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In this episode of the Saturdays at Seven Podcast, Todd Ream interviews Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. They begin by talking about the “warming of relations” between Catholics and Protestants, as well as, how many Catholic colleges and universities started. Then, they discuss how Vatican II has influenced Catholic colleges and universities and how the Church and church-related higher ed institutions can be of greater service to each other.
- George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University
- John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney’s The Resilience of Religion in Higher Education
- Jim Heft books
- “Future of the Church-Related University” consultation
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest is Father Dennis H. Holtschneider, a member of the Congregation of the Mission, otherwise known as the Vincentians, and President of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Thank you for joining us.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Happy to be here.
Todd Ream: Grant Wacker, Billy Graham’s biographer and longtime historian at Duke University, once noted that the greatest transformation that occurred in 20th century American religious history was, quote, “The warming of relations shared by Catholics and Protestants,” end quote. Over the course of your service as a priest, teacher, scholar, and university administrator, in what ways have you seen those relations change?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: So it’s absolutely true. It is my experience. I have watched the scandal of Christ divided lessened in my lifetime. You know, we are still divided at 11 o’clock as, as was often said about Christianity, uh, on Sundays. Everyone in their own churches and yet, uh, the great thought that, um, either one of us was in league, um, with the devil, or either one of us couldn’t possibly access the eternal gates has softened in our time.
And we have, we have discovered the holy in each other. And, uh, both formally in our official documents, but more in our human relations. And so, just the sheer breadth of intermarriage between our communities has vastly changed in my lifetime. I do as many marriages across religious boundaries, as I do within religious boundaries. Um, make what you want of it. It is a sign of our communities, um, and the distrust having been lessened.
You know, but I also watch us holding together in the ways we didn’t for social good out there. Um, so there’s an awful lot of projects for the larger world that we, uh, that we engage together, um, because of our common convictions.
Um, uh, you know. most recently, you see things like our collective voice for religious freedom. Um, the Becket Fund has been a powerful force, um, in, in all of our lives and helping us to make sure this, uh, this country realizes it’s a, it’s promise of welcome to people of all different, uh, convictions and, uh, it’s, uh, we have held together. And a lot of those, uh, a lot of those advocacy moments with, with courts and with, uh, legislatures in recent years. Um, and that’s been really important for a lot of us too.
Um, so yeah, so besides the way we pray together, besides the ways that, uh, um, we live near each other and become part of each other’s lives. I’ve, I’ve watched people lessen the, the ways that they, uh, mistrust among each other and, uh, and take for granted the fact that we are all children of the one God.
Todd Ream: I know I personally couldn’t imagine the arc of my career and the ways that I’ve been called to express my vocation as a scholar and as a teacher without my Catholic brethren, uh, and the contributions that they’ve made, both, you know, in the literature, but also personally to me, and yeah, I count that as a blessing.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Yeah, for me, personally, it was, uh, you know, it was, uh, the, uh, the social justice leaders and organizations that, uh, came out of the Christian tradition and became something that we all worked on together with Sojourners. It was Bread for the World. It was the work of Martin Luther King and all those who followed him for racial justice, um, out of the churches. Um, it was, it was the ways that we began to work together for the good of a world in need.
Todd Ream: Catholic higher education in the United States is comprised of a vast network of over 200 institutions. The oldest, Georgetown University, founded in 1789. It has approximately 21, 000 students and is not the largest, necessarily, in the United States, while one of the youngest institutions, Wyoming Catholic College, founded in 2005, has approximately 200 students. As the president of the Association of Catholic College and Universities, how do you make sense out of the great diversity of institutions that define this vast network?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a big tent, um, in a lot of ways. Um, you know, to collectively, um, we’re serving, you know, 700,000 students every year. Um, it’s, it’s a, it’s a massive enterprise. And it’s one of the social outreaches of our Church, um, to be a, you know, force for good within the world community. And frankly, it’s, it helps build the Church too.
But it’s a, but it’s, uh- we’ve never thought about these as schools just for Catholics, no more than our Catholic hospitals think of themselves as just for Catholic sick people. This is a larger Christian outreach to the world.
Um, but, you know, we have even newer ones that are currently in formation that, uh, uh- we have, uh, St. Joseph the Worker in Steubenville and Harmel Academy of the Trades, and, um, Kateri College of the Liberal Arts in New Mexico, Catholic Polytechnic in LA, um, so, uh, the Collegium in Hagerstown. Um, we have a lot of schools that are in the formation force right now. Uh, quite a number of them are either up and running or will be up and running within a year.
Um, and, and they have new models. They’re, they’re actually teaching, um, plumbing and electrical and the trades and putting theology and philosophy into a core curriculum to educate the whole person at the same time. It’s an interesting model, um, and we’ll see how it goes.
But so much of our schools since Georgetown were all startups at some point, and they were all saying, all right, there’s a need, um, for many of them. For the, for the Catholic immigrant community when they first started or for women. Two thirds of our colleges were founded by women, nuns, um, and many of them for women because they had no opportunities and then became coed over time.
Um, it’s a, we have schools that have focused on the research work like at Georgetown or Notre Dame or Boston College. We have schools that are very focused on, uh, you know, hispanic immigrants, um, and effective find themselves that way. We, um, you know, we, we have schools for many different purposes and different varieties because of the human need.
Our schools are almost all founded on the ground because of a human need that was seen. They’re not driven from the top. There is no office that says the United States should found another Catholic college. They’re almost always from the bottom up, um, and then they join this great variety. And even along the liberal-conservative range of, of thought, um, we have schools that of all types and, uh, it’s, uh, it’s, it’s a service, um, and every day that you work in it, like I do, you experience that great variety. It’s, it’s, it’s a healthy, beautiful thing.
Todd Ream: Yeah, it’s got to be very rewarding then to have experienced such diversity of institutions, uh and the focus and the way they serve in the name of Christ. Most Catholic college & universities in the United States were founded by religious orders and a large measure of what defines those orders and in turn those campuses are charisms, spiritual gifts offered by the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, time doesn’t allow us to talk about all those orders and all of their respective charisms.
But as a Vincentian priest, would you elaborate on the charisms that define your order?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Sure. So that’s, that’s 90% of our schools. 90% of those 200 schools you heard about were founded by a religious congregation. And so whether it’s Sisters of Mercy or Jesuits or Franciscans or Benedictines there’s, um… And they, they do have a way of following Christ that focuses on something particularized, even as they embody the fullness of the faith.
Uh, for my religious congregation, it was founded by Saint Vincent de Paul. Uh, Saint Vincent de Paul was the guy in the 1600s who lived when poverty shifted from a rural thing to an urban thing. There were three wars in France that drove all the poor into the city. And then suddenly, there was nothing to handle poor in the city. And so he had to figure out how to feed them, how to clothe them, how to put them to work, how to train them. And he had to, he had to think, what is it like to care for the poor in an urban situation? And then he left behind my group and said, keep doing the work.
So we’re, we’re fully Catholic and at the same time, we have a focus. And our focus is poverty work, and it always has been. So it, uh, we have many parishes that are in poor areas of, of, of the world. Um, but we also have some universities because in the United States, for sure, is the fastest way to bring somebody out of poverty. You can bring a whole family and their family afterwards, um, with a, a good college degree and get them mainstreamed.
And so we tried to create colleges that combine, um, development in their faith with a chance to move upward. And then we, uh, and then we just shift all of our work that way. So, um, I had the pleasure of leading a university called DePaul University in Chicago for many, many years, which, uh, in my time had about 25,000 students. So I didn’t know all of them all by name. It was, uh, it was a marvelous work of first generation kids just filled with first generation kids, the first in their families to go to college.
Graduation was as much for the parents as it was for the kids because this was their dream. This was the reason that they came to the United States. It’s the reason they worked nights as well as days. And cleaned the stairs and worked in the back rooms and kitchens. And did- these parents did so much so their children would have a better life. And we, uh, we have the privilege of being part of that dream.
That’s kind of a focus of ours, even as we try to run a fully Catholic institution. Um, there’s always been that focus of where we put our financial aid and how we try to help people to succeed in that regard.
Todd Ream: And I assume, you know, uh, two other Vincentian schools in Niagara, which is in the Buffalo area and St. John’s in New York City were established in those locations for comparable reasons as DePaul in the Chicago area.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Yeah. St. John’s for sure. That’s absolutely true in New York. Um, Niagara, interestingly, was founded first as a seminary for the training of priests and then it took day students and then the day school took over the seminary. Uh, so it has its own particularized history, but today it still has a very Vincentian focus and the way that it not only brings poor people in for an education, but it kind of exposes all students to poverty so they can think about what difference they’re going to make in the world as adults.
And so it, it has a real good sense- that that’s where I met the Vincentians. I was a college student at Niagara University. And so that was my, uh, my starting place.
Todd Ream: I was going to ask you next, actually, if you would please share with us your story of your calling to the priesthood and in particular of your calling to the Vincentians.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: I, I break that into pieces because the Holy Spirit’s worked on me a lot of different times along my life. Um, and, uh, but my first calling was to be a teacher without question. I knew I wanted to be a teacher by fourth grade. And, and I was invited into that work in a voluntary way at my Catholic school to help, to help with, uh, the summer training program as a, a student assistant to a faculty member.
And, uh, and I did that every summer through my childhood. Um, and I wanted to be a teacher forever. And that, that’s an inner part of me that is, that is built in because of those, uh, what those nuns invited me into early on, um, the work and then, uh, um, so I, I trained at Niagara to be a high school math teacher.
Um, and then, uh, uh, joined my religious congregation because they put together both work for the Church, work for the poor and education ministry all in one place and the Vincentians were able to think about how you do that all as a whole, except they got rid of their high schools and focused on universities. So make a plan and then let God lead. That’s kind of how it went.
I suddenly found myself in university work and loved it. Loved students at that age, loved their questions and their questioning and their doubts and their cynicism and their humor and everything that a college student has and loved being able to plant ideas at the same time and get them to really think. And it’s, uh, it’s been a lifework ever since.
Todd Ream: No, I think that’s why a number of us who work with college students find it so energizing is the, the kinds of questions and the honesty with which those questions come and then there’s a certain, you know, of course, creative flair, uh, that comes with college students too. Some things they do, you just have to learn to laugh at.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Shake your head.
Todd Ream: Yeah, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have thought about that.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: As people probably did for us.
Todd Ream: Exactly. No, I, I, I don’t answer any questions about my own or especially early child, my early college years. So you were born on the eve of Vatican II and to date in your estimation, which documents enacted by the Council Fathers had the greatest impact on Catholic higher education?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Oh, wow. So I love that I got my doctorate in higher ed policy and it served me very well. And especially in my current job, but if I were to do another doctorate today, I would actually do it in intellectual history because I love watching how ideas take root over time or get rejected over time and how much time it takes for an idea to enter the world’s consciousness. And Vatican too is a perfect example of that.
There was, it was 60 years in the making before those ideas fermented in a, in a Church Council, which is our highest gathering of, of, uh, church authority. And, uh, only happens every century or, you know, or less. Those ideas are still working their way into the human consciousness and still debated in some ways, but, you know, that is the council that made us rethink how we use Scripture and how we approach Scripture.
Um, it’s a, uh, we integrated scholarship and faith. And it’s fine to read the holy books, but you probably know something about the history of how the holy books, um, came to be and what was going on at the time. You can understand the prophets a whole lot better if you understand the history of what the prophets were speaking to when they were, when they were making their pronouncements and judgments, etc. Um, and you could certainly understand Jesus a whole lot better.
I just finished reading Pagola’s book on Jesus, um, Spanish theologian, 500 pages. But it summarizes a hundred years of the work on finding the historical Jesus. What do we know for sure about this man through the, you know, through the- and bringing that scholarship together with the, the inspiration of the text has changed Scripture for our Church and the way that we we we we take it and and bring it to heart.
You know, it was um, it was a powerful Council too, in terms of the topic we spoke about a few moments ago. And that was the way Catholics looked out at the rest of the world. We really saw ourselves and used the phrase the one true faith in ways that led to holy wars and led to a great violence and real shame in a past history. And that Council put to rest the idea that one can only attain eternal life through this church.
Um, and that’s a powerful, powerful change in the way of thinking, but it has so united us with a much larger humanity. Um, I’m glad that, uh, I lived in this, on this side of the Council instead of before, to tell you truth, uh, for that one idea alone. I think another big piece, you know, for the Council, for us, was this thought from Lumen Gentium that when it was under construction, it’s, uh, they changed the order of the chapters.
They had done a chapters kind of on church leaders first and then later on they got around members. And they reversed it in the final editing and, uh, and that reversal completely changed what that document was saying. It was saying, you know, everyone in the Church has a vocation. Everyone in the Church is important to it. And it changed Catholic higher education, because Catholic higher education had been largely um, a priest-nun enterprise, with brothers, priest brothers and sisters, with some laity to assist them.
And that all changed after, uh, Vatican II for many reasons, but also because of Vatican II saying, lay people should lead the Church’s work where lay people have the competence to do it. And that’s been true for our schools, our social service ministries, our health care ministries, and our higher education ministries. These are works of the Church, but they’re works of largely of lay people in the Church.
Um, people like me are a very distinct minority now, and it’s amazing to watch that switch over time. Um, and there’s so much more. We could do a whole session on Vatican II. Um, but, uh, but those ideas, which were 60 years in the making are now 50, 60 years in the adopting and implementing and finding the actual, you know, intensity of what they mean for how we go about being Church. And, uh, it’s, it’s interesting to watch that occur on a worldwide basis.
Todd Ream: My friend and former classmate, the theologian Matthew Levering, who’s at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago has done a fair amount of work on Vatican II and I think one of the things that has stuck in my mind is his reference to it as a, a work in progress. That still to this day, Vatican II is a work in progress in terms of how it’s unfolding. In what ways, if any, would you say Vatican II is still unfolding in terms of its impact on Catholic colleges and universities?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: It’s partly Vatican II, but it’s something else going on as well. Martin Marty used to say, if you look at all the world’s major religions, all of them, you will find a pretty, a pretty tough divide, uh, between people on conservative-liberal ranges. And you’ll find that in Hinduism, you’ll find it in Judaism, you’ll find it, um, in Buddhism for sure. You’ll find it in Christianity, Catholicism. And so his, his observation was, uh, this isn’t, therefore, an entirely religious thing.
Something else is going on in larger humanity if it’s going across all religions, but it is, it is true that some of the division within the Catholic Church, um, focuses on Vatican II and some of its ideas. And whether they’re adopted or how they’re adopted or what was meant or if the Vatican, uh, you know, the fathers went too far. And so that debate still exists. You can find it all over the Internet if you want to go find it.
And, uh, and, and people are still thinking through it. Um, even as lots of the major ideas, some of which I mentioned a moment ago, are very much adopted at this point, but there’s still a bit of division that uses Vatican II as kind of it’s, it’s clinging point or it’s rejection point in probably unfair ways. But it’s symbolic and sometimes symbolic symbols take that energy and I think Vatican II has taken some of that energy.
Todd Ream: Okay Yep, thank you. One of the greatest assets of Catholic higher education is its access to resources populating the larger sort of Catholic intellectual tradition, which Catholic higher education certainly contributes to its, you know, in terms of its curation, but also its ongoing development. Which resources populating that tradition have you found most profitable for individual educators to consult?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: I’ll answer the question, but I’ll start with this. I’ve always thought of our primary resources at a university as our scholars. What are we but a collective, a collectivity of scholars. We bring them together, we give them a health plan, and we say go to it.
Todd Ream: And parking too, by the way, hopefully there’s parking.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Yeah, hopefully enough parking or, or often close enough.
Todd Ream: Close enough parking. There we go. Yeah. I stand corrected. Exactly.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: So, um, so, but, but in truth, it is an extraordinary thing. I used to be so jealous when I was working at DePaul to be surrounded by, you know, a couple thousand experts in all these different fields and I had to go to work every day. I couldn’t go sit in on their classes. It probably would have freaked them out to have the president sitting in their classes anyway. But the truth is I could have learned so much from those people, and that’s what we do.
We assemble people who want to become experts in a field so they can be a blessing to the world, and that’s what we have. Um, at Catholic universities, we try to make sure that the scholarship that we do, thinks about the whole person. And, uh, so whereas I taught at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, in their doctoral program, I wouldn’t mention God, in my teaching in any kind of way, or a person’s faith journey.
Um, but in fact, um, at Catholic universities, we can. It’s on the table. And we can reflect on the great ideas of faith in terms of how people think about what is a full life and a life well lived. And when we think about psychological development, how does religion play into a person’s sense of well-being and health and mental, mental capacity and all the rest. And you know, there’s so many fields that when you leave it out, you’re leaving out key questions.
Um, so we can think about ethics questions when we’re talking about genetic engineering. We can talk about that in our computer programs when we think about AI. Um, we can bring tradition into conversation with the current questions of humanity, and that’s what we try to do. It’s as important to draw on the past, as to raise the questions of the current and, and then to invite people to think about those questions with all the resources of the past. You talked about the resources.
Well, I mean, uh, you know, as we speak during this recording, um, Israel, um, is poised at war with, um, with Gaza. And, you know, in our tradition, a resource is that we have a large history of thinking that war is just under certain conditions, but what are the conditions? Under which war is either just or war is pursued. And are there conditions along those route? That’s Thomas Aquinas. We still use Thomas Aquinas when we think about how does one conduct a war, um, justly, and what are the criteria.
And, uh, but you have to think about, okay, but that was written at a time of, uh, of organized armies. And right now we’re talking about an organized army versus kind of a, um, a terrorist organization. And how do you bring the history to that? So we try not to bring the history in a, in a, in a simplistic way. We try to think through the current questions and their great gravity. But drawing on the tradition where the tradition can be helpful. And that’s, that’s what we do as a Catholic university.
Todd Ream: When working with senior administrators, but perhaps also even with faculty, uh, serving at various institutions, uh, what resources from the Catholic intellectual tradition, uh, have you found to be most profitable to recommend to them when they think about the, their institution’s character, what it tries to pursue in terms of its mission and affect the lives of students and pursue truth?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: When I have conversations with faculty, I don’t start by saying here, read this. I ask, what are you working on?
Todd Ream: Mm-hmm.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: And then, when I hear the questions and they’re thinking, and I say, alright, are you asking this? Are you thinking that? And then I’ll try to draw their attention to things in the tradition of other writers who actually thought through that with them before because we have experts who are both alive and who are no longer alive. But they left their expertise in a place called our library.
And, and that’s the great piece of scholarship, right? You’re, you’re, you’re trying to bring people’s attention to all of it. So I don’t have one book that I send faculty to. I don’t have one author or even one century. Um, I try to begin with what are you working on? What are the questions of great concern? And where in the tradition can I draw your attention that might actually take you further down the road as you think about this?
And there’s a lot. We have, we have two millennia of, uh, of people thinking about great questions. See, people always, uh, people don’t realize the Catholic and, of course, the Christian Church, didn’t start with universities, but by the second century we had research libraries. Literally, we had research libraries. And then we had scholars holed up in monasteries. We’ve been doing intellectual life for a long time.
And there’s a, and we’ve been thinking through great questions of the world and, and there are resources we can draw people to as they do that. So I don’t have one book I’m afraid. I’m going to be disappointing to you in that regard.
Todd Ream: Mm hmm. No. No. Thank you very much. The threat of secularization to Catholic higher education. It came arguably later, much faster and in different ways than it did for Protestant higher education. And admittedly, I’m risking grave oversimplification here, but the decline in professions for religious orders in the 70s and 80s created leadership shortages for Catholic colleges and universities and is argued as being one of the dimensions of that.
In many ways, if any, has that trend been reversed? Um, in what ways are members of religious orders prepared to invest in lay leaders, uh, today that are now found in increasing numbers on Catholic college and university campuses?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Yeah, the secularization really occurred first watching its fly across Europe, and now it’s, you know, it’s absolutely here, um, and, uh, you’ll find any number of books on the, the fastest growing rise of religious identification, which, on a checklist, are you Christian, are you Jewish, are you Hindu, or are you none? And the fastest growing selection by, by young people is none. Um, now that, the growth in that has now stopped, but it stopped at a very high level.
And so it’s interesting to kind of watch that occur in our country. Um, and it’s, uh, absolutely plays out in the university because we educate the young so we see it in a way before lots of the country even sees it. And it’s somewhat, it’s somewhat startling.
There was a meeting back in 1995 at the University of St. Thomas. Um, that was, uh, that was a reaction to a, a Protestant historian’s work by the name of George Marsden. George was on the faculty of Notre Dame, but he wrote a book called The Soul of the American University. Um, and in it, he told the story of how Protestant universities lost their faith over time and became fully and completely secularized. So your Harvards your Princetons and the rest of them.
And he did not write about Catholic universities in that book. But our presidents read it and they were startled. And said, many of the signs that were early signs along the path for Protestant schools, they recognized in our own schools because it’s not just that the students are less religious, but the faculty member are also part of the young generation. They’ve just gotten their doctoral degrees. They are less religious. And, uh, if indeed you’re, you’re trying to run universities as the people that you draw upon, both students and faculty are increasingly less religious, even if they claim a religion.
Um, you know, they might be Catholic, but haven’t gone to church in years. And they claim it as kind of a cultural identification more than a religious practice. And the question is how do we keep these schools Catholic over time? And the former answer was priests and nuns. Well, that’s a lousy answer these days because we’re not a growth industry. Um, there’s very few of us. I’m still one of the youngest in my own religious congregation and I’m in my early 60s.
So really, this is the bet is on laity to do this work, and so we’ve been, since ’95 in the United States, working hard to put in place a long series of supports. So the religious can- so that laity can lead this work. And so we now have vice presidents of well over 80% of our schools for mission, because if it’s everybody’s job, it’s nobody’s job. So there’s now a vice president who is in charge to make sure the faith basis of this institution stays vibrant and strong. That’s a really interesting job that they’re inventing as they hold these jobs.
We’re putting in committees on the trustees. Where there might be a committee on athletics or a committee on academics, there’s now a committee on mission on our boards. So the board takes on responsibility to watch over this and make sure that stuff is vibrant and it’s funded and it’s supported.
Um, we have created so many national training programs now, I can’t even count them. But for student affairs officers, for mid range administrators, for new presidents, for pick your, for DEI officers. But how to do this in a faith-based setting? How do you do your work for a faith-based purpose in a faith-based setting? And we’ve got those training programs across the country now. We’re running them constantly. That’s a big part of my job here in Washington and the association. That’s the work, a lot of that we do and support.
Um, and so there’s a lot of research happening on best practices, a lot of books being put out. But the question is, in this new world, how do we, uh, how do we, where many times students are discovering a faith culture after they arrive at our institutions that they may not have before that, how do we work with this generation and how do we bring them into that faith culture? And how do we show them the riches and possibility of it? Um, and how do we make sure that never goes away and that there are faculty and staff who are prepared to do that?
Um, so it’s, it’s, it’s a huge project. There’s no guarantee of success. Um, it is the largest challenge we have without question. Um, and, uh, and, uh, it’s, it’s taking a lot of our attention at work these days. Um, so God bless George Marsden for setting us on task. But it’s a, it’s a big task.
Todd Ream: Along these lines and echoing a comment, uh, once made by Pope Francis, uh, many believe higher education is not witnessing an era of change, but a change in an era.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: That’s a great point.
Todd Ream: Significant qualitative distinction that is now emerging here from by comparison to our previous culture. If accurate, in what ways, if any, do you believe the identity of Catholic college and universities will be enhanced by such a change?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: The problem with a big phrase, like, uh, a new era or is that, uh, um, it’s, it’s, it’s both feels true and it’s undefined. Um, and, um, so. But uh, I do find that our students, when they arrive these days, really deeply care about the world. We’ve had generations that cared less. This group, this generation cares an enormous amount.
And you see it in their willingness to jump into any volunteer opportunity they can. And so the growth of service-learning is exponential, of students being involved in work and trying to, trying to be a blessing for the larger world, even, even before they enter it as full time employees, but as college students.
But you see it too, in the questions they raise in their classes and, and the ethics questions where they push the boundaries, sometimes uncomfortably push boundaries on, uh, on matters that, um, some of our faith-based folks who prefer they not because they, uh, they have what they perceive to be justice or injustice in the world. So there are, they’re thinking and they care.
Um, and our job is to help them touch a whole tradition that can better inform their really good hearts. Um, and so, um, that’s a, that’s a challenge and an enormous opportunity. And, uh, so some people feel bad about the current generation. I love the current generation I think, I think they’re fantastic. Uh, we just have to be careful not to let them down and not to fail them. It’s our opportunity to educate them. And, uh, that’s, that’s our role to make sure we do that.
Todd Ream: Yeah, no, I, as a student of the religious and cultural history of the 1960s, I think we’re seeing some of the similar, some of the same similar questions emerging at this point in time, uh, in terms of motivations and engagement. And as uh with individuals who invested in say programs, you know ,such as the Peace Corps to try to give it deeper roots of investment, uh in culture and learn, you know to not just simply ride the wave of perhaps emotion, in terms of cause, but to leverage that emotion in ways that can then find institutional and structural ways of transitioning things long term.
And I think that’s part of our challenge today is how we do that for students. You talk about helping them connect with a longer tradition. What does that look like then, uh, as you see it being done on Catholic college and university campuses for young people? And that perhaps the spirit of change in which they’re invested today is one that we’ll still be experiencing 15, 20 years from now.
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Yeah. Um, so a few answers to that. Um, first, um, one of the most important books I believe written in the past few years has been the co-authored book by John Schmalzbauer, a Protestant sociologist, and Kathleen Mahoney, a Catholic historian. And they called it the Resilience of Religion in Higher Education.
And, and what they said is they went in to look at how religion was leaving the academy. And they actually found that that story was wrong. And there’s nothing like data to get in the way of a good conviction. And, uh, so for some ways that book still needs to be pushed out because people are still telling the story of religion leaving the academy, and there is no data to support that.
In fact, the growth is in the other direction right now, and that’s not just the faith-based schools, but they’re showing the rise of religion in the non faith-based schools. And, uh, it’s an extraordinary book, so I recommend it to anyone listening to this. And so I start in a place of hope in that one. Um, as, as I think about these questions.
But one of their points is that one of the reasons this has turned around is all the resources that have been put in place in recent years, funded by outside funders, um, so that faculty and students can draw from them. Um, and that’s, that’s things like all the training programs I told you on earlier. Um, but all the, all the publications, all the opportunities for faculty to learn the tradition because most of them weren’t trained in it. They got their doctorates in other fields and they need to learn the faith tradition as it intersects with their field after they’ve been hired by us.
And so to the degree that universities have those programs for faculty development in, um, in, in the intersection between faith, uh, the riches of faith traditions and their field is the degree which then those faculty can then bring students into those questions and with those resources. So it’s a, it’s a bit of service here so you can have an effect over here, but it works. Um, the key to this stuff is hard. It’s faculty development. And it’s really worthwhile. Um, and that’s why all of these resources are being developed.
In my tradition, the person I send people to all the time to read is the author, Jim Heft. Um, he has fantastic books that are really thoughtful about how the academy and the current shifts in, uh, in faith among the young interact or don’t, and how you go about bringing those together. And, uh, so I recommend.
He’s got a recent book on the rise of the nuns and a recent book on what Catholic higher education does. And I know he’s writing another one right now, that I’m very excited about. But I won’t put it out there before he does. But, uh, but, but if there’s one person, that’s where I send people.
Todd Ream: Adding the Church then, uh, more formally to our conversation today, um, about church-related higher education, in what ways, if any, do you think the health of the Church and the health of church-related college & universities in America are related to one another?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Oh, big time. So, um, you, we talked earlier about secularization, being a challenge for our schools but in fact, um, we have other challenges too. And a big one is a damaged brand. Um, the scandals within our Church have so damaged the Catholic brand among the young that it is really, it’s changing our recruiting and it’s, it’s harder on our recruiting.
And so you talk about the health of the Church, that’s number one for us in the Catholic community. That, that two decade or more scandal that’s been the entire life of our current 18-Year olds as long as they’ve been alive, the news stories they’ve heard have been scandal stories and, uh, and so there is, there’s much work to be done that won’t be solved until the Church cleans its own house. And, uh, it has done that to a large degree, but not fully and certainly not in the public eye. And, uh, and that affects us as a university and our ability to operate. Um, it’s, it’s a problem, right?
There’s also, and this one’s not simple, but it’s obvious, the, the rising generation to a large degree, not entirely, feels that the Catholic Church has not kept up with their moral ideals. And so they are, they are not in the same place with some of their convictions around their parents being able to go to Communion because they’re divorced or not. Um, they don’t see it, they don’t buy it. Um, there are, they are certainly, um, not in the same place with regard to their LGBTQ friends and the sense of whether they are welcomed fully within the Church.
They are certainly not of one mind when it comes to women’s ability to be fully involved in the Church in its leadership positions. Um, and so, whatever you think about those questions, the point is just simply that the rising generation thinks differently than church leadership thinks.
And that creates a problem and a challenge for universities in our recruiting, but even in our trying to engage them in so many of the other riches of a faith-based life, because you have to get over those disagreements before you can talk about spirituality and human development and all the rest of it, because for them, these issues matter. Um, and so that’s, it’s, uh, when you talk about that, kind of the inner play between Church and Church-based university is, uh, these play out. They’re real. Um, and, uh, and that’s just part of doing this work.
Todd Ream: In what ways, then, can the church-related university be of greater service to the Church during this time?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: Oh, well, I mean, it’s certainly, um, to the degree that we can help foster the faith of the upcoming generation. Many of ours are, uh, we’re not brought to church or brought to church irregularly growing up. And so actually when we invite them to church or invite them on retreats or other programming, for a lot of times, uh, they’re discovering this in ways that they had never discovered it or known it. And so we become a second chance for them to meet the faith if they didn’t get it when they were younger. And that’s, that’s a benefit for the Church.
Because if you, the research for us is that if a student graduates from a Catholic university, they’re more likely to attend church as adults. They’re more likely to have their children baptized. They’re more likely to be married within the Church. Um, and they’re more likely to consider religious life even. All those statistics are true if they attend our schools.
The effect of this, though, we have to be honest about, Catholic universities educate about 10% of the Catholic higher education students. 90% of Catholics go to the big publics or go to other options for college. Only 10% of them come to us. Now we have 700,000. It’s a good number of students. But, we are not the Church’s solution for the evangelization of that generation. We are the Church’s solution for a part of the evangelization of that generation.
You know, other things, I mean, we support the Church in all kinds of ways. Our, our education schools are helping train faculty for Catholic schools. Our medical schools are helping the Church think through its medical ethics questions. Our business schools,uh, help bishops with, uh, with the business operations of the very large, complex dioceses and organizations. Um, you know, our theological professors are invited to think through, um, the theological questions of the day. Um, because we house most of those experts and, you know, within our walls and they become available for the Church’s thinking.
And so in many ways, the, the scholars that we assemble can be, can be, and the schools that we create can be a benefit to Church. But the big question, in terms of, uh, educating a Church for the future, we are part of the solution, but we are not the whole solution.
Todd Ream: In what, in what ways then can the Church also be of greater service to the church-related university moving forward?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: You know, everyone thinks that the Church actually pays for the universities. They don’t. Universities have to make it on their own operations, um, just like the hospitals do or you know, or lots of the social service agencies. So we fundraise and so we do what we can. Um, but you know, recently, um, we did ask the bishops if they would start speaking more about the work, uh, so that people can hear that we’re, um, we’re part of this and helping us connect into the Catholic high schools and help us, um, kind of create some of the ties and training.
There’s back room work that we are asking of the bishops these days to help us to, to, um, um, strengthen the schools. Some of our schools are large and fine and they’ll be fine no matter what happens. Some of our schools are quite small and quite regional. And, uh, and those kind of, uh, those kind of supports matter, um, as they, as they go along.
Todd Ream: Drawing from that, but also turning to our final question for our conversation today is that in the coming weeks, uh, you’ll begin your service on an advisory board for what is presently known as the Future of the Church-Related University Consultation. And implicit in this consultation’s mission and the composition of your fellow advisory board members, uh, is the belief that Catholic colleges and universities and evangelical colleges and universities have a considerable amount to learn from one another.
Dare I say even that this, uh, consultation is an outgrowth and the composition of the board is the outgrowth of those warming relations we talked about in the beginning. In your estimation, what can evangelical colleges & universities learn from their Catholic brethren?
Fr. Dennis Holtschneider: So I’m not going to speak on behalf of my evangelical sisters and brothers. I’m going to let them say that, but let me answer it in the other way around, what I think we can learn from them, if you don’t mind. Um, uh, and, and it’s a very practical one, but it’s really important. I think we have a real weakness. And I think we could really learn from our evangelical sisters and brothers in a way that could help strengthen our practice.
When I look at Catholic campus ministry offices on our campuses, this is my sole opinion, this is not the official opinion of my association, um, but I find our campus ministry approach, by and large, too passive. Um, we, uh, we wait for students to come to mass or to come visit the campus ministry office, and then we can start inviting those students to become active in all of our programming and all the riches that we have for them in faith-life on campus.
And truthfully, I think that’s, uh, I think we have much, much to learn when it comes to active reaching out and invitation to students across the university, getting the students who haven’t come to you first. Um, I don’t think anyone would disagree with the concept and theory, but I have to tell you our practice needs to get better. We need to learn to evangelize and make that part of our culture of doing Catholic campus ministry. And it’s not.
We have a culture of serving people who come to us brilliantly, but it makes for small operations at a lot of schools when we should get really good. How do you invite the current generation in? Where do you meet them? Where do you go? How do you do that? And so I know that’s only one answer, very specific answer to your question, but boy, do we have a lot to learn from our evangelical sisters and brothers in that regard.
Todd Ream: Thank you very much. Our guest has been Father Dennis H. Holtschneider, a member of the Congregation of the Mission, President of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Thank you for sharing your insights and your wisdom with us today.
Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.