What sets apart a Catholic college education? At the very least, it means a general-education requirement of some theology or religious studies for all degree-seeking students, regardless of their faith. 

Minimum requirements 

Typically, Catholic colleges in the United States expect students to successfully complete at least two courses — six units — in theology or religious studies in order to graduate with a degree in any field. Usually, one of these is a specific introductory class that must be taken by all students in their first or second year of full-time study. 

At Fordham University, for example, students must complete “Theology 1000: Faith and Critical Reason,” but may then select their second course from among a roster of classes categorized as “Sacred Texts and Traditions.” These options include courses that focus on selected portions of Scripture, “Early Christian Writings,” “Byzantine Christianity,” “Church in Controversy,” “Christ in World Cultures” and “Great Christian Hymns.” 

At Georgetown University — which, like Fordham, is a Jesuit-run institution — two courses are required in theology and two in philosophy. At least one theology course must be “The Problem of God” or “Introduction to Biblical Literature.” 

Smaller Catholic colleges have similar general-education requirements. At Marian University in Indianapolis, which is sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg and has an enrollment of about 1,500, degree-seeking students begin with the introductory course Theology 105 and then must complete a second theology course of their choice. In addition, Marian students are required to pass an introductory philosophy course, “Human Nature and Person.” 

Andy Hohman, who chairs Marian’s department of theology and philosophy, said the core requirements in these subjects have been strengthened over recent years. 

The theology course, which he describes as “Catholic and ecumenical,” added a faith and morals component in the late 1980s and a vocations component around 2001. 

A year later, Marian “went from a generic Aristotelian-Thomistic introduction to philosophy to a more Catholic and systematic [approach],” Hohman told Our Sunday Visitor.  

But “the biggest change to the course has not been in the content itself, but in the ways the content is treated and the level of student participation,” which is evidenced in part by the fact that about 80 students at the school today are majoring in some area of theology or philosophy.

Theology vs. religion 

St. Mary’s College of California, sponsored by the Lasallian Christian Brothers, also requires students who attend for four full years to take two courses through its Department of Theology and Religious Studies, beginning with a course on “The Bible and Its Interpretation.” There’s an important distinction between theology and religious studies, however. 

“To do theology, one must be an adherent of the faith tradition being studied, studying it from within as a committed believer,” said David Gentry-Akin, a theology professor at St. Mary’s. 

“Religious studies, on the other hand, is an interdisciplinary social scientific approach that does not presume commitment or belief on the part of the scholar studying a given tradition,” he said. 

What that means in practical terms is that a student could conceivably satisfy the core requirement and never actually study Catholicism. 

“At present, a student may graduate with the first course in the Bible — which is not necessarily taught from a Catholic perspective, depending on the instructor teaching it — and a second course of their choosing, which may include Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism,” Gentry-Akin told OSV. “So students do not necessarily get any exposure to the Catholic tradition through our theology and religious studies requirement.” 

Although the overall core curriculum at St. Mary’s is in the process of being revised, the present theology and religious studies requirement will not be altered, he said. 

“Some of us [faculty] would have liked the requirement to go to three courses, as is standard at several comparable Catholic universities in our region, but we did not prevail,” said Gentry-Akin. “Others of us would have liked to have seen a requirement for some explicit treatment of the Catholic tradition in our theology department.” 

He said the two-course requirement is invoked as evidence of the college’s Catholic identity and mission, but “because it requires no explicit engagement with the Catholic tradition, I am not sure how true this is.” 

Catholic identity 

Some colleges that place particular emphasis on Catholic identity stipulate a still greater load of theology and philosophy studies.  

Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., includes two particular theology courses and three philosophy courses in its core curriculum; Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., requires three of each; John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, which graduated its first class a year ago, obliges its students to take six theology and two philosophy courses. 

Many schools integrate Catholic principles into the curriculum through classical “Great Books” programs. Some also offer Catholic studies within other academic disciplines. Marian in Indianapolis, for example, has courses steeped specifically in the Catholic tradition in its history, music and English curricula, while Wyoming Catholic College is among those that builds a liberal-arts education around the classics. 

How critical is a theology general-education requirement to the Catholic character of the school? 

At Marian, “both the theology and the philosophy requirements relate to the overall Catholic mission,” theology chair Hohman said. Other elements also contribute to the university’s Catholic nature, such as its degree offerings in theology and religious education, its Catholic studies program, its campus ministry with daily liturgy, college seminary, the presence of active Franciscan sisters on campus, and the inclusion of a vice president for mission effectiveness within its administration. 

David House, whose 30 years in Catholic higher education include 12 years as president of St. Joseph’s College in Maine, would agree. 

Today he is executive director of The Center for the Study of Catholic Higher Education, which is affiliated with the Cardinal Newman Society, publishers of “The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College.” 

Although Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 apostolic exhortation that set down norms governing Catholic higher education, mandates only that authentic Catholic theology be “made available” to all students by competent theologians, it leaves to the universities themselves to determine the details of how this norm is to be satisfied, House told OSV.  

Nevertheless, “most people would reasonably conclude that the spirit of Ex Corde Ecclesiae favors including theology among the various academic disciplines required of their students — and this is supported by traditional practice.” 

For House, good Catholic theology requirements are not just helpful to Catholic identity, but indispensable. 

“I believe that it is essential for a Catholic university that wants to advance its Catholic mission and identity to expect its students to take at least two good, solid courses in Catholic theology,” particularly because so many receive little or no Catholic formation before college, House said. 

“Offering daily Mass and devotions like the Rosary, making confessions readily available, and having a vibrant and active campus ministry program are all crucial elements, but they will remain superficial overlays without the foundations that students can obtain from theology courses.” 

Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.