The Catholic University of America

HISTORY


The decision to found The Catholic University of America was made by the bishops of the United States on Dec. 2, 1884. Pope Leo XIII, who was a source of encouragement from the beginning, gave the decision in his formal approbation on April 10, 1887. The anniversary is commemorated annually as Founders Day. A certificate of incorporation was registered in the District of Columbia on April 21, 1887. After papal approval of the University’s first constitution was given on March 7, 1889, and what is now called Caldwell Hall was completed, the University opened with 37 students of the sacred sciences on Nov. 13 of the same year.

At the time, the modern American university was still in its infancy. The opening of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 had marked its beginning. This institution in Baltimore was the first in the country to dedicate itself not only to the preservation of learning and to teaching, as universities had been doing since the Middle Ages and as American institutions had been doing since the foundation of Harvard College on an English model in 1636, but also to the advancement of knowledge through research. In this it was following the example of the Prussian universities of the 19th century. Very soon the conduct of research and training of graduate students to carry it on became the hallmark of university status. By 1900, 14 institutions offering instruction for the doctorate, The Catholic University of America among them, considered themselves ready to form the Association of American Universities. Until 1904, undergraduate programs were not offered by the University.

As the article in its name suggests, The Catholic University of America was founded when it was thought that for some time to come American Catholics would be able to maintain only one institution of university standing. There had been occasional demands for such an institution for several decades. Meeting in their Second Plenary Council, in 1866, the bishops, who were interested especially in the higher education of the clergy, had expressed a desire to have under Catholic auspices a university in which “all the letters and sciences, both sacred and profane, could be taught.” Although some Catholic colleges of the period had announced graduate offerings in the 1870s, they had defined them by adding courses rather than by the pursuit of investigation that graduate work is understood to entail.

Bishop John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, Ill., became the principal champion of the Catholic university cause. In the Third Plenary Council of the bishops, in 1884, he was able to persuade a majority that so long as they would “look rather to the multiplying of schools and seminaries than to the creation of a real university,” the progress of American Catholics would be slow and uncertain. “A university,” he said, “is the great ordinary means to the best cultivation of mind.” A gift from Mary Gwendoline Caldwell of Newport, R.I., made possible the foundation of a faculty of the sacred sciences as the nucleus around which a university could develop.

Seen in the context of the development of American higher education as a whole, the institution that began with the decision of the bishops in 1884 became the principal channel through which the modern university movement entered the American Catholic community. The life of The Catholic University of America has been more or less coterminous with the movement, which now extends on an international scale. A particularly visible contribution of the University to the Church in the United States and to the nation at large has been its preparation of teachers, many of them diocesan priests or members of religious communities of men and women, for service in schools, seminaries, and colleges throughout the country.

The expansion of the University into the arts and sciences began with the opening, in 1895, of what were called at the time the “faculties for the laity.” Instruction in law and technology were included. A structural evolution led to a comprehensive academic reorganization in 1930. In that year, in accord with patterns that had become general in the United States, the College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences were established. The School of Engineering and Architecture was also a product of this reorganization. The School of Law had been established early in 1898, in the third year after its beginning as a department.

The addition of several professional schools since 1930, with the incorporation of the National Catholic School of Social Service in 1947 and the former Columbus University in 1954; the consolidation that resulted in the establishment of the School of Religious Studies in 1973; the integration of the College and Graduate School into a single School of Arts and Sciences in 1975; the return of the School of Education to departmental status in 1986, and the establishment of canon law as a separate school within the University by the Board of Trustees on Dec. 11, 2001, have resulted in a complex of 12 faculties or schools in architecture and planning, arts and sciences, business and economics, canon law, engineering, law, music, nursing, philosophy, professional studies, religious studies, and social service.

Undergraduates are admitted to the schools of architecture and planning, arts and sciences, business and economics, engineering, music, nursing, philosophy, professional studies, and social service. A common admissions authority applies the same general standards to all nine schools. To a considerable extent, undergraduates participate in the same classes in general subjects, share in other features of undergraduate life, and are governed by common regulations.

The composition of the University’s student body has changed several times since its founding. At present, it resembles more than ever before what would be regarded as a typical American institution. About 50 percent of all students are undergraduates. Of the other 50 percent who are postbaccalaureate students, roughly two-thirds are in professional schools. The latter have gained in proportion as the number of clerics and religious, who once constituted a large segment of students in arts and sciences, has declined.

When the University was established, its governance was delegated by the bishops to a board of trustees of 17 members. An act of Congress in 1928 amended the original certificate of incorporation to allow, among other things, an increase in the membership of the board. Lay membership, however, was minimal until 1968. Under bylaws it adopted that year, the board, which now has 50 members, has equal numbers of clerical and lay members.

An official statement of the aims of the University that the trustees promulgated in 1970 transmits consistently the goals of the founders of a century ago. The first rector, Bishop John Joseph Keane, gave succinct form to these goals when he portrayed the institution he was chosen to head as “a living embodiment and illustration of the harmony between reason and revelation, between science and religion, between the genius of America and the church of Christ.” His words have been a guide for more than a century and will be a continuing challenge as long as the University endures.