The Catholic University of America (CUA) is the only pontifical university in the United States that serves primarily lay students. With the support of Pope Leo XIII, the American bishops founded CUA in 1887 for the initial purpose of graduate studies in theology, philosophy, and canon law.
Today CUA has about equal numbers of undergraduate and graduate students, with an undergraduate program that is distinctly and reliably Catholic. The largely Catholic student body has a wide variety of schools and majors from which to choose—unique features for a comprehensive university that embraces a strong Catholic identity.
The CUA mission statement reads in part: “As the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country and with the approval of the Holy See, The Catholic University of America is committed to being a comprehensive Catholic and American institution of higher learning, faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ as handed on by the Church.”
John Garvey became CUA’s 15th president in 2010, after several years as dean of Boston College Law School. The Harvard-educated legal expert has earned much respect with his public defense of Catholic institutions from the Obama administration’s violations of religious liberty. In addition, he made CUA a standard-bearer for other institutions to follow with his announcement in 2011 that student residence halls would no longer be co-ed.
CUA’s Catholic identity has also been enhanced by strengthening the campus ministry and by hiring professors and staff members who reflect Catholic identity. More than 110 former CUA students have entered religious life over the past decade.
CUA is governed by a 50-member board of trustees: 48 elected and two members—the president and the chancellor, who is always the archbishop of Washington, D.C—by virtue of their position. Half of the elected members must be clerics, with at least 18 of them members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Located in Northeast Washington, D.C., in the inner-city residential Brookland neighborhood, CUA is about three miles north of the U.S. Capitol. Students must beware of crime in the neighboring area, but they also will find numerous Catholic institutions like the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The recent opening of Monroe Street Market on the University’s campus brings new restaurants, retailers and an arts walk to the community.
Garvey has been forthright about hiring faculty who support the University’s mission: “The universities themselves will only be distinctive and distinctively Catholic if they hire people who want to make them that, and to do that you have to count, and not just count people who have a baptismal certificate, but those who really care about putting those things together. In hiring non-Catholics, you need to pay attention to what they will contribute to the culture of the institution.”
Currently, about 58 percent of the faculty is Catholic. Nearly 50% of the theology faculty members are clerics or religious, including Benedictines, Dominicans, and Franciscans. At present, 63 faculty members have a canonical mission, which substitutes for the mandatum at pontifical institutions. Three non-Catholics in the School of Theology and Religious Studies have received thevenia docendi, or permission to teach in the name of the Church.
Among CUA’s 12 schools are: architecture and planning, arts and sciences, business and economics, canon law, engineering, law, music, nursing, philosophy, professional studies, social service, theology and religious studies, and the university seminary, Theological College.
As with any large university, several departments have surfaced in our interviews that require pr
udence when pursuing courses there. These include anthropology, modern languages, history, and the National Catholic School of Social Service. And at such a large university, students should be diligent in seeking out professors in every discipline who embrace the University’s Catholic mission.
For students who qualify, there is an honors program that includes a core curriculum organized into a number of four-course sequences. Those successfully completing one or more sequences are honored at graduation. Graduation requirements vary according to the school to which the student is admitted.
CUA offers a variety of scholarships to students, such as the $1,000 alumni grant awarded to a freshman nominated by a graduate, and the Parish Scholarship whereby parish priests can nominate students for a $3,000 annual renewable scholarship.
CUA has a number of institutes and centers. Students have abundant opportunities for international enrichment, choosing from over 20 education abroad programs to locations such as Spain, Ireland, Australia, China, and CUA’s premiere program in Rome.
One ongoing concern at CUA is the low retention rates in the undergraduate program; about 30 percent of students leave before their junior year. To enhance undergraduate education, CUA now includes a freshman “First-Year Experience” program that creates learning communities integrating five specific courses. CUA’s proximity to Washington, D.C., offers unparalleled opportunities for internships with more than 2,000 organizations, including political parties, radio and television networks, museums, social service and government agencies, The White House, and many more.
Four Conventual Franciscan Friars and four lay people staff the campus ministry office. With the help of priests from CUA’s faculty, the friars offer four daily Masses in St. Paul’s Chapel in Caldwell Hall, the law school chapel, and St. Vincent’s Chapel. There are also two Sunday Masses in St. Vincent’s Chapel. There are six daily Masses and seven Sunday Masses at the Basilica—one offered on Sunday afternoon for the University community.
Two new chapels have opened in student residence halls, one in Flather Hall (Sacred Heart Chapel), the other in Opus Hall (Blessed Sacrament Chapel). Both provide students with the opportunity to make private visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Monday through Thursday Mass is celebrated at 10:30 p.m.
Daily Masses frequently attract 40 to 50 students, with as many as 300 participating in the Sunday evening Mass. About half the undergraduate students attend Sunday Mass. Confession is offered twice a week during the academic year, in each residence hall during Advent and Lent, on every CUA retreat, and by appointment.
CUA holds four special Masses during the academic year at the Basilica: the Freshman Orientation Mass, the Mass of the Holy Spirit, the Mass in Honor of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Baccalaureate Mass.
A Holy Hour with Benediction is celebrated on campus twice a week: Wednesday night Praise and Worship Adoration, and Thursday evening Solemn Adoration. Daily Eucharistic adoration marks the Lenten weekdays between the 12:15 p.m. and 5:10 p.m. Masses.
During the first month of every academic year, friars visit every residence hall on campus, blessing the rooms of all who express interest.
Other opportunities for spiritual growth include nine annual class-based and student-run retreats, the priest-led “Going Deeper” retreat series, and days of recollection for specific student organizations. Campus Ministry sponsors student organizations dedicated to men and women’s spiritual growth, the Church’s teachings on social justice, and her intellectual tradition. CUA also has an online “Prayernet” site, a R.C.I.A. program, and a Renew program.
Campus Ministry coordinates all community service for CUA. During the 2011-12 academic year students performed more than 125,000 hours of community service. Campus Ministry also sponsors mission trips, and students have gone to Guatemala, Jamaica, Panama, Belize, Honduras, Tanzania, and Costa Rica. In fall 2012 the University expanded its Religious in Residence program, with three sisters living in two residence halls for women and one priest living in a residence hall for men.
CUA is largely a residential campus, with more than 2,200 students living in 17 residence halls and 25 modular units grouped into five “neighborhoods” or clusters, although the modular units are being phased out. About two-thirds of undergraduates live on campus. Access to residence halls is secure.
The University has completed the transition to all single-sex housing, a process that began in 2011.
The campus has a visitation policy, allowing visitors until midnight during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends. Overnight opposite-sex visitation is not permitted.
Students over the age of 21 are permitted to have alcohol in their rooms, but they may not have it in common areas or provide it to others.
Each residential neighborhood is staffed by a full-time professional, live-in community director, and a team of resident assistants. Student ministers work with Campus Ministry to lead small-faith meetings discussing weekly Gospel readings and offering opportunities for discussion on issues of faith.
The campus health clinic is located in the Student Health and Fitness Center. University officials say that medical care and advice is consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Student Health Services is staffed by a physician, a nurse practitioner, a physician assistant, and a nurse. There are a number of urgent care clinics in the area, and Providence Hospital is nearby.
Washington is easily accessible from everywhere. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is across the river from the city, while the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall and Washington Dulles International airports are about 45 minutes away. Amtrak has a broad network that uses Union Station, and the Metro subway system has a station adjacent to the campus.
Reflecting the scope of a larger university, CUA offers more than 90 student organizations covering a wide range of professional, social, community service, and advocacy areas.
The pro-life group is very active, expanding its work beyond abortion and addressing lifestyle issues and chastity. In addition to praying and sidewalk counseling outside abortion businesses, it also sponsors Theology of the Body student/reading groups. Surrounding the March for Life, students provide extensive hospitality in housing out-of-town marchers and pro-lifers on campus and at the Basilica.
The University has a chapter of Catholic Athletes for Christ, the organization’s first college chapter. There are no pro-abortion or homosexual rights groups.
The music school sponsors about 200 recitals a year, and students have given concerts at the Vatican, Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in a number of U.S. cities, and abroad. The Hartke Theatre features five or six performances annually by the nationally recognized drama department.
In addition to all these organizations and cultural opportunities, CUA has a rich array of intercollegiate, club, and intramural athletic programs. The CUA Cardinals compete in the NCAA Division III with 21 varsity sports teams; club sports exist in nine areas.
Washington offers a wide variety of social, cultural, and entertainment opportunities, such a large array of museums within the Smithsonian system, and prominent art museums. Next to the University is the Saint John Paul II Shrine. Washington is also home to several professional sports teams.
The Bottom Line
CUA has greatly strengthened its Catholic identity and academic prowess over the past several years, with changes ushered in since 1998 during the presidencies of Bishop David O’Connell and John Garvey. Today the undergraduate program can be an excellent choice for students seeking a mid-sized university in an urban environment.
“We celebrate our status as the national university of the Catholic Church in America,” said Christopher Lydon, vice president for enrollment management and marketing. “And our prominence as a research university, our commitment to undergraduate teaching, and our location in Washington, D.C., add up to a powerful combination.”
Across the spectrum, CUA is on the move. Most importantly, the “bishops’ university” has confidently embraced a well-rounded Catholic approach to higher education. It is exciting that Catholic families today, many who are not seeking a liberal arts college, have the option of an authentically Catholic, comprehensive university located in our nation’s capital.