Helping Catholic universities be more Catholic. That, in a nutshell, is the mission of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education.
Founded in 2008 as a division of the Cardinal Newman Society, the center recently announced that it would be relocating to Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. Under a three-year agreement, the university will manage and staff the center, with Msgr. Stuart Swetland, the university’s vice president for Catholic identity, serving as the center’s executive director.
Recently, Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Msgr. Swetland, an Oxford-educated Catholic convert who holds the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Endowed Chair for Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, about the center and its vision for Catholic higher education.
Our Sunday Visitor: Let’s start with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 apostolic constitution from which the Center for the Advancement of Higher Education takes it mission. How would you sum up the vision of Catholic higher education at the heart of that document?
Msgr. Stuart Swetland: At one point in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II talks about being wholly consecrated to the truth. That idea really is central. It helps us see that the purpose of education, all education, not just Catholic, should be the pursuit of truth. Unfortunately, in the world today, the very concept of truth is questioned. People question if truth is knowable, if it’s livable, if it even exists. As Catholics, however, we know those answers. We believe truth exists. We believe we can know it, and we believe we can live it. Accordingly, Catholic universities need to model for other institutions what it means to be dedicated to discovering and handing on truth.
OSV: To what extent has that vision taken root in the two decades since Ex Corde Ecclesiae was released?
Msgr. Swetland: It’s something of a mixed bag. Many Catholic universities have fully embraced that pursuit of truth. Others have embraced a more secular model of education. I think, however, that the thing Ex Corde Ecclesiae really did was cause every Catholic institution to revisit the question of Catholic identity — to ask what being Catholic means for their institution on a practical level. And because of that, I think we’ve seen an increased focus, at least in the United States, on faithfully living out Catholic identity. Many institutions still have a long way to go, of course, but regardless, the one thing we’ve seen across the board is increased focus, discussion and engagement on what Catholic identity means.
OSV: Could you give a couple of practical examples of the fruit that particular discussion has born?
Msgr. Swetland: Many institutions, including my own, have appointed senior administrators at the VP level whose main focus is to look at the institutional mission and keep the university faithful to it. We’ve also seen the advent of programs of formation for university professors. Many of the people who teach and work at Catholic universities are experts in their field, but they haven’t been formed in such a way that they can integrate the Catholic faith and their university’s mission into the classroom. So these programs, most of which are held over the summer, are giving them that formation. Some, like the one we have at Mount St. Mary’s, are sponsored by universities for their own faculty. Others are more national in scope.
OSV: So, where does the Center for the Advancement of Higher Education fit in all this? How does it envision its role in the ongoing discussion about the identity and mission of Catholic universities?
Msgr. Swetland: We’re not around to do much in the way of critiquing or criticizing. Rather, we want to help Catholic universities that are seeking to live out their vocation as Catholic institutions of higher learning find better ways of doing that.
OSV: Will the focus be primarily academic or will it encompass aspects such as student life and campus culture?
Msgr. Swetland: A great deal of a student’s educational experience hinges on what happens in the classroom, but the reality is that a great deal of education also happens outside of class. Mission-centered student life programs are part, or should be part, of what makes a Catholic university education different. So yes, we’ll be focusing both on academics and on questions of campus culture. Our desire is to help universities cultivate and build on certain assumptions about Catholic education. One of those assumptions needs to be that we’re dedicated to excellence in all things, and that includes a campus culture of sobriety, chastity and other virtues. We need excellence in those virtues in order to better pursue excellence in other areas of education.
OSV: When it comes to what’s happening in the classrooms at Catholic universities, with what in particular does the center hope to help?
Msgr. Swetland: One of the areas we’re looking at is research on the importance of a core curriculum. Even secular universities are starting to recognize that moving away from strong core curricula has contributed to the problem of universities graduating people who don’t have the reading, writing and critical-thinking skills you would expect of college graduates. Most Catholic universities have done a slightly better job at keeping solid core curricula, so we’re examining which ones are working best, then we want to help disseminate that research.
We’re also interested in orientation and formation programs for faculty. We want to emphasize the ones that work well and work with other institutions and groups to start new ones that focus on integrating faith and reason into particular disciplines. Catholic universities can and should be centers of academic excellence dedicated to helping students and the culture think more deeply about the world and the problems of our day. To do that, however, science professors need to be engaging ethical questions with their students, journalism professors need to teach their students how to report on the Faith, economists need to be cultivating in their students an understanding of the human person that runs counter to the dominant utilitarian mode, etc.
Additionally, we’re looking to partner with other groups to help Catholic universities remain committed to a Christian view of sex and sexuality and address the threats to Catholic identity and liberty coming at universities from the government.
OSV: How hopeful are you for the future of Catholic higher education in America?
Msgr. Swetland: Two people who are smarter and more in touch with trends in Catholic education than I’ll ever be — Melanie Morey and Father John Piderat — published a book several years back saying that the culture of Catholic higher education is a culture in crisis. That may well be true. But I like to point out that if you look at the term “crisis” in Chinese, you’ll see that the way they form the character for that word is to take the character for danger and combine it with the character for opportunity. So, yes, we are at a critical moment, a dangerous time. Catholic education is under attack in many ways. There are economic concerns, demographic concerns and concerns with finding well-formed educators who can carry on the mission. There’s also a crisis in cost. The list could go on.
This is a pivotal moment, but it’s also a moment where there’s great opportunity. At most secular universities there’s been a loss of confidence in truth, in ethical values and norms, in our country’s ability to achieve great things. But Catholic universities, almost across the board, recognize that there is truth, and it is knowable. We believe there are ethical standards that we can and must live by. And we believe we can do great things with the help of God. Higher education needs that Catholic witness now more than ever, so it’s vitally important we do all we can to reinvigorate and strengthen that witness.
With enough hard work and prayer, I believe we can be successful at that.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.