An interview with Cardinal Newman Society president Patrick Reilly
By ITV staff
Countless Catholic families have faced the same dilemma over the past few decades: where can their children attend college and not have their faith opposed, ridiculed or worse — lost?
The Catholic colleges and universities mom and dad once attended are now “Catholic” in name only, usually as dedicated to progressive moral values and intellectual trends as virtually every secular school. Kids don’t often grasp the most vital criteria to use in their college search. Parents tear their hair out trying to assess which schools will foster both a robust intellectual formation and a strong faith.
But there is a lighthouse beaming across the darkness: Since 2007, the Newman Guide has been the “go-to” resource for Catholic families who are trying to meet this ongoing challenge. Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society (now also celebrating its 30th anniversary), producer of the Newman Guide to Catholic education, spoke recently with Inside the Vatican about the Newman Society’s mission of renewing the Church through the renewal of Catholic education.
What was the impetus for starting the Cardinal Newman Society back in 1993?
Patrick Reilly: I found outright dissent and moral corruption at the Jesuit university I attended in the late 1980s. As editor of the student newspaper, I started writing about it and have never stopped advocating for the reform of Catholic education, which to me seems the most important means of renewing the Church in America. I often tell the story of a priest at my college, who advised me to “stop chasing the horses 20 years after the barn doors were opened.” He meant that the decline of fidelity and excellence in Catholic education, begun in the 1960s, could not be reversed.
But God can do anything, and now we’re celebrating our 30th anniversary and the great renewal of faithful Catholic education that is underway. Our Newman Guide is helping families find those schools, colleges, and graduate programs that are fully devoted to their Catholic mission, and these are growing in size, number, and reputation.
What exactly is the Newman Guide and how does it work?
Patrick Reilly: The Newman Guide is an online compendium identifying faithful Catholic colleges and universities (at this writing, 24) — and, starting this year, faithful Catholic elementary and high schools, and also graduate programs. It is found on our website, cardinalnewmansociety.org.
We thoroughly examine and then monitor everything from academics to athletics to personnel policies, and we affirm that these appear consistent with the Church’s expectations for Catholic education.
We also recognize several colleges in other parts of the world—including Canada, Spain, Rome, Austria, Australia and the Philippines — but these must offer English-language instruction for at least the first year.
How is Catholic education different from secular education?
Patrick Reilly: Catholic education is a wider, deeper, and more free education, because it embraces what God has revealed through Christ and invites students to a much greater understanding of themselves and of the world. Christ changes everything! He provides the key to understanding not just how, but why, and leads us to our greatest happiness. Secular education often focuses on skills and empowerment — and today it is captured by false, destructive ideologies — while Catholic education stands in awe and gratitude for our Creator’s wisdom and love. It forms students in reverence and virtue, growing ever closer to the mind and heart of God.
Pope John Paul II issued documents about Catholic education, especially Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Did it have a lasting effect?
Patrick Reilly: They say that law is a great teacher, and while Ex Corde Ecclesiae — the 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education — is still not widely embraced or strongly enforced in the U.S., I do think that it effectively set a higher standard for Catholic colleges. More than 20 years later, the Newman Guide colleges exemplify what both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict envisioned for Catholic education, and Catholic families are increasingly turning away from the once-prestigious universities that still pursue a path of secularization.
Why are so many of the Newman Guide colleges liberal arts schools? What do you tell kids and parents worried about getting a “useful” degree?
Patrick Reilly: Looking toward a career is understandable, but the heart of Catholic education is formation of the mind, while cultivating faith and virtue. The liberal arts and sciences have consistently been the core of Catholic education, and there is no better subject matter for developing the human person.
Moreover, Newman warned that students and scholars become distorted when everything is viewed through the lens of one specialty, instead of the broad awareness that all knowledge begins and ends in God and therefore ought to be integrated.
And the graduates of Newman Guide colleges are getting good jobs. Graduate programs are eager for successful liberal arts students, and some studies show that liberal arts students often rise up to leadership positions because they can reason well and communicate clearly.
But many of the Newman Guide colleges also offer a wide array of majors in both the arts and the sciences — including nursing, engineering, psychology, and more — while retaining a strong core curriculum.
The social and legal landscape looks increasingly hostile to Catholic schools. What is your forecast for Catholic education across the board?
Patrick Reilly: As American society becomes more hostile to Catholicism, lukewarm schools have tended to buckle under pressure and compromise their mission. But Catholic educators who refuse corruption are finding greater strength amid the challenges. And ironically, a U.S. Catholic college’s best legal defense is to be more Catholic — deeply rooted Catholic beliefs allow it to invoke Constitutional religious freedom protections. Gender ideology, racial division, and government mandates are being forced upon every institution that cannot claim religious freedom. Lukewarm Catholic schools will find it hard to survive.
Where does your passion for education come from?
Patrick Reilly: In my own college experience, I saw a lot of confusion and pain in the students who had been promised something beautiful but were fed bland secular education and even dangerous falsehoods. But my passion for faithful Catholic education is mainly fueled by the students I meet at Newman Guide schools – their joy, virtue, and wisdom. The Holy Spirit is bringing about something truly amazing in the Church through faithful Catholic education!
I also have an amazing wife, Rosario, who shares my deep concern for our own five children. She founded Aquinas Learning, a faithful classical curriculum and a hybrid school-homeschool program, with nearly 200 students in our community attending classes one or two days a week in a setting very similar to a parish school.
I’ve also discovered the joy of teaching! I have taught and developed courses for Aquinas Learning, and I teach rhetoric for Holy Apostles College and Seminary (where Rosario and I are also working toward master’s degrees in philosophy), so we’re Newman Guide students ourselves!
You have a new “30th anniversary” logo that features the image of John Henry Newman himself. What message lies within it?
Patrick Reilly: We wanted to better display our devotion to Cardinal Newman, canonized in 2019; his vision for Catholic education, as described in his Idea of a University and other writings, has always been foundational to us. His lifelong struggle against liberalism in the Church is especially relevant to American Catholics today. The design highlights Newman’s red cardinal’s zucchetto: red signifies the blood of Christ whose truth, love, and redemption are the firm foundation of authentic Catholic education. Red also signifies the blood of the martyrs, reminding us to teach and defend the Catholic faith without fear or compromise.
The top of the logo features a red bar or “high bar,” representing The Cardinal Newman Society’s commitment to upholding high standards of faithful Catholic formation. The bar extends across the page, representing the lifelong continuum of Catholic education from birth to death.