From The Wanderer:
In 1977, the world was quite similar to how it is today — only tamer. The culture was in chaos, people were leaving Catholicism, and higher education was becoming increasingly secular. Every different group imaginable was clamoring for their constitutional rights, abortion was becoming part of the fabric of society, and traditional marriage and the family were being undercut by the premarital sex and divorce culture.
It was a dark time, and yet, it was in that year that a candle was lit, one that has only burned more brightly and spread in the forty years since.
Historian and Catholic convert Dr. Warren H. Carroll, seeing the darkness enveloping Catholicism in the 1960s and 1970s, decided to found a Catholic college that would buck these trends, and would instead educate students in the truths of the Catholic faith, remain steadfast to the Magisterium of the Church, and focus on the time-tested Catholic liberal arts, thus preparing the graduates to be lay apostles and impact every aspect of the culture. In short, his mission was to save the culture from itself.
Carroll saw this place, which he called “Christendom,” as a very “grass-roots” type of college, one that would educate students in how to become leaders in the culture war through an exceptional education in the liberal arts and through a deep understanding of the things that really matter: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
He envisioned sending alumni into the main fields that influenced the culture, namely, journalism, law, politics, and education. He believed that it was through these avenues that secularists were achieving their goals, so, in retaliation, he wanted Christendom alumni to enter these same fields, and many others, in order to go head-to-head with them for the sake of Christ.
At the time, some argued that Carroll should simply join another already established Catholic college or university and try to make a difference from the inside. Carroll disagreed.
“He realized that the Cultural Revolution that had swept across the United States in the late 1960s had struck a devastating blow to Catholic higher education,” says Christendom’s VP for Enrollment Tom McFadden.
“The damage became evident with the Land O’Lakes statement in 1967, in which Catholic universities — including Georgetown, Notre Dame, Fordham, Boston College, and St. Louis University — formally broke their ties with the teachings of the Church and repudiated their duty of obedience to her.
“There followed a wholesale loss of Catholic identity in these institutions. Not only were crucifixes stripped from classrooms, but the foundations of Western civilization were stripped from the curricula. The very existence of objective truth and absolute moral principles was denied, explicitly and implicitly.”
As a result, there was no longer a place in these transformed universities for what had always been the primary purpose of Catholic education: to lead young minds out of narrow perspectives into the world of known truth and under the guiding light of the Catholic faith.
More important, there was no longer a place for the sacred discipline of theology that had the task of ordering and illuminating all other disciplines.
Most “Catholic” universities at that time (and, consequently, today) abandoned or drastically cut back their core curricula. Theology was replaced by “religious studies,” often with the Catholic faith treated less fully than other religions, or presented by dissidents who rejected essential doctrines. Often, no more than two courses in “religious studies” and in philosophy were required of the undergraduate.
Other subjects were taught almost exactly as in the secular universities, even when their subject matter cried out for a Catholic orientation, as is the case with history, psychology, and the humanities in general.
With no God-centered core of humane studies to focus the university’s mission, Carroll saw that many colleges had turned to senseless “diversification” and mindless growth. In the name of diversification, the genuine liberal arts had been replaced largely by mere vocational and professional training.
There had been an endless proliferation of courses and majors, among which students were allowed to choose without guidance or purpose, with the inevitable result that most never wrestled with the fundamental questions about God, man, and reality, and never even encountered the most challenging works of Western Civilization.
Carroll saw the ripples from Land O’ Lakes and how they would impact the next generation of Catholics for the worse, in a culture that was already negatively impacting the youth and adults alike. His solution to these problems: “Christendom,” a place that would firmly embrace the Magisterium and would seek to create a truly Catholic culture on campus — similar to the Catholic culture that permeated Europe in the times of Charlemagne, the very culture that had fired Carroll’s historical imagination for decades.
In the twilight of the 1970s, such an idea was radical. Lay people didn’t start Catholic colleges, particularly without the backing of a specific religious order. Institutions were moving in the exact opposite direction ever since Land O’ Lakes. And yet, Carroll, known mainly at the time for his writing in the Catholic magazine, Triumph, did not let these things hold back his vision. He wanted to save the culture and restore Christendom.
He pitched the idea to a few of his colleagues at Triumph, such as William Marshner and Princeton graduate Dr. Jeffrey Mirus, and moved forward to found the college. With only $50,000 in the bank and five faculty lined up to teach, Carroll went around the country, speaking at conferences about “Christendom,” looking for students, parents, and benefactors brave enough to take a chance on his undeniably risky idea.
As time went on, he claimed, “If I get 25 students, I will start the school.” On September 14, 1977, Christendom College began with 26 students — one more than Carroll hoped for — in a borrowed facility in Triangle, Va. None of those pioneers had any idea what would come of such a courageous decision, only hope for success.
During the college’s 25th anniversary in 2002, Carroll wrote, “Why did God want Christendom College to grow and flourish? Because Christendom College is educating and preparing young men and women who will bring what our great and holy Pope John Paul II calls ‘the new springtime of the Church.’ In the face of scandals and despair, believe in that new springtime! It is coming and nothing can stop it! For proof, look at our history. Our graduates will be leading the new springtime.”
Witness To Truth
Forty years, thousands of graduates, and countless impacts on the culture later, it’s safe to say that the idea of Christendom College has become the title of Carroll’s original call to fame: a Triumph.
The ripple effects of the decision are vast, running in a countercultural stream to the turbulent waters of Land O’ Lakes. Alumni now work in the fields of education, journalism, law, and politics, as Carroll wished, but also in every field imaginable. Through their example and knowledge of the Truth, they are able to influence society in a meaningful way.
Christendom alumni are founders of high schools, teachers and principals of elementary schools, college professors, and reporters for major Catholic newspapers and media sites. They are working in high places in various chanceries across the nation, they are managing businesses and investments, and they are running their own law firms with virtue. They are practicing medicine as doctors, nurses, dentists, physical therapists, and mental health counselors, and serving the country as soldiers, diplomats, and federal employees on the Hill.
They are serving the Church as priests, religious, directors of religious education, and CCD teachers. In all that they do, they are witnessing to the Truth, and serving as an example of what it means to be an educated, committed, and practicing Roman Catholic in the world today.
Of note, although the college was founded by lay people for the purposes of educating lay apostles, 82 alumni priests have been ordained, 52 religious sisters have taken Christ as their spouse, and many others are serving the Church as religious monks, brothers, and seminarians. Four hundred and thirty-five alumnus-to-alumna marriages have occurred since the founding of the college, resulting in thousands of children living the good Catholic life and re-establishing a Catholic culture for the world to see, and emulate.
Along with the glowing examples of the alumni, an extraordinarily large number of Catholic luminaries, such as Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, have expressed their deepest appreciation and admiration for the school and what it represents. These notable Catholics understand that the traditional, time-tested liberal arts education that Carroll set up, along with its commitment and faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church, are the key ingredients for the college’s success.
The education, following in the model proposed by Blessed John Henry Newman and called for by John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (which also, not coincidentally, condemned the thought of Land O’ Lakes), trains a student’s whole mind through the liberal arts, rather than through only a specific field. As a result, students can think critically, communicate orally and in the written word better than peers, and be leaders — all things that CEOs and business leaders desperately want in today’s employees.
Even 40 years ago, Carroll understood that bringing the Catholic liberal arts tradition back into Catholic higher education was an absolute necessity if any change in the culture was going to take place.
Coupled with this is the college’s commitment to the Truth and the Magisterium, which is lived out in its vibrant Catholic culture — one that Carroll only dreamt about as he spent hours at his typewriter, waxing eloquently about the times of Charlemagne.
The Catholic faith is integrated into the curriculum, not only through the philosophy and theology classes in the impressive core curriculum required of all students, but also in all the other classes, taught by faithful Catholic intellectuals who have each made an Oath of Fidelity to the Magisterium, no matter their subject area of expertise.
“Through the academic and extracurricular offerings, Christendom students learn not just the ‘whats,’ but the ‘whys’,” says McFadden, who authored the resource, The History of the Founding of Christendom College, “which enables them to graduate as faithful, committed, articulate, Roman Catholics, ready to give the answers for the reasons they believe. In short, these students spend four years in a Catholic training ground, preparing to go out into the world and become the “shock troops” of the Church — to lead others to Truth, and to restore the culture in Christ.”
In 1977, Carroll wrote the following about what “Christendom” means and stands for, reinforcing these notions.
“Our college takes its name from the word which embodies the Christian social and political ideal: a society, a culture, a government in which Christ the King reigns. To help extend His reign, insofar as His grace strengthens us to do so, is the heart of our mission.”
Since the first day of classes in 1977, to the first day of classes this 40th anniversary year, Christendom has remained true to this calling and mission.
No Federal Money
The success of the college, both in its students and in the eyes of the Catholic world, is due, in a large part, to Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, who has served as the college’s president since 1992. Over O’Donnell’s 25 years as president, the college has grown exponentially over the years. The college’s enrollment has increased over 25 percent since 2012 — all without taking any federal money — but instead relying on the generous donations of loyal benefactors, who love the vision and mission of the college.
The college now utilizes many avenues to continue its educational apostolate across the globe as well, through its graduate program (both online and in class); through its two radio stations and biennial Summer Institute; through its semester abroad in Rome, summer in Ireland, and spring break mission trips to Third World countries; and through its online media center — which provides hundreds of outstanding talks and lectures by the most notable scholars — for free.
Christendom College is affecting so many people, even though it remains committed to a limited-sized undergraduate enrollment of 550.
Looking toward the future, the college is poised to enter its next phase by building a new Chapel of Christ the King, part of a $40 million “Campaign for Christendom” that will also increase the college’s endowment and annual fund.
As the college continues to celebrate its 40th anniversary, it will host a gala in Washington, D.C., in the spring, chaired by Senator and Mrs. Rick Santorum and featuring Francis Cardinal Arinze, with Vice President Mike Pence invited. At commencement in May, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas will be the featured speaker.
If you are speaking to people in an orthodox Catholic setting, it is inevitable that a person will know someone who attended Christendom. It is, as the Newman Guide states, “a standard for fidelity and traditional education against which other Catholic liberal arts colleges are measured.”
Carroll founded Christendom as a means of turning the tide of the culture for the better. Since then, countless other Catholic colleges have sprung up around the country, following the same idea and driven by the same vision that Carroll had 40 years ago. Such vision has already impacted thousands of lives for the better.
In 1977, looking around him, Carroll wrote of the idea of Christendom, and why its return to the modern lexicon matters.
“There is no wider Christendom today. The very word, once commonly used to designate our Western civilization, is going out of style and even out of knowledge. Many have never heard it, cannot pronounce it, much less explain and serve what it stands for. At this moment of history, Christendom can exist only in small and self-contained places. But the Christian in such a place never settles for it, never hides in it, for he has a message to bring to the world.”
“Fidelity to the truth of our Catholic faith, sound moral guidance of student life, and a vigorous and devout spiritual formation of our students have marked the college from the beginning,” says founding faculty member Raymond P. O’Herron, who will be retiring from teaching this year.
“These things, and the myriad prayers and sacrifices of so many for the college, have been essential to its success. We are grateful, and humbled, by the many blessings granted to us by God, without whose constant care and favor nothing would have been accomplished.”
As the college continues to grow and alumni continue to pour out of its doors, the number of lives impacted by this vision of “Christendom” will only increase. Eventually, such a vision might just change the whole world, fulfilling Carroll’s vision and Christendom’s mission: To “restore all things in Christ.”