Redeeming Alma Mater

As the reader may have realized, I’m a man of many hats. Sometimes I wear the mortarboard of a college English teacher; at others, the battered fedora of a patriotic, pro-family columnist. For the past few columns, as an observer of economics, I’ve donned the green eye-shade, but this week I’m putting on the Tyrolean hat of a hunter, which I wear when I follow my beagles chasing skateboarders from the sidewalks of New York City, and when trying to hunt down the truth about today’s American colleges.

The 1,000-page book I edit, Choosing the Right College, has finally gone to press, and I thought I’d share with the reader some of what our team discovered while researching 140 American schools — ranging from leviathan state universities like the University of Michigan, to tiny, devotedly Catholic liberal arts colleges like Christendom, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas More. Some of you are no doubt wondering where to steer your high school children or your charitable donations. Here’s a free preview of highlights that might be of special interest to Catholics.


Catholic University of America. The only pontifical university in the country, this school has long been the flagship of graduate studies for U.S. Catholics — although in recent decades it has developed a strong undergraduate program. Those who want a truly solid, Catholic liberal arts education at CUA should enroll in its honors program, which focuses on the Great Books of the West. According to students, other strong departments include politics, philosophy, history, and English. Religion classes at the school have some very high points and pretty low ones, so students should ask around about a given professor’s orthodoxy before enrolling in a class.

For those who seek it, there’s a strong subculture of self-consciously faithful Catholics on campus — many of whom were surely cheered by recent decisions of CUA’s new president, John H. Garvey, to eliminate co-ed dorms and to welcome faithful Catholic Rep. John Boehner as a commencement speaker, despite the mewlings of leftist Catholic academics (many of whom dissent from irreformable Church teachings on abortion or homosexuality). Garvey’s decisions, however laudable, are somewhat surprising given his track record: In his previous job as dean of the Boston College law school, Garvey went out of his way less than two years ago to publicly criticize a professor for campaigning against gay “marriage.” Garvey also invited as commencement speaker congressman Edward J. Markey, a self-styled Catholic with a 100 percent “perfect” pro-choice voting record, according to NARAL.

Perhaps Mr. Garvey has had a “road to Damascus” conversion. Or perhaps it is simply opportune to favor dissent in Boston, and orthodoxy in the shadow of Archbishop Timothy Dolan — who heads the USCCB. Whatever his motives, if Garvey continues along these lines, Catholic U will likely become a stronger choice for faithful students.


The University of Notre Dame. This iconic big Catholic university in the Midwest has all the campus life, sports, and school spirit anyone could hope for — and some areas in which it offers an excellent education. Despite the lack of a core curriculum, most students end up taking serious classes in philosophy and theology, though the latter department’s orthodoxy, sources say, is “hit or miss,” depending on the professor. The best option on campus is the stellar Program of Liberal Studies, which guides students on a rigorous trek through the major works of the West from The Iliad through The Brothers Karamazov. Other strong programs include philosophy, architecture, political science, and history.

At Notre Dame, a healthy core of faithful Catholic students and many of the faculty have persisted in fighting for the school’s religious identity and its tradition of liberal arts education. However, the leadership of the university, especially its governing board and president (Rev. John Jenkins), has largely supported the ongoing secularization of the school and its moves toward emphasizing research over teaching. Notes an insider, “People thought that Father Jenkins would tilt things back towards a traditional outlook, but he has allowed The Vagina Monologues and alienated conservatives on campus. He also inaugurated a campus-wide yearly ‘forum’ centered around some big, liberal hot-button issues such as health care, immigration, or global warming.”

Worse, the school’s assistant vice-president for student affairs has helped form the Core Council for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Questioning Students. In other words, Notre Dame is still in play. For the moment, it can offer a solid education in a comparatively wholesome atmosphere (parties are muted and dorms are single sex, while most have live-in chaplains). Whether its administration will succeed in turning Notre Dame into Georgetown — which will happen unless its leaders change course or are ousted — is anyone’s guess.


Texas A&M. This sprawling, secular, state university is known for its agricultural, business, and engineering programs, but its liberal arts offerings aren’t bad — and they’re largely consonant with the sane social conservatism of A&M’s students, a quarter of whom are the first in their family to go to college. As one of them told our reporter: “This is not a crowd that worships academia like the East and West coasts. These are people that place relationships with God, country, and family out in front.” The political science, history, and English departments are much more solid and traditional than those at comparable schools — even in Texas — with required classes in fundamentals of each discipline and fewer trendy, toxic electives.

Big things on campus include a wide range of top-notch sports teams, beer-drinking in honky-tonks like the Chicken Oil Company, and Christian activism of every sort. St. Mary’s Catholic Center on campus seems vibrant and orthodox, featuring traditional devotions, pro-life activities, and significant intellectual support; it’s refreshing to be able to say that about such a campus ministry. There has been an explosion of Catholic devotion on campus, resulting in a wave of priestly and religious vocations from A&M, meriting national media attention. A 2011 A&M football game against rival UT-Austin featured dozens of alumni nuns and priests in the stands on the A&M side, leading TV commentators to remark that UT didn’t stand a chance. (It didn’t.)


Boston College. The news here is a little better than one might expect. During the past decade, under president Rev. William Leahy, S. J., the undergraduate program at BC has focused on the fundamentals of liberal education; slowly but steadily rededicated itself to the school’s Catholic identity; added endowed chairs and professorships; made its admissions much more selective; built a top athletics program; and acquired large new parcels of desirable real estate (sold off by the scandal-impoverished archdiocese). In a symbolic move, the school has restored the long-missing crucifixes to classrooms — over the protests of some tenured professors.

BC is famed for fostering first-rate classroom discussions and close relationships between teachers and students, while trendy or ideological courses are far outnumbered by solid, traditional classes. Strong options include the Perspectives program, a four-year, interdisciplinary sequence “grounded in the great texts of Western Culture that seeks to integrate the humanities and natural sciences.” Solid majors are offered in philosophy (whose stars include Peter Kreeft and Rev. Robert Tacelli, S.J.), political science, economics, biology, chemistry, physics, and history. Students report that BC’s theology department is disappointing, in part because “it has placed a lot of emphasis on interreligious dialogue,” says a graduate. Expect plenty of courses like “Liberation Christology” and “Women and the Church.”

In 2010, as in years past, the student government promoted on-campus events for National Coming Out Week. The campus gay, lesbian, and bisexual group is not sanctioned by the administration — unlike Allies, a campus “gay-straight alliance.” BC’s student guide was recently revised to state that any event featuring a speaker opposed to Catholic doctrine must be balanced by a speaker advocating such a doctrine. That’s better than what you’d get at most secular colleges, but less than one should expect from a school run by Jesuits.


Ave Maria University. Probably the most prominent of the recent start-up colleges aimed at restoring orthodox Catholic education, this Florida school is famous for the generous funding (and meddling) of Domino’s magnate Tom Monaghan. The school sits in a blank spot on the map of Florida, around which Monaghan plans a for-profit private town called Ave Maria. The model for all this, some say, is the medieval European universities that sprouted their own communities. (Others invoke the building of Las Vegas.) Ave Maria has suffered its share of ups and downs, including some ugly lawsuits, but the school seems to have settled down to pursue its worthy mission.

Although Ave Maria provides a core program steeped in the classical liberal arts, the university offers additional majors not found in some smaller, Great Books–based colleges. Traditional departments such as classics, philosophy, theology, history, literature, mathematics, and politics rub shoulders with disciplines such as biology, chemistry, and economics. In a departure from the typical focus of “alternative” Catholic colleges, Ave Maria also offers pre-professional studies, allowing students to earn certificates in business, pre-law, and pre-medicine.

The very solid core curriculum demands three classes in theology, three in philosophy, two in Western civ, two in literary tradition; elementary and intermediate Latin courses; two classes in either biology, chemistry, or physics; and an American studies class, a math class, and a noncredit liturgical music class. Strong departments include theology, literature, history, and politics –and recent alums of the school’s biology/chemistry program have been admitted to leading grad schools. The school is also notable for its discernment programs for men considering the priesthood, and men and women interested in the religious life.


These are just a few from the long list of schools we researched in detail. As a Catholic (the guide is Christian-friendly but secular), what I personally took away from this project was a guarded sense of hope. Across the United States, devoted teachers and students are striving in the face of institutional resistance, cultural apathy, and dwindling resources to keep alive the intellectual traditions of the West that were nurtured by the Church. The call to live a full Christian witness in but not of the world has never been easy, and it never will be. But I’m filled with admiration for those who are fighting this good fight, whether it’s in the posh hostility of a well-heeled secular college, the grey Gothic halls of a Catholic college that is drifting, or the sometimes shabby buildings of a struggling orthodox start-up.

These men and women are striving to create the next Catholic elite, whose faithfulness and diligence will decide how bright the Church’s future is in our country. Communities, like fish, rot from the head.

John Zmirak


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

  • Daniel Molinaro II

    It is not at all accurate to say that John Garvey publicly criticized another professor for campaigning against gay marriage. I know this is what stories all over the internet say, but it’s just simply an over-simplification. What actually happened was that other professors called for the termination of the professor in question, and Garvey issued a statement saying that the professor in question did nothing against university policy because he did not claim to be representing BC. It was a mild defense of the professor, not an attack.

  • NYa

    I’m hoping you have some good things to say about University of Dallas. The tricky thing seems to be to find a school that is fearless in teaching the faith and living a Catholic environment coinciding with excellent and rigorous academic standards. The small, orthodox Catholic colleges tend to the the former and the latter, not so much. UD, to this first-time visitor, appears to “get it”. (I hope, since it’s my child’s first choice!)

    • Cherie Peacock

      As an alumna of UD, I can assure you that they “get it.” The faculty are outstanding, the curriculum is rigorous, and the students are engaged–and treated like responsible adults.

    • Anonymous Seminarian

      As an allumnus, I agree that UD deserves due praise for her academic excellence, but we’ve always struggled with having a solidly-devout student population. At least we can say that it’s as safe as any school to send your kids. I personally owe UD an incredible amount, and perhaps even my vocation, indirectly.

  • I’m delighted to hear there may be an alternative explanation for Garvey’s actions at BC. If true, it bodes well for CUA.

    Our guide does have a comprehensive essay on the University of Dallas, which apart from its dissenting School of Ministry, is reliably orthodox and academically challenging.

  • This is the longest list of positive things I have ever heard any *thoughtful *Catholic say, ever, about Notre Dame. This is a deeply researched essay! Can you hear my sarcasm over the internet?

    I looked at one of these guides, many years ago, and may need to purchase the current one!

    I want to quickly add that Purdue University’s Catholic community and Newman Center continues to grow in its orthodoxy and maintains an active and awesome student association. Purdue is also unique within the BigTen for, among other things, never abandoning single sex dorms (I have heard that they are the ONLY state school in the nation with this claim to fame). There are several female-only, and one, huge male-only dorm, on campus.

    BOILER UP!!!! / buffaloknit

  • Will

    John, I’m curious about the current state of things at the University of the South and Rhodes College in Memphis. Both have had solid reputations for undergraduate education in the humanities and intellectual engagement among students. University of the South had a fair number of Catholics given the student body size and the institution’s affiliation with the Episcopal Church. These two places may just be a parochial–pun intended–interest of mine.

  • HV Observer

    Do you have a review of John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego?

  • Will: We have reports on both University of the South AND Rhodes. Sewanee has largely maintained both its stellar curriculum and its wholesome campus life, and the teaching there is first-rate. I highly recommend it.

    Rhodes is still better than places like Duke, but it is moving rather rapidly to the left. It weakened its core curriculum and has pushed multiculturalism aggressively of late.

    HV Observer: Sorry, we don’t cover that San Diego school. Catholic colleges we cover in the region include Thomas Aquinas College and Gonzaga.

  • RK

    What’s needed is for a solidly Catholic college to begin offering distance learning at a cost of 10% of what the brick and mortars are charging. There are mainstream universities successfully following such a model (LSU and Eastern Oregon Univ. among them). This is the wave of the future. Tuition costs have risen as fast as the costs for health care and a Catholic college could begin to reinvent itself while offering it’s courses to a wider audience and maintaining a well paid faculty. The biggest problem appears to be that faculties exert resisting influence and administrators are afraid to challenge tenured profs.

  • Slight correction on the “honky tonks” in College Station… the Chicken Oil Co. is a burger joint. The “honky tonk” bar with a similar name (and part of the same group) is the Dixie Chicken. But, both play the twangy, old country music that soothes my redneck soul.

    Gig ’em!

  • John,

    Thanks for the great press on the Catholic Campus Ministry here in Aggieland! We of course encourage our students to limit the number of beers consumed in the “Honky-tonks” (as you call them), but it is an all around great place to send your students for higher education of mind & soul!

    God Bless!

  • Al Arca

    I was told by a nun that used to be on staff at St. Mary’s student center that Texas A&M has more Catholic students than any other university in the US by virtue if it’s size. There are approximately 11,000 catholic students in a student body of approximately 43,000. I haven’t verified these numbers, but who am I to question a nun?

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