Last week, Rene Rasmussen wrote an excellent piece alerting us to the unfortunate situation involving Abby Johnson’s planned speech at the Catholic University of America. For those who missed it, the CUA student pro-life group had invited Johnson and then, facing pressure from various students and, unfortunately, the university chaplain, cancelled the event. (Fortunately, the student Republican group took over sponsorship of the event and Johnson did speak.)
I read Rene’s article with concern, as I am deeply connected to CUA, having spent a decade of my life in the English department. This sort of ideological dust-up is hardly surprising to me: I have personally witnessed many such situations both at CUA and at my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Dallas. Many of my friends and family members who went to other Newman Guide schools, such as Ave Maria University, Thomas Aquinas College, and Franciscan University of Steubenville, have often recounted to me their own experiences with this sort of thing.
Heterodox and progressive scandals at Catholic colleges and universities are obviously deeply troubling. But equally disheartening is a very typical response by conservative Catholics: namely, curt dismissal of the entire school. If you need an example, just read some of the comments under Rene’s article. When one of these scandals occur, many people assume that the college is a lost cause—a moral equivalent to one of the disgraceful, “historically Catholic” schools of which there are far too many examples. Abandon ship, they say. This school is dead to us.
This is an unhealthy way to approach the situation. Every single Catholic school—especially Newman Guide schools—are in a constant battle for their orthodox identity. This is simply the nature of every single institution in the modern world. However, the reality is that schools such as Catholic University or University of Dallas or Franciscan University or Ave Maria University have more than a fighting chance at winning that battle. These schools are among the last remaining places where students and faculty have the opportunity to encounter an authentic Catholic intellectual culture—even amid the scandals and failings.
When I first showed up at CUA, a newly-elected president John Garvey had just reverted the dorms back to single gender. Outrage over this “regressive” decision lasted for a few years, but is now essentially accepted as a matter of course. A few years later, I watched a student protest, roughly ten strong, angrily demanding that the university acknowledge an LGBT club. The university never has. There are even more important victories that have occurred—from redirecting course content to significant reshuffling of departments and core requirements that will uphold a more orthodox Catholic education. You most likely have not heard of any of this, because the efforts toward reform are often gradual and not dramatic, unlike the scandals. Catholic education’s heroes are unsung. Its villains are often headline news.
There are, of course, many things that are wrong with CUA and with all of the Newman Guide schools, and each school faces a different degree of ideological attack. But even if you sent your child to the most conservative, most orthodox Catholic school, he or she could find the enemy there: this is the reality of human frailty and free will. Universities, like countries and even the Church, are very difficult beasts to manage, and equally difficult to reform. Once fixed, it is very difficult to stay the course. Quick fixes do not exist, and those who peddle simple solutions are also those who have never actually worked to reform a school.
Rather than write off a Newman Guide Catholic school, I beg you to add your voice to those of the reformers. Students, alumni, parents, and donors—either current or potential—have a very powerful voice (though rarely used) in academic reform. This is especially true at the Catholic University of America, which, being a pontifical university, is assisted financially by diocesan appeals and parish collections across the country.
When my undergraduate alma mater University of Dallas had a scandal brewing some years ago, a group of us alumni banded together to create a social media page of thousands of students, parents, faculty, and alumni. Our group spread news of the situation, organized letter writing campaigns, a protest, and even secured a visit with the local bishop. Our efforts not only managed to cancel the proposed change to the school, but got the then-president fired. A number of years later, the replacement president also showed himself unworthy to lead an authentically Catholic college, and the same crowd, using similar tactics, managed to get him fired. This time, we demanded a voice in selecting the new president—and won.
After each victory, we ensured that the university knew that we appreciated it by organizing donations. Catholic colleges, especially ones that adhere to their religious identity, are deeply cash-strapped. Human frailty means that, often, ideological battles are influenced by practical concerns about how to keep the lights on. Donors and potential donors thus have an oversized amount of power with harried administrators. This means that concerned Catholics who would like to see a Newman Guide school stay that way should utilize their own pocketbooks and donate to schools when they do well and write to those same schools demanding reform when they do ill.
Scandals at Catholic colleges are a blessing in disguise for those who seek to save Catholic education. Use those scandals as an opportunity to voice your concerns with the school, even if you have no personal connection. You are a potential donor. But if the school listens, do not remain potential. Look into how to target your donations, so that the school knows why you are supporting them. Our Catholic schools need your support. None of them are perfect, and all of them are in danger if enough people write them off as lost causes whenever a scandal occurs.