Teaching Them Better

In “The Preacher,” a 1956 episode of Gunsmoke, a minister who has lost his faith is relentlessly hounded by a bully until Marshal Matt Dillon intervenes. Asks the persecuted preacher: “Why, Marshal, why are men always fighting and hating each other?” Leaving aside the answer that St. James, in his Epistle, gives to that perennial question (see 4:1-10), we might do well to think about the intrepid lawman’s reply: “Maybe it’s because nobody ever taught them any better.”

Marshal Dillon was probably not taking his cue directly from St. Paul, but he could have. In First Corinthians, we are told that we must “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” St. Paul promises that he will show us a “more excellent way” (12:31 RSV).

Very few Catholic college presidents today lose much time or spill much ink in writing about the “more excellent way.” With precious few exceptions, Catholic colleges are seizing upon “the best practices” of their secular collegiate counterparts. Concerning the differences between secular and Catholic colleges, we might say, as one politician once contended about Democrats and Republicans, that “there ain’t a dime’s worth of difference between ’em.”

The Newman Guide, published by the Newman Society, has studied more than 200 Catholic colleges in the United States—and recommends eighteen of them. The Society writes: “Put bluntly, the majority of Catholic colleges have lost sight of what it means to be Catholic.  You can visit many Catholic campuses with little or no indication of their religious mission. The Cardinal Newman Society has kept a close watch for more than two decades, and we’ve seen countless examples of professors undermining the faith, liturgical abuse, promotion of pro-abortion politicians, and the ‘hook-up’ culture pervading dorm life.”

The Society continues: “Lest parents think that a secular education is a better option, know that the stats are worse for students who attend state or private secular institutions. Not so long ago, these could be viewed as at least neutral with regard to matters of faith. Today that is no longer the case in many classrooms, and campus life is often a terrible test of a students’ moral fiber—even for the most virtuous men and women.”

How about the University of Notre Dame? The Newman Society turned to the late Dr. Charles Rice, “a faithful Catholic and long-time law professor at Notre Dame. He helped us find the bottom line. He said that at Notre Dame, ‘a kid who is struggling with his faith will sink like a stone.’”

Instead of teaching the more excellent way, secularized Catholic colleges are gluttonously eager for the esteem of the academic world. Not long ago, I wrote to one well-known Catholic college (of which I am an alumnus), suggesting that their rhetoric about searching for truth was, in fact, mistaken. They knew the Truth (see John 14:6), or should know the Truth; their premier task, then, was to inculcate it. I was peremptorily advised, however, that my viewpoint was too narrow, too “triumphalist,” too old fashioned.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Ledru-Rollin (1807-1874), a leader of the French Revolution. Upon seeing a crowd surge by, he is supposed to have said: “I am their leader, so I must follow them!” One suggests, with tongue in cheek, that statues to Ledru-Rollin might be erected on the campuses of so many of our modern Catholic colleges, which seek to emulate the “educational” fads and fancies of the day.

To suggest that there is “a more excellent way” than to follow secular educational leaders marks one as, well, narrow, triumphalist, and old fashioned. The testimony of Pope Pius XI is forgotten:

It is therefore as important to make no mistake in education, as it is to make no mistake in the pursuit of the last end, with which the whole work of education is intimately and necessarily connected. In fact, since education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created, it is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man’s last end, and that in the present order of Providence, since God has revealed Himself to us in the Person of His Only Begotten Son, who alone is “the way, the truth and the life,” there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Christian education. (Divini Illius Magistri #7)

In 1940, Nebraska’s Senator Kenneth Wherry (1892-1951) said, “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.” One imagines many of today’s Catholic college presidents saying much the same thing about their institutions: “With God’s help, we will lift [our campus] up, ever up, until it is just like [the state university or, perhaps, a favorite Ivy League university].” “I am your leader,” solemnly intones the new Catholic college president—“and I must follow them.”

“Fearing the Lord is wisdom and an education in itself,” we read in Sirach (1:27; and see 1:7; Proverbs 9:10; and Psalms 111:10). In this passage from Sirach is the fons et origo of Catholic education and of reverent thought, which will keep God paramount in what we think, say, and do (cf. Prov 3:6). G.K. Chesterton, for instance, declared that becoming Catholic “is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think,” because “the Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” But modern education—saturated as it is with the things and thoughts of the profane world—has little or no use for the “more excellent way.”

To the rising freshman, the modern Catholic College promises fun, not moral guidance for the “perseverance in struggle” (CCC #1839) in the development of virtue. To the parents of rising freshmen, the Catholic College promises jobs for its alumni, not their “uprightness of moral conscience” (CCC #1780). Tuition, room and board, and other fees (excluding books, clothes, trips home, etc.) at Notre Dame now cost about $65,000 per year. Four years will cost more than a quarter-million dollars, so parents are (understandably) interested in the return on their investment.

Is it narrow and triumphalist and old fashioned to argue that the primary return to students and parents after a serious and substantial education in the “best that has been thought and said” is growing closer to Our Lord and to His Church? That is the more excellent way. And the eighteen genuinely Catholic colleges whose faculty and curricula are thus grounded need not resort to public relations gimmickry to explain what they do. Their graduates will never credibly be able to say that “maybe nobody ever taught them any better,” for they will have real alma maters: “someone or something providing nourishment.”


Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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