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Why a Bishops’ Accreditation Process Could Be the Best Thing for Catholic Higher Education


Randall B. Smith - published on 11/12/14

It is rather odd, then, is it not, that if the local bishop were to come on campus to investigate the activities of a Catholic college or university even minimally, there would be a huge outcry over this illegitimate “intrusion” on the “academic freedom” of the institution. It often seems as though the only group whose authority Catholic colleges and universities are loathe to accept is that of the Catholic Church.  

In Catholic universities, we accept the authority of unelected bureaucrats and functionaries of the State who tell us what we can and cannot teach, but some faculty members would fight to the death to resist even the most minimal oversight on the part of a local bishop.  Why is that?

It seems as though many of these “Catholic” institutions have accepted modernity’s presumption that it is the State that has proper authority over all such matters, not the Church — including questions about whether abortion or physician–assisted suicide constitutes proper “health care,” about what a “marriage” is, and about what is to be taught or not taught in the nation’s schools. Such is the largely unquestioned authority of the State in modernity. So be it.   

But what about these “Catholic” institutions that have effectively become hot-beds of “anti-Catholic” bias; what is to be done about them?

One thing we can learn from the State is the value of a good bureaucracy to keep an effective oversight.  One proposal in this area would be for the bishops to initiate a process of reviewing Catholic colleges and universities for a designation I would call “accreditation for Catholic mission.”

The nature of this process, I want to make clear right off (to the relief of some and the consternation of others), would not be a witch hunt to root out dissident faculty. Accreditation agencies don’t generally engage in this sort of assessment of individual faculty members (unless they are teaching subjects for which they have not adequately trained or properly credentialed), and this accreditation commission shouldn’t either. The sort of assessment I have in mind would involve an institutional assessment, taking into account a wide range of factors, such as:

1. Is the curriculum offered identifiably “Catholic” in any way, shape, matter, or form, or is the curriculum absolutely indistinguishable from the education a student would receive at the most non-religious school in the nation?

2. Does the school make any effort to uphold and teach the basic intellectual traditions of Catholic faith and morals, or does it make every effort to disabuse students of these “burdens” at every turn?

3. When the bishops suggest that a text is not appropriate for teaching undergraduates, does the school immediately order copies in bulk and invite the author for very public campus lectures?

4. Does the school abide by the principles of Catholic social justice in terms of a “living wage” and appropriate health care benefits for all of its staff (including so-called adjunct faculty), or does it conspicuously fail to live up to the standards it constantly accuses corporate America of failing to abide by?

5. Does the school abide by the Church’s fundamental prohibitions against grave sins, such as avoiding aiding in abortions or stem cell research?

6. Are courses in Catholic thought being taught by faculty who are qualified to teach those subjects and who teach them honestly and with fidelity to Catholic thought and practice?

These would be just a few of the questions the accreditation agency would examine. All in all, the process would be a fairly standard accreditation process of the sort that every institution in the country not only tolerates, but undergoes regularly — it’s just that this process would be carried out by the Church, not by the State. And the Church would not be judging the quality of, say, the math, science, or French classes, simply the overall “mission fidelity” of the college or university to the goals and principles of Ex corde ecclesiae.

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