The changing world of Catholic education

First slide

What are the challenges facing Catholic higher education today? Where is there room to grow and what threats should administrators watch for in years to come? John Garvey, president of Catholic University in Washington, shared his thoughts on these issues Nov. 7 during the Catholic Press Association Southern/Eastern Regional Conference in Alexandria.

Before a room filled with Catholic journalists and media professionals, Garvey spoke about the cultural, administrative and political trends he believes could threaten the future of Catholic colleges and universities. Although Catholic education has a long history dating back to the middle ages, he believes such institutions cannot be taken for granted.

"Catholic education is a gift we will have to work hard to preserve," Garvey said. "The past several decades have seen changes that pose a serious threat to its integrity."

One of the largest changes facing Catholic higher education is the rise in secularism in society, which coincides with the decline of Catholic culture in America. This is a relatively new problem, something unthinkable when Garvey was growing up in an Irish Catholic family in a small steel town in Pennsylvania.
"When I grew up, being Irish and being Catholic were connected," he said. "From my father we learned a fervent devotion to the Blessed Mother. We prayed the rosary often. … There was a rhythm of life that went with being raised in an Irish Catholic home."

Today, fewer people are getting married, more people are getting divorced and strong Catholic families are increasingly rare. Attendance has dropped at Catholic elementary and high schools leaving children less connected to their faith and less likely to enroll in a Catholic college or university when they get older.

With the rise in a secular culture that often promotes materialism and sexual promiscuity, Garvey believes Catholic colleges and universities offer students a "coherent moral code."

"We teach people about the life of virtue and we try to show them how to live it. We encourage people to believe that love is real and that commitment to loving others is the true path to happiness," Garvey said. "We have found that students are attracted to what we have to offer."

Other challenges facing Catholic colleges and universities result from dwindling vocations. With fewer priests and religious available to minister to students and lead by example, it becomes increasingly important to hire staff and faculty members committed to their Catholic faith.

"Faculty play the central role in forming the minds of students and in guiding them in the dialogue of faith and reason," Garvey said. "How students approach the relationship of faith to the subjects they study depends on how faculty members treat that relationship."

Catholic colleges and universities also face religious liberty threats from government regulations requiring schools to provide contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations through health insurance plans.

"Cases like the (Health and Human Services) mandate suggest an unsettling trend toward the privatization of religion on a number of fronts," Garvey said. "Religion can't be reduced to worship or to what we do in private. … Our moral and political opinions are formed by the faith and are inseparable from it. To say we have to check our faith at the door is to exclude us from the public sphere."

Other problems facing Catholic higher education are proposed policy changes dealing with federal college funding, possible tax changes surrounding charitable deductions and an increased dependence on governmental support for institutions of higher education, charities and other cultural institutions.

Despite the many challenges facing Catholic universities, Garvey said there also are hopeful signs for the future, including passionate and faith-filled students. In the end, he said, the future of Catholic colleges and universities "depends more on people who are attending the schools than the people running them."

Bahr can be reached on Twitter@KBahrACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013