The Public Interest

The Catholics and their colleges (I)

Christopher Jencks & David Riesman

Spring 1967

The Catholic Church has organized most of its American operations on a geographic basis, dividing the nation into dioceses and parishes, and putting every activity in a given area under the local bishop or parish priest. But Catholic higher education has been an exception to this pattern. While many of the first Catholic colleges were established by energetic bishops to serve a particular diocese, less than two dozen now operate on this basis. The rest of America’s 380-odd Catholic colleges are operated by autonomous teaching orders of religious (as priests and nuns are called in the Church), which are free to define their missions and clientele as they wish. Approximately 75 Catholic orders today operate colleges in the United States. These orders have different national origins, systems of organization and government, traditions, and often very dissimilar leaders. All are ultimately responsible to Rome, but until relatively recently communication has been slow and often deliberately imperfect, so that local colleges have had great autonomy. All orders accept a common body of doctrine and ritual, but here too there has been room for highly diverse interpretations. Thus while differences among orders are not quite comparable to those among Protestant denominations, they are often much more significant than non-Catholics assume. These differences have certainly had many of the same effects on higher education as denominational differences among Protestants.

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