In 2008, the cover of Commonweal magazine proclaimed this headline: “Catholic to the Core: How One College Does It.” It celebrated the 10-course, four-year core curriculum and strong commitment to liberal education at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind.
But last week, Saint Joseph’s announced that it would temporarily shut down its main campus with hopes of erasing its debt and starting over again. According to news reports about the college’s needs, dwindling endowment and inability to turn assets into cash, it seems the college has a very steep climb to get back on its feet—and it’s already facing a possible loss of accreditation.
Coincidentally or providentially, in the very same week, Thomas Aquinas College of Santa Paula, Calif., announced that it would be opening a new campus in Northfield, Mass., in the fall of 2018.
Depending on which model other Catholic colleges choose to follow, last week’s news may be a harbinger of future college closings or a hopeful sign of the renewal of Catholic education.
‘In all things to remain faithful’
Commonweal has never featured Thomas Aquinas College on its cover or even offered faint praise for the college—at least I could find none in its online archives. That’s a shame, because Thomas Aquinas exceeds Saint Joseph’s in its commitment to a strong core curriculum and liberal studies. But there are substantial differences between the institutions that, no doubt, explain the apathy of the “Catholic lite” authors at Commonweal and the excitement among many Catholic parents, priests and bishops about the ascendancy of Thomas Aquinas College.
The college has risen up both the Catholic and the secular rankings as one of the top colleges in the nation. It is highly recommended by National Catholic Register (“producing vocations at a time when vocations from far larger and better known Catholic universities have slowed to a trickle”), The Cardinal Newman Society (“impressive intellectual rigor that is matched by a commitment to orthodox Catholicism”), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (curriculum is in top 2 percent of U.S. colleges), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (“one of the strongest curricula in the U.S.”), Princeton Review, U.S. News and World Report, Kiplinger’s “Best Values in Private Colleges” and more.
But the real selling point about Thomas Aquinas College is its alumni, who bear all the marks of highly educated, highly capable and devotedly Catholic young men and women. Thomas Aquinas is second only to Princeton University for alumni satisfaction as measured by annual giving.
It’s incredible and contradicts all the secular “wisdom” that a staunchly faithful Catholic institution, unreservedly committed to the true Faith and to a pure liberal arts curriculum, can survive and even thrive in today’s American culture. But we see other confidently Catholic colleges in The Newman Guide doing well also. That bodes well for Catholic families.
Thomas Aquinas College embraces a strongly Catholic identity that is rooted in the firm conviction that the Catholic Faith is revealed truth and therefore foundational to higher studies. This carries through the curriculum, the residence halls, and the frequent activity at the stunningly beautiful campus chapel.
According to the college:
At Thomas Aquinas College, the Catholic faith is more than a mere adornment on an otherwise secular education. The intellectual tradition and moral teachings of the Catholic Church infuse the whole life of the College, illuminating all learning as well as the community within which learning takes place. The curriculum is ordered toward theology — that is, the knowledge of God — and the College strives in all things to remain faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
Reinventing a college
That’s simply not the way Saint Joseph’s has chosen to market itself. Relative to other Catholic colleges, Saint Joseph’s has demonstrated pride in its history as a missionary school for Native Americans and has taken steps to preserve its Catholic identity. And yet, there is something clearly different implied in the college’s appeal to “Gospel values” and “Christian humanism” than the integrated Catholic culture that Thomas Aquinas College embraces without reserve. Although Saint Joseph’s has held on to its strong core of liberal studies, I don’t believe that it could claim a program of Catholic formation and a curriculum and campus life that exude certainty that our Catholic Faith is where we meet the very source of knowledge and truth.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, when visiting Thomas Aquinas College, described the students as showing “a deep love of Christ, God Incarnate, and of His Church.” Most college admissions directors would say that doesn’t “sell” today. But Thomas Aquinas and other colleges are doing it. The waiting list is large enough to warrant a new east coast campus.
No doubt the editors of Commonweal would cringe at what might be perceived as a closed, non-diverse community at Thomas Aquinas. That’s one way to see it, although I think they’d find more diversity among the students than they assume, and it’s impossible not to be drawn to the beauty of Catholicism as soon as one steps onto the Santa Paula campus. Saint Joseph’s still has much of this also, especially with its large iconic chapel, although its presence seems more a tribute to the past than to a vibrant, living Catholic culture.
What I see at places like Thomas Aquinas College is a joyful, unapologetic embrace of our Catholic Faith as the door that opens our minds to true wisdom and virtue. If the purpose of a college is to teach and seek truth, then nothing Catholic—not our beliefs, ethics, practices or traditions—should be regarded as anti-intellectual or otherwise opposed to the work of the academy.
And so I question the exaggeration of another media headline: “Can a Small College Close to Reinvent Itself?” from the Chronicle of Higher Education last week. It detailed the efforts to save Saint Joseph’s by, it appears, primarily cutting programs and faculty to address its financial woes. Nothing is mentioned about emphasizing the college’s obvious market niche to recruit new students—its core curriculum and its Catholic identity. It won’t surprise me if the core curriculum goes away entirely in the new Saint Joseph’s College, if it manages to reopen.
From my perspective—after 25 years of urging Catholic higher education leaders to renew Catholic identity in fidelity and joyful service to the Church—that’s not “reinventing” a Catholic college at all. It’s tinkering with an old house that was long ago condemned by the higher education elite, which now dominates the surrounding community and has rezoned it for purposes that a small Catholic college can never fulfill. If Catholic colleges today want to compete in the same market as public universities and secular elite institutions, they’ll most likely close before long.
What might have been?
I can’t say that’s the primary reason Saint Joseph’s failed—especially since it held on to its Catholic identity better than many others—but a new, exciting embrace of the college’s roots might have helped bring students in. A cursory review of the college’s website reveals a Catholic baseline but little that would be especially attractive to someone seeking a faithful Catholic education. The college has no theology department, just majors combining philosophy and broad religious studies and a graduate program for lay ministers sponsored by the Diocese of Lafayette. Its campus ministry offers a daily Mass and a couple on Sundays, confessions, liturgical activities and Taize prayer. It sponsors a large number of service activities—which are important but found at most secular colleges today—and a pro-life club and LGBT “safe zone” training. Other campus clubs include the Spectrum Alliance for “people who fall anywhere on the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientation.” Residence halls are mostly single-sex, a rare blessing even in Catholic colleges today.
Who knows what might have been, had Saint Joseph’s decided to fully embrace the model of Thomas Aquinas College? I doubt we’ll get a chance to see. But other colleges could get ahead of their debt and give it a try.
I think it’s certain that a small Catholic college that sees its identity as something of an historical note, recalling a Catholic culture that has disappeared, will not successfully compete with secular private and public higher education. But a college that restores Catholic culture—that lives it today and immerses its students in the beauty and wisdom of the Catholic tradition—will be blessed, I believe.
It’s exciting to see the new efforts like Pontifex University, a Catholic graduate arts school, and Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, a Canadian college that just got approval for a three-year bachelor’s degree. And there are many others in The Newman Guide that are growing with the support of Catholic families and increasing awareness of these faithful college options.
Thank you to all of these colleges for giving Catholic parents hope. Let’s pray for them, as it’s a difficult time for all small colleges, to be sure.
This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.