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Something All Catholic Colleges and Universities Agree On

There are very different kinds of “Catholic” colleges and universities, depending on how they view their Catholic identity.  Some pronounce themselves “faithful to the Magisterium,” and say their calling and mission is “from the heart of the Church.”  Others describe themselves as universities “in the Catholic tradition” or, more vaguely, “in the Jesuit tradition.”

Amidst all these divisions, there is one thing all these institutions seem to agree on: namely, that the principles of Catholic Social Justice do not apply to them.  Corporations?  Politicians? Businessmen?  Absolutely.  The administration of a Catholic university?  Not so much.

Do Catholic principles favor collective bargaining and unions? Absolutely. Do Catholic universities allow their faculty and staff to unionize?  Absolutely not. Do Catholic principles dictate that employees should be paid a living wage that can support large families?  Absolutely. Do Catholic universities pay wages that can support families, especially large families? Not so much.

When corporations don’t pay adequate wages, when CEOs make excessive salaries, and the division between the “haves” and the “have-nots” widens, Catholic social justice warriors protest.  When universities don’t pay adequate wages, when university presidents make increasingly more than employees, and the divisions between administrative “haves” and faculty and staff “have-nots” widens, one hears the excuse: “There are market forces at work.”

Not really, of course.  If there were, tuition wouldn’t be so high.

Too many Catholic universities still seem tied to the idea that they only need to pay the salaries they used to pay members of religious orders.  Lay Catholic men and women have expenses and bills, especially if they are trying to care for elderly relatives or send their children to increasingly expensive Catholic schools.

There are very few things as disappointing at a Catholic institution as hearing clerics oppose faculty pay raises and the protections of tenure.  When clerics – whose positions in the institution are based largely (or solely) on their being clerics and not on superior qualifications – tell you that, “tenure is outdated; it’s over,” one can’t help but think: “It may not be important to you; your employment, meals, and retirement are guaranteed by the Church; you don’t have a spouse or children to support, but that’s not the case for the rest of the people who work here.”

Administrators can’t proclaim a deep devotion to Pope John Paul II and then treat their employees in ways that violate everything John Paul II wrote about the dignity of human labor. They can’t make sentimental expressions of Catholic piety or do a little “Catholic charity” on the side and then throw employees out in the street – and expect respect.

Who creates new degree programs that the university can’t staff adequately?  And who is shedding tenured faculty from the payroll and increasingly using adjunct or “term” faculty, who have no job security and lack long-term connection to the institution and its students? That would be administrators.


Bureaucratization.  Information silos.  Lack of transparency.  Lack of stability in employment.  Unfair labor practices.  Letting lawyers determine policy rather than those with any sense of the mission of the institution.  Increasing inability to deal with complaints from employees or customers. These are hallmarks of the modern corporation and sadly, of most Catholic colleges and universities, many of which are more concerned with assessment mechanisms by accreditation agencies, legal issues, and profitability than devoting themselves fully to the Catholic intellectual tradition and student moral formation.

Please don’t write and say, “Not at my favorite Catholic college!”  There are horror stories of abuse and gross mismanagement from every Catholic college and university in the country.

As in so many modern corporations, too many Catholic administrators and marketing vice presidents specialize in the art of using the jargon that people want to hear, even though the words are not attached to reality.  Language is supposed to be “the house of being.” Empty jargon and slogans make the language used by many Catholic institutions a haunted house full of the ghosts of education past.

I have long wondered why Catholic education hasn’t been dramatically more successful, given the chaos in the culture and in the educational system in particular.  I fear the answer is largely a failure of leadership, although Catholic faculty have not helped by their lack of charity and prudence and their incessant partisan infighting over what specific flavor of Catholicism should dominate all the others.

I have many gifted colleagues, dedicated to Catholic education, and I have known gifted faculty at many institutions. Was their presence enough to produce a truly Catholic education for students?  In one sense, yes. They were the heart of their institutions. And yet they were often opposed by those who had checked the box “Catholic” to get hired, but who opposed nearly everything taught by the Catholic Church. And sadly, this opposition was often shared by administrators who considered their devoted Catholic faculty members “troublemakers.”

There has been (and continues to be) an unmatched opportunity in the United States for Catholic education to shine and flourish as never before. But that opportunity has repeatedly been squandered because too many Catholic institutions still don’t believe in the value of the Catholic intellectual tradition or accept its fundamental moral principles in their own business affairs.  The nation and the nation’s youth deserve better.

But charity starts at home and spreads outward.  You can’t run a Catholic university like a 1970s corporation, with ever-expanding bureaucracy, information silos, and overpaid administrators, and expect them to thrive.

So too, you can’t assign a little Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas in the classroom and then send students back to dorms filled with alcohol and the usual toxicities of contemporary culture and expect them to be ready after four years to go out and serve as a countercultural Catholic leaven in American society.

This would be like taking good seed and spreading it on rocky ground, expecting to get an abundant harvest.

Haven’t we been warned about that?


*Image: The Sower [1] by Jean-François Millet, c. 1865 [Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD]

You may also enjoy:

Patrick Reilly’s To Restore Integrity: Newman’s Idea of Education [2]

Daniel Guernsey’s The Remedy for “Canceling” and Division: Catholic Education [3]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.