Brass Tacks: Content-Free Catholicism

A new academic year is beginning, and Trinity College in Washington, D.C., the nation’s oldest Catholic institution of higher learning for women, is looking good—at least on the outside. Like most other Catholic women’s colleges, Trinity went through a long cycle of hard times starting in the late 1960s, when single-sex education went out of style.

Now, Trinity is having a come-back. It is operating in the black and, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, is building its first new campus structure in nearly 40 years, an athletic center for women and girls. With an enrollment of more than 2,000 in its degree-granting undergraduate and graduate programs, a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and a place on U.S. News & World Report’s second tier of regional universities, Trinity seems to be thriving in every way but one: that of actually providing its students with a Catholic education.

Trinity proudly describes itself as Catholic in its literature and on its Web site (, but if you scan the fall 2001 list of course offerings at its College of Arts and Sciences, its undergraduate liberal arts program, you will find only one course with explicitly Catholic content: “Introduction to Catholic Theology.”

This paucity of classes is astounding, considering the contributions that Catholics have made to nearly all the arts and sciences over the centuries. Take philosophy: There are entire schools of Catholic philosophy, but they make no appearance among Trinity’s fall course offerings.

How about literature? Gerard Manley Hopkins’s name shows up among those of other modern poets in an English course, and you can sign up for a seminar on Don Quixote. That’s it. History? You won’t find the Catholic Middle Ages on Trinity’s fall course list. Nor will you come across the Catholic social encyclicals in its sociology and political science curricula.

What you will find plenty of at Trinity are courses with “women” or “gender” in their titles. They’re offered in nearly every department except the hard sciences: “Women and the Law,” “African-American Women Writers,” “Gender and Communication,” “Women in the United States to 1900.”

Again, where are the Catholic women in all of this? Why no classes on those towering female intellectuals Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pisan, and St. Teresa of Avila? It’s all well and good for Trinity students to be reading Toni Morrison—but what about Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark, and Alice McDermott?

I don’t mean to pick on Trinity. Its course offerings are actually typical of those at nearly all Catholic colleges and universities in America except the most openly confessional. What this signifies is a widespread state of confusion—and not just at Trinity—over what exactly a Catholic education is.

For many Catholic conservatives, a university’s Catholic identity hinges on the orthodoxy of its theology department. The contents of a couple of required theology courses, however, aren’t going to make much difference in the worldview of most Catholic undergraduates these days. What will make a difference is the carrying on of a rich and vibrant Catholic intellectual and cultural tradition throughout the university. And that is where Trinity and so many other Catholic institutions of higher learning miss an opportunity.

This is especially too bad for Trinity and schools like it. As a survival strategy during the 1980s, Trinity aggressively recruited part-time students who lacked conventional college qualifications and were interested in college degrees largely for their vocational value. Recently, it has decided to refocus its energies on teaching the liberal arts to its core full-time undergraduate population of 570 young women.

The new dean of arts and sciences, English professor Loretta May Shpunt, insists that the fall course listings don’t tell the whole story: “I’ll always use Flannery O’Connor in my fiction courses,” she says, adding that many other Trinity faculty members also work a Catholic perspective into their material.

If so, how about making that perspective explicit? Trinity wants to niche-market itself as a Catholic purveyor of liberal-arts learning. Why not—and this goes for a lot of other colleges besides Trinity—as a purveyor of Catholic liberal-arts learning?

Update: A reader informs me that Catholic Charities U.S.A. has dropped a link on its Web page to Network, which in turn links to dissident Catholic groups (see “Charity Toward All the Wrong People,” June 2001). Catholic Charities also has a new president, Rev. Brian Hehir, S.J., a political liberal but a thoughtful Catholic.

Truth and Dare: Before I came to Crisis, I was Catholic page producer for Beliefnet ( William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has dared me to admit that I wrote a humorous quiz about Catholicism for Beliefnet, one of whose hypothetical respondents included a “recovering Catholic” who believed that the Church’s requirement of priestly celibacy encouraged pederasty. With this column, Bill, I’ve taken you up on that dare.

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