CATHOLIC SCHOOLS AT THE SERVICE OF SOCIETY (1) – The “Catholic” Identity of Catholic schools

– Fr Leonard E. Dollentas

The Catholic University of America (CUA) has long been considered as the National University of the Catholic Church in the United States. Like most private institutions today, CUA is recently going through financial difficulties, incurring close to $ 3.5 million in operational deficits. This is largely due to the decline of student enrollments.

The university decided to hire a group of consultants to study the problem and offer some solutions. The consultants came up with rather astonishing findings: the university’s Catholic and religious identity was actually a liability in recruiting students. The university’s faculty were informed by the consulting firm that their commitment to a Catholic identity “hurts” the school’s brand. After disclosing the finding, the university was advised: “Students are open to having their experience enriched by Catholicism but not necessarily defined by Catholicism. They want to go to college; they don’t want to go to church.”

To work things out towards recovery, the university was advised to operate as a “global Catholic research university” rather than a narrowly defined religious institution (Eric Collum, The Chronicle of Higher Education 2018). However, some members in the University administration of CUA maintained that they cannot see any evidence that the Catholic identity of their University may be hurting the university itself. Christopher P Lydon, the university’s vice president for enrollment management and marketing further upheld that “to lay it all at the feet of Catholic identity seems a narrow interpretation.”

CUA has maintained their concern about preserving the Catholic identity of the University, and have not bent its morals for prestige or popularity. Hence, CUA is one of only 29 Catholic colleges and universities identified as “faithfully Catholic” in the United States. They were named as such by Cardinal Newman Society, an organization dedicated to identifying faithful Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. This organization published the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic Colleges. This guide identified the 29 faithful Catholic colleges and universities out of more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.


The figures presented above covers only the data in the United States, but it has given us an indication of what might be happening globally. Undoubtedly, a significant number of Catholic colleges and universities worldwide have abandoned the commitment to the Catholic moral teachings. They are Catholic schools “in name only” and have chosen to ignore the Catholic doctrine on human sexuality and life issues. A good number of them are openly promoting and supporting legislation that provides access to same-sex marriage and expands reproductive “rights.” In the US, for instance, a Catholic university in Washington DC, just a few miles from CUA, has been lauded by the media and the public for their “gay-friendly” campus and co-ed dorms. Not only do they have co-ed dorms, but they also have now new LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) dorms inside their campuses and wider support for same-sex couples and fostering the wider cultural views about homosexuality.   

Reacting to such inconsistencies, a Catholic parent of a university student said: “True, we should uphold gay-friendly campuses and respect the LGBTQ, they too are God’s children. But, being ‘respectful’ does not mean that the Catholic institutions have to support irreverence to the teachings of the Church, by offering benefits to same-sex couples, by agreeing to the government program that offers contraceptives indirectly as a health benefit, and by celebrating and affirming wider cultural views about homosexuality. Respect should be shown in the bounds of prudence while keeping the stand of the Church.”

Consequently, Catholic schools’ must always maintain their primary responsibility as witness of faith in the society and should be mindful of the risks should they lose sight of the reasons why they exist: “Catholic schools must reflect on their own identity because that which they can give is primarily that which they are.” (Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love, 65).

Indeed, not only in the United States but still in some other parts of the world many Catholic colleges and universities have strayed far from their Catholic roots.


A number of official Church teachings and documents affirm the importance of the Catholic identity of Catholic educational institutions. The Congregation for Catholic Education, the Vatican office charged with international oversight for all Catholic educational apostolate declared: “It [the Catholic university] only achieves its full identity when, at one and the same time, it gives proof of being rigorously serious as a member of the international community of knowledge and expresses its Catholic identity through an explicit link with the church at both local and universal levels.” (Congregation for Catholic Education, Pontifical Council for the Laity and Pontifical Council for Culture, The Presence of the Church in the University and in University Culture (1994), II: 2) St Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae further upholds that an educational institution to be precisely called Catholic must have a clear ecclesial identity publicly expressed by certain essential characteristics   (Cf Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 14-20). The university does this, according to Archbishop J Michael Miller, the former secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, by insisting first on the university’s institutional commitment to the Church and second on its fidelity to the Catholic faith in all its activities.

Indeed, strong Catholic identity can be found in schools that point to a reality beyond itself. These schools are clearly given life by Christ. The strong Catholic identity it possesses imparts a curricular program that “orders the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith” (Declaration on Christian Education, 8). It welcomes all students regardless of race, religion, denomination or even those not professing any faith. It teaches, not only about faith but brings students into a mature relationship with their faith and ultimately Jesus Christ, without coercion.


Meanwhile, CUA continued its commitment to being known as faithfully Catholic University in America. They have adopted an approach to resolve the financial difficulty they were having and continued on upholding Catholic moral teachings. In 2013, CUA president John Garvey wrote a letter to address the “consent” in sexual relations being debated in the university. He wrote: “Chastity is an unfashionable virtue nowadays, but the idea is not hard to understand. … It plays at love for sport. It makes promises that the players don’t intend to keep. It insults the dignity of the other person by treating him or her as a sex toy rather than a child of God. It divorces sex from the creation of new life and the unity of a family.”

Indeed, among the most important tasks that the Church faces today is the training of the next generation of Catholics who will carry on the work of the Church for the Third Millennium. At present we are facing a culture where the divine design has been wrecked in the shoals of failed human ideals, where moral truth is put to a majority vote. What is right is being decided as wrong and what is wrong is being declared right when it pleases the mainstream. It is through a faithfully Catholic education can the next generation of Catholics be prepared for the mission of the Church and the challenges it faces. The Church, therefore, has been calling Catholic universities “to a continuous renewal, both as ‘universities’ and as ‘Catholic’” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 7).

(Fr Leonard E. Dollentas is a Filipino diocesan priest and a missionary in the Diocese of Macao. He holds a doctor’s degree in education and has held academic and school administrative positions in the Philippines before coming to Macau.)


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