There are about 225 Catholic colleges and universities listed in The Official Catholic Directory. More than a hundred others have gone out of business over the last generation. I am confident that scores more will disappear — close their doors, merge, or officially declare themselves to be secular — over the next couple of decades. And even among today’s 225 institutions, most are no more than nominally Catholic. That will not change in the coming years.
This remarkable institutional meltdown is mightily affecting the Church. At precisely the time of life when young people are shedding their childlike faith and need to develop a mature, more critical, but more profound adult commitment, they leave home and encounter a brave new world of ideas and experiences untethered to Catholicism.
The meltdown also affects America. The intellectual formation of the nation’s 65 million Catholics has a profound influence on our culture and our politics. It is therefore worth asking: What happened to America’s Catholic colleges and universities? And what’s next?
Is it a simple case of supply contracting to match a shrinking demand? Not really. In this case, there has been a more complex, and largely reverse, dialectic. The reason is that demand for this particular good — a genuine Catholic education — must be stimulated by suppliers, in league with other Catholic authority figures. Unlike food and clothing and health care, this product satisfies no natural need. Nor does it respond to some culturally contingent requirement, as do cell phones or a bachelor’s degree from some — any — accredited institution. A genuine Catholic education is more like an orchid: Both its beauty and people’s appreciation of it must be assiduously cultivated. So when the supply of Catholic education plummeted in the late 1960s, so did demand. Many suppliers went out of business. That further decreased demand, so more suppliers quit. Four decades of this, and production of genuine Catholic education is a now a fringe, boutique enterprise.
It didn’t have to happen. America’s Catholic higher-education complex should have taken off when the baby boomers came of age. There were already hundreds of schools, and the mid-1960s brought a teeming cohort of potential patrons. Moreover, unlike most of their parents, these boomers were destined for college. Tragically, instead of reaping the reward of this bounty, the colleges began to shed their Catholic character — for a mix of reasons, good, misguided but understandable, and just plain bad.
One good reason has to do with the fact that dozens of these colleges were little more than finishing schools for better-off Catholic girls. Given that many of the top colleges, Catholic and not, were still male-only, and that these girls were mostly destined by cultural fate to be homemakers, the decent liberal education they received was perhaps suited to them. But when women began to look at college the way men do, and when they became admissible at all the best schools, it was lights out for the finishing schools. Some tried to adapt to the new ethos; few succeeded.
A misguided but understandable reason was money. In the late 1960s, many Catholic schools rapidly secularized for fear that the government money they thought they needed (in the form of scholarships and other grants) would be denied to “sectarian” institutions. The Supreme Court laid this fear to rest in decisions announced in the mid-1970s, but by then the schools were pretty far gone. Another misguided reason was faulty theology. Jesuit colleges in particular were captured by an alleged “spirit of Vatican II.” This wind blew them to the belief that a true Catholic education was one immersed in the nitty-gritty of contemporary thought and praxis. But since the contemporary world was largely pagan, so was the effect upon the colleges.
A just plain bad reason was rejection of the Catholic faith. Catholic intellectuals (among other Catholics) rebelled against the truths of Catholicism beginning in the 1960s. Many declared themselves no longer Catholic; others settled into permanent dissent. The ones in charge of colleges took their institutions with them.
The vast majority of America’s Catholic colleges and universities today are small, academically undistinguished, and struggling to make ends meet. They subsist — barely — on tuition income. They no longer have a market to themselves. Instead they compete with the whole array of private colleges and cheaper — much cheaper — public ones. They are losing ground. Today few college-age Catholics wish to be formed intellectually according to the truths of the faith. Few wish to be intellectually formed at all. They attend college for the same reason most kids do: to get a degree that will help them get a better job. How many 18-year-olds really understand the great intrinsic (that is, non-instrumental) value of a liberal education? How many grasp the sublime value of a distinctively Catholic liberal education?