Catholic Nones

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.

4 responses to “Catholic Nones

  1. Spot on, Mr. Wiggins. As a grad student at a catholic university (I am one of the few non-catholics in the program), I can vouch for what you have said here.

    It’s a fascinating dynamic. They have several areas of concentration (church history, spirituality, liturgy, etc.) in the school of theology. The least “catholic bias” to be found is in their delivery of the scripture courses. I bet you’re not surprised.


    • Thanks, M.K.

      I always appreciate a confirmation of my observations. Ironically the scripture scholars I know in Catholic schools aren’t nearly as orthodox as the church thinks. Still, being Protestant was enough to keep me out of several jobs. It is the way of the world.


  2. Catholic private universities have always been good value for the money, especially Jesuit ones. Of course there’s mandatory religion/theology classes (I had four in a four year major), but otherwise it’s a pretty good experience.

    Speaking of hiring non-Catholics, I know a great architect back in our protestant church. She has impeccable credentials, and she’s even a senior architect for a major architectural firm. Yet she was bypassed for promotion to be the chair of the architecture department in a dominican university because she wasn’t a Catholic. She eventually became chair but had resentments about the previous snubs. Denominationalism still lives, sadly.


    • Thanks, Dan. No question that Catholic colleges represent good value. They also strike me as being congenial places to work–something, however, I will never be able to test. Yes, denominationalism does live. Robustly.


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