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Institutionalizing a Catholic Culture in Professional Schools

December 22, 2020 9 min read
By Dr. Michael J. Naughton Director, Center for Catholic Studies, University of Saint Thomas
The University of Toronto and Toronto Skyline

The following text is drawn from "Revitalizing and Institutionalizing Mission: Business Education at Catholic Universities," prepared by Michael J. Naughton, PhD, for Renewal of Catholic Higher Education: Essays in Catholic Studies in Honor of Don J. Briel, published by the University of Mary in 2017. Slight alterations have been made to the text. This article will serve as the first of a four-part series.


Catholic Studies developed over 20 years ago to foster the ongoing renewal of Catholic higher education.1 Shaped by the principles of the unity of knowledge and the complementarity of faith and reason, Catholic Studies seeks to bring into relationship the various elements of the university in a way that illuminates and strengthens its mission and identity. From its inception, Catholic Studies has engaged the professions in relation to mission and identity. It never saw itself as simply a liberal arts project, but as a program that might animate the whole university, including professional schools.

As a part of this engagement with the university as a whole and in particular with professional schools, Catholic Studies has been addressing the question of how to institutionalize the university’s mission, especially in relationship to the curriculum, hiring and recruiting, development and formation, evaluation, tenure and promotion, research, and student life. The task of institutionalizing mission and identity is “to infuse with value beyond the technical requirements of the task at hand.”2 In his book On Thinking Institutionally, Hugh Heclo explains that this value or core conviction “points toward the distinction between strictly instrumental attachments needed to get a particular job done and the deeper commitment that expresses one’s enduring loyalty to the purposes that lie behind doing the job in the first place.”3 One of the important roles of Catholic Studies is to continue to remind the university of these fundamental convictions and find creative and productive ways to make these convictions part of its day-to-day operations.

To institutionalize, then, is to incarnate the institution’s core convictions into the practices and policies of the organization. The history of institutions points to the difficulty of this task. From monasteries to states to corporations to universities, the core convictions are easily lost over time. There is a bureaucratic force within institutions that can lose sight of their deeper commitments. External goods such as getting things done efficiently, rewards, growing faster, increasing margins, expanding market share, climbing rankings, etc., too often squeeze out the moral and spiritual convictions of an institution.

In light of this bureaucratic force, one of the most significant dangers of all organizations is “mission drift,” and Catholic universities are not exempt from it. This drift occurs when the institution’s policies, practices and processes are not linked to its deepest commitments.4 This is why the process of institutionalizing is so important, and why those who run the organization must move, in the words of Philip Selznik, from “administrative management” (dominated by the logic of functionality and efficiency) to “institutional leadership” (governed by logic of integration of function and principle).5

Mission drift is rarely intended; rather, it is often an unintentional movement away from the core religious vision of the institution, a movement powered by incremental and subtle changes arising from a series of decisions over time. A culture not institutionalized becomes a culture in decline.

One common story line of this mission drift and bureaucratic force for Catholic universities is the following narrative. Most Catholic colleges and universities were started by religious orders or dioceses. While never perfect, the priests, brothers and sisters of these orders and dioceses created a Catholic culture on campus that gave the institutions their unique mission and identity. As these founding orders and priests declined in number in the 1960s and ’70s, the institutional environment became more complex and challenging than any of the founders could have imagined in virtually every dimension: administrative, economic, legal, technical, cultural. Priests and religious still lead many Catholic universities (although in decreasing numbers), but most of the leadership below the president passed to new lay leaders, chosen for their abilities to manage increasingly complex organizations and to navigate the “permanent whitewater” of organizational and societal change. This environment emphasized finance, accounting, marketing, operations and expertise in critical administrative skills, while muting knowledge of the founding tradition and commitment to its religious vision except in the vaguest of terms, such as “values” and “heritage.” At this stage, universities assumed their distinctive mission but failed to cultivate or institutionalize it. Legitimate concerns for leaders’ character and administrative abilities superseded concerns for their knowledge of the faith and traditions that previously animated the founders and the tradition they represented. Universities selected new leaders with an almost naïve hope that they could simply pick up the Catholic “thing” as they worked.

Mission drift is rarely intended; rather, it is often an unintentional movement away from the core religious vision of the institution, a movement powered by incremental and subtle changes arising from a series of decisions over time. A culture not institutionalized becomes a culture in decline. This mission drift has had serious implications for professional schools. When the cultural openness to Catholic thought and liberal education that has sometimes been present in professional programs fails to institutionalize recruiting and hiring, faculty development, tenure promotion, curriculum and so forth, the culture declines, losing its vital link to mission.6 For example, as a matter of mission, policy, or strategy, seldom do professional schools in Catholic universities make a commitment to the integration of the Catholic social tradition in research and curriculum, or even to the integration of liberal education and their particular discipline. While some individual professors may do so as a matter of personal choice, few schools have engaged the particular tradition on which their university was founded and strategically shaped the policies and processes of the institution and the content of the curriculum with this tradition.7

In order for professional programs to participate more meaningfully in the university’s Catholic mission and identity, I will address three important questions related to institutionalizing mission. First, what is the “value” or indispensable convictions of a Catholic university and the implications for such programs? Professional schools embedded within Catholic universities need to be informed by their convictions, otherwise they will default to the homogenizing forces of the instrumental and utilitarian tendencies. Second, what is the status of this vision in Catholic universities and their professional programs? How well are Catholic professional schools doing in light of these core convictions? Third, what effective levers do faculty and administrators have to institutionalize the mission and identity of Catholic professional education? This three-stage process is simple: Know your end or purpose, evaluate your current state in light of this purpose, and fund ways to close the gap between your purposes and current operation. Although simple, it will take leaders with vision, prudence, courage, and above all charity to deepen mission-driven professional education in today’s environment.

Reasons for Hope

There are significant pressures that undermine the core convictions of a Catholic university: The increasing specialization of disciplines represses avenues to explore the unity of knowledge; the increasing secularization marginalizes faith and theology in academic discourse and the sheer bureaucratic force of the institution loses sight of its deeper commitments. To think that Catholic professional education is an easy task is naïve and dangerous.

Catholic Studies programs, which are by nature dedicated to the integration of faith and the professions, will increasingly be needed by the university to take full advantage of opportunities to host and foster the integration of professional education into the deepest convictions of the university. As an interdisciplinary program, Catholic Studies serves as a meeting ground to, in the words of John Paul II, “work towards a higher synthesis of knowledge, in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying that thirst for truth which is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person.” Without Catholic Studies, or something like it, the centrifugal forces of the departmental structure of the university will default into fragmented pieces of highly specialized and disconnected disciplines. Catholic universities can play an important role in the future of higher education, but they need vision from leaders, innovative programs such as Catholic Studies and mission-driven practices and policies to effectively institutionalize the unity of knowledge and the complementarity of faith and reason in business programs and elsewhere.

These considerations apply to professional programs at Catholic universities broadly; nevertheless, the comments above were originally intended for business schools in particular. Thus, while the questions above are offered for all professional programs, my responses to these questions – found in future articles – are undertaken from the lens of business schools in particular.


1 A version of this paper served as a background document for the 8th International Conference on Catholic Social Thought and Management Education, University of Dayton, June 18-20, 2011. I am indebted to my graduate assistant, Sarah Lippert, who was invaluable in revising the paper.

2 Philip Selznick, Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Interpretation (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 17.

3 See Hugh Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), 101.

4 See James Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 842. On top of this bureaucratic force is a secular logic or bad theology that runs like this: religious and specifically Catholic and Christian identity is fine so long as it does not animate the decision-making process of the university in relation to policies and strategies of hiring, of designing a core curriculum, of choosing institutes and centers, budgeting for research projects, advertising, student life, etc. Burtchaell explained that this theology, which he defines as pietism, has a particularly destructive role within Protestant universities in the U.S. One of Burtchaell’s insights is that the failure of mission is not principally caused by outside forces such as secularism, but is already internal to the church: “It was the churches themselves and their theology of pietism that are responsible for the slide. The pietist view eventually shared by these various denominations and churches was that religious endeavors on campus should be focused upon the individual life of faith, as distinct from the shared labor of learning. Religion’s move to the academic periphery was not so much the work of godless intellectuals as of pious educators who, since the onset of pietism, had seen religion as embodied so uniquely in the personal profession of faith that it could not be seen to have a stake in social learning.

5 See Selznick.

6 See Warren Bennis and James O’Toole, “How Business Schools Lost Their Way,” Harvard Business Review 83, no. 5 (2005): 96-104. They chronicle the increasing specialization that is occurring in business schools in general.

7 See Stephen J. Porth, John J. McCall, and Joseph A. DiAngelo, “Business Education at Catholic Universities: Current Status and Future Directions,” Journal of Catholic Higher Education (2009) 28:1, 3-22. There are, of course, several dangers with institutionalizing mission, particularly at this time. The current culture of Catholic higher education may view attempts at institutionalizing as threatening. They may appear coercive and imposed, especially if the failure to institutionalize mission has created a highly secularized culture that sees religion as merely a private affair. There are examples of well-intentioned administrators who have attempted to operationalize mission-driven policies, only to have such attempts backfire and cause more harm than good.

A Notebook in an Auditorium

Next: An Integrating Vision of Business Education at Catholic Universities

For a Catholic business school to engage its mission and identity fully, a conviction in the unity of knowledge and the complementarity of faith and reason must play a central role.

An Integrating Vision of Business Education at Catholic Universities

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