Thoughts on Catholic Higher Education and Culture

Published July 25, 2023

What We Need Now

Msgr. James Shea is president of the University of Mary and an author of the highly regarded “From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age.” He shares his thoughts on Catholic higher education, today’s culture, and Church renewal in this WWNN interview with Francis X. Maier.

WWNN: How would you rate the current health our nation’s higher ed institutions—especially the Catholic ones?

Msgr. Shea: In general, the situation among Catholic universities is quite bad spiritually. The top-tier Catholic universities have largely embraced the ways of secular academia, which are themselves in a time of crisis concerning all but technical and professional education. Some of them have simply apostatized. In others, the faith is present in various ways, but is hardly decisive for the specifically intellectual mission of the university. The last 25 years have not seen a revolution in this regard, only the continued development of decisions and trends that had been initiated some fifty years ago. Chris Smith has noted that among religious groups in America, Catholics, Jews, and mainline Protestants are the best at not passing on their faith to their children—and Catholic universities in general are very talented at this: helping a younger generation of Catholics to choose something other than serious Catholicism as an attractive way to live.

There have been many smaller Catholic colleges and universities that have remained faithful to the intellectual bases of Catholicism and are doing a good job with those who come to them. But this represents only a small percentage of college-aged Catholics.

We are past the time when tweaking the current system will answer the need. A different strategy is called for; something more wide-ranging and systematic to deal with the reality of the current culture and the current state of the faith among our youth.

In your experience, what are the main concerns—or simple blind spots—characterizing today’s young adults entering university?

A few of the standout concerns and issues would be these:

This is a generation that has grown up inundated by constant images and messaging from phones and social media. The ultimate impact of that is probably still unknown, but it seems to be producing a highly fragile personality structure, even in young people from more or less stable homes. It also tends to give the youth a received set of assumptions about their lives and the world that are counter to Christian ones.

This is not a rebellious generation of college students; it is a highly anxious one. It has been coddled and fawned over, and that seems to have produced both a sense of entitlement and a sensitivity to anything that doesn’t seem to be going well. Whether that set of attitudes will change given some of the recent shocks to our cultural equilibrium remains to be seen. I have hope in this regard, and I give forceful speeches to our students predicting this, wondering if I might be able to hasten the shift (at least for those entrusted to my care!).

Many, most, young Catholics, have a very misty understanding of their own faith. They are obviously not to blame for this; they have only taken on the attitudes of their parents and teachers, most of whom tend to a non-dogmatic, vaguely sentimental and therapeutic, personal choice sort of belief structure. The two great commandments seem to be: “Be yourself,” and “Don’t offend anyone.” Not very different from the culture at large.

One of the assumed beliefs of many among the youth, something they have not so much thought through as imbibed from the media sea they swim in, is that Christianity is at odds with the facts of science, and while it may be useful as a coping mechanism or a place of relational belonging, as an account of reality it has little to recommend it.

American youth are trained from a young age to tie success to professional advancement and job prestige. As a result, they are uneducated (in the true sense of the word) and have little aspiration to be educated. They are often very well-put-together in terms of accomplishments and CV, but the inner structure of their personalities is often insecure and fragile. As a result, they tend to look outside themselves for a structure that will provide what they lack internally. One sees a need to identify strongly with a group and to conform to its common identity, paying lots of attention to the superficial tokens of membership.

Is there a way to heal our higher ed deficiencies; and if so, what would Catholic experience bring to the task?

Well, “heal” may be too soft a word. There needs to be a re-embracing of the perennial intellectual and moral truths that lay at the foundation of any real education, and that have been rejected by the modern academy. Catholics are pretty much the only ones who have the resources to do this, given the wounds of the current culture. But most Catholics have lost a grip on these resources themselves. Hence much of our dilemma.

The University of Mary experience, among others, would show that when a reasonable approximation of the intellectual and moral vision of Catholicism is embodied in an institution and presented to students, many of them come vibrantly alive. The solution is not mysterious; but knowing how to see it implemented on a wide field is not so obvious.

In your view, what are the qualities in the American personality shaping emergent American culture?

Cardinal Newman reminds us that institutions tend to consistency over time. The U.S. has increasingly embraced neo-Gnostic first principles concerning the world and the human, and those principles are steadily making their way. Emergent American culture is oriented to self-creation as the highest good, and social solidarity as a necessity. This double orientation leads to a “dictatorship of relativism” (as Benedict XVI once put it).

An argument can be made that changes in sexual mores both express and impact anthropology—what and who a human being is; our individual and collective sense of identity—which then impacts social organization and education, which then shape politics and the application of power. How, if at all, have today’s sexuality and identity issues affected young people entering university life?

Massively. Not so much in wild orgiastic behavior, though that sometimes happens, but not more than in the past. Rather it creates a kind of “identity angst.” The point of the sexual liberation movement was not the desire for lots of sex; it was the desire to be free to determine what one’s sexual nature would be. It was the pursuit of freedom and self-creation applied to our sexuality. Hence those of the “trans” movement are often seen as the true freedom fighters, even for those who have no inclination that way. This puts young people in a position of needing to grasp hold of a frightening “freedom.” It’s up to each one of them to come up with their own sense of themselves and their identity out of whole cloth. Humans are not meant to do that, and this formlessness around identity leaves an undercurrent of deep anxiety—the number of young people who suffer regular panic attacks is epidemic—and a constant concern to see how the identity being created is accepted (or not) by others. Hence the constant preoccupation with social image.

Is the Church completely out of the game on matters of cultural formation? Or is there something practical she can do to influence the course of the next two or three decades?

C. S. Lewis said, “The most significant political act is to convert one’s neighbor.” There will always be a cultural effect of Christianity (when it is genuine) on the culture it inhabits, but not mainly because the Church is thinking about how to have a cultural effect. If Catholics live holy lives, love their neighbor, speak truth when appropriate, and stand together as members of Christ’s body, they’ll find their cultural influence gaining. If they spend their energy thinking about how they can be culturally influential rather than how they can be more faithful to Christ, they’ll end up missing the source of their cultural influence. Consider: The early Church was a drop of humanity in the sea of a huge empire. They didn’t think much about how they could “make a difference” in that wider world, but they ended by converting it by the distinctiveness of their way of life. It’s a question of first things and second things. The first thing is faithfulness; the second thing is cultural influence. If one attends to first things first, second things tend to find their place. If one attends mainly to second things, one loses both the first and the second things. Christianity can never be successfully used (in the long run) as an instrument to effect a more significant change. It needs to be pursued as an end in itself; only then will it be potent for cultural and political change.

What do you see as the root challenges facing the Christian faith today in the United States?

Well, the challenge facing Christians here and now is similar to what every Christian age has faced: most of those who call themselves Christians in America are not Christian. They have a thin Christian patina over a fundamentally this-worldly religion. This is evident by their orientation to health, politics, money, personal success . . . the great need is what it’s always been: conversion.

In addition, we’re strategically facing the shift from a Christendom to an Apostolic mode of being, and this adds a good deal of complexity to our situation. It would seem that two things are strategically important: (1) a consistent and fearless call to give all to Jesus Christ and to the Gospel without counting the cost; and (2) a recognition of the particular cultural moment we inhabit, and a readiness to do whatever’s necessary to meet the needs and possibilities of our time. This will mean abandoning many strategies that were developed for a different time, and that had their effectiveness in a different cultural matrix, but that are no longer effective, and can even become corrupting. Our approach to university education is a case in point.

To what degree does today’s U.S. Church leadership understand the challenges facing the Church? If renewal is possible, how might it happen?

Renewal will happen when we—especially leaders—repent and live the Gospel. Saint Paul insisted he was “not ashamed of the Gospel.” He was confident in its life-giving power, in its superiority to the way of the world. One senses in some Church leaders that they’re ashamed of the Gospel; they don’t really believe it; they don’t really believe that it will be immensely better for everyone and anyone to give themselves radically to Christ. They’re worried about the state of the Church, an illogical position given the truths concerning who Christ is and what He’s up to, and they seek this-worldly solutions to a set of spiritual problems. A quality that many have noted among our leadership generally is timidity: a lack of courage. Whether this comes from personal weakness, as might sometimes be the case, or from lack of confidence in the truths of the Gospel, which is probably more prevalent, it isn’t the need of the day. American Catholicism has thought itself at peace during the last many decades (I guess since about World War II), always a corrupting posture for Christianity. Peacetime generals don’t do well when battle begins. We’ve been entering a time of serious hostility to Christianity, and courage (not anger or militancy, but freedom to speak and live truth and bear the consequences) is a particular need of our time. Our mode of choosing leaders is a peacetime mode; we’ll need to relearn the lessons of the early Church concerning how to lead during a time of hostility and danger.

What should individuals do? Turn to God and live for Him alone. Then: Look around and see where serious Catholics are joining in some good form, whether for prayer, or fellowship, or apostolic, or charity work. Join them. Don’t be isolated. Find a church where the priests are believers and go there. The Kingdom is like a mustard seed and has its own mysterious life. Do the works of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom will grow.

What about practical sources of hope? What are they, and why?

There are many. The rise of ecclesial movements is one. The growth of a few genuinely Catholic colleges and universities, and the increasingly faithful nature of Catholic seminaries are others. The growing number of small Catholic associations, such as Bible studies, men’s and women’s groups, apostolic organizations, publishers, and generators of web content is yet another. Consider that my friend Father Mike Schmitz’s podcast on the Bible was for a time the number one podcast in the world. There’s no lack of hunger for the Gospel.

This is a time when the choice to be a Catholic needs to be a firm, all-encompassing determination to live a different life, a genuine metanoia. No doubt the Church will become smaller, but that will be necessary for her continuing witness. There’s certainly a fight on, but it’s a fight ordained by God, and there are signs of His presence and activity all over the place. This needn’t be a discouraging time to be Catholic, but it’s certainly a time for sobriety and a willingness to make decisive decisions.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.

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