The Catholic University of America

Aug. 1, 2011

Why We Need Catholic Teachers

WASHINGTON (CNS) –  Ten years ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops published the documents implementing “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education. At that time, most of the controversy focused on the requirement that Catholic teachers of theology receive a permit or commission of sorts – known as the “mandatum” – from their local bishops.

Less prominent, but in some ways more important, was the directive that “the university should strive to recruit and appoint Catholics as professors so that, to the extent possible, those committed to the witness of the faith will constitute a majority of the faculty.”

Many people in academia have questioned the value of such a requirement. It is an important question, given Americans’ aversion to hiring quotas and the apparent irrelevance of religion in certain areas of study.

And in answering it we must keep in mind the unstated half of that sentence. Our faculties will (and should) welcome teachers who are not Catholic, both because at a university committed to academic freedom we need to hear different points of view; and because people of other faiths have unique and important contributions to make to the formation of our students.

It stands to reason, though, that Catholic universities would want Catholic professors to put a uniquely Catholic stamp on many subjects, such as art, music, literature, philosophy, history and politics. When we hire people for other departments – chemistry, physics, accounting, finance and mechanical engineering – the benefits of hiring Catholics are less obvious. (We don’t offer courses in Catholic organic chemistry or Catholic acoustic imaging.)

But this observation ignores the role that faculty should play in the formation of students at Catholic schools. Most of the Catholic colleges and universities in the United States were founded by religious orders that brought their special charisms to the cause of learning. For decades, the priests and sisters of these orders lived among the students in residence halls and interacted with them in constructive ways both inside and outside the classroom.

As a result, many of us look back at our days in Catholic universities and remember fondly the priests and religious brothers or sisters who deeply affected their lives. I owe my own vocation as a teacher in part to Holy Cross Father Claude Pomerleau, who is now a professor of political science at the University of Portland. He was studying for his Ph.D. while serving as our RA in Keenan Hall during my freshman year at Notre Dame.

Today, there are far fewer religious in academia, and at many Catholic universities their influence has waned or vanished. This is precisely the reason that Catholic laypeople are needed in our faculties, to pick up the slack.
At my university, The Catholic University of America, which was founded not by a religious order but by this nation’s Catholic bishops, we have an even greater obligation to see that laypeople fulfill this formative role.

In this light it is much easier to see why at Catholic University we stress the Catholicism of mechanical engineers no less than we do that of philosophers. As college students strive to find their roles in life – their professional callings as well as their marital and religious vocations – the upright lives and piety of their learned professors can have a profound and positive effect on them.

When I think of my own calling to teach, I think not only of Father Claude, but also of “Mr. Chips,” that long-lost cultural icon of novel and screen. This fictional and socially awkward protagonist doubted the value of his own teaching career when he realized that, at best, he was merely producing young Latin experts. Later in life, he found deeper meaning by befriending his students, reaching into their lives and offering them something far more profound.

Likewise, at Catholic universities, we are not just in the business of filling students’ brains with facts or even with useful concepts that will serve them in their careers and in life. If we fail to reach students as human beings, and to help them see that all knowledge serves the glory of God, then we fail in our mission.