New ideas on Catholic social thought and higher education

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“Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought,” edited by Bernard G. Prusak and Jennifer Reed-Bouley is reviewed by Timothy Walch.

By Timothy Walch
Book review

“Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought,” edited by Bernard G. Prusak and Jennifer Reed-Bouley. Foreword by Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ. Paulist Press, 272 pages, $34.95.

What’s the role of Catholic social thought in the future of Catholic higher education? That’s the question that weaves its way through this interesting new collection of essays.

A definition of “Catholic social thought” is in order. Simply stated, CST focuses on the propagation of social justice and has links to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical “Rerum Novarum” and the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and other saints and theologians.

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Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it often takes a committee to compile a book. This one started as a collaborative research program on CST and among its first products was a special issue of the Journal of Catholic Higher Education (2018). The issue proved to be the stimulus for this expanded discussion.

The volume brings together the work of 15 scholars from national Catholic institutions such as Georgetown, Villanova and Notre Dame, among others. Of note is a thoughtful chapter on the contours of Catholic leadership written by Father James L. Heft of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California.

The contributors have different approaches but come to a common question: How can the Christian message be applied to the relentless challenges of operating Catholic colleges and universities in a secular world?

The answer is in discussion that leads to action. “Respect for human dignity, concern for the common good, the preferential option of the poor and vulnerable all crop up in faculty-administration disputes,” the volume editors write. These disputes include such issues as “health insurance coverage, adjunct pay and benefits, hiring decisions, diversity on campus, and more recently childcare, return to work protocols, and vaccination mandates during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Most chapters begin with provocative questions. Is Catholic higher education a system adrift? Are Catholic colleges following the tenets of Christian social justice? What’s the role of Catholic higher education in responding to the ecological crisis? How can women take a larger role in leading Catholic universities? The list goes on from there.

It’s too much to claim that this book offers clear answers. However, these scholars do offer better questions. Each chapter offers a series of discussion points for anyone engaged in the administration of a Catholic college or university.

The editors and contributors seem confident that the leadership of our Catholic colleges and universities are up to the task of finding a path forward. “We envision the chapters that follow being used in board retreats,” the editors write, “or in workshops for faculty and staff development, or for self-reflection among senior administration.” Dialogue and discussion are paramount.

This is no small mission. “Catholic social thought is a living, dynamic tradition that advances a vision of justice,” conclude the editors, “expressed and developed through magisterial teaching, scholarship, and the lived experience of faithful Catholics and other people of good will.”

Catholic colleges and universities face perilous times in the coming decades. Declining enrollments and rising costs will force some of these institutions to merge, close or reimagine their missions. Catholic social thought offers a beacon for administrators as they chart their institutional futures.

(Timothy Walch is a parishioner at St. Thomas More Parish and a member of The Catholic Messenger Board of Directors.)


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