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A University Without a Campus, Providing Intellectual Ammunition for the New Evangelization

Providing Intellectual Ammunition for the New Evangelization


John Burger - published on 11/21/13

Catholic Distance University celebrates 30 years of teaching Catholics the faith - so they can go out and change the world.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Catholic Distance University plans to celebrate its 30th anniversary the evening before Pope Francis formally brings the Year of Faith to a close.

The Year of Faith, which was called by Pope Benedict XVI, has been a time for Catholics to deepen their knowledge of the faith by studying and reflecting on the documents of the Second Vatican Council 50 years since its opening and the Catechism of the Catholic Church 20 years since its publication.

Catholic Distance University, based in Hamilton, Va., has been fostering faith for three decades, and it took an active role in the new evangelization long before most Catholics knew what the new evangelization was.

CDU offers adults a chance to earn a degree in theology without ever having to set foot on a college campus. In fact, it has no physical campus. Founded as a way to strengthen the knowledge and skills of catechists using a correspondence course sent out through the mail, the institution has grown in scope even as the Internet has taken over as the medium for instruction.

A university since 1996, CDU offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology and an associate’s in liberal arts with a concentration in Catholic studies. It also offers a catechetical diploma, as well as courses for students not seeking to earn a degree.

The institution has several high-profile academics on its faculty, including Matthew Bunson, senior correspondent forOur Sunday Visitor; Patrick F. Fagan, senior fellow at the Family Research Council; William E. May, professor of moral theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America; William L. Saunders, senior vice president and senior counsel at Americans United for Life, and Catholic author Russell Shaw. Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, is graduate dean. Bishop Paul S. Loverde of Arlington, Va., is chairman of the Board of Trustees.

The bishop will preside at a Mass and dinner to celebrate the 30th anniversary this Saturday, Nov. 23, in Arlington.

“There are lots of people who need to be served by what we do,” said the university’s president, Marianne Evans Mount. “We have students in remote areas of the military, dangerous areas, incarcerated, cloistered religious, mothers raising children at home, busy professionals who cannot possibly go to a college campus after work, who travel a lot.”

Doing a degree online gives people a certain amount of flexibility: they can log on at a convenient time and read or listen to that week’s lesson, do the assigned reading and enter into an online discussion. For most courses there are time limits, but there is also the ability to study the lessons more reflectively.

Asynchronous learning – students logging on at different times rather than gathering as a group in a classroom – is a “very contemplative, reflective experience,” Mount said. “You’re able to read what everyone else has written on the discussion board, and … you can type your contribution, edit it, think about it, write something and go back later and make changes before you actually post it. The contributions are more serious, more reflective, probably better thought out because you have to write it, not just say it.”

Some 26,000 students have been through CDU’s programs in its 30 years. About 1000 students are currently enrolled, including about 150 graduate students and a similar number working on undergraduate degrees. Students live in all 50 states and around the globe.

Jennifer Frye, for example, recently earned a bachelor’s, completing a degree that had been interrupted several times as the military wife moved from place to place. She discovered CDU because her husband, Stephen, completed his master's at CDU while in diaconate formation for the Archdiocese of Washington. Frye is putting her degree to good use as director of religious education in her parish in Pennsylvania and chairwoman of the parish’s faith formation committee, which has just launched a home-based, faith sharing program.

Jesse Grapes, who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart as a Marine platoon leader in Iraq, began pursuing an M.A. while he was deployed. “I was looking for a college that would make the master’s degree in theology available from a distance learning perspective, or using technology to make it possible through distance learning, and I also wanted a school that was loyal to the Magisterium and had a reputation for being orthodox,” said Grapes, who is now headmaster of Benedictine College Preparatory in Richmond, Va.

Even though a student is “isolated” in a way, being alone in front of his computer, Grapes said he found himself interacting with professors more than he had when he was on an actual campus as an undergraduate.

CDU’s online experience also offers a virtual café and an online chapel. Daily Mass is offered at CDU’s home office, and students can place their petitions on the chapel’s discussion board.

Mount also presides in an online coffee klatch where students can bring their concerns to the university president.

In the Footsteps of St. Paul

It was a desire to be a better catechist that motivated Marianne Mount more than 30 years ago. Having a chance to attend classes of the Notre Dame Institute in Middleburg, Va., a graduate program largely for women religious, she realized how poor her faith formation had been.

“I loved my faith,” she said, “and I volunteered to be a catechist, but realized very quickly that I was woefully deficient. And even though I was a high school English teacher by profession, I really was not in any way prepared to be teaching the faith to the 8th graders I was facing in class every week.  

“What I saw – and I see it even more today – is that many Catholics are professionally well educated; they’re very successful in their careers, but have not kept pace with their knowledge of their faith,” she continued. “So their faith becomes marginalized. They begin to see their faith through the eyes of secular society and they walk away from it – because they don’t know what they’re walking away from. They don’t have the intellectual framework, so when the faith is attacked, they have no way of responding to that.”

At the Notre Dame Institute, she took a class with Jesuit Father John Hardon, author of The Catholic Catechism and a well-known expert in catechetics who died in 2000. For a class project, Mount wanted to develop a correspondence course for her fellow catechists. Like her, “they were well-meaning but didn’t have a very systematic understanding of what the Church taught,” she recalled.

For help in learning how to design a correspondence course, Mount conferred with experts at Loyola University in Chicago, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the National Home Study Council.

Michael Lambert, then director of the council, told her, “I’m Catholic and I’ve been waiting 10 years for the Church to call me because Protestants are all using correspondence courses.”

Father Hardon felt that Mount’s idea could turn into a catechetical program for the Diocese of Arlington and that a partnership with a Catholic college might allow catechists to earn college credits.

“So he approached Bishop [Thomas J.] Welsh [founding bishop of the Arlington Diocese], and I invited Michael Lambert to a meeting with Father Hardon and the bishop,” Mount recalled. “And Michael said, ‘Bishop, you need to do this not just for the Arlington Diocese; you need to do this for the whole Church because there’s nothing out there. Catholics are taking all of these courses from Moody Bible College and the Assemblies of God and all these churches, and oftentimes they wouldn’t even know what denomination they were studying. They were just looking for spiritual enrichment, and they liked the idea of doing correspondence courses.”

Lambert, who recently retired as executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, recalled the 1982 meeting.

“What really made Bishop Welsh sit up and take note at that momentous meeting was when I said words to this effect: ‘Bishop, I need not remind you of all people that it was Paul the Apostle who was one of the earliest correspondence study instructors. Recall that he used letters of instructions – epistles – to educate the dispersed Gentile population eager to hear about the new Christian faith. … The Church should revive the tradition he established of teaching the faithful at a distance,’” Lambert said. “He paused and said, ‘What better way for the Church to go forth and make disciples of all nations?’”

Looking Ahead

The school opened in 1983 as the Catholic Home Study Institute. It received Vatican recognition as a “pontifical institute” or “catechetical institute” – the first in the U.S. to award a Catechetical Diploma and teach the faith to adults exclusively using correspondence courses. Three years later, it received accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council. Lambert said that since then, it has passed the re-accreditation tests every five years with flying colors.

In 1996, the institute changed its name to Catholic Distance University as it expanded to offer a fully accredited M.A. in theology program. In the Jubilee Year, 2000, CDU partnered with the Diocese of Arlington to pilot a three-week online interactive seminar for catechists. Bishop Loverde served as CDU president from 2003-2008.

All this time, more and more people were gaining Internet access, so in 2005 CDU launched its online campus. The following year, the M.A. degree was made available totally online.

CDU’s latest innovation was in 2012, with the launch of a graduate certificate in scripture. The school is considering expanding into the Spanish language. “We’d like eventually to have a catechetical certificate so people who are teaching in parishes where people are more comfortable learning in Spanish can get their training in Spanish,” Mount said.

In addition, an Associate of Arts program provides an entry-level degree in liberal arts with an emphasis on the Catholic intellectual tradition. “Our A.A. offers a fully online liberal arts program for the professional development of catechists, parents, aspiring Catholic school teachers, professional career-seekers in the Catholic Church, and anyone else who may later seek a higher degree in liberal arts,” says the university’s website. “Upon completion of this degree, students have the option to apply the credits earned towards a bachelor's in theology at CDU, or at one of our partner institutions, including Belmont Abbey College and Mount St. Mary's University.”

CDU’s tuition is $450 per credit-hour for graduate courses, $305 per credit-hour for undergraduate courses, and $165 per course for non-credit courses. The Woodstock Theological Library, located on the Georgetown University campus in Washington, grants library privileges to full-time students at CDU.

Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said that 70% of Catholic colleges offered some kind of distance learning in 2012, “but what distinguishes CDU is they started out as a distance-ed provider.” He called the university “an organization that’s worked hard over the years to be ahead of the curve.”

“They started out as a catechetical institute, but over time it’s grown into a serious and superior way to teach the faith and theology,” he said. “So it expects very serious work from the students. … CDU fosters thoughtful, reflective educational learning of the Catholic faith.”

Lambert seconded that. “They have a very well-thought-out curriculum,” he said. “It would always pass our tough standards at DETC. … Their course architecture, the depth and rigor of the materials, the content, the rigor of the examinations is excellent and would stand up to scrutiny next to any other Catholic college.”

Though former Marine Grapes is still working on his M.A., he has found CDU to be so good that he wants his teachers at Benedictine to benefit from it, too. “So many Catholics who grew up or were educated in the 70s, 80s, 90s, up until very recently were very poorly catechized, and now we’re all the teachers,” he said. “The curriculum [at CDU] is so good and so valuable that I’m going to be sending the majority of my faculty to be re-catechized through the course. That’s a big investment for a Catholic school, but I think it just kind of goes with what the new evangelization is all about – Catholics who don’t know their faith well, get to know it so you can properly witness it and teach it. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

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