How Did Catholic Universities Become So Secular?

Since my life was spent in state universities, the world of the university/college with denominational affiliation has always been a little foreign to me.

The battle within any university is always between teaching what it professional facutly think is appropriate and what those who pay the faculty salaries want taught.  From day one this has been a struggle and it continues today.

In state universities, there is the state’s governor and legislature who want to influence things.   And, there are research agencies, private businesses and wealthy alumni.

At a church affiliated university, there is the originating denomination.   Present there also are alumni, research funding agencies and businesses.

Offseting all these pressures, to some degree, are agencies that accredit the programs and degrees.  The accrediting agencies, too, have pressure on them.

There are some examples of fine universities that one would think would be under pressure to conform to church teachings.  Instead of conforming, they seem to withstand whatever their pressures of influence are and operate as secular institutions.  The most interesting of these are large Catholic Universities.

I’ve read theere are discussions within the Catholic hierarchy as to how a local Bishop could gain conrol of what was being taught at a university located within his diocese.  To think a bishop of the diocese that contains Notre Dame University would put his nose under that tent would be a disaster.

That several outstanding Catholic Universities operate as secular was the vision and achievement of Father Hesburgh.  His story is a fascinating one.

30 Responses

    1. entech

      Interesting ideas about mathematical correlations as proof. Hebrew numerology and some Christian analyst all claim similar things. To me the Quran can have no more claim to truth than the Bible, and neither have a very strong claim.

  1. Brad

    I guess at the end of the day it’s all about money. Making money and finding ways to keep making money and making more money supercedes any spiritual concerns. How to make more money? Recruit more members who are in effect giving units.

  2. David

    I think the history of Catholic universities is one in search of the truth. Sadly today we have most universities in search of a liberal truth. Faculties are overwhelmingly liberal – to a shocking degree. How can we have great clashes of ideas where the professors all march lock step? I once wrote a paper regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and how I thought it was unconstitutional – and poor policy. Not to say that good things did not come from the Civil Rights Act but that as a matter of law it was a poor remedy. My professor claimed he had never heard anyone suggest this. He wrote pages in response to my idea. Most students generally received little more than a paragraph. We both learned from this. He could not comprehend how he considered me to be such a nice person with such bad ideas. I could not comprehend how he failed to consider any other possibilities than what he considered a grand result. That with which most Catholics would disagree is not the hard sciences but rather the humanities. Surely there is room for some conservative thought and sympathetic religious philosophy within the humanities. Considering the importance of the church to the emergence of Western culture, one would think there would be some sympathy to it and towards the culture that makes possible the very institutions within which professors work. I don’t think most Catholics long for an education that includes creationism. But some balance towards its teachings – especially in Catholic Universities – is long overdue. The pendulum has not stopped swinging to the left and we have poorer education because of it.

    1. Wanna B Sure

      Several good points here. We raised our children to think critically, yet objectively. Conservative, and responsible. Not political animals, nor fundamentalists. Sent them to college, and they came out (one could say) subjective Liberals, with a bent towards humanism. Not all profs do this, but there are enough. Most kids go to college with open minds to actually learn things. They are impressionable, and willing to absorb. With this, they are vulnerable to particular ideologies apart from the subject being taught by some profs. Well, after 3-4 yr. our kids settled down, and one of them said in retrospect that a couple courses seemed to be more like going to sermons in humanism, by an evangelical (spread the good news of being progressive), and trying to proselytize. It appears that progressivism contains elements of humanism. If they asked a question that would contradict the presentation, it would be met with a sharp “snotty answer”, (my daughter’s words). She implied degrading to even ask such a question. Now 30 yr. later they surely benefited by their education, yet still have no respect for those profs, indeed contempt. Thankfully they are few, but there are those who seem to present themselves and their agenda as being more important than the subject they are supposed to teach. On the other hand, I suspect the same could be said of some “Bible schools” too. I think those who go to those schools expect that, but it shouldn’t be that way in state universities. IMNSHO

      1. Wanna B Sure

        I really should add that I think a liberal, (in the classic sense) is most necessary, and exposure to all isms a must. However, It is unconscionable for a teacher to impose his/her private ideology in a public state school as what must be believed, and degrade all others.

      2. David

        Interesting post. I actually don’t have a problem with a teacher with a bias, if they are aware of their bias. I do think the problem at Universities is that you have a collection of like minded people – for whatever reason. There is little diversity of thought broadly speaking. When intellectuals never encounter another point of view from another intellectual it is easy to discount student’s points of view as simply “uneducated.” There gets to be this circular reinforcing mechanism. That’s not helpful in that you lose your ability to defend against your position and you can get lost in the weeds of the minutia of the field of study. I don’t think this is as prevalent in the hard sciences. I was a math major and there is little that really little opportunity to be subjected to differing points of view. However, within the humanity programs there is a wide range of views. The minority views get short shrift primarily because they are minority opinions as opposed to whether they are intellectually on par with the majority views.

        I’m not sure what the bible schools teach. That is a curiosity to me. I assume they have a less secular approach to things such as religious studies, but I really don’t know what is involved. I went to a private “Christian” school, but I don’t think one would categorize it as a bible school.

    2. Yikes, David. Evan Ron Paul’s son finally admitted he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. I think you and Ron might be holding down the fort by yourselves on this one. Most people are in agreement that it was way overdue. The idea that property rights should trump human rights is so far to the right that it gets scary.

      1. Henry

        r:“Civil Rights Act.”

        ….the end justifies the means….

        Was it a grand end? Not even that. The affirmative action provisions will live a long life well past their intended purpose of equalization. Couple that with the Great Society provisions, and we have a number of generations that don’t know who their daddy is and certainly not their grandaddy.

      2. David

        I don’t know. I haven’t decided whether the Civil Rights act was good or not. On the one hand you have the issue with the commerce clause and whether it was constitutional. I have my doubts whether it should have passed constitutional muster. Whenever we pass a good law that is unconstitutional the courts are reluctant to overturn it. We lose something in the process. A constitutional amendment would have been much preferable.

        Clearly there was a terrible situation in the South that had existed for some time. I think sometimes we give too much credit to the Civil Rights Act and not enough credit to the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. Changing the attitudes of the South was imperative. This did not change with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. I think it likely helped. Far more important was the work done with sit ins and marches that demonstrated the unjust situation in the south. I think Gandhi said something to the effect that a country of laws will not tolerate an unjust law. The work of those demonstrating the unjustness of the unwritten law in the South was most valuable.

        Perhaps another remedy would have been better. We have a lot of legacy issues with the Civil Rights Act. I think happily the attitudes of those in the South have changed.

        I don’t mean to say that I don’t support most of the results from the Civil Rights Act but I wonder if we are too quick to judge the law as without flaws or we fail to consider better alternatives that could have been taken.

  3. Michael Ross

    “How Did Catholic Universities Become So Secular?”

    52% of 17th century Harvard graduates became ministers. In the first two centuries of that school the Christian ethos was so strong and the Bible so foundational in every course of study that no one even thought of setting up a separate divinity school. The same could be said of Yale and Columbia.

    They are now seats of ultra-liberalism.

    1. entech

      Established in 1636 to educate an all-male clergy, Harvard by the 18th century had developed into a college to educate the “sons of the arriving mercantile elite.” During the industrial revolution of the 19th century, Boston bluebloods and Harvard, she said, “rose together.”
      Hard-earned gains for women at Harvard: April 26, 2012
      By Colleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer

      The last couple of decades of the 17th century were so heavily dominated by the Quaker hanging Puritans that there was little else for an educated person man to do. I had to change from person to man as there were no women admitted until 1879, some on this site may suggest that this was the beginning of the downfall, and the descent to liberalism – why didn’t they stay home and be obedient and silent.

      That it was only 52% that actually became ministers shows the decline has been going on longer than we knew.

  4. Formerly NDSU Bob

    Standard conservative blather in response to your blog post, Jon. “Universities are shockingly liberal and are openly hostile and closed-minded to conservatives and Christianity.” As someone who spent a good chunk of his life in the academic world, I can say that the responses of your conservative readers indicate that they have little more than a Fox-News kind of understanding of what goes on in universities.

    But even if it’s true that more liberals than conservatives go into academia, why would that be? And, as an aside, what do they think the political makeup of corporate board rooms is? Which set of institutions has more power?

    1. entech

      It must be true Ben Stein made a movie about it. Could have got an Oscar but no one knew whether it was fact or fiction.

  5. Formerly Fargo Bob

    Standard conservative blather in response to your blog post, Jon. “Universities are shockingly liberal and are openly hostile and closed-minded to conservatives and Christianity.” As someone who spent a good chunk of his life in the academic world, I can say that the responses of your conservative readers indicate that they have little more than a Fox-News kind of understanding of what goes on in universities. But even if it’s true that more liberals than conservatives go into academia, why would that be? And, as an aside, what do they think the political makeup of corporate board rooms is? Which set of institutions has more power? – See more at:

    1. Wanna B Sure

      “Standard conservative blather”.. Really? I did point out a few, not all. Most don’t. Standard defense, and kneejerk response. Jon too has said as much. You seem to think that if a few, (2-3)? profs exhibit such behavior, everyone is accused of it. Not so. Re-read. I wonder what you would project from the podium if you were in a teaching position. Standard atheist blather I would think.

      1. Formerly Fargo Bob

        I was in fact in academia for many years, both as a student and as a teacher. I never felt that my position in the classroom entitled me to treat my students as a captive audience I could force to listen to my views on religion and politics. I was there to teach German language, culture and literature, and that’s what I did to the best of my ability. Wanna B Sure, please reread your own posts, and particularly David’s, to see just how you’re characterizing universities and what you’re attacking. The massive bias you two, particularly David, think you see just doesn’t exist.

        1. Wanna B Sure

          Bob; I know what I wrote. You impute your own admitted bias into what was not there. What I reported was what happened, in spite of what you claim to be your own personal approach. You surely weren’t the only teacher in the world.

        2. David

          Bob, I commend you for your work. Being a teacher is not an easy task. We disagree on the status of the amount of bias in Universities. I think that is fine in that we see things differently. We will likely never agree but we can learn from our differences. Bias is often imperceptible to the biased. I am biased in a conservative tradition. The things I say I am sure reflect a conservative bias – not intentionally. Where you have the majority of professors with the same bias I think you have a situation that is not desirable. We cannot learn from our differences if we have none. I believe that more diversity of thought would benefit students as well as professors.

    2. Henry

      FFB:“But even if it’s true that more liberals than conservatives go into academia, why would that be?”

      Personality. Any answer beyond that would be insulting to the few good conservatives who have chosen academia as a career.

    3. Having spent a major portion of my life in or very close to academia, I can tell you that as a group university professors are a pretty sharp. In a word, they are smart. They also are fairly independent and the old joke about being an administrator of any group of professors is like herding cats is true. Consequently, they are inclined to disbelieve those who want to persuade them. They prefer to come to their own conclusions. Salesmen have a terrible time trying to persuade professors using standard sales gimmicks. They are not about to swallow any line of propaganda. The hype of political discourse is easily cast aside so fewer of them can be counted on to believe the hysterical outpourings of any extreme group. Now the conservatives have gottten a lot more extreme in recent years and are beginning to sound a bit unhinged at times so the skepticism of academia kicks in. Simple, really.

      1. Henry

        “Now the conservatives have gottten a lot more extreme”

        Not really. Ronnie was significantly more conservative than McCain or Romney. We do not currently even have anyone who would compare to Goldwater. We do have RonPaul, but he is really an outsider and a noncontender. I believe the only bill he authored and got passed into law was federal money for an unknown Texan historical shrine.

        So who has gotten a lot more exteme? We currently have a politician who did not just want change, but transformative change. Now that is extreme, and he has brought his party with him.

        1. Because the political pendulum has brought them a gift: the Tea Party. Along with it came media attention as the more extreme members began to appear on TV and spout off. Some of these views were conservative and other weren’t. The result was that ideas that formerly had only been voiced at John Birch Society meetings in the past were being reported on the evening news. This resulted in negative publicity as what formerly had been talked about among like minds was thrust into the public square. This increased the numbers for the tea party as some were attracted to this message. Conservatives had come out of the closet with their views. Their numbers and vocal presence in the media have increased. Conservative commentators push the envelope on this message so that, for example, affirmative action has been pilloried as it always has been by conservatives, but now, suddenly it’s white people who should have affirmative action. Same with racism. The white race has always had it’s privilege, but now the white race, it is claimed, is the one being persecuted. Suddenly it’s blacks who are being called racists. This has all changed in the past few years. Women’s issues are also undergoing increasing extremism. Used to be that contraception was not controversial; not anymore.

          1. David

            The political pendulum – do you mean that societal attitudes have shifted to the left giving rise to the tea party?

            I am not sure how to classify today’s pendulum. It would appear as it is shifting to the left on gay marriage – most other issues I don’t see a great deal of change.

            I’m not sure what views of the JBS are now being touted. JBS was primarily an anti-communist group claiming that Eisenhower was a communist. It was led by a crazy man – Welch.

            I do think that conservatives have more of a voice, but this has to be juxtaposed against the unabashed Liberalism of so much of the media. The nightly news broadcasts have always had a Liberal bent but I think with the advent of talk radio and Fox News they feel they must balance out these entities.

            I think Republicans and Conservatives have always been against affirmative action. Ward Connerly has been working for 30 years on beating back affirmative action.

            Racism used to be a platform in the Democratic party, but has never been a position of the right. This is an interesting issue when you look at the Civil Rights Act, primarily supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. Goldwater objected to the Civil Rights Act due to its unconstitutionality – not because he approved of segregation.

            I would agree that we see more states passing restrictions on abortion. I don’t see this as more extreme. Several states had banned abortion altogether before 1973. I don’t think the restrictions are extreme unless you consider the position from 1973 to be the benchmark. People’s attitudes on this have roughly remained the same with pro-life positions generally gaining in the last few years. With regard to contraception – the only extreme position here belongs to Democrats who now insist that all contraception must be paid for by the taxpayer. No conservative that I have heard has argued that it should be made illegal – only that other taxpayers should not have to subsidize contraception. I think the Conservative movement has been pretty much the same. I haven’t seen much change.

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