Xavier University and the Suicide of Catholic Higher Education
Can the bishops assure parents that Catholic colleges and universities are dedicated to truth and provide an education that enriches the Catholic faith of their children? If not, why are they bishops?
The Silence of the Shepherds
Catholic bishops know that families are raising children in the midst of a rapidly accelerating cultural-sexual revolution with no apparent limiting principles.
The parental duty to educate children with Christian values is subverted daily by an unprecedented home invasion of cultural decadence via technology and the schools, often beginning in the earliest grades. Catholic bishops, who seek to promote “the common good,” surely realize that our common bonds as citizens have been shredded, that a fundamental societal sense of the good is no longer shared.
Our public discourse has been fractured and refashioned by the radically subjectivist Critical theories of a postmodern Academy culture that equates truth with power: whoever controls the narrative – the discourse – determines what is true.
Postmodernism’s rejection of objective truth and knowledge, its skepticism of reason itself, places it in direct opposition to what Pope John Paul II calls “the responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”
Unfortunately, parents who wish to send their children to a college or university devoted to truth cannot rely on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for guidance.
The USCCB currently maintains on its website only a simple listing of every degree-granting institution. Lacking any distinguishing annotations or commentaries, the listing suggests that all schools mentioned are equally and truly Catholic at the core. While this does not help families, it does benefit the leadership of academic institutions that have relied on the diplomatic reticence of the bishops to disguise their free fall into unabashed secularism.
The bishops know better. They have a pastor's responsibility to tell Catholic parents the unvarnished truth: many Catholic institutions do not merit the name.
Since those institutions are not going to change – not anytime soon– the bishops must confront parents with reality, no matter how disturbing it is.
Without affecting the independence of any academic institution, they can do the following now.
The bishops know which Catholic colleges and universities currently support and follow Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Apostolic Constitution for Catholic Universities promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Annotate the list, indicating those schools that accept and abide by that constitution.
The bishops know which Catholic professors of theology at Catholic schools have asked for and received an academic mandatum, acknowledging that what is being taught in their classes is “within the full communion” of the church. Identify which Catholic theologians at which schools have a mandatum.
The bishops can identify how many credit hours of distinctly Catholic theology and philosophy each institution requires for graduation. Is it 9 hours? 6? 3? None?
Since such colleges and universities must retain a Catholic identity, the bishops can state both the percentage of each school’s teaching faculty and the percentage of its trustees who are baptized Catholic.
These tasks do not rely on promises of cooperation from schools that ignore Ex Corde Ecclesiae nor a polite tone of dialogue between bishops and school officials, the lackluster result of the USCCB’s ten-year review of the Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. They require gathering data from readily available sources.
And there is one more critical piece of information about which bishops have a pastoral responsibility to inform Catholic parents.
The USCCB can examine the core curriculum at each Catholic institution, objectively assessing the degree to which the school’s core advances the common good through a dialogue of faith and reason embodied within a Catholic Intellectual Tradition devoted unreservedly to truth. Then make that core information readily available for all to see.
Common Contempt Rather Than Common Good
Catholic universities and colleges claim to promote the common good as part of their mission. That claim is too often a sham. Fr. James Martin reveals why.
In Building a Bridge, he observes in passing the frayed nature of our social and political climate. “Not too long ago,” he recalls, “opposing factions would often interact with one another and work together for the common good… a quiet courtesy and tacit respect prevailed. Now all one seems to find is contempt.”
Fr. Martin’s observation points to a deficiency at United States universities, not just Catholic ones. Our schools no longer educate students to be citizens of our nation; they, instead, prepare students for global citizenship, an oxymoronic illusion.
Students who graduate from an American university without having studied the Constitution and key ideas from the Federalist Papers, including Madison’s Federalist Paper #10, remain fundamentally ignorant about the country in which they live. We pay for this ignorance.
In a core course offering a practical foundation for living as an adult citizen in this country, students examining #10 would discover a brilliant mind, aware that the causes of faction are “sown into the nature of man.” They might begin to appreciate how rare in the history of the world is our republic, the form of government the Founders established in order to control for the natural effects of faction.
This academic dereliction of duty reminds us of another: the Founders, cognizant of human nature, understood that self-government requires a virtuous people, for without “sufficient virtue,” as stated in Federalist #55, “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”
Graduating young adults untrained in virtuous habits and educated into ignorance about their nation helps explain why contempt for others, including other Americans, is most likely to be found not in our town and village squares but in the Academy.
Fr. Martin’s concern in Building a Bridge is not about factions per se – that was Madison’s concern – but about the opposition to his faction. His, after all, is the anointed perspective of respect, compassion, and sensitivity.
He contends our lack of unity arises from the development of “echo chambers” created by social media and news channels “in which one’s worldview is barely challenged.” But technology in a society still free accentuates the contentious nature of a pre-existing estrangement.
The echo chamber is, in practice, an apt description of postmodern American higher education, the source of our disaffection.
Politically, culturally, and spiritually, the 21st century college campus is a bureaucratic fortress of identity-based diversity, equity, and inclusion that nurtures intellectual conformity by determining what is and is not acceptable discourse. Under the hegemony of Critical theories, the Catholic campus too becomes a collective of safe spaces, its students living in the adolescent comfort of never having a single belief challenged.
Nothing appears amiss when the Vice Provost of Global Engagement at Boston College, theologian James F. Keenan, SJ, “others” critics of Critical race theory as “racists and white supremacists” in order to shame by analogy Catholic bishops concerned about the dangers of Critical gender ideology. It does not surprise when Fordham’s professor of Theological and Social Ethics, Fr. Bryan Massingale, manipulates a 69-second incident to pillory a woman already facing public scorn. Why? So white people can face “hard truths” about their “privilege.” The university is a reservoir of contempt for human beings whom academics have never met.
The Catholic university – unless demonstrably countercultural – resides harmoniously within that DEI echo chamber, which is not “consecrated without reserve to the cause of truth.”
Take my alma mater, Xavier University, the home of the Musketeers, as a prime example.
The Xavier University Way
The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habits into stable sentiments. The Chest, Magnanimity, Sentiment: these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. C. S. Lewis The Abolition of Man
At Xavier, the belly rules.
Established as The Athenaeum in 1831, what became St. Xavier College in 1840 under the Jesuits, and then Xavier University in 1930, has found itself in the 21st century in the midst of an existential nervous breakdown.
Xavier’s loss of confidence in itself as a Catholic institution is recorded in its lengthy institutional examen of 2014, “Seeking Integration and Wisdom: The Xavier Way.”
Skeptical of the old verities, embarrassed by its past, Xavier appears manifestly unmoored by its philosophical collapse into postmodernity: “What values should guide us? Who are we? To what will we hold ourselves accountable? How do we maintain a robust Jesuit Catholic identity while also integrating all persons into our community? How do we grapple with the difficult, important issues of our times?”
That Truth, Goodness, and Beauty possess a permanence accessible to and valuable for all persons and issues is never considered. Doubting the contemporary efficacy of habits formed by the theological and cardinal virtues, Xavier turns to intangible “Ignatian values” that “embody a method” for re-engineering the person.
The Xavier Way flounders under the burden of an immoderate ambition.
Rather than help students acquire essential knowledge across a broad range of subjects, knowledge the young must first grasp if, later in their lives, they are to “grapple” rationally, rather than viscerally, with “difficult, important issues,” Xavier has consecrated itself unreservedly to their metamorphosis.
Stimulating “growth and transformation in the hearts, minds, imaginations, and wills” of its students becomes the search for “no less than the healing and transformation of our society and our world.”
The hubris might astonish were it not the coin of the postmodern Academy, as certain of its moral rectitude as it is untethered from reality.
The discerners are unable to imagine a more modest aim – “the development of the intellectual abilities of its students in their pursuit of truth,” for instance, a previous Xavier objective in a less visionary time. And why should they? Students arrive on campus as identities bearing personal truths, which would be disrespectful and insensitive to challenge. Pandering avoids the hassle of teaching substance.
Laughably, D’Artagnan himself emerges as the lodestar of The Xavier Way: “Our Unity Within Our Diversity Is Our Strength.” The banality points to the barrenness of Xavier education.
Gone is a university's primary expertise: “to impart a superior body of knowledge to its students and to help them acquire power to think clearly and penetratingly.”
Gone is a university unashamed of “developing the other characteristics of the ‘true and perfect Christian’ – strong moral character, intelligent appreciation of beauty, sound physical health, and appropriate social attitudes and habits.”
The “true Christian,” who “thinks, judges, and acts in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ,” has been replaced by an “ethos of inclusivity” wherein the self-identified believer or non-believer is –
The 2014 Xavier Way – unencumbered by the habits of mind the virtues instill – becomes an easy institutional mark. After the death of George Floyd, the university, unable to withstand the “passionate intensity” of the moment, swerved in unison with the Academy toward an “antiracist culture” and its incoherent “model of inclusive excellence.”
The DEI tsunami so erodes the foundation, what remains is a ruin: Xavier, the Antiracist University.
Faculty make their pedagogical and curricular decisions based on their contribution “to diversity-related and antiracist teaching and learning.”
Bias Action and Response Teams and Bias Education and Advocacy Teams form a Ministry of Love to “build a campus climate free from racial bias, harassment, and discrimination.”
The institution levels itself through a “racial equity lens,” the university’s elaborate DEI infrastructure enforcing the identity-based orthodoxy through its offices, councils, centers, and “self-identified white” allies.
Xavier’s declaration of antiracism – announcing the institution can never be “not racist” – solidifies the university’s contempt for un-anointed humanity.
D’Artagnan’s school subscribes to an all-encompassing worldview that considers any opposition to or disagreement with it prima facie evidence of racism. Its current mission statement, touting itself as “an inclusive environment of open and free inquiry” is a lie. A university claiming to offer a liberal arts education has joined forces with an ideology opposed to the tenets of classical liberalism.
The Xavier Antiracist Way entails a 24/7 immersion in what Ibram Kendi calls “persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” These are Jesuit values of discernment and reflection on steroids, the Marxist praxis that converts Kendi’s “radical reorientation of consciousness” into action.
Its dogmatic assertions about whiteness, privilege, unconscious biases, and racist structures accepted on faith alone, the antiracist culture denies free will, attributing all disparities in achievements to an overriding systemic cause, which must be alleviated by intentional race-based discrimination.
Because it is intersectional, antiracism undergirds Fr. Martin’s bridge, which BIPOC and LGBTQ identities cross as they “heal and transform” and ultimately queer Catholicism at Xavier.
Lavender graduations, drag shows, safe zone training, pronoun resources, and Campus Pride illuminate Kendi’s ethos of inclusivity: “To be queer antiracist,” declares the author of the urtext, “is to understand the privileges of my cisgender, of my masculinity, of my heterosexuality, of their intersections.” Xavier’s Office of Student Involvement is Creating a Safer Space, where students at a Catholic institution are told sex is “assigned at birth,” that the “whole person” includes a mixture of identities – “gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, sexual attraction, and romantic attraction” – all of which “are flexible and can change over time.”
The antiracist institution trains its students to “see” with diverse lenses that stimulate the political appetites of the identity-obsessed: racial, ethnic, feminist, queer, post-colonial lenses; lenses of disability and body positivity.
Xavier graduates the global “citizen” as Visceral Man.
Xavier Is Not Catholic at its Core
After four years and $250,000 at Xavier, what does a student receive?
A credential and a “woke” consciousness.
Rather than establishing a common base from which students aspire toward the good for their lives and communities, the Xavier core is hollow, the aspiration without the effort.
The core “revolves around…Jesuit values” – reflection, discernment, cura personalis, solidarity and kinship, service rooted in justice and love, and magis (seeking the greater good). Intrinsically subjective in nature, these values infuse the “insubstantial pageant” at the heart of Xavier’s transformative purpose.
In ancient times – say, 60 years ago – all Xavier graduates would have studied the same liberal arts subjects in their core curriculum. Self-confident educators followed a curricular path, “developed and revised through four hundred years of experience,” that established a concrete foundation for all students – in mathematics, natural sciences, language, literature, history, social studies, philosophy and theology – before they pursued a major.
Xavier’s 83 credit hours included 18 in philosophy, three of them in logic, and 16 in theology (eight in Catholic theology, eight in Christian Culture).
In contrast, today’s core at Xavier is a buffet of electives totaling 48 hours. A model of academic postmodernity in practice, Xavier liberates its students from the chains of an imperfect heritage, heretofore an educator’s duty to bequeath to future imperfect generations.
Conveniently professor-friendly, the current core “significantly reduces the total credit hours required” so students are free to take even more electives, most of which are specialized fragments of personal interest to the educator.
Like elective surgery anywhere, what you pay for at the Xavier buffet is not essential. Any electives will do.
There is no requirement that any student at Xavier take Catholic theology. Students take two theology courses, neither of them necessarily Catholic.
All students take THEO 111 Theological Foundations, an ecumenical study of “human and religious faith, especially the Christian faith,… the diversity of world religions,... issues connected with religious diversity and global responsibility … with different ways of reading scripture and tradition (that) affect issues of gender, class, race, violence, evil, and sin.”
Fostering “students' understanding of socially significant issues” from a variety of perspectives is the purpose of THEO 111 and the core’s three other Ethics/Religion and Society courses.
When social significance – transitory, often partisan, easily manipulated – becomes the formative material, rather than truth, the worth of any course, even the potentially challenging PHIL 100, is suspect. Students will graduate unequipped for the weighty eventualities of life, reality itself not readily conforming to campus perspectives about social significance.
The other course is a “theological perspectives” elective, the diversity of options a sign of the department’s “inclusive excellence”: the Church after Vatican II, Theology & Animals, Islamic Philosophy & Theology, Black Theology, Liberation Issues & Theology, World Religions & Environment, US Catholicism: Past & Present, Women & Early Theology, The Challenge of Peace, Buddhist Christian Exploration, and African Spirituality.
Doing its part to graduate “citizens” of the world, the History Department’s “signature contribution” to the core is a “particular topic in global history.”
Studying Western civilization the Catholic church was instrumental in building? Nope. Studying the nation the Founders forged? Forget about it. At Xavier, students indulge themselves in a single “historical perspective.” History of Native American Health will suffice, as would Britain: Sherlock to BritPop, or Women in the American West, or Immigration to America, or Africa’s Past Our Future, or Latin America: Cortes to Castro.
English Composition and Literature
Instead of 12 credit hours in English composition and literature, texting-savvy freshmen need take only three hours of composition or three of rhetoric.
Then there’s the core’s Literature and the Moral Imagination. Theme-based by instructor preference, each class has students look at a variety of moral and ethical issues from a literary basis. Fall 2023’s themes include Diversity and Identity, Literature of Diversity, Transformations, and Apocalypses and Revelations, the latter “apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction offer(ing) insight into current events” and, of course, identity.
In other words, what is likely a student’s first – and perhaps only – encounter with literature at Xavier is not an opportunity to teach students how to read classic literary works for the pleasure they provide, for a deeper understanding of human nature, and for an appreciation of their beauty in form and language. The purpose is to glean from the story its social significance, an attempt meriting, per Twain, prosecution or banishment.
An encounter with Crime and Punishment or Moby Dick also stirs the moral imagination, but they demand of their first-time readers and their teachers both humility and sweat.
The First-Year Seminar
All freshmen begin their first year with the semester seminar that “establishes a solid foundation” for a core designed to transform their “hearts, minds, imaginations, and wills.”
Reflecting the personal interest of the professor-mentor in charge, the seminars divide freshmen into small groups formed by 20 or more different themes, enough choices to attract, like flies to honey, eager initiates to the circumnavigation of Ignatian values.
The professor is – theoretically – guiding students “to think about the evolution of (their) vocation and (their) aspirations to contribute to the world” in seminars such as these:
The Art of Expression: Cultivating Creativity for Balance, Growth, and Community “examines various roles of artistic expression in society: healer, teller of hard truths, voice of solidarity, and catalyst for social change. Students will study and research examples of art movements, engage with local artists, and create individual works of art.”
History of Xavier “explores … Xavier’s historical connections to slavery. Amidst national debate about what to do with Confederate monuments, how to make sense of the brutal killing of George Floyd, and what the recent events at the Capitol signify, Xavier has been wrestling with some heretofore untold aspects of the school’s past…. This course is an invitation to join the discussion.”
The Lives of Black Women and Girls: “incredulous reactions to Meg Thee Stallion’s accusation that a Black man shot her are part of an epistemic framework in which Black women and girls are perceived to be unworthy of protection, their bodies disposable, and their truths undermined or deemed inconsequential to a racist, patriarchal, misogynoiristic, homo/transphobic, and ableist U.S. regime. This course will employ a Black Feminist framework to make legible the interdependent forces that imperil the lives of Black women and girls, including Black trans women.”
The first-year seminar encounters students when they are at their most vulnerable: they lack the intellectual armament that nurtures rational thinking and logical argumentation, an academic preparation not conducive to Xavier’s purpose.
A World “Charged with the Grandeur of God”
Fr. Thomas G. Savage, SJ, the formidable cigar-smoking chairman of the English Department, introduced me to the language of the sublime when I attended Xavier. His was a demanding, uncompromising pedagogy, his mission to guide his students into territory unfamiliar to us: awe. Under his tutelage, I was trained to enter directly into and engage with the world imagined by the poet, the universe of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, John Keats’ odes, and the “dappled things” of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnets. He fed my young soul with the nourishment of Beauty.
Fr. Savage knew the educator’s role: not to transform my will but to guide me toward an understanding of my nature as a man created by God with free will, the transformation of which is not the purview of a university.
As we are creatures of the Fall, the calling of the Catholic educator is the enrichment of his students’ appreciation for what is always true and good and beautiful within a world “charged with the grandeur of God.” Fr. Savage had his opinions, I’m sure, on socially significant issues – but I never encountered them when he taught the Survey of British Poetry.
Nor did I discover the opinions of Dr. Karl Wentersdorf, my professor for a year-long course in Shakespeare and a semester class in Chaucer. To this day, I can hear his singular voice reading aloud passages from Henry IV, Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, The Tempest; and reciting in its original Middle English the Prologue of Chaucer’s tales — each rendering becoming a revelation.
Both Savage and Wentersdorf enfolded me in delight, “the dearest freshness deep down things.”
Xavier’s current English Department enfolds its captive audience in platitudes.
The professors, parading “the Jesuit values of solidarity and kinship,” commit themselves to “anti-racist action.” They “whole-heartedly assert that Black Lives Matter.” They tell students that literature “builds empathy and understanding,” that language “moves people to action and justice.”
Adolescent drivel. If the purpose is to build empathy or take action, propaganda is the Xavier prof’s métier.
The poet, says Faulkner, writes about the “truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” The English professor’s calling necessitates helping a student learn how to read so as to penetrate the very heart of a poem or story.
An English major at Xavier is no longer required to take a course in Shakespeare but is compelled to take two joy-sapping courses in Literary Criticism and Linguistics. In the unlikely event Xavier students encounter The Brothers Karamazov or Middlemarch, Paradise Lost or King Lear, they will first be retrofitted with the suitable Critical lens through which to “see” the book.
Like the university itself, the educators in this department are alienated from their true vocation. They – and Xavier – are propagandists now, sloganeers, apparatchiks educating into ignorance their students, most graduating orphaned from truth, bereft of beauty, dispossessed of faith.
Xavier’s demise is self-inflicted. Nor is it alone.
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