This story appears in the Winter 2017 edition of Instaurare. Subscribe today!
Every academic year at Christendom begins the same: all members of the faculty hit their knees to take the Vatican’s Oath of Fidelity. To new students, the event may seem peculiar, but not too out of the ordinary for a vibrantly Catholic school like Christendom. But to an onlooker coming from a more secular school, one that might even be “Catholic” in name, the event is startling. Every member of the faculty, in unison, pledging to protect against scandal and fortify the college’s Catholic identity is a radical choice in today’s realm of higher education. To understand why, it is necessary to turn back 50 years to a conference in Land O’ Lakes, Michigan, that changed America and Catholic higher education forever.
What happened in those days that caused so much strife for the future? In the twilight of the 1960s, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh convened several Catholic university leaders, including those from Notre Dame and Boston College, together to develop a vision for a more “modern” model of Catholic higher education. For them, the Catholic university of the future seemed to be a “Catholic” Harvard, clothed in prestige and buoyed by the generous funds of the federal government. Missing from these new garments would be the “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”
Finally, these schools would be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Yale, Princeton, and the other top colleges of the United States, no longer looked down upon for being religiously affiliated.
These decisions tended to diminish 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 importantly, 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 abandoned or drastically cut back their core curricula. Frequently, 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 philosophy were required of the undergraduate. Other subjects were taught almost exactly as in the secular universities, with little reference to the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Fifty years later, these schools are now the “big” schools in America, spoken of breathlessly by high school students because of their huge football stadiums and by scholars because of their expensive research facilities. But, at what cost? The commitment to the Magisterium, once essential to educating the youth of tomorrow in the truths of the Faith, is all but gone.
The effects of the decisions made at Land O’ Lakes were radical. No less radical than Dr. Warren H. Carroll’s proceeding idea and vision in the 1970s. The conference, in particular its secularizing effects on historically Catholic colleges, distressed Carroll. He 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.
Accomplishing such a lofty goal would be impossible without a faculty that shared his vision and his commitment to the Magisterium. For this reason, the college has proudly supported its entire faculty, which voluntarily takes the Oath of Fidelity in front of the student body to begin each academic year. Such an act would not only ensure their commitment to the Catholic Faith, it would set an example for the entire college of what the true focus of Christendom would, and always will, be.
In the presence of the bishop of the Diocese of Arlington, the entire faculty of Christendom
has made the Oath consistently for the past 40 years, with each member promising “that I shall always preserve communion with the Catholic Church in the words I speak or in the way I act….In carrying out my charge, I shall preserve the deposit of Faith in its entirety, hand it on faithfully, and make it shine forth. As a result, I shall shun whatsoever teachings are contrary….With Christian obedience, I shall associate myself with what is expressed by the holy shepherds as authentic doctors and teachers of the Faith, or established by them as the Church’s rulers.”
Prescribed in the Code of Canon Law, the Oath of Fidelity was further asserted under the reign of Pope Saint John Paul II in the 1980s, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith calling upon all “who teach disciplines pertaining to faith and morals” at a Catholic college to make a profession of faith and take the Oath of Fidelity when they begin their teaching posts. Such a call was further elucidated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which also, not coincidentally, contradict the thought of Land O’ Lakes.
The Oath made by Christendom’s faculty has caused ripples in the murky waters of Catholic higher education, ripples that continue to run countercultural to the turbulent waters of Land O’ Lakes. Since Carroll and the founding faculty made this decision 40 years ago, other Catholic colleges have followed suit, making a Catholic education, in firm adherence to the Magisterium, possible for more and more young students.
Because of this landmark decision, countless alumni, formed in the Faith, are now joyfully impacting every level of society, whether as doctors, lawyers, CEOs, journalists, teachers, or as members of the religious life. Because of Carroll’s insistence on the Oath, this world is better as a result.
Land O’ Lakes devastated Catholic higher education. But Christendom continues to be on a mission to save it, bringing the Faith back into the classrooms and the campus. It all starts with an Oath. It all ends with all things restored in Christ.