Parents, as the first educators of their child and participating in the selection of an institution of higher education, are faced with challenges that perhaps their own parents had not faced: Will their teenager embrace the truths of the Church after their college experience? Historically, if a young person selected a Catholic college parents felt confident they would be supporting an educational experience supportive of Church teaching. Current anecdotal evidence suggests this may not always remain the case. Numerous mandates interfere with Catholic higher education’s unique role in preparing graduates to respond to the escalating moral questions of the day. These mandates may be from regulatory agencies, policies concerning academic freedom, legal claims labeling natural moral law as intolerant and discriminatory, and most impactfully, the demands of politically correct cultural relativism.
Catholic higher education has a unique role that extends beyond the education of the next generation. During Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 address to Catholic educators in the United States, he indicated how education plays a unique role in shaping a society respectful of natural moral law based on ultimate truths: “The Church’s primary mission of evangelization, in which educational institutions play a crucial role, is consonant with a nation’s fundamental aspiration to develop a society truly worthy of the human person’s dignity. … The Church’s mission, in fact, involves her in humanity’s struggle to arrive at truth. In articulating revealed truth she serves all members of society by purifying reason, ensuring that it remains open to the consideration of ultimate truths. Drawing upon divine wisdom, she sheds light on the foundation of human morality and ethics, and reminds all groups in society that it is not praxis that creates truth but truth that should serve as the basis of praxis.” [Benedict XVI, Address to Catholic Educators (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, April 17, 2008).]
The most effective method of fulfilling this mission is by preparing graduates capable of shaping a society that respects natural moral law. However, society has become hostile, not only to the ultimate truths of natural moral law, but also to those who espouse them. Catholic colleges may find it financially and socially expedient to deemphasize such a mission. In so doing, students may be cheated of an education in ultimate truths consistent with reason, vital to the holistic development of the human person. The question remains: What is a parent, in assisting a college-seeking child, to do?
There are indicators of a Catholic institution’s willingness to fulfill its unique role. These include: the nature of institutional sponsorship; the composition of the institution’s board of directors and their membership in organizations which publicly advocate for positions inconsistent with Church teaching; the public positions taken by board members, the administration, and the faculty; the sources of institutional funding; the nature and number of mandated core courses in religious studies and philosophy; and the institution’s collaborative relationships with other agencies in meeting the educational needs of students. One very telling indicator is how the institution describes itself and its mission in promotional materials. Is its mission defined solely in terms of secular goals or in terms of the foundational goal of enabling students to discern ultimate truths consistent with natural moral law? Perhaps, most importantly, does the institution identify itself as Catholic, or merely as value or faith-based?
Catholic institutions of higher education have remained critical to the scientific, socio-cultural, and moral development of this nation. If parents, with their college-seeking children, are comfortable with what they have learned when assessing these parameters, they have a basis for entrusting the next generation to Catholic higher education.
DR. MARIE HILLIARD, MS, MA, JCL, PH.D., RN, is Senior Fellow at The National Catholic Bioethics Center. She has an extensive background in nursing, medical ethics, and public policy (former Director of the CT Catholic Conference). She is a canon lawyer, co-chairs the Ethics Committee of the Catholic Medical Association, is president of the National Association of Catholic Nurses USA, and is a Colonel (Ret.) in the U.S. Army Reserve, where she served as RN for over 20 years. Having published extensively, she has likewise won Catholic Press Association award recognition.