Catholic education, then and now

By Colman McCarthy
Monday, December 7, 2009

Models of academic longevity, Peter Walshe, Michael True and Tom Lee have a combined 114 years of teaching at Catholic colleges and universities. Having transitioned from full-time classroom toil, they are among the emeriti: seasoned and serene veterans buoyed by the satisfactions of the professorial life that they treasured through the decades.

Convivial and opinionated, part of the liberal wing of Catholic academia, they are the kind of old hands you would hunt down for reflections on the state of Catholic higher education. Going back awhile, I've had many conversations with each of the professors on their campuses: Walshe at the University of Notre Dame, True at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., and Lee at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

For this essay, I asked each of the three to focus on the positives and negatives they came upon at their schools.

Walshe, born in South Africa and educated at Oxford, arrived at Notre Dame in 1962. He began teaching government courses such as "Third World Development" and "Politics of Tropical Africa." In 1985, he and his wife, Ann, became founding editors of Common Sense, an independent campus monthly that gives space to students and faculty members of a progressive bent to rake the campus muck and, in Virgil's words, "plow an unfamiliar patch."

"The major advantage of teaching at Notre Dame the last 47 years," Walshe said, "has been the fairly widespread if often inchoate acceptance of the Exodus, Covenant and Gospels as a basis for hope, for a sense of linear history with which there is an ongoing moral challenge to build more compassionate and egalitarian societies. In short, I have found an openness to value issues, matters of charity and deepening our understanding of justice."

Have there been disappointments? "The university's sense of mission has faltered on at least three fronts," Walshe said. "It has not reached out in a decisive way to invite members of other Christian denominations to join us, particularly in sharing insights on matters of theology, history and justice. We do not have a mosque or synagogue on campus. Notre Dame, in tandem with recent popes and the Vatican, has also frowned on liberation theology. Unions are still not tolerated on campus."

In a 1996 piece in Common Sense, Walshe wrote of the "monied power" and "pro-capitalist leadership" that Notre Dame nurtures: "Take our governing body, the board of trustees, weighted with extravagantly paid corporate CEOs and their lawyers. Where are the doctors serving in our inner cities, the devoted social workers, trade unionists and leaders of service-oriented NGOs?"

Six years after joining the English department at Assumption in 1965, True published "Should the Catholic College Survive?"

"Probably not," he wrote. He became one of the school's most revered and student-centered professors, thereby helping to assure that Assumption endured.

True gave full effort to diversifying his school's curriculum and mission. "In one sense," he wrote in the 1971 essay, "we can see the old 'Catholic' liberal arts college become extinct with some pleasure, trusting that it will be replaced by something better: a college that is first of all intellectual and liberal in the best 'non-Catholic' tradition."

Has it happened? Yes and no, True said. "Fortunately, several Catholic colleges and universities have kept the palsied hand of the Vatican or particular local bishops at bay, even as the hierarchy tried to impose ecclesiastical governance on the community of scholars." Holy Cross, for example, has "done so with skill and without rancor," he said.

The no: "Parochial Catholicism, uninformed by the best in theological writing of the past 50 years, continues to endanger the academic freedom of teachers and students at some schools," True said. "Some religious orders, particularly men's orders, once committed to the Second Vatican Council . . . have adopted an attitude of retrenchment. . . . Assumption, where I taught for 32 delightful years among students and faculty I loved, retiring in 1997, is suffering from this kind of crisis."

Like True, Lee at St. Anselm is grateful for having had a supportive academic home. As with True, who tangled with the Assumption fathers who run the school, Lee, who taught biology, has had tensions with the St. Anselm Benedictines.

"Over the years, I did try to drum up some student activism about a number of causes, often relating to questions of war and peace," Lee said. "I had very few takers, with some wonderful exceptions, and while the school administration was adamantly against abortion, they cared little for the seamless-garment argument for protecting all life by choosing nonviolence over war."

Lee had a habit of asking newly hired professors how St. Anselm students compared with those at secular schools where they had taught.

"The answer," he said, "was usually along the lines that the St. A students were 'wholesome,' 'respectful,' 'cooperative' and 'good kids' who scored higher in those categories than students they had taught in other schools. . . . They have grown up in Catholic families where the above-mentioned qualities are infused by example."

Whether seen as champions or survivors of Catholic education, Walshe, True and Lee served their students faithfully and well.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, teaches courses on nonviolence at four universities and two high schools and directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington.

For all the Post's Education coverage, please see

© 2009 The Washington Post Company