What they produced was a conventional wisdom that ran something like this:
Catholic higher education maintains Catholic identity through a) Catholic theology courses; b) visible Catholic spaces (chapels, churches, basilicas, shrines); c) Catholic accoutrements & material culture--crucifixes in classrooms, statuary, even meatless Fridays during Lent in the dining facilities; and d) tradition--a sort of tautological "it's Catholic because it's always been Catholic" idea. This CHE conventional wisdom worked well in both cities and rural/suburban areas.
Yeah, what if I told you that this narrative missed about half--if not more--of the fuller history of CHE? The entire narrative structure above presumes one unexamined presupposition: "Catholic higher education" means institutions founded by men's orders. Y'know--Notre Dame, Fordham, Boston College, Marquette, Catholic University, all the Loyolas, St. Bonaventure, St. John's (in NY or MN), etc. The conventional wisdom distinguished between all these using religious order charism, e.g., part of Providence College's uniqueness stems from its being the only Dominican-founded college in the US.
Here's the problem: all of the Catholic universities granting doctoral degrees in....just about everything (humanities, sciences, education, and, yes, theology) were institutions founded by men's orders. So when it comes to this core issue of who and what is "American Catholic higher education" the apples did not fall far from the trees.
But what about colleges founded by women's religious orders? E.g., the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Ursulines, et al. These, in the conventional wisdom, derive their catholicity from men's orders. As you might expect, the presumption here is that "they're not as Catholics as....<<fill in your favorite institution founded by a men's order>>." So, to go very local momentarily, The College of Saint Rose, while founded in 1920, is less Catholic than Siena College, founded in 1937, because, well, Franciscans. That is the sole argument.
The women's colleges--and now it seems important to use the unwieldly "colleges founded by women's orders" since almost all of them admit men now as well as women--were usually smaller and more 'professionally' oriented. (Working on a Victorian assumption, apparently, that women's work focused more on the world than matters of the mind.) Women worked in nursing, teaching (elementary and secondary, of course--not 'higher' education in the university), secretarial work in business, and (low-level) bureaucratic work. Men, liberally educated, took their classical education to fields like law, politics, military leadership (plumbing the depths, often unexplored, of Catholic and military issues would require umpteen additional blog posts--not today), and yes, the Church.
(To be taken up in another post, one which will rely heavily on the work of Tim Muldoon and Artur Sebastian Rosman--what to do with Catholic appropriations/interpretations of "liberal arts"...)
And thus we have, supposedly, American Catholic higher education. Notre Dame, the Jesuit schools, the Franciscan ones, etc. established the paradigm and everybody else checked themselves against this standard. This includes universities founded by (arch)dioceses such as St. Thomas and Seton Hall. These last school perhaps embody even more the conventional paradigm because 1) they boast, for Catholic higher education, noticeably high enrollments; and 2) they feature extensive (and, hey let's admit it successful!) professional graduate schools in business and law. Some Jesuit schools even have medical schools.
But again, the problem: the women's orders' colleges produced the teachers, nurses, and secretaries who managed and administered the expansion and success of the conventional narrative. Put another way: if we must persist in using the Catholic both/and theological meme as opposed to the Protestant either/or (distinctions produced by David Tracy and Andrew Greeley in the 1980s), then WHEN will this methodological lens be applied to the CHE narrative? Right now, quite frankly, the story remains oddly Protestant: EITHER an institution is truly Catholic (because it was founded by a men's order) OR it dilutes its Catholic identity (because .... sisters). When will the "both/and" be applied to Catholic higher education so that the variety of institutions and programs is fully told?
So in upstate New York, the story is far more than Siena, Le Moyne, St. John Fisher, Canisius, Niagara, and St. Bonaventure...although that list alone offers much to Catholic historians and theologians. What instead of: Saint Rose, Maria (a two year junior college also in Albany--Sister Mary Ann Walsh's--former communications director for the USCCB--May 1st funeral was held on its campus), Nazareth, Medaille, and D'Youville? Within New York City alone, instead of Fordham and St. John's (again, two impressive institutions & not being criticized here), what about Mount St. Joseph's or Mercy (OK, that's Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County, but there are branch campuses in Manhattan and the Bronx)? In Milwaukee there's Marquette (Jesuit) or Alverno (School Sisters of St. Francis). In St. Louis there's SLU (again, Jesuits) or Fontbonne (another college founded by St. Rose's order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet). Catholic higher education that's truly catholic and Catholic (get it? I used both forms of the word there--universality and particular identity) will include both sorts of institutions and avoid the customary pitfalls of presuming where the "real" action took place.
And none of these narratives, even the one proposing here, really grasps recent successes like UMary in Bismarck, North Dakota. There the Benedictine Sisters of the Assumption have, with the help of the University's dynamic, young president, Monsignor James Shay, reconstructed quite a unique place: conscientiously Roman Catholic yet still mindful of its origins as a women's college founded by and for women. Honestly--how many other Catholic colleges have you visited lately where the 4 pm daily mass was standing-room only? Where the Salve Regina was recited in Latin (Deo gratias!) after Mass? Where the number of Catholic Studies majors competes with the number of Psychology majors? All the while, and this is crucial, maintaining roughly fifty percent non-Catholic undergraduate enrollment? Those of us in American Catholic studies never tire of mentioning how the Catholic Church's social justice vision stands athwart both liberals (on sexuality and life issues) and conservatives (on economic, immigration, and other life issues). Here with the University of Mary a Catholic university stands athwart the conventional wisdom within CHE: one of the nation's most visibly Catholic institutions does not shy away from its founding....by Benedictine sisters.
Looking beyond the historical perspectives, going ahead should involve theological explorations...but not along the stereotypical "nuns on a bus" meme. That narrative, based as it is on the activist awakening 'real' sisters experienced in the 1960s, plays right into the conventional (i.e., men's orders) narrative described earlier. No, the theological appreciation of womens' orders' colleges should come from, well, the heart of the Church (and not merely a professional association of theologians). This would be quickly and far beyond the rather limited choices of "authentic" Catholic institutions proffered by the Cardinal Newman Society. As good-intentioned as that organization and its choices are, the fact remains is that boiling Catholic higher education down to a geographically and numerically limited number simply is not feasible. (I would make an exception, though, for UMary. That place has under Monsignor Shay's leadership transformed itself, the Bismarck region, and some part of Catholic higher education's future...but I wonder how many other institutions have the leadership and communal courage to make the same choices UMary did.)
More to the point, when will some enterprising young Catholic mind use St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body--of which SO MUCH is written/blogged these days--as the foundation for a new interpretation of Catholic higher education? Perhaps that already exists. If not yet, then it seems that such an approach will necessarily give more attention to the colleges founded by women's orders. It will run along the lines of Esther and Ruth, who took steps to defend Israel and their own, and as well as "a theology of Mary and Martha" (Luke 10:38-42). True, Mary did chose the wiser portion, but it's not as if the scene works without Martha. Somebody had to produce all those meals Jesus enjoyed with sinners and tax collectors.
That often is the claim of the women's colleges: we're engaged campuses. We don't just study--we do. (This seems very short-sighted; as if no other college does service learning projects.) However, consider this piece by Tim Muldoon on Babel or Cosmopolis? Working with a recent essay by Sr. Katarina Schuth, OFS, from University of St Thomas (MN), Muldoon explores how modern rootlessness challenges the existential fact of Catholic higher education. Why are they and why are they there (meaning, usually, in cities)? Muldoon:
Universities can be places that can step out of the stream of distorting relationships: distortions that pervade our society because of unequal economic resources, various forms of xenophobia (racism, sexism, etc.), and so on. To the extent that Catholic universities can develop authentic hospitality– to welcome the stranger as Christ–they will be places constantly asking questions about what makes contemporary relationships unequal.
Working with the fundamental Vatican II documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, Schuth argues that the Church now sees itself as being called out by God, and thus calls others, to engage the world around them. Muldoon concludes:
The great challenge is to push back against rootless cosmopolitanism, toward a model of authentic relationship, authentic friendship.
Now I am not throwing Muldoon or Schuth under the bus, but basically that is exactly the self-perception of the administrators, if not faculty and students, of women's orders' colleges. That is is how they see themselves: engaged, friendly, welcoming, supportive. Not stuffy or overly institutional, which is how the men's orders' colleges are viewed from the underside. And yet where is the clinching argument that, therefore, women's colleges might justifiably be regarded as the real Catholic institutions? Muldoon and Schuth are certainly working with the right resources--and their intentions are obviously good. All good. But within colleges founded by women's orders those same words resonate differently. The claim becomes "we do that better than others"...and by "others" often is meant the usual heroes of CHE. So now the "really" Catholic colleges are the ones who engage, not those with the traditionally "Catholic" curriculum and/or the visually stunning and popular liturgical and spiritual life. This self-congratulatory attitude--we have less but we're better and we do better than the big boys--falls right in the "either/or" categorization from which postconciliar Catholic theology is supposed to deliver us.
Don't worry; I'll wait while you digest all that.
Finally, none of this works without some honest admissions on the part of those of us working at these women's colleges. First, without trying to undermine what I just advanced, we must recognize that such institutions are not the best nor only game in town. Unique and valuable and effective--of course. But, for example, Saint Rose cannot cast itself as competing with Williams or Bennington. Different institutions with different resources, audiences, and visions. Second, self-congratulatory narratives based on limited resources should no longer be used. Remembered? Absolutely. Routinely perpetuated as self-justification or assertion of identity? No. Stretching a nickel to do the work of a dollar, which is basically what many nuns had to do at places like Saint Rose, simply cannot suffice. First, instead of making a virtue out of necessity--look at all we have achieved with so little!--search instead for more nickels. Find a way to expand solidly instead of operating on a shoestring budget. The sacrifices of the foundresses' generation must be remembered, but is that all womens' colleges have? Second, recapture (or perhaps cultivate for the first time) an appreciation for the blend of professional and liberal arts programs that have characterized women's orders' colleges. Notre Dame developed an admirable Great Books program in the 1950s. Places like Saint Rose can do that, too (why not? By disagreeing are we presuming our students lack the ability or desire to study those same books?), but in 1950 Saint Rose boasted the education and nursing programs the staffed schools and hospitals around New York's Capital District. Not Siena, nor SUNY Albany, and certainly not Union nor RPI. On the other hand, this appreciation for that blend should be, well, blended. Overemphasizing the professional majors because they're currently more popular is just as short-sighted as the fanciful comparisons with different institutions. Women's orders' colleges have histories and unique contributions to Catholic higher education that should be celebrated...but these days we lack even the standards by which we can recognize such achievements.
Earlier this month Rod Dreher posted a lengthy yet sobering assessment of current students' attitudes towards sex and same-sex relationships. Readers know how much I appreciate Dreher's work, albeit often filled with gloomy expectations. This particular post struck home, largely because I see the same attitudes in my own students. Wave after wave of basically decent kids taking liberal education courses in ethics or world religions...and many of them simply do not care--nor do they want to engage authentically--about anything that might shake or reorder these presumptions. One more dirty little secret--these same students populate Fordham, Boston College, and Marquette as much as Saint Rose or Nazareth. The mega-narrative of American Catholic higher education allows those at the "more Catholic" institutions to conveniently ignore or overlook this. Those of us on the other front lines, though, have known this for quite some time.
DISCLAIMER: writing and revising this particular post took far longer than planned. Since starting it a semester has started and concluded and Father Ted Hesburgh died. Furthermore, finally getting this all down "on paper" made it abundantly clear that more posts are needed. So, future posts will address Father Hesburgh's legacy, the implications of the Cardinal Newman Society's list of recommended colleges, and, as mentioned above, the exciting work by Tim Muldoon and Artur Rosman on Catholic intellectual life within the academy. This particular post, therefore, is a start, not a definitive statement. Finally, this should not be interpreted as an official statement by, nor criticism of, The College of Saint Rose.