What Makes a College Catholic? [Parishioner Reflection]



I was asked to write something about Catholic education to be featured during Catholic Schools Week (January 26 - February 1, 2020). I am typically reticent with this topic, so I hesitated at first. The more I thought about it, I decided it might be good to highlight some of my own experiences in the world of Catholic higher education in the hopes that this might frame what I believe is the difference between an authentically Catholic college and what is not. 

When I was in my early twenties, thoughts of a calling to the priesthood brought me to reside in a diocesan house of formation. As I was living and praying with the other men of the house, I was asked to start pre-theology courses at a local Catholic college. I took two philosophy and two theology courses. Here is what I experienced. 

Of my four professors, only one was Catholic, a priest who taught a good ethics class. My biblical studies professor was some form of Protestant denomination; my moral theology professor was a Lutheran; and my Introduction to Philosophy professor was a non-believer. I later found out that the chair of the theology department was not a practicing Christian. I had no personal problems with these individuals, although I quite often disagreed with them in class. My question is, does this qualify as Catholic education? 

Some years later, after I had moved on from the diocesan formation house, I decided God might be calling me to pursue a degree in theology as a layman. I expressed my frustrations with my previous Catholic college experience to a priest friend. I explained that I didn’t find it helpful to have to defend the teachings of the Church to my professors who were supposed to be forming me in the truths of the Catholic faith. He recommended I go out of state and attend a small liberal arts college in Ohio called the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I eventually attended F.U.S. and after three years received a B.A. in Theology. 

It would be unfair to draw a complete comparison of these two schools based on my limited experience of the first and my extensive experience of the second. However, since graduating from F.U.S. in 2013, I have almost six years of experience working in higher education, two as an Admissions Counselor at F.U.S. and I am currently well into my fourth year at Wyoming Catholic College. Many folks who read this article will more than likely have never heard of either one of these schools. This is a shame because they represent a small contingent of authentically Catholic colleges, ones that strive for fidelity to the magisterial teachings of the Church. 

If one reads this list of faithful Catholic colleges – easily accessible with a quick internet search and a few clicks of the mouse – you will not find the likes of Notre Dame, Georgetown, or Holy Cross; you will not see Boston College, Villanova, or Xavier; Fordham, Iona, and St. Bonaventure will not be listed. If you are asking yourself why not, then consider first asking, what makes a college Catholic? 

According to the Cardinal Newman Society, there are five guiding principles that one should follow when evaluating whether a college is indeed Catholic. These principles are outlined in great detail on their website and I would highly recommend giving them a read. For my purposes here, I will simply give you my opinion. 

When I worked in the Admissions Department of Franciscan University, parents would often ask, “Why send my son or daughter here versus somewhere else?” Most of the families who visited the school were from another state, where the tuitions were lower and the schools closer to home. My answer was always the same, “If you want your son or daughter to be in an environment that encourages them to grow in their Catholic faith and be educated in the truth, send them here. That’s what happened with me and most of the 400 students with whom I graduated.”

At F.U.S. three Masses are offered per day during the week and they are all typically filled with college students; confession is available five days a week and the lines are always out the door; twenty-four hour adoration is fully staffed by the students, who often make great sacrifices to be with our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. This fruitful sacramental life pervades all other areas of the campus as well, from academics to student life, from the dorm room to the sports fields where students can be found praying together before and after games. It is a place where sanctity and virtue are fostered not sneered at and derided. For many young men and women, this environment is the difference between keeping the faith given to them by their parents or losing it to an increasingly secular culture. 

What I experienced at the first Catholic college I attended was quite different from my time at F.U.S. They offered one Mass per day during the week and maybe a dozen students regularly attended; confession was offered by appointment only; adoration happened one day per week for one hour. To my knowledge this miniscule sacramental life had little to no impact on the academics, student life, or athletics. This was not a place where sanctity and virtue were fostered and although my personal judgement doesn’t mean much to the greater world in which we live, I am eternally grateful for the education and formation I ultimately received at Franciscan University. It truly was the difference in my life.


~ Scott Tygett