical thinking, embodied in literary analysis, the focus of every grade level. Sayers strongly warns against this approach:

The modern tendency is to try and force rational explanations on a child’s mind at too early an age. Intelligent questions, spontaneously asked, should, of course, receive an immediate and rational answer; but it is a great mistake to suppose that a child cannot readily enjoy and remember things that are beyond his power to analyze—particularly if those things have a strong imaginative appeal (as, for example, “Kubla Khan”), an attractive jingle (like some of the memory-rhymes for Latin genders), or an abundance of rich, resounding polysyllables (like the Quicunque vult).

In the CCSSI, every grade level is dominated by dialectical/logical/critical activities that are most appropriate for what Sayers described as the “Pert” age, those pre-adolescent and early adolescent years of questioning and challenging.  Common Core methods thus push young children into finding their own truths, and also neglect what is natural to older adolescents at the Rhetorical stage. The desire to investigate and formulate ideas about what matters to the student. The dialectical stage begins to close as students desire to really know what they have begun to care about.  “Towards the close of this stage, the pupils will probably be beginning to discover for themselves that their knowledge and experience are insufficient, and that their trained intelligences need a great deal more material to chew upon. The imagination—usually dormant during the Pert age—will reawaken, and prompt them to suspect the limitations of logic and reason.”  Sayers emphasizes that “the attitude of the teachers” will be crucial; they must see the goal of the education and be aware of how each student is progressing towards that goal.  This means that teachers must have much more freedom from bureaucratic assessment if they are going to succeed.  Implementation of the CCSSI in our assessment-obsessed educational culture is sure to mean much more harassment for teachers and much less time for them to actually work with students.

Sayers insists that the Rhetorical stage of development demands greater freedom on the part of the student to pursue subjects whose truth really matters to them.  This is because Sayers’ ultimate goal, (one which classical schools have embraced) is to provide for each human being to flourish as individuals who can contribute to the common life but who are not in service to it. This puts her, and all classical educators, fundamentally at odds with the CCSSI. Although the Common Core Standards seem to have similar aims for student formation, the overall goal limits and colors everything in them.  “The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”  The overriding economic concerns permeate the standards. The critical thinking skills are finally about economic success, not just for the individual, but for the sake of national economic growth.

This latter consideration has raised a great wave of outcry and concern from the classical community, and with good reason.  In the 1950s, Bell Telephone instituted a 10-month intensive introduction to liberal arts education to its most promising, technically-trained employees. The program was judged a great success by participants and the professors who organized it. Bell, however, was not pleased with the outcome:

But Bell gradually withdrew its support after yet another positive assessment found that while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities. By 1960, the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives was finished.

“The end is the cause of causes,” and the temporal, economic goal of the Common Core will drive it to neglect—if not positively avoid—the means that would truly open minds and hearts to what is most humanly fulfilling.  St. Jerome Academy in the Archdiocese of Washington has gained national attention for its success after choosing a decidedly different path from the assessment-driven, fragmented education of government schools.  Faced with declining enrollment and on the verge of shutting its doors, St. Jerome converted from a traditional parochial school to a Catholic classical school.  Blessed with a number of CUA professors as parishioners, the school benefitted from a dedicated team of educators, theologians, and philosophers who developed a comprehensive new educational plan in less than one year.  St. Jerome’s curriculum goes beyond Sayers’ essay, incorporating her insights but setting them in a broader vision of the goals of a Catholic classical education:

St. Jerome School educates children in the truest and fullest sense by giving them the necessary tools of learning and by fostering wonder and love for all that is genuinely true, good, and beautiful.  …We seek to incorporate our students into the wisdom of two thousand years of Catholic thought, history, culture, and arts so that they might understand themselves and their world in the light of the truth and acquire the character to live happy and integrated lives in the service of God and others.

The Common Core also wants to educate for life, but it articulates life’s highest goals as career success and productive contribution to the global economy. Cultural tolerance is another crucial outcome of the Common Core. Content must be drawn from a wide-range of cultures, leading students to be able to work well with the variety of cultural and personal viewpoints of their future corporate fellow laborers.

Students appreciate that the twenty-first-century classroom and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together.  Students actively seek to understand other perspectives and cultures through reading and listening, and they are able to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds.  They evaluate other points of view critically and constructively. Through reading great classic and contemporary works of literature representative of a variety of periods, cultures, and worldviews, students can vicariously inhabit worlds and have experiences much different than their own.

Of course, as in many areas, the CCSSI is here proposing some things that any teacher would want for her students. However, under the guise of mutual understanding, curricular materials are likely to usher in an aggressively secular orthodoxy.  Without a strong commitment to the existence of objective truth and an awareness of the contributions of Catholic civilization, CCSSI will lead us to the sort of openness that is the virtue of the “dictatorship of relativism,” as Alan Bloom warned us in The Closing of the American Mind:

Openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings— is the great insight of our times.  The true believer is the real danger.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative intends to form literate, thoughtful, critical readers capable of understanding and judging the best literature and the richest informational literature.  But not only are its goals limited—even subversive with respect to a Catholic education—it represents a massive educational project that has not been tried.  Catholic classical educators have now more than three decades of experience and over two thousand years of expertise to draw on.  Now is not the time to submit children enrolled in any Catholic school to untested, yet no doubt very constraining, shackles.

To the extent that any Catholic school teaches the fullness of Truth in the faith, it offers a piece of the classical vision in its search for wisdom and virtue.  Over recent decades, however, many Catholic schools have adopted secular curricula as well as secular instruction and assessment techniques that undermine the unity of faith and reason.  In this trend they have followed the pattern about which Sayers warned, with the focus on conveying information needed to master prescribed subjects.  By contrast, the time-tested classical approach engages children to discover the truth of reality, both visible and invisible.  This is active learning, not passive learning.  It cultivates habits of mind that allow the human person to discern what is true, good and beautiful, to glimpse the transcendent.  It awakens the soul.

Ironically, it may be the Common Core State Standards Initiative that will awaken all Catholic educators to reject encroaching secular content and methods, and to rediscover the riches of their own tradition.  Given the unique, supernatural beauty of the Catholic faith, they should be decidedly skeptical of anything that bills itself as “common.”

The Common Core and the Private School: The Overreaching Effects of a National Standard

This is part of a series of research reports on the Common Core.

As parents, educators, and legislators learn more about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and doubts continue to rise, the fact that the CCSS have become a national standard presents real challenges to a group that is already providing excellent education—private, faith-based schools.

These schools are successful because of their ability to maintain autonomy, and, in the case of religious schools, their faith-based mission. They enjoy the freedom to make decisions regarding curriculum and teaching methods that best follow their mission. This kind of “local control” allows them to best meet the individual educational needs of their students, and, in the case of faith-based schools, provide an excellent education from a religious worldview. They are not funded by tax dollars, and their accountability is to the parents— the strongest accountability a school can have.  Although these schools are not required to follow government direction regarding standards and curriculum, the CCSS as a national standard will negatively affect the autonomy of these schools, chipping away at the religious freedom enjoyed by faith-based schools.

The CCSS began as a joint effort between the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSSO) to design a set of curriculum standards that could help all students reach the same base-line goals. This collaboration was initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and resulted in the publication of the Common Core Standards, issued in April 2010.  The first two sets of standards published were in Mathematics and English Language Arts. Remaining to be published are standards in Science and Social Studies, both of which arguably could be the more controversial of the four standards, especially for faith-based or classical curriculum-based schools.

Since the release of the CCSS in 2010, there has been a growing controversy surrounding the standards. Supporters claim the CCSS will allegedly raise the standard of education in America, increase literacy, and prepare students for college and global competitiveness, while the opposition argues that the standards are nothing more than a national standard that impedes educational progress by imposing a “one size fits all approach” from the federal government.  Educational experts have pointed out that the goal of a national standard inevitably will be to close the achievement gap, which will result in mediocre academics and a “race to the middle.”

More specifically, the English Language Arts standards have been criticized for being heavy on the technical and informative writing, and lacking in the classics. The Mathematics standards received criticism for only taking students to math skills of Algebra 2, rather than reaching for skills developed through trigonometry and calculus. Additionally, there has been a flurry of state legislative pushback as states realize the high cost of implementation and assessments for the CCSS. The American Federation of Teachers called for a moratorium on the CCSS due to a lack of professional development to prepare teachers for implementing the CCSS.1 Even several U.S. Senators have written a joint letter opposing the standards based on the fact that the standards are tied to federal dollars which means they are not simply a “state-led” effort.

This may be the most troublesome problem with the CCSS – the strong ties to billions of federal dollars. While the CCSS may have started out as an effort between the NGA and the CCSSSO, the federal Race to the Top funds – for which states competed in 2010 through 2012 – were contingent on states’ adoption of the CCSS. Adoption of “college and career ready standards” constituted 40 of the possible 500 points in the Race to the Top application, and the CCSS were the only standards that met the criteria for that definition. Indeed, this “dangling carrot” in the form of billions of dollars caused 45 states and the District of Columbia to adopt the CCSS before they were even released (and, as noted earlier, are still not finalized as in the case of the social studies and science standards).  An additional $350 million was awarded to two consortia of states through the Race to the Top Assessment competition to develop an assessment that was aligned with the CCSS.

Then, in the spring of 2013 the U.S. Department of Education established a federal review board whose sole purpose is to assess the assessment for the CCSS. With the amount of federal funds being poured into the CCSS adoption, the assessments, and the review of the assessments, the CCSS really cannot be called a “voluntary, state-led” effort.  Rather, it has become a standard with the financial backing and support of the federal government.  One could arguably call this a federal standard.

This is not the first time a national standard has been considered by the federal government. In 1995, a national standard for social studies was voted down 99-1 by the U.S. Senate because the standards had become too politicized. This is one of the problems of a national standard:  It easily becomes politicized and influenced by controversial societal norms.  Such politicization will undoubtedly conflict with traditional values and beliefs undergirding the teaching-learning process.  In 1995, political correctness rose up against historical fact, weakening the educational value and demonstrating the danger of politicization when government decides standards.

Another major problem with the CCSS lies in the fact that a national standard by default will bring a national curriculum and a national test.  (What good is the standard without a curriculum to meet the standard and a test to ensure the standard has been met?) As previously mentioned, the U.S. Department of Education has not only incentivized the creation of a national test for the CCSS, it also established a review board to assess the assessment!  With an endorsement like this from the federal government, the standards and the tests will clearly be controlled from the federal level, rather than the local level where the best educational decisions can be made.2 3

So what does the CCSS mean for private, faith-based schools if they are not required by the government to follow the standards? Consider a few important facts: Recent announcements reveal that the ACT, SAT, and GED tests will be aligned to the CCSS. Students in private, faith-based schools take these tests.  As teachers in these schools prepare their students for these tests, they will need to include the information which is necessary to succeed on these tests and this could potentially conflict with their freedom to teach from a religious worldview or in a way that best reflects their core educational beliefs.  When students apply to colleges and universities, their transcripts are considered for acceptance. Students could face discrimination by a higher education entity if they graduated from a school that did not adhere to the CCSS. Scholarship money for students desiring to be teachers could be tied to whether or not the college to which the student is applying is teaching the CCSS and the methodologies necessary to work in that environment.

The University of California already refuses to accept some high school credits that follow certain Christian-based textbooks, so it is not a far-fetched idea that colleges will accept only those course credits that follow texts and content aligned with the CCSS. This is all ironic of course, considering that it is a well-known fact that students from private, faith-based schools generally do much better on college entrance tests and are much better prepared for college.4  This all places a burden on the private, faith-based school to prove its academics are of a higher quality, exceeding the standards.

Education in America has always thrived because of its diversity and freedom.  Improved educational quality will not result from federally-coerced uniformity.  Rather, a better path to raising standards would be to establish educational options that would not only improve education in all schools but would also protect the autonomy and religious liberty that allow private, faith-based schools great success.


Do Catholic Schools Need the Common Core?

The following considerations related to the Common Core were provided to Catholic bishops on November 13, 2013, in Baltimore, Maryland. The Cardinal Newman Society partnered with the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools and the Catholic Education Foundation to present a seminar on the Common Core during the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This publication is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and how those standards potentially impact Catholic education.

Our core is the Catholic Faith.

  • The core purpose of Catholic education is student formation and nurturing souls.1 These must be the primary standards from which curriculum and teaching methods are developed and schools are assessed.
  • Catholic identity is not an add-on; it cannot be reduced to values and traditions to be “infused”2 into secular standards. The standards will determine how and what to teach and how schools are evaluated.
  • Catholic schools are successful because of their mission… period. Their emphasis on faith and formation points to classical curricula, good literature, reason and ethics, and individualized attention.
  • Mission drives standards; standards drive curriculum and teaching. Our mission and that of government schools are profoundly different, and different missions demand different standards.
  • Common  Core  is  explicitly  and  only  “college  and  career”  focused.    Our  schools  are focused on assisting our students to encounter Christ and to pursue truth, beauty and goodness.  In the process, they are also well-prepared for college and life beyond.
  • Education should prepare students for life, but college and career cannot be the sole or primary objectives for Catholic school standards.3 Educating for secular ends leads to either pride or despair.
  • Our standards must inspire, not content with the minimum but pressing forward to- ward the maximum.

Catholic schools are already among the best in the nation.

  • On the federal NAEP tests, Catholic schools have significantly outperformed public schools for 20 years. Grade 8 scores in 2013: Reading 286 (public schools 226), Math 295 (public schools 284).4
  • In 2011, religious schools far outperformed public schools on the SAT: Reading 531 (public schools 449), Math 533 (public schools 506), Writing 528 (public schools 483).5
  • Parents care about Catholic identity, school environment and learning outcomes—in- cluding test scores and high school/college  success. But they don’t seek conformity to public school standards.
  • Standards influence how and what students learn, but there is no certain correlation between standards and test scores. States with standards rated both “A” and “F” by the Fordham Institute report similar test scores.6
  • Catholic schools can excel on nationally normed, non-Common Core tests available for the next several years.7 Afterward, testing companies will be eager to serve our schools’ 2 million students.8
  • Avoiding Common Core will highlight Catholic school competitive advantages: choice, freedom, authentic difference, human excellence, Christian faith, proven, successful, safe, outstanding education.

Catholic schools already prepare for college and careers.

  • Catholic high schools have a 99% graduation rate (73% public schools), and 85% of Catholic high school graduates attend four-year colleges (44% public schools).9
  • Good teaching can ensure success on college entrance exams, even when Common Core-compliant, perhaps with some test preparation. The ACT is not changing signifi- cantly, so scores should be stable.10

Common Core is not required for Catholic schools.

  • No government or accreditor requires Catholic schools to adopt Common Core.
  • Some  states  may  tie  Common  Core  to  funding.  The  Church  should  defend  religious liberty and school choice without compromising Catholic schools’ autonomy.
  • We must lead with confidence; we do not follow in fear or from intimidation. We do not simply “get on board” because others are doing it.  Common Core is becoming toxic, and every failure will be laid at our doorstep if we rush into this.

Common Core seeks radical change in education.

  • “The  Common  Core  represents  a  fundamental  shift  in  the  teaching  and  learning process.”11 It proposes to fix broken public schools, but Catholic schools are not broken.
  • Common Core embraces theories of exploration learning and constructivism, conflict- ing with the proven method of direct instruction in younger grades.12
  • Common Core is largely a privately funded initiative of the morally reprehensible Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,13 which pays the NCEA to promote Common Core.14
  • Common Core advocates reassure parents that the standards “are not a curriculum.”15 That’s a red herring. The standards are intended to drive changes in curriculum, teach- ing and assessment.16

Common Core is untested and experimental.

  • Before any intervention, there should be 1) a need and 2) empirical evidence that the need will be satisfied. Common Core offers neither; its standards have never been test- ed.17 They were developed by little-known “experts” with no solid research basis, de- spite misleading claims.18
  • Common Core’s proponents—the Gates Foundation, several state governors and school leaders, the Obama administration, and “big business”—have quietly avoided public scrutiny and accountability by working around Congress, state legislatures, and now Catholic school educators and parents.
  • Common  Core’s  emphasis  on  informational  texts  depends  upon  distortions  of  NAEP data and lacks solid evidence. The 2006 federal Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that higher literacy scores correlate to more reading of novels and less frequent reading of information.19

The Common Core standards are flawed.

  • Common Core demands greater emphasis on reading informational texts, with a cor- responding decrease in great literature.20 Some recommended (not required) texts are morally problematic.
  • Common Core imposes “reform math,” not our traditional and successful math pro- grams. It lowers standards: pre-algebra or algebra is no longer the eighth-grade norm, nor pre-calculus or calculus for 12th grade.21 22
  • There  is  a  misalignment  with  early  grade  expectations  and  lack  of  detail  in  upper grades.23
  • There is a lack of specific content knowledge; too much is simply skills-based.24

Common Core aims for nationalization, not pluralism.

  • The Church favors “a plurality of school systems” to “safeguard her objectives in the face of cultural pluralism” and increasing state control of education.25 Common Core seeks national uniformity.
  • Catholic schools risk losing autonomy by accepting national standards. The Church’s relationship to the state should focus on protecting autonomy and school choice, not embracing national uniformity.26
  • Common Core is quickly moving toward a state and federal government program. It is becoming a political issue in the states, and the Obama administration has tied it to federal funds.
  • It is not valid to argue that we must follow Common Core because we always follow state standards. This is something much more, aiming for nationalization and substan- tial change. Common Core is under intense scrutiny, in ways that state standards never were.

Common Core poses a creeping threat to schools’ Catholic identity.

  • Common  Core  reduces  Catholic  school  autonomy  and  focuses  assessment  on  secular objectives, thereby distracting educators from their core mission. Catholic schools have always  been  independent,  but  beware  the  secularizing  path  of  Catholic  universities, hospitals and charities.
  • Common Core’s priorities “crowd out” the elements of a rigorous, classical Catholic education, emphasizing skills and practicality over vocation and reasoning from a foundation of truth.
  • State and federal involvement in Common Core could lead to religious liberty viola- tions. Catholic schools’ protection depends on consistent Catholic identity27 — which Common Core diminishes.

Bishops, parents and educators are being ignored.

  • We can see no evidence that the NCEA and many diocesan educational leaders have listened to the bishops on Common Core, recognizing their canonical authority and responsibility for the Catholic identity of our schools.
  • Parents have been poorly informed and not consulted about Common Core changes in Catholic schools, despite their primary authority and responsibility for the education of their children.
  • Catholic school teachers and principals also have been poorly informed and not prop- erly consulted about Common Core. Among the nation’s best Catholic High School Honor Roll schools, 92% of principals have concerns about Common Core’s impact on Catholic identity.28
  • Should we not pause and more carefully study and evaluate the Common Core?


10 Critically Important Adaptations to the Common Core for Catholic Schools*

This publication is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and how those standards potentially impact Catholic education. 

As of yet, there has been no serious effort to analyze the impact of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)1  on Catholic education—one that engages Catholic school educators at all levels as well as parents, the primary educators of their children. In view of the current environment, it would seem reasonable for those in leadership positions in Catholic education to pause, reflect and plan prior to moving forward with either adopting or adapting the CCSS.

But in the complex environment of operating a Catholic school system, there may be instances where, for whatever reason, a Catholic School has decided to implement the Common Core State Standards.  These schools claim that they are not entirely assimilating the troubled and controversial public school standards, but rather “adapting” the standards by changing them to fit with their Catholic mission and pursuit of academic excellence.

While such an attempt (sincerely implemented) is a step above merely copying the public school system, it does not address the fundamental conflict associated with the integral formation of students.  Since standards drive curriculum, a Catholic curriculum must include standards that are integrated with the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church.

For example, consider that Catholics have much to say about literature, history, science, and, above all, about Truth, goodness, and beauty.  And, since the object of every academic disci- pline is truth, the Catholic curriculum should be based on the conviction that all truths ultimately converge in their source—God.  This standard, among others, is sorely lacking in the Common Core.

If a Catholic school or school system chooses to take the more problematic road of adapting the Common Core Standards (as opposed to creating their own standards), the Catholic school system would greatly benefit from a public discussion (or basic research) about how—if at all—Catholic schools are actually changing the Common Core. Additionally, parents should ask their Catholic school officials what elements of the Common Core (if any) they have found necessary to change/adapt.

As yet, there has not been a significant study or public discussion as to what possible changes Catholic schools might be making in voluntarily implementing the Common Core in our schools. I would like to take the initiative to begin this discussion by enumerating ten important changes to consider.

1. Renounce the English Language Arts (ELA) Percentages for Literary and Informational Texts (which are not research-based).2

  • Do not alter your literature selections based on the standards.  Stick with the best literature from recognized masters. Use great works with compelling themes that speak to the heart of the human condition across the ages. Do not remove poetry, drama or literature; conversely, do not artificially add more informational texts into your ELA program.
  • Throw out the Common Core Appendices. These claim to provide examples and recommended texts. Stick to your tried and true curriculum as much as possible if using Common Core Standards.

2. Reduce textbook use when possible.3

  • Move to actual documents and unadapted works. Middle and high school students should not use mass-produced anthologies. Give them the actual texts. This allows them to mark up the texts and keep them on their library shelves at home for future reference or re-reading. Also, a “between-the-covers book” slows down instruction and respects the dignity of the work.  It allows the students to feel that they are getting the “real deal” and not an excerpt or adapted exposure to the brightest and most creative minds. Even if they do not read the entire work, students now have access to it.
  • Set your teachers and students free with authentic, un-sanitized texts and original questions and assignments. Because the Common Core allows for generic national lessons and lesson plans on topics presented in textbooks, there is a risk of homogenization and standardization, which runs contrary to human diversity and exploration.

3. Respond to the texts, not the Standards.

  • Do not use the Common Core Standards as the primary guide for inquiry into litera- ture. The Standards attempt to dissect literature into a set of measurable skills or generic questions.4   However, literary study should not be stuffed into a pre-determined standard or examined with canned questions, which do not directly emanate from the experience of reading a particular work. Literature needs to be unleashed and encountered “as litera- ture”—the product of a creative mind in dialogue with the reader in exploring the human condition. Treating literature simply as grist for the mill of college and career readiness saps its transformative power of inquiry and translation of experience. Yes, there are some relevant skills that the discipline of literary study requires, and the Common Core identifies some of these; however, development of these skills/tools  should not become the goal of reading great works.
  • Stay away from canned materials and exemplar units. The best teaching is creative, adaptive and natural, as the teacher and students explore the wonders of reality together with joy, passion and excitement. Keep your teachers and instruction creative. Exemplar units and straight textbook “canned” instruction are fine for the teacher to consult so as to get an idea of how effective lessons and units can unfold; just make sure that they do not become the basis of your regular lessons. Some teachers may try to ensure test score suc- cess by not straying from the approved lessons, but authentic learning is often messy and organic—and risky. Beware that computer-based instruction can also be overly scripted and become a crutch and distraction.

4. Do not take the Common Core’s rightful emphasis on text-based arguments too far.

  • Do not follow the Common Core’s philosophy that the only way that a student can demonstrate knowledge gleaned from a text is using evidence from the text to support their claim. While careful textual citations of evidence is key, the Standards say that “student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support the claim about the text. Hence, evidence and knowledge link directly to the text.” However, in Catholic schools, knowledge is attained and demonstrated when the human intellect, informed by the senses, judges things rightly. Our criteria include not only the text itself but also a rich and wonderful world outside the text (which the text might brilliantly unveil—sometimes with life-changing effect). Evidence and knowledge are certainly based on the text; however, they are ultimately grounded in truth, beauty and goodness. If we miss this, we miss everything about Catholic education.
  • Allow discussion about outside texts or ideas. Do not discourage middle and high school students from also making extensive references to other works; historical, philosophical and religious trends; or their “gut responses.” Do, however, be sure to require rigorous scrutiny of their positions and gut responses and link those back to explicit under- standings and assumptions about the world as well as the topic under exploration.  Teach them to unpack their responses in clarity and truth—not to suppress them so as to simply stick to the world of the text or increase standardized test scores.
  • Conduct a little test preparation. Teach older students how to sanitize their normal “human” responses for the purposes of the standardized test evaluation.

5. Avoid premature use of technology, peer-editing, research and rhetorical pedagogy in place of good old-fashioned writing instruction.

  • Use pencil and paper when you teach writing to young children. Technology is only a teaching tool, not a magic smart pill. Using technology to write can wait. Do not panic that your elementary students will be “left behind” if you are still teaching them to handwrite. None of us over 40 had computers in school, but we have managed somehow to be smart, productive, technologically proficient 21st century learners. Technology is the easy part; thinking clearly and deeply is the hard part, and this can happen without extensive technology. We don’t know what type of technology our students will have at their disposal in 15 years, but we do know what type of brains they will have; we need to prepare those brains for maximum clarity and facility of thought.
  • Avoid the early emphasis on peer-editing (a teaching technique and not a standard) and the too early emphasis on research. The Common Core requires peer input and writing using a computer in 1st grade, and “research” with technology in 3rd grade. Younger children may not be ready to evaluate, process and synthesize another ’s work and insights and should focus on their own thinking and writing. It is easy to find out (or copy/plagiarize) what others think; it is harder to clarify your own thinking and find your own voice. Young students deserve adult guidance at this stage and not the faux guidance of their peers who cannot teach what they do not yet know.
  • Remember that the goal of writing is to communicate the truth. Writing should not be viewed simply through the Common Core lens of effective rhetoric, where students learn how to manipulate words and use standard grammar to produce a cogent, if not somewhat detached, argument.5  Writing should fundamentally be at the service of truth, beauty and goodness, and it should assist the student to articulate his or her understandings or insights based on penetration into reality.  Naturally, since it is also a social activity, writ- ing should follow conventions of grammar and reason in service of the truth and effective communication. In sum, writing is ordered toward an explanation of one’s encounter with truth, goodness and beauty, but it can still attend to some of the Common Core’s skill- based focus.

6. Create your own explicit standards for your junior high and high school literature classes.

  • List the critical texts, time periods, authors and genres that you expect your students to cover. The Common Core Standards only chunk and repeat the same empty skills year after year. While this provides some generic guidance, it does not account for adequate content coverage or skills development necessary for effective high school literature.

7. Do not alter your math progression.

  • Keep mastery of the standard algorithms using multi-digits at the levels they are currently found. Do not delay these for a year as suggested by the CCSS.  Keep addition/ subtraction in 2nd-3rd grade, multiplication in 4th, division in 5th.
  • Keep Algebra in 8th grade as the norm for your school. A non-algebra track for struggling students can also be offered for those who fall short of the norm.
  • Keep your geometry program unchanged. Do not follow the unorthodox and failed version presented in the Common Core.
  • Develop explicit standards for classes necessary for future science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) majors. There currently are no explicit standards for classes such as pre-calculus, trigonometry, statistics, number theory, calculus, etc.

8. Avoid the temptation to push “higher-ordered thinking skills” too quickly.

  • Give novices (that is, grade school students) the direct instruction that they need. Be extremely wary of Common Core “inspired” instruction that over-emphasizes or pushes higher-order thinking skills too far down into the younger grades, especially in math. This causes an unnecessary sense of confusion or failure, which can lead to frustration and dis- taste for math at an early age. Experts are the ones who benefit more from a constructivist/exploration-based environment, and properly educated high school students are typically entering this “expert” level of mathematical reasoning. Hours lost in prematurely forcing younger kids into expert/abstract  thinking not only leads to frustration and a loss of confidence, but also it comes at the cost of exposure to necessary basics that they will need to become authentic experts in the future.
  • Continue to emphasize memorization in the younger grades. This is the raw material upon which abstract reasoning will draw, as their intellects naturally and gradually mature and bloom.

9. Avoid teaching to the tests.

  • Focus on good instruction, not this or that test. This is your competitive advantage in a Common Core test crazy environment. Enjoy having more time and freedom to teach; your students will flourish more in the long run. Catholic schools know this from years of experience with not getting trapped into incessant state testing. Authentic tests will expose authentic learning: good instruction trumps unnecessary testing.
  • Do still give norm-referenced tests with post-Common Core validity such as the Iowa’s to assist with student formation.
  • Do plan for SAT/ACT testing courses to be formally placed in your high school curriculum. Teach students in a discreet course “how” to take a standardized test and respond to prompts in a Common Core expected manner.

10. Keep the greatest distance possible between your curriculum and the Common Core Standards.

  • Do not cheerlead for the Common Core. If you are using the standards, that is one thing; there are many usable parts. However, there are also many deep problems with them (perhaps as with any set of standards). When parts fail or weaknesses become evident, you do not want to be married to them.
  • Do not praise the Common Core: Let it sink or stand on its own without your prior validation. The Common Core Standards are untested. They claim to be more rigorous and focused than many state standards, but that claim is up for debate. What is not up for debate is the fact that states with “rigorous and focused” standards do not have higher test scores than states judged to have poor standards. There is no correlation between state standards and test scores, as strange as that seems.
  • If you use the Standards, set them as sub-floor but not as a foundation for your Catholic education. The Common Core Standards can possibly be a partial and lower (but not critical) part of your larger more lofty efforts at complete human formation.  Our foundation must always be Jesus Christ.
  • Interpret the Standards as loosely and broadly as possible. Do not attempt to tie daily instruction and lesson plans directly to the Common Core Standards as is required in many public schools. Nevertheless,  it is possible with creativity and a healthy skepticism of the philosophies animating the Common Core Standards to give many of them a distant nod. This means essentially saying, “Well yes, when I glance at the Common Core Standards every now and then, I can point to places somewhere not too far from our grade level curriculum where we pretty much do something like that.” In other words, this approach entails not being faithful to the intent and explicit wording of the Common Core, but just acknowledging them close enough to get by.
  • Normally such behavior is witnessed when conscientious objectors face the tyranny of an unjust law or authority, and this is better than faithfully instituting the flawed Common Core program; but again, why would Catholic schools, who are not required to teach to the Common Core, select this less than ideal approach?
  • We do after all owe it to the world to witness to the Truth about authentic education and about the human person. We also owe a duty to the majority of Catholic children who at- tended public schools to voice our opposition to the flawed program to which they are being subjected. Some public school supporters of the Common Core point to our schools and say, “See, if the Catholic schools are using it, it must be good!”

With so many concerns, one wonders why Catholic schools would base their efforts on the Common Core at all. Catholic schools have had unparalleled and enviable success for decades using their own standards.

I am concerned that many Catholic schools may have jumped on the Common Core band- wagon too early. After all, the Standards have not had adequate opportunity to be vetted; no “body” of Catholic scholars or educators—especially the parents, the primary educators—has thoroughly explored or discussed them. There is no harm in hitting the pause button and continuing the conversation, as we watch the untested Common Core Standards unfold in the public school arena.

Regardless, as some Catholic schools choose to adapt the Common Core, it would benefit us all to discuss openly what is being adapted and why. As with any initial conversation, these remarks and ideas cry out for correction and expansion. I look forward to the conversation.

* The title has changes from the original, “10 Minimal Adaptations Catholic Schools Consider Making to the Common Core State Standards”

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.




A Mandate for Fidelity: Pope Benedict Urges Compliance with Theologian’s Mandatum


On May 5, 2012, in his address to several American bishops during their required ad limina visit to Rome, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI spoke on “religious education and the faith formation of the next generation of Catholics” in the United States.  He said:

On the level of higher education, many of you have pointed to a growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel.  Yet much remains to be done, especially in such areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines.

The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church’s witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom.1

Canon 812 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law states, “Those who teach theological disciplines in any institutes of higher studies whatsoever must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.”2

The U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines for implementing Canon 812 describe the mandate, commonly identified by the Latin mandatum, as “fundamentally an acknowledgment by Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church.”  It recognizes “the professor’s commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church’s magisterium.”3  The mandatum is requested by the theologian in writing, and it is granted in writing by the local bishop who presides over the diocese where the theologian is employed.

The Holy Father’s new call for “compliance” with Canon 812 is something of a surprise for Americans.  The mandatum has not received significant attention here since the 1990s, when it was vigorously opposed by major theological associations and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, defended by the U.S. bishops and organizations including The Cardinal Newman Society and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and widely debated in both Catholic and secular news media.  One reason the topic has received little attention in the past decade is because it is very difficult for Catholics to identify which theologians have received the mandatum; many Catholic colleges and universities refuse to reveal such information, even to students and their families.

Now despite the long silence—or perhaps because of it—Pope Benedict has expressed concern about the lack of compliance with Canon 812, giving the matter renewed importance.  Moreover, the Holy Father has declared that compliance with the mandatum is “especially” lacking in the work of Catholic colleges and universities to reaffirm their Catholic identity.  This appears to assign to the colleges and universities some responsibility for compliance with Canon 812.  In the United States, it is widely understood that it is the individual theologian’s responsibility to request the mandatum, drawing from the language of Canon 812.  But many Catholic colleges and universities reject corresponding responsibilities—drawing from the nature of Canon 812 as a statute in the Code’s section on Catholic institutes of higher learning—to employ only Catholic theology professors who receive the mandatum and to disclose to students and others which theology professors have the mandatum.

In response to the Holy Father’s renewed attention to the mandatum, The Cardinal Newman Society has prepared the following report to provide Catholic families a better understanding of the mandatum, identify concerns about compliance with Canon 812, and suggest responsibilities of Catholic colleges and universities.  We have invited several Church officials, college leaders, canon law experts, and theologians to contribute their insights. Quite appropriately, none of these wished to guess the personal concerns and intentions of the Holy Father, but they did identify serious compliance issues that may, we hope, find resolution in Catholic colleges and universities’ response to Pope Benedict’s charge.

Chief among those who responded to our queries is His Eminence Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and Archbishop Emeritus of St. Louis.  He serves as the chief judge for the Vatican’s canon law courts and therefore has great influence on matters of canon law. Cardinal Burke is also a member of the Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and he is Ecclesiastical Advisor to The Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education.

“The Holy Father only has a limited number of occasions during these ad limina visits to speak with bishops,” noted Cardinal Burke in his June 20th telephone interview with The Cardinal Newman Society, “and that he would devote one of the lengthier communications with the bishops to the subject [of the mandatum and Catholic higher education] certainly indicates to me that it is a serious concern on his part.”

His Excellency Bishop Joseph Martino, retired from the Diocese of Scranton and a long-time advisor to The Cardinal Newman Society, agrees that Pope Benedict’s address to the American bishops has real significance.

“The Pope does not bring up topics casually in his ad limina talks,” Bishop Martino told The Cardinal Newman Society.  “When all of the Pope’s talks to the U.S.A. bishops during their recent ad limina visits are analyzed, you have a summary of the Pope’s pastoral ‘worries’ about the Catholic Church in the U.S.A.”

Resistance to the Mandatum

Catholic identity in Catholic higher education has been a significant concern of both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops for at least three decades.  The mandatum is a key aspect of the Vatican’s response to secularization and theological dissent, and it is celebrated at several Catholic colleges and universities where theology professors are required to have the mandatum.  Many other institutions, however, have resisted the mandatum, claiming it is an infringement on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

In 1983 His Holiness, Blessed Pope John Paul II approved the revised Code of Canon Law, which for the first time in Church history included a section governing “Catholic universities and other institutes of higher studies”—including the mandatum requirement for theologians.  But some American experts in canon law contended that the new section did not apply to most Catholic colleges and universities, because they are legally owned by trustees and not the Catholic Church.  As a result, the mandatum was largely ignored.

In 1990 Blessed John Paul II resolved the matter with the constitution for Catholic higher education, Ex corde Ecclesiae,4 which assumes canonical jurisdiction over any college or university that has an “institutional commitment” to Catholic education, regardless of legal control.  The constitution also insists on compliance with the mandatum.

Despite complaints from some theologians and academic societies, in 1999 the American bishops approved particular norms to implement Ex corde Ecclesiae in the United States,5 including the requirement that Catholic theology professors at Catholic colleges and universities obtain the mandatum.  In 2001 the bishops issued guidelines for compliance with the mandatum.6 And last year the bishops completed a nationwide review of colleges’ and universities’ progress toward complying with Ex corde Ecclesiae, including specific discussion of the mandatum.7

Nevertheless, a 2011 survey of U.S. Catholic college and university leaders revealed that serious concerns remain.  Forty-two percent of the respondents + Add New Issue said their institutions have neither a department nor a chair of Catholic theology as required by Ex corde Ecclesiae, and more than seven percent said that Catholic theology is not even taught in their institutions.  More than a third (36 percent) said they did not know whether their theology professors have received the mandatum, 10 percent said some but not all of their theologians have received it, and another 6 percent said no professors have it.8

In June and July 2012, The Cardinal Newman Society contacted the public relations offices of the ten largest Catholic universities in America, ranked by their undergraduate student enrollment.  We asked them to identify theology professors who have received the mandatum.

Only three of the ten universities replied by our deadline, and none provided the requested information.  DePaul University spokesman John Holden wrote, “I believe this question misunderstands the mandatum process developed by the bishops.  Faculty request the mandatum directly from the local ordinary.  A university would not generally have this information.”

Father James Fitz, SM, vice president for mission and rector of the University of Dayton, reported likewise that the University views the mandatum “as a personal relationship between the theologian and the archbishop. …Therefore, the University does not have a list of those who have received the mandatum, nor does the University publish such a list.”

Marquette University spokeswoman Kate Venne explained that the mandatum is an obligation of the theologian, not the university, and information about who has the mandatum “is not something that is shared with the university or a department chair.”

The remaining seven large universities did not respond at all to our request: Boston College, Fordham University, Georgetown University, Loyola University Chicago, St. John’s University in New York, Saint Louis University, and the University of Notre Dame.

By contrast, other Catholic colleges and universities—including several that are recommended in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College9—have taken a much different approach to the mandatum.  They see it as an institutional obligation to ensure that theology faculty have the mandatum, and they offer full disclosure to students and others.

In June and July 2012, The Cardinal Newman Society requested and received confirmation that all theology faculty have the mandatum at Aquinas College in Tennessee, Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, Benedictine College, the College of Saint Mary Magdalen, DeSales University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, John Paul the Great Catholic University, Mount St. Mary’s University, St. Gregory’s University, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, the University of St. Thomas in Texas, and Wyoming Catholic College.  At The Catholic University of America, where the theology and religious studies department is a pontifical faculty, all professors have the similar missio canonica from the Archbishop of Washington.

The Mandatum and Catholic Higher Education

Pope Benedict’s May 5th address to U.S. bishops considers a key question: Is the mandatum only a theologian’s private, individual commitment of fidelity to the Church, or does it also have significance for a college or university’s Catholic identity?  The Holy Father appears to confirm the latter.

Cardinal Burke reflected on Pope Benedict’s address in his interview with The Cardinal Newman Society.  In that address, says Cardinal Burke, the Holy Father “mentions that some important efforts have been made, but that much remains to be done in terms of the Catholic identity of the Catholic colleges and universities, and then he cites specifically the implementation of Canon 812—namely that those who are teaching the theological disciplines in the Catholic university should have certification that they are teaching in communion with the Magisterium, the official teaching of the Church.”

So how is the mandatum important to the Catholic university?  Cardinal Burke continues:

Well, it is the truth of the faith which is the highest goal of a Catholic education.  Everything that a Catholic student studies at a university or college is directed ultimately to a knowledge of God and His plan for our world and for us.

And so everything that is taught at a Catholic university must relate in some way to this—what we might call this wisdom, this knowledge of God and of His plan for us.  And it’s the professors of theology at the university who teach that highest form of learning, that learning towards which every other form of learning is directed at the university.  And for that reason, of course, the Church wants to be sure that those who are teaching theology are sound and clear in their teaching.

…This is even more critical in our time in which we are living with a secularized culture, where there is so much confusion and error about the truth about ourselves, about our world, and the truth about God.  So the Church is being particularly attentive that those who teach Catholic theology are indeed teaching in communion with the Magisterium.

The secularism in society, the errors which we find so commonly in many sectors of society, has its influence also on the Church.  The Church must take her own prudent and necessary measures to make sure that error doesn’t enter in to the university level of the Catholic college where young people—and older people—are coming with the idea of obtaining a solid education to equip them for a lifetime of good and upright living.  And that depends very much on the received theological education.

There are several indications that the Church regards compliance with the mandatum as integral to Catholic higher education.  Most apparently, Canon 812 is situated in the section of the Code of Canon Law for Catholic universities.  It was Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic universities and not a document focused on theologians, that forced compliance with the mandatum seven years after Canon 812 had been published.  The mandatum is a requirement of the U.S. bishops’ “Application of Ex corde Ecclesiae,” and it was a topic of the bishops’ review last year of the implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae.

Asked for some insight into why Canon 812 would be situated in the Code’s section on Catholic higher education, Cardinal Burke again reiterated the Church’s great need for education that is faithful and authentic, which the mandatum helps ensure:

The Catholic university—and this is stated in a wonderful way in Ex corde Ecclesiae—provides a distinctive service in society of preparing young people, or even older people, in the various arts and sciences with a solid, Catholic foundation to their knowledge, earlier referred to as knowledge of God as He has revealed Himself to us in the Church.

And so the Church has always viewed the Catholic universities and Catholic colleges as a most important means of carrying out the work of evangelization.  In other words, at the highest levels of the pursuit of knowledge there would be this fundamental obedience to the Word of God as spoken to us in our own hearts, in natural moral law and our consciences, and through the divine revelation, the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church.

This is the great gift of the Catholic universities.  They should be in our society leaders and powerful forces for the New Evangelization, for the teaching, celebration, and the goodness of the Catholic faith with a new enthusiasm and a new engagement.

Public Disclosure of the Mandatum

In his May 5th address, Pope Benedict describes the mandatum as “a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate.”  The Cardinal Newman Society asked Cardinal Burke to explain how the mandatum is “tangible”:

It’s tangible in the sense that it’s a public declaration, in writing, on the part of the ecclesiastical authority that a theologian is teaching in communion with the Church, and people have a right to know that so that if you, for instance, are at a Catholic university or parents are sending their children to the Catholic university, they know that the professors who are teaching theological disciplines at the university are teaching in communion with the Church. They are assured in that by the public declaration of the diocesan bishop.

The mandatum, then, is by its nature a public act.  “The fact that I teach in accord with the Magisterium is a public factor,” says Cardinal Burke.  “That’s not some private, secret thing between myself and the Lord.”

Moreover, says Cardinal Burke, it’s the right of Catholic students and their families to know who has the mandatum:

Ultimately, the mandatum gives that assurance to students that, if they enroll in a given college or university, they can count upon receiving a solid education in Catholic theology. And that’s important, especially in an age in which there is so much confusion, even within the Church, with regard to teaching and discipline.

And so that is certainly a prime purpose of the mandatum, securing and ensuring the Catholic identity of a university, but at the same time, and inseparably from that, guaranteeing to the students and to all those who may be helping them to have a Catholic education that indeed the teaching of the faith which they will receive, and in those disciplines related to the faith, that the university is truly Catholic.

While all of this may come as a surprise to Americans whose experience of the mandatum has been as an entirely private matter between a bishop and a theologian, this is not the first time the Vatican has indicated the public nature of the mandatum.  Blessed Pope John Paul II, speaking to American bishops in 2004 during their ad limina visit to Rome, said: “Catholic colleges and universities are called to offer an institutional witness of fidelity to Christ and to His word as it comes to us from the Church, a public witness expressed in the canonical requirement of the mandatum.”10

In 2007 Archbishop Michael Miller, CSB, then-secretary to the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, defended the rights of Catholic families in an address to Catholic college leaders gathered at the Franciscan University of Steubenville:

The Catholic faithful—both parents and students—have a right to the assurance, when choosing a university or a specific course, that those teaching theology are in full communion with the Church.  While no law obliges the university to make known those who have the mandatum, and many Catholic universities prefer it that way, such silence frustrates the purpose of the law and deprives the faithful of their right to assurance about the doctrinal soundness of a given professor.11

Contrary to the American approach to the mandatum, Archbishop Miller recommended that Catholic colleges and universities assess their Catholic identity with the question, “Does the university have a procedure in place which will guarantee that the mandatum fills its purpose?”

The Cardinal Newman Society asked the opinion of Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  He says that theologians ought to be proud of receiving the mandatum, which is an honor “recognizing that theologians have a true vocation in the Church.”

I wouldn’t know why you wouldn’t want it to be public.  The whole point is public recognition that somebody is truly a Catholic theologian.  I don’t know why you would want to keep that hidden when the Church is bestowing the mandatum to recognize that somebody is truly a Catholic theologian.

Canon law counselor Robert Flummerfelt suggests that theologians prominently display the mandatum in their offices “in the same way that attorneys and professors hang their academic degrees, professional licenses, bar admissions, etc., in their offices for clients and students to see.”  He adds that colleges and universities should identify professors with the mandatum “in literature and on the institution’s web site.”

Father James Conn, SJ, a canon law scholar at the Gregorian in Rome, has studied the mandatum extensively and has both written and given lectures to bishops and canonists on the subject.  Currently a visiting professor at Boston College, Father Conn tells The Cardinal Newman Society that the mandatum’s purpose “is to declare that the teacher of theology is carrying out his function in communion with the teaching authority of the Church.”  He adds:

The mandate is important because it gives assurance of doctrinal integrity in circumstances in which the faithful have a reasonable expectation of it.  It guarantees, as it were, truth in advertising, even when the advertising is only implicit.

In view of what is asserted above, it is of course to be made public.  The norm otherwise makes no sense.

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, director of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education and vice president for Catholic mission at Mount St. Mary’s University, makes an interesting comparison to other public acts that involve private commitments:

You can’t get any more private than the act of marriage in one sense, but it’s almost always a public act.  In the rarest cases of persecution or legal issues, you could have a secret marriage.  The exception proves the rule that marriage is a public act.

Monsignor Swetland describes the mandatum as “an act of being in communion with the Church, a sign a professor who teaches theology is teaching in full communion with the Church.” Therefore, he argues, “It’s a counter sign to talk of something as building up the communion of the Church and then to keep it private.  Communion is by its very nature for the community.  To privatize something that is required seems to me to run counter to its purpose.”

But as for who is responsible for publicly disclosing recipients of the mandatum, canon law provides no clear answer.  Cardinal Burke suggests:

With regard to who makes it public, I suspect that there could be a number of ways of doing that. The bishop, simply, when he gives the mandate, he could make that public in various ways, in the diocesan organs of communication and so forth because it is a public fact—that this is not some kind of secret thing where people don’t know, “Do you have the mandate or don’t you?”

So the bishop could make it known, and certainly I believe that there are Catholic universities which state publicly all of the professors in Catholic theology and the related disciplines at our university have the mandate, and a university would want to make that known for the sake of its own public integrity and also to reassure the students and parents and others who will be concerned.

And also, too, if I were teaching Catholic theology in a Catholic university or college or in a chair of Catholic theology, I would want people to know that I was doing so with a mandate from the diocesan bishop that certifies that my teaching is in communion with the Catholic faith.

Father Conn has similar thoughts:

Perhaps the theologian should make it public that a mandatum has been granted, though it is not clear what means should be used.  Since the university is asserting its Catholic character, it is perhaps its responsibility to make the information public.  Failing that, or for other reasons, the responsibility would fall upon the bishop.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss, retired from the Archdiocese of Omaha, told The Cardinal Newman Society that he believes it is “primarily” the responsibility of the bishop to release names: “The bishop should make it public because he’s saying to the people, ‘This is a reliable source of Catholic theology.’”

It was in 2001, when the U.S. bishops approved their mandatum guidelines, that Archbishop Curtiss first advocated publicly disclosing recipients of the mandatum.  He later told theologians in his archdiocese that if they refused the mandatum, he would release their names.

Bishop Martino would place the responsibility for disclosure on the college or university:

The college should display its communion with the Bishop by being the appropriate entity to publish the names of those college professors with or without the mandatum.  In the absence of the local college’s fulfillment of this act of ecclesial communion, the Bishop should publish the names and keep them published and updated, for example, on a diocesan website, for future inquirers.

The Mandatum in Faculty Hiring

Aside from disclosing whether professors have obtained the mandatum, is a Catholic college or university obligated to ensure that its professors have complied with Canon 812?

The common assumption in the United States has been that because Canon 812 makes reference only to the individual theologian—“Those who teach theological disciplines in any institutes of higher studies whatsoever must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority”—a college or university need not, and perhaps even should not, assume any responsibilities regarding the mandatum.

Indeed, the U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines declare, “The mandatum is an obligation of the professor, not of the university.”  But while this fact seems to be universally accepted with regard to the act of requesting the mandatum from the local bishop—much as an individual in any profession would be responsible for obtaining appropriate certification—it seems clear that Catholic colleges and universities have responsibilities of their own.

The same 2001 guidelines, for instance, prescribe that if a new Catholic theology professor does not obtain the mandatum within the academic year or six months, whichever is longer, the bishop is to notify the college or university.  Why notify the institution if it is not expected to make use of the information—or if it is not, as some universities argue, appropriate even to monitor which theology professors have received the mandatum?

Canon law experts tell The Cardinal Newman Society that Catholic colleges and universities have a certain obligation to monitor which professors have the mandatum… and more.  Father Conn, for instance, argues it would be “inconsistent for Catholic universities to hire Catholic theologians who do not have a mandatum.”

Cardinal Burke likewise says that only theology professors with the mandatum should be employed at a Catholic institution:

…[T]he Catholic university will want that all its teachers of theology or the theological disciplines have a mandate and will not, of course, retain the professor in teaching Catholic theology or the theological disciplines who does not have a mandate, because to do so would be to call into question the whole raison d’etre of the university.  If a Catholic university doesn’t distinguish itself for its care, that those who are teaching theology and the other theological disciplines are doing so in communion with the Magisterium, what reason does it have to exist?

“If a Catholic university or college has been given the title Catholic (Canon 808),” says canon law advisor Robert Flummerfelt, “then it is the obligation of that Catholic institution to employ individuals teaching in the theological disciplines to promote Catholic thought completely faithful to the teaching authority of the Church.”

Choosing theology professors who have the mandatum is “an additional sign of the commitment that the Catholic university has to promote and teach the Catholic faith authentically,” Flummerfelt says.

Here Canon 812 intersects with Canon 810, which describes a Catholic college or university’s obligations with regard to employing professors in all disciplines:

It is the responsibility of the authority who is competent in accord with the statutes to provide for the appointment of teachers to Catholic universities who, besides their scientific and pedagogical suitability, are also outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and probity of life; when those requisite qualities are lacking they are to be removed from their positions in accord with the procedure set forth in the statutes.

Archbishop Curtiss sees it as a matter of truth in advertising: “If a Catholic purports to be teaching Catholic theology, then he needs a mandatum.”  On the other hand, “if he’s teaching some other kind of theology, then say so.”

Properly labeling professors and their courses, by clearly identifying what is authentic Catholic theology and what is not, would seem a related responsibility of the Catholic college or university.

The Mandatum and Non-Catholic Institutions

What about non-Catholic colleges and universities that employ Catholic theologians—does the mandatum apply only at Catholic institutions?  The U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines for the mandatum concern only “Catholics who teach theological disciplines in a Catholic university,” and the mandatum is most often associated with Ex corde Ecclesiae and the renewal of Catholic identity in Catholic institutions.

But interestingly, Cardinal Burke tells The Cardinal Newman Society that he believes Canon 812 can be applied to theology professors at state, secular, and other religious colleges and universities as well:

My interpretation of the canon is that it applies to anyone who teaches in a public and formal way Catholic theology, in other words also someone who would hold a chair of Catholic theology in another institute.

In other words, let’s say that at some secular university a chair is founded of Catholic theology and the person who is teaching it publicly claims to be teaching Catholic theology, then it seems to me that that person needs a mandate, in other words needs certification on the part of the competent ecclesiastical authority, which would normally be the diocesan bishop, that he or she is teaching in communion with the Magisterium.  Otherwise, you could end up in a situation where you’d have someone who holds a chair in Catholic theology who is teaching something that is contrary to the Catholic faith or even inimical to it.

Rescuing Theology

The Cardinal Newman Society interviewed several theology professors at Catholic institutions who responded favorably to Pope Benedict’s May 5th address.  They indicate that in addition to protecting students from dissident professors, a renewed emphasis on the mandatum could improve theology departments at Catholic colleges and universities—but while the mandatum will help, much more needs to happen.

“The mandatum is important, but it has been pretty much disregarded in this country,” laments Father Edward O’Connor, CSC, theology professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.  “Theologians don’t like to have anybody looking over their shoulders.  I thought it was absolutely wrong that the mandatum was disregarded.  We’ve got a lot of theologians in Catholic colleges who are not really Catholic.”

That, says Ave Maria University theology chairman and former Boston College theologian Father Matthew Lamb, is a problem with serious consequences:

Many of the pastoral problems bishops face find their roots in the failure of proper formation and education of the priests, religious, seminarians, and faithful in their dioceses as dissent spreads from theologians to the mass media and beyond.  The recent sexual abuse scandals that have damaged so many sprang from failures in moral and theological formation and proper oversight.  Those theologians now rejecting Magisterial teachings on the immorality of contraception, of abortion, of homosexual acts, and of euthanasia, as well as those rejecting Magisterial teachings on marriage, priesthood, and sacramental practice, are sowing the seeds of further scandals.

Father Lamb believes that “students, as well as their families,” should be told who has the mandatum, and Catholic institutions should not hire theologians without it.  University of Scranton theologian Brian Benestad agrees, noting that strict employment policies are “especially important today since the defense of dissent by Catholic theologians seems to be the rule rather than the exception.”

It’s a matter of justice, says University of Dallas theologian Christopher Malloy:

Let us not forget that who most need protection in the true faith are the poor.  The poor catechetically are those who want catechetical formation.  We must protect and nurture these souls.  Salvation is at stake, and purgatory is no cup of tea.  Theologians who complain about their “rights” are forgetting that we are servants of Jesus Christ, and He came to feed the poor.

Any theologian who is unwilling to request the mandatum is “a bad Catholic theologian,” says Larry Chapp, professor of theology and former department chairman at DeSales University.  That’s because “theology must focus on the ecclesial context of how Revelation is mediated to us, and that necessarily implies respect” for the Magisterium.

But Malloy adds:

Orthodoxy is the absolute minimum requirement of authentic theology.  It is by no means a maximal requirement.  This means that whoever is not orthodox is not fit to be a theologian.  However, being orthodox does not make one a theologian, much less a good theologian. …Parents and students should use their nose in discerning whether or not a theologian is truly orthodox, who loves Jesus and the one Church that Jesus founded.  It may be that a mandatum is issued, and yet a theologian is playing fast and loose with the magisterial teaching, especially in ways that most students are not able to detect but that have real, deleterious effects.

Mark Lowery, also a theology professor at the University of Dallas, worries that “some heterodox theologians who are angry about the mandatum might go ahead and sign it disingenuously.”  For this, he proposes a solution:

The department of theology should have a regular presence on campus through talks (with responses), symposia on current topics, and the like.  The student body should have fairly regular chances to see how their theologians’ minds tick.  That strategy goes a long way in discovering what a signature on a mandatum really means.

Ultimately the mandatum is one tool toward the larger goal of promoting fidelity in Catholic theology and, more broadly, throughout Catholic higher education.  Loyola University Chicago theologian Dennis Martin explains that the value of the mandatum is in shining a light on a discipline that needs to regain the trust of Catholic families:

[T]he mandatum puts the theologian on notice, makes him accountable when he’s tempted to disagree.  It does not mean that the bishop approves of everything that theologian has written or will write or has said or will say in class.  What it does is put the burden of conscience onto the theologian, first, to present the faith accurately and then, if he disagrees with it, to deal with that unfaithfulness in his conscience and acknowledge it to himself and students.  No person of integrity will do that for very long.

The several theologians, bishops and canon law experts interviewed by The Cardinal Newman Society seem to agree that by ensuring compliance with Canon 812—not only compliance by individual theologians seeking the mandatum, but also colleges and universities eager to ensure that students receive theological instruction from professors who have the mandatum—Catholic colleges and universities can significantly strengthen their Catholic identity.

As expressed in Ex corde Ecclesiae, preserving Catholic identity requires hiring professors “who are both willing and able to promote that identity.  The identity of a Catholic University is essentially linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine.”  For this reason, the mandatum is crucial to the integrity of a college or university as Catholic.