How Strong is Fordham’s Catholic Identity?


Published: March 12, 2009

Even though Fordham was founded as a Jesuit school, many disagree on the current state of the University’s Catholic identity, and even on how Catholic identity should be defined. Some argue that Fordham’s Catholic identity is strong and evolving, while others say that it is struggling—and that, without a concerted effort, it is impossible for Fordham not to become secularized. To address this topic, Campus Mission and Ministry held an event in late February that discussed the University’s Catholic identity and how to bolster it.

Peter Steinfels, co-director of Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture, said, “There is an underlying undertow toward secularization in higher education. You’ve got to have some kind of intentional, deliberate strategy to prevent yourself from being carried away by that. Jesuit schools, which are generally cosmopolitan, try to attract the best scholars. They struggle with that a lot.”

Helen Lee, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’11, a practicing Catholic and a theology major, said she feels that while Fordham’s Catholic identity is strong, she has seen the pull toward secularization and feels that the administration sometimes sends “mixed messages.”

She said that she is confused by Fordham’s seemingly ambivalent stance on “The Vagina Monologues,” in which the school states that it cannot sponsor the show, yet the show is still allowed to run. She also pointed out the fact that ISIS, a student club, funds the show—and that ISIS, presumably, uses the student activities funds they receive from the University to do this.

“Fordham could tighten its Catholic identity in this instance by not only maintaining a firm position, but by dedicating the month of February to promoting events that focus on respect for women from a Catholic perspective,” she said.

Steinfels expressed concern for the state of Fordham’s Catholic identity.

“If you look at certain exterior things, like the calendar and the events that are going on, you would think that [Fordham is a] really distinctly Catholic institution of higher education in the best sense,” he said. He mentioned liturgical events, lectures and provisions for those of other faiths as examples.

“On that external and, I say with hesitation, superficial basis, Fordham is doing OK,” he said.

However, he said he feels that the “student experience” at Fordham may not be so different from the student experience at a secular university.

“Sometimes I think that 80 percent of higher education takes place [outside the classroom]. Sometimes I get signs that make me think that the experience of students at Fordham, the questions they think are important…what they grapple with… is not that much different than [it is] at NYU,” he said.

For some, however, Fordham’s sometimes uneven Catholic identity is a plus. Holly Hughes, FCLC ’12, said she classifies herself as agnostic. She said that she came to Fordham despite its religious affiliation, because of its directing program. She said, “I thought Fordham [would make Catholicism] more of a factor in my everyday life than it is. I really don’t have to do anything religious if I don’t want to [at Fordham].” Hughes said this was unlike some other schools to which she was accepted which required and graded weekly chapel attendance.

Steinfels said the strength of a school’s Catholic identity can be judged on scholarly research, the student experience and “the degree of attention” paid to the history of Catholicism and the issues that the Church faces in contemporary society.

“That is the test for me. Is there more attention, not necessarily uncritical attention, [paid] to those questions that the Church faces and the traditions that the Church has had?” he said.

He said, “What wouldn’t be my test [of how Catholic a school is] is whether the school has a speaker who is… known to be at odds with Catholic teaching… or whether the school makes room for a gay and lesbian student organization. Those are the things that get blown up in the press, and what gets ignored is whether the learning experience or the atmosphere of student life is somehow substantively different than it might be [at a secular school].”

Steinfels mentioned questioning the students in his Senior Values class about the Jesuit influence on their education. “I asked my students: what difference would it make if all the [Catholic influence] was wiped out? They pretty unanimously thought it would make a difference, and when I pressed them for [specifics], most pointed to the required theology courses…They had a hard time pointing to other things. That raised questions in my mind.”

Steinfels, who attended Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit school, said he thinks that his undergraduate history, literature and philosophy courses were “more important than theology courses in raising fundamental religious questions and giving me a sense, both good and bad, of Catholic tradition,” he said. “I’m not sure how much that exists outside theology courses at Fordham.”

He cited his 20th Century European History course as an example, in which the church’s failure to deal with the Holocaust was given “hardly uncritical” but “important” attention.

Lee agreed that Catholic ideals could be better incorporated into Fordham classes.

“I find that in classes that are not theology courses, or in classes where the professor is not religious, Catholicism is often condemned. While Catholic teachings should not be forced into a class curriculum, they certainly have a place in the study of history, literature and philosophy,” she said.

Rev. Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., vice president of Mission and Ministry, pointed out ways in which the University incorporates Catholic and ethical ideals both in the classroom and out in various departments. As an example, he cited last year’s main stage theatre production of “Life is a Dream,” which dealt with questions of religion, free will and faith.

Steinfels commented on Fordham’s preeminent Medieval History program, which he said “makes sense” in the context of a Catholic school.

“There’s no reason that a Catholic school couldn’t also have courses in Catholic writers, for example,” he said.

Maureen Tilley, visiting professor of theology at FCLC, said that while she feels Fordham is “secure” in its Catholic identity, “most institutions, including Fordham, could be better at ‘hiring for mission’” in order to support the school’s goals and identity.

Steinfels wrote a speech that was distributed at the Catholic identity event. In it he wrote that Catholic institutes of higher education must “recognize that the future of Catholic identity is inescapably linked to hiring practices.” He called hiring for mission a “delicate” subject, but he stressed the fact that hiring for mission does not necessarily mean hiring only Catholics.

Tilley said, “What you will look for is that the people you hire have sympathy with the Catholic mission of the University and are willing to support that. Very often strong supporters of the Catholic identity of the University will be people who aren’t Catholic, but who realize that this is a Catholic institution and that there are a lot of good things” about Fordham because of its Catholicism. As examples, she mentioned the University’s Jesuit pedagogy, its strong emphasis on social justice issues and Fordham’s GO! trips.

Brian Rose, professor of communication and media studies, said he feels that Fordham’s Jesuit identity is stronger now than it was when he was hired 20 years ago—and that incoming faculty now have a clearer idea of the role Fordham’s Jesuit foundation will play in their classes. He said he feels that Fordham’s Catholic identity “may be uncertain for students, but it is certainly clear for new employees.”

Steinfels said he feels that, when hiring, Fordham should consider, “along with the expected academic qualifications, research and…teaching ability… [if] this person has some special interest and concern in their research agenda and teaching style that make him or her particularly appropriate to our kind of school.” He exemplified professors with a specific interest in science or religion or professors with an interest in the relationship between gender roles and religion.

Keith Eldredge, dean of students at FCLC, discussed how student affairs takes the University’s mission into account when hiring. He stressed the fact that Jesuit ideals dictate more than just not distributing birth control on campus. “[When] folks… come to interview for student affairs… I often say, ‘What does it mean to come and work at a Jesuit Catholic university?’ And sometimes the conversation quickly turns to, ‘Well, I know that the church’s teachings on X, Y and Z dictate certain things happen on campus…’ And I say, ‘Okay, that’s true, but let’s broaden it out.’ And we talk about the student affairs mission statement and cura personalis and how we try to embody that,” he said.

According to Steinfels, Fordham’s Catholic identity must be built from the bottom up, starting with faculty. He mentioned the “limitations” of what the administration can do to shape a strong Catholic identity. “The character of the University is really going to be determined primarily by… widespread ideas among faculty and the [student affairs] staff,” he said.