Address by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., to the International Federation of Catholic Universities

November 17, 2007

Thank you for the invitation to speak on the topic of the North American Catholic colleges’ integration in their regional environment

This morning I’ll make four, brief observations, focusing on the effects of the changing demographics of the Catholic population and other student populations we serve; the legal governance context; the economic competitive environment; and the effect of the decline in religious vocations. There is certainly a great deal more that needs to be said on this topic to properly understand our North America Catholic institutions. These factors, however, bring immediate challenges to our institutions and shape the ways in which the ideals of a Catholic university are addressed in the North American context.

We are blessed with approximately 225 Catholic universities in the United States. Some, like DePaul University, are large urban universities, serving immigrants, the children of immigrants, the poorer classes and the working classes. Most U.S. Catholic universities served these immigrant groups in their early years. The immigrant populations in those days were predominantly Catholic, and Catholics were not welcomed at many of America’s colleges in the 1800’s and even early 1900’s.

Today, Catholics are among the wealthiest Americans, they are among the best educated Americans and they are over-represented among elected politicians, judges and corporate CEOs. Many of the Catholic colleges that once served their poorer, immigrant ancestors now educate the children of wealthier Catholics and assemble student bodies that are relatively well-off and can pay significant private tuitions.

There are still Catholic colleges, however, that have chosen to remain focused upon needier populations. Some new immigrants are still largely Catholic, but there are also immigrant groups now in North America who are not Catholic, but are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and many other traditions. Our Catholic colleges serve them as well.

This is but one example to illustrate a larger point. There is a broad variety of institutions among the American Catholic colleges and universities. Some serve primarily Catholics. Some serve very few Catholics. Some are large urban institutions. Some are so rural they are literally surrounded by corn fields on all side of their campus. Some are only for women. Some are research institutions. Some are technical schools. Some are two-year colleges.

Most are four year colleges with a variety of graduate and professional programs. Some serve very wealthy students. Others serve very poor students. Some are academically elite and accept only the brightest students. Others keep their entry standards lower so that less well-prepared students have an opportunity for higher learning. Some of the colleges are very wealthy with large endowments. Others are barely surviving financially. And for all this difference, there is also constant change. As North American society changes, these colleges also make choices about the students they will serve and what courses of study they will offer.

All these institutions would embrace the many ideals of a Catholic university spoken of at this conference and set out in Ex corde Ecclesiae. The broad variety among these institutions, however, would lead them to implement these ideals to varying degrees and in varying ways.

In North America, there are several external entities that oversee and, to varying degrees, control our institutions. The U.S. government requires, for example, that our institutions be accredited by a regional visiting body that holds the institution to a set of educational standards. Many of the academic specialties also have their own accrediting bodies to which we must submit our curricula, entry and graduation standards for their review. Outside organizations such as the American Association of University Professors protect faculty rights to unfettered inquiry. All of these external bodies must be engaged as we design our strategies to implement Ex corde Ecclesiae.

Perhaps the most pressing challenge, however, comes from the gradual disappearance of priests, brothers and nuns from the institutions’ trustees. Trustees are not merely advisors in the United States, they are the owners of the college under civil law. As president, I report to them, and I execute their orders. They are my boss. They hire me, and they can fire me. They set the institution’s strategy, and they set my goals. For the most part, they choose their own members. At Catholic colleges, the trustees often select several members of the religious order to sit on the board, but with the decline of membership in religious order in the U.S., there are fewer of them each year.

These boards are primarily lay boards. Most trustees are successful business people, and some are graduates of the university. I find I must spend time educating them about Catholic education, and their responsibilities to oversee the Catholic nature of the institution. In the end, they are ultimately responsible that the institution remains thoroughly and faithfully Catholic, but for most trustees they would be surprised to hear this. Up to this point in time, the lay trustees of these institutions have left the oversight of the religious identity of the institution to the religious order. As the religious orders pull back however, the trustees are only beginning to wonder how they will accept this task.

This is a problem in a country where the quality of religious education is not generally strong and typically ends in childhood, and where attendance in religious education is not universal. It is also a problem for a society where the laity has never been asked to accept responsibility for overseeing Catholicism. That’s always been left to the priests, nuns and hierarchy. Absent a rigorous education, and having been socialized to leave the leadership to “the professionals,” the trustees are only now beginning to wonder how they will exercise this task.

The decline of religious has yet another effect. Most new, young theologians in the United States are lay men and women. They have been trained very differently from the largely clerical theologians who came before them. Clerical theologians received at least four years of graduate theological work and a solid foundation in philosophy, before beginning their more specialized doctoral studies. This enabled them to engage major theological questions with strong biblical knowledge, strong knowledge of patristic and early foundations, strong knowledge of the historical contributions and development of theology, strong understanding of the liturgical and ecclesial implications of their questions, and much more.

Today, most new theologians have undertaken two years of graduate study before writing a dissertation in a specific field. Their need to achieve tenure and to be published and recognized as a contributing scholar further pressures them to become specialists before they become generalists. The American tenure system is certainly to blame, but so is the fact that lay professionals do not enjoy the financial support of the Church for their training as did the clerical theologians. Their need to pay rent and feed their families requires a shorter course of study. Perhaps this was inevitable with the decrease of vocations to religious life, but it has resulted in theological faculty who are less able to teach our students broadly about the faith than was once the case.

The weakness of American religious education also makes it difficult to find and hire faculty in any discipline who are well-educated in their Catholic faith. It’s easier for the wealthier universities to hire such faculty. Indeed, DePaul, Notre Dame, Boston College and others are hiring tenured professors in various academic disciplines who have strong knowledge of the Faith, but we’re doing it by “stealing” faculty away from other Catholic universities. This helps the wealthier and larger universities, but it doesn’t help American Catholic higher education as a whole. The real problem is a shortage of academic experts with knowledge of their faith beyond what they learned in childhood.

In the United States, there are nearly 5,000 institutions of higher learning. Many of them are government sponsored and far less expensive than our own. Catholic colleges feel this competition keenly. Many popular magazines rank the universities against one another, often listing which has the most students with high scores on the college entrance exams.

For that reason, many colleges and universities in the U.S. shifted their financial aid away from supporting poor students who can’t afford colleges, and are using that money to attract top academically qualified students to their colleges. As a result, the poor students are finding it harder to afford college, and the wealthier students are getting larger and larger amount of scholarship aid. Sadly, Catholic colleges find themselves caught in this same “bidding war.” They too are shifting their financial aid toward merit as well and away from need-based aid.

For a Church that follows Jesus Christ, who cared deeply about the poor, this shift is worrisome, and there is no clear solution in sight. It is true that our colleges are much wealthier than many of your own institutions, but to us, it does not feel like we are wealthy institutions because we are struggling to compete with other universities in our country that have better resources than ourselves. The root of the problem is not a lack of concern for the poor, but a national supply of too many college seats for too few students which creates intense competition for survival. Economists refer to this as a “mature competitive market” and it has a real affect on our colleges and whom we educate.

The North American context offers both opportunities and challenges for our educational institutions. For all these challenges, Catholic colleges in North America are a great credit to the Catholic Church. They are vibrant institutions that are well respected by their non-Catholic peers. They largely conduct their business with no financial support from the Church. They clearly serve as a place in which the teachings of Jesus Christ and the long reflection of the Catholic community are put into dialogue with the great currents of human thought. Students learn about their faith in these institutions, and a great deal of good is done by these institutions to serve the poor and help young women and men build their professional lives.

There are challenges to be sure, but the causes of these challenges come from forces far larger than the decisions of presidents alone can control. Large social forces like changing demographics and economic markets will always require adjustment. Solutions to such forces inside the Catholic Church, such as the loss of religious vocations, poor religious education of the population, or no history of lay leadership and responsibility for the church’s mission, will require the entire Church to work together with our institutions to build a strong future in which the ideals of Ex corde Ecclesiae can come to fruition.

Thank you.​​​