In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article pondered the future of Catholic universites in an age of nones—those who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition. As with so much in life, the evidence countermands expectations. Enrollment is stable and even non-Catholics are attending. Part of this, no doubt, is because a greater number of high school students are being channeled into college, but there seems to be more to it than that. Those interviewed suggest that it is often that students, nones included, favor an education with a moral grounding. Materialism doesn’t give one much to go on besides human convention. Even if students don’t accept Catholicism, there’s no doubt that the Catholic Church presents itself in a way that admits little doubt over what’s right or wrong. Even if you choose not to observe the strictures, there’s a comfort in know they’re there.
One of the schools foregrounded in the article is Marquette University in Milwaukee. While at Nashotah House I came to know some members of the Theology Department there, and I visited the campus numerous times. One of the interlocutors in the article is a physics professor who, admitting concerns at first, has found Marquette—a Jesuit university—remarkably open to science. The days of Galileo are over. Even Catholics know science is science. Indeed, the Vatican itself employs scientists and a Catholic priest was the first person to formally postulate the Big Bang. As someone who has applied to many Catholic universities over the years, and who has had a fair number of interviews, my sense is that the close-mindedness comes with theology, not science.
Especially in the days of retrenchment under John Paul II, control over hiring for religion (“theology”) faculty at Catholic schools underwent renewed scrutiny. I was informed that I was not selected for positions because I was not Catholic. You could, however, be a none physicist and land a job. This discrepancy of knowledge has led me to fine tune the Chronicle’s question a bit. The Catholic Church is well funded. Its universities would only be in danger from radical drops in student numbers. This favors the hiring of mainstream professors in every discipline. Except religion. It is as if this small presence on a large campus, such as Notre Dame, could hold out against the humanist knowledge emanating from every other department. A candle, as it were, in the hurricane. And that candle, amid all the nones, must accept official doctrine. At least on paper. And all will be well.