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

Josh-CC

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

If an institution should not wish to be accredited, or if they should fail to measure up to the basic standard, that’s fine.  They can of course continue to operate as before, simply without the bothersome designation “Catholic.”

To me, this is simply a matter of “truth in advertising.”  If a student in this country wants to go to an “agricultural and engineering” school, like Texas A&M and a host of other excellent “agricultural and mining” institutions across the country, they should be allowed to do so. If they want a Great Books school such as St. John’s or Thomas Aquinas College, they should be allowed and encouraged to do that instead. And of course if they want to specialize in “hotel management,” that’s fine too; the University of Houston has an excellent program, I am told.  

What’s not right is if a program advertising itself as “Great Books” really doesn’t read great books anymore, but they just haven’t gotten up the courage to mention it to their alumni or the incoming students yet. So too, if a student enrolls in a “Catholic” school expecting to get a “Catholic” education, and the school hasn’t really been interested in that sort of thing for years, then this seems as grossly unfair to the student as a school advertising a specialty in “hotel management” or “criminology” when it doesn’t actually have one.

Quite frankly, there are any number of these “historically Catholic” schools around these days that are not any more Catholic than the “historically Methodist” college I attended as an undergraduate was Methodist. At that very secular institution, the name “John Wesley” was never once uttered during my four years and the only religious service on campus occurred weekly when the local Catholic priest came on campus to say mass for the Catholic students in one of the little Methodist chapels left over from the early 1950s. The Methodist students, by contrast, had to go to church in town, as I recall — in a Presbyterian parish.

Many of these “historically Catholic” institutions should similarly be allowed to trumpet proudly and publicly the secular institutions they have become, no longer haunted by the specter of their former Catholicism. If these institutions are embarrassed by the Catholic Church (as Harvard, Yale, and other formerly pious religious institutions became embarrassed by their relationship with their founding religious congregations), then perhaps we should just set them free.  There’s nothing more painful than seeing a decidedly secularized faculty member come into one of these pseudo-Catholic institution with the promise that the whole “Catholic” business won’t “get in the way” and then later finding out that — to their deep consternation — it does, and that LGBTQ issues, same-sex marriage, and abortion are not treated in exactly the same way as they are everywhere else. It’s a great embarrassment to them.  

I say, please leave these poor institutions alone and let them be free. Let poor Georgetown be what it wants to be. All I ask is that they not continue to fool themselves (or others) by calling their institution “Catholic,” when being true to that designation is the one thing they struggle against more than anything else.

And of course if they decide they want to make the sort of changes needed to measure up to Catholic accreditation the way they measure up to the state accreditation, then fine.  But when you have one firmly established and entrenched bureaucracy bearing down on these schools from one direction, demanding their submission to one set of secular standards, and nothing to answer to in terms of their Catholic character, who do you think is going to win that tug-of-war?  That’s a ratchet that’s going to move only in one direction.

I have many non-Catholic friends.  We have plenty of interesting and worthwhile discussions, and I learn a great deal from them. Among the many things I like about them, though, is that they don’t pretend to be Catholic. In such matters, self-honesty is the best policy.  And sometimes in life we need someone else to help us clarify for us when we’ve left our innocence behind.

Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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