Catholic higher education focuses on YOU! The enterprise exists for the purpose of preparing students for their life’s purpose. Intellectual development is Job 1; however, there is so much more that is happening as the faculty, administrators, and staff diligently labor to ensure all students are formed in ways that will ensure they are responsible citizens, productive members of society, and in many case ethical leaders who are sensitive to the underprivileged and acting in ways that contribute to the common good.
Certainly, the college experience should prepare students for the challenges of practical life, too. Thus, “learning how to learn” is immensely important and Catholic higher education teaches you the skills you will need as you face changing circumstances throughout life.
At least, that is what authentic Catholic higher education is all about.
If the Catholic college or university accepts its higher calling as something “more than” just preparing students to earn a wage, then you should easily recognize in its offerings and activities five separate-but-distinct dimensions. Each one is equally important and all five must be present. Borrowing a framework offered in a homily of St. John Chrysostom, you can approach your college search remembering five dimensions of the body as a metaphor: head, heart, mouth, hand, and feet.
The first dimension is the institution should be recognized for academic excellence. The head represents a school offering knowledge that is supported by reason in the search for truth inspired within an environment that recognizes the importance of academic freedom. All professors will respect Catholic doctrine. All students should be exposed to higher levels of thinkers and thinking. The general education requirements, or core curriculum, reflect a broad range of intellectual inquiry rather than narrow specialized offerings. You should be afforded the opportunity to read and reflect on writers from antiquity. Be worried if only the so-called “modern age” thinkers are considered worthy or if the institution suggests that only “science” can offer definitive answers to your questions.
For the second dimension consider the use of the heart. In your search you should observe activities that demonstrate care for the community, concern for the poor, and respect for the human dignity for people of all ages. Student activities in the development of the whole-person will necessarily extend beyond the classroom: a vibrant co-curricular program matters. Be worried if you do not see extracurricular activities that focus on aiding those that are marginalized by society, and even more worried if those activities have low student participation.
A Catholic college or university will have Jesus Christ at the center of its existence and will joyfully proclaim this friendship. The mouth, then, is representative of the third dimension. The sacraments should be readily and regularly available. Theology, the study of God, is available if not encouraged. The faculty will have a Department or Chair of Theology. The theologians will have their mandatum. And the school will engage with you in a conversation on how faith and reason work together in a culture of truth. Service and community should be alive on campus, and you should sense a passion for serving others. Be worried if the school you are examining avoids the word “Catholic” on the website or in the speech of either admissions staffs or student ambassadors.
The hands work for the head and the heart. An authentic Catholic college or university practices the faith in the good works and deeds of the institutional community. You will see students, faculty, staff and others working on projects that are in service to others. The faculty research agenda will focus scholarship in areas that contribute to the unity of knowledge and the common good. The President will be involved with campus activities as a volunteer worker…not “the usual role” of a decision maker. Be worried if you are unable to make an assessment of the “action” of the school you are considering…if you can’t “see it” then it probably isn’t there.
Finally, the feet. You may have heard this before: “walk the talk.” If the school is going to teach you ethics, then decision-making throughout the institution must be ethical. If the school is going to teach social justice, then faculty should be teaching and producing scholarship on topics such as poverty, racism, sexism, and other areas that infringe on each person’s ability to make uniquely personal contributions. Persons of all faiths should be welcomed on campus. In the search for truth, the teachings of the Catholic Church are not discarded in public lectures. And those that do not honor the dignity of human life are not afforded a public platform for praise. Be worried if you review the most recent commencement speakers and discover their views stand in opposition to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The head. The heart. The mouth. The hands. The feet.
The body doesn’t function properly if all five of these physical features are not acting in unison.
Neither does a college or university seeking to be authentically Catholic.