As the college term drew to a close last spring, Providence College’s most prominent professor, Anthony Esolen, author of hundreds of articles and several books—including what some reviewers consider the best translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy—packed up and got ready to leave the school, where he had taught since 1990. He would renounce his tenure, give up his well-earned sabbatical, and accept a teaching position at St. Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire, one of the smallest colleges in the country.
Esolen’s choice to leave one Catholic school for another had nothing to do with desire for greater status or a higher salary. He wasn’t swayed by the offer of an endowed chair or a lighter teaching load. Rather, Esolen was attracted to the curriculum at Thomas More—the commitment to a classical Catholic education that values the theology of Thomas Aquinas more than diversity studies. He was drawn to Thomas More, he told a National Catholic Register reporter, because “students are meant to be surrounded by beauty and sanity,” and he admired how “the education at Thomas More focuses on the whole human being.” He was leaving Providence because he wanted to be “part of delivering a curriculum that was based on the Truth.” He would try to bring to students at his new school what he had always sought to give Providence undergraduates: “a love for art and poetry and the best of human wisdom and the trust that such things can bring us into the precinct of the divine.”
Esolen’s departure from Providence—a highly regarded Catholic college, administered by the Dominican friars and, until fairly recently, a bastion of traditionalism—represents only the most recent episode of a phenomenon that has been under way for decades: the abandonment by Catholic colleges and universities of their religious identities. It’s a development with ramifications not only for Catholicism but also for higher education, because it was the Catholic tradition that created the idea of the Western university, based on devotion to the good, the true, and the beautiful—and in reason’s capacity to help us discover all three. America’s first Catholic university, Georgetown, founded in 1789, was patterned on the sixteenth-century Jesuit plan of study, Ratio Studiorum, with the goal of cultivating the moral virtues—helping students gain an appreciation for faith and reason in the pursuit of truth.
Nowadays, however, rather than embracing the good, the true, and the beautiful, Catholic universities have adopted the same curricular fads as their secular peers, hosting departments of gender studies, black studies, ethnic studies, and gay and lesbian studies. Campus leaders claim that Catholic universities’ “commitment to social justice” differentiates them from non-parochial colleges, but they neglect to mention that they have defined the term “social justice” so broadly that campuses now welcome chapters of the pro-abortion Law Students for Reproductive Justice. Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who became a celebrity in promoting the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, was president of Georgetown’s LSRJ chapter.
Concerned about the loss of religious identity on Catholic campuses, Pope John Paul II released Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990, identifying the centrality of Catholic higher education to the Church. Literally translated as “from the heart of the Church,” Ex Corde attempted to address the slide toward secularism by calling for Catholic colleges to be accountable to the local presiding bishop. A key component of the papal document was a controversial requirement that all theologians obtain a mandatum, or certificate, from the local bishop attesting that their teaching was consistent with official Church doctrine. More than two decades later, most of the nation’s Catholic colleges and universities resist Ex Corde, with faculty and administrators seeing it as a threat to academic freedom and independent governance. After the document was released, Notre Dame’s faculty senate voted unanimously to ignore it. In the Jesuit publication America, Notre Dame’s then-president, Reverend Edward Malloy, and Reverend Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College, warned of “havoc” if Ex Corde were implemented—calling it “positively dangerous” to Catholic institutions. Today, the contentious battles that once surrounded the papal document have ended, as most Catholic college presidents refuse to be governed by it, and deferential bishops have been reluctant to enforce it. Even Notre Dame professor of law Gerry Bradley, a longtime proponent of Ex Corde implementation, has pronounced the papal document “dead.”
Meantime, professors who support Catholic teachings have come under siege on their own campuses, usually with little support from their academic administrations. Esolen’s case was typical. His willingness to criticize identity politics at Providence made him the target of campus progressives, who wanted to move the curriculum away from a focus on Western civilization to an emphasis on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. But the progressives’ goals are broader than that, Esolen believes. “The dirty not-so-secret,” he said before he left the school, “is that the same people who for many years have loathed our Development of Western Civilization program—the focus of curricular hostility—also despise the Catholic Church and wish to render the Catholic identity of the college merely nominal.”
Full story at The City Journal.