How Catholic Universities Fool Their Donors

By Deal W. Hudson

During my eight years at Crisis, the conversation that most often reoccurs is the one about the fate of the Catholic university and college. It begins inevitably with an alumnus complaining about the latest anti-Catholic outbreak on the hallowed grounds of their former college campus and ends with their asking me for advice. I always respond by asking them whether or not they’ve spoken to the administration with their wallets, either threatening to end donations and/or actually pulling the trigger. Nine out of ten times they shake their heads sadly saying, “No, I can’t do that; it’s better to keep a place at the table or the problem will only get worse.”

Wrong answer.

Most college graduates are nostalgic: Carefree days filled with books, sports, and sporting around. It’s difficult to get hard-hearted toward all that, especially when you add nuns and priests who taught you the Faith and the lessons of life. When the experience becomes multigenerational, the bonding to a particular campus is almost irresistible. And Catholics are nothing if not loyal. History has shown that they’ll forgive anything—from a decade of losing football teams to a theology department full of professors eager to bash, or slyly subvert, the Church in the national media.

By staying in touch with these alums, I’ve been able to observe how their colleges try to soothe them and keep them assured of their Catholic identity. The most obvious scheme is for the development department to ask them for a targeted gift—one that goes directly to some program that seems to reinforce orthodoxy. So programs in Catholic studies, lecture series, or campus ministries are created and offered to skeptical donors as a way of sticking with the institution while—wink, wink—the tenured faculty retires or moves on and younger, more faithful professors are hired.

Such philanthropy may salve the donor’s conscience, but it does nothing for the Catholic identity of the institution except distract everyone’s attention away from its primary concern: what’s being taught in the classroom. What good does it do to pay for a tasty dessert when the main course remains undercooked? Does an occasional lecture from George Weigel change the character of a university? (Even Weigel isn’t that good!) Does taking a group of existing courses from different departments and lumping them together under “Catholic Studies” ensure the Magisterial position is being taught and defended in the classroom? No—in fact, such programs may compound the problem, since the course on feminist interpretations of the “three Marys” is no longer solely in the province of the English department.

Next in line is what I call the “Ex Corde Ecclesiae Shuffle”—quite popular among college presidents and development directors. Concerned alums ask how the implementation and mandatum are going only to be warned of “those people in the Vatican” who are afraid of an educated laity. The inside story of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the alums are told, is that mean old Cardinal Ratzinger was uncomfortable with the “academic excellence” of the U.S. Catholic colleges and universities and didn’t really understand the tradition of “academic freedom” in this country. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, they’re told, is just another attempt by the Vatican to control the U.S. Church.

Perhaps the Vatican is concerned about an uneducated laity…one that’s uneducated in the Faith. Indeed, the anti-Roman antagonism on Catholic campuses rarely shows its face directly; rather, blunt comments are limited to the ears of those cognoscenti who earnestly wish for a “progressive” successor to John Paul II. For outsiders, it’s there to be seen and heard in the body language, the silences, and emphatic focus on “peace and justice” issues.

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t appear that any of the major Catholic institutions that fit this profile have any financial problems, although some smaller and mid-size schools have struggled and gone out of business. It may be that the more established schools have passed successfully through the period where donor pressure might have produced reforms: It’s unlikely that graduates from the 1970s will care enough about Catholic identity to withhold their money. Sadly, it appears that Catholic schools since the early 1970s have been producing the perfect donors: well-educated in the world of commerce and able to make enough money to give it away, but uneducated in the Faith and incapable of knowing when their beloved alma mater has drifted from its mission.

Published in Crisis Magazine, May 1, 2003

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