The Catholic University of America

Catholic Intellectual Tradition

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Catholic University is fortunate to be able to claim a rich Catholic intellectual tradition that made it a trailblazer among higher education institutions in 19th- and 20th-century America and that continues to inform its mission today.

Established in 1887, Catholic University was the first Catholic university in the U.S. founded as a graduate research institution. In creating Catholic University, the U.S. bishops sought to establish a place where the Church could do its thinking, an institution that would go beyond the preservation of learning and teaching to also encompass the advancement of knowledge through research. Thus in 1900, Catholic University was among the 14 institutions offering instruction for the doctorate that formed the Association of American Universities, a group of leading research institutions. Today, as its mission statement indicates, it continues to be a comprehensive Catholic and American institution of higher learning, with a classification as a “comprehensive doctoral research university with high research activity.”

The ecclesiastical faculties at Catholic University constitute an essential part of the University's Catholic intellectual tradition and contribute substantially to its uniqueness. But as Catholic University's President John Garvey has pointed out, the conviction that faith and reason can work in harmony permeates each of the University’s 12 schools. "In our classrooms at Catholic University we begin with the premise that we do well always and everywhere to serve God, and that all human knowledge works toward this end. We approach our work through the lens of faith – not only in our ecclesiastical faculties of philosophy, canon law, and theology, but also in art, music, history, literature, law, architecture, and even the hard sciences," Garvey says. "We engage the whole person and point him or her toward knowledge and true happiness. The two lie along the same axis, and are best sought in concert."

Proceeding from these assumptions, the University offers to all undergraduates a base curriculum in the liberal arts with more in-depth courses from their major fields of study. For example, in the School of Arts and Sciences (the largest among the 12), all undergraduates are required to take four courses each in theology and philosophy.


As the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country 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. Dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason, The Catholic University of America seeks to discover and impart the truth through excellence in teaching and research, all in service to the Church, the nation and the world.

(Approved by the Board of Trustees, December 12, 2006)


Catholic University is often called the bishops’ university. It is the only such institution founded and sponsored by the Catholic bishops of the United States.

The University’s unique status is codified under the bylaws of the University’s Board of Trustees. The archbishop of Washington is ex officio the chancellor of the University. He serves as a liaison between the University and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as between the University and the Holy See. In addition, the Board of Trustees’ bylaws stipulate that of the 48 elected members of the board, 24 are clerics, of whom at least 18 are members of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Catholic cardinals who are also bishops of dioceses in the United States are normally counted among the members of the board and have the option to serve for as long as they are both cardinals and diocesan bishops.

One of the ways in which the bishops of the United States demonstrate their continuing support for Catholic University is by taking up an annual national collection in their dioceses to support scholarships for qualified students at the University. Each year the collection brings in millions of dollars for Catholic University scholarships.

Pontifical Status

Higher education institutions established under a papal charter are called pontifical universities. The Catholic University of America received its papal charter in 1887 from Pope Leo XIII. Only universities, colleges and schools that have pontifical status are allowed to confer ecclesiastical degrees, which are accredited and certified by the Holy See. Most degrees issued by Catholic colleges and universities — including those in the disciplines of theology and religious studies — are civil degrees, i.e. they are established according to degree requirements and other criteria defined by secular authorities.

Catholic University’s pontifical status finds expression in ways large and small. For example, the University’s official colors – gold and white – are the same as those of the Vatican. Also, in all of U.S. history a pope has visited an American university campus on only six occasions. Three of those — Pope John Paul II in 1979, Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, and Pope Francis in 2015 — were to the campus of Catholic University.

Ecclesiastical Faculties

Three of Catholic University’s 12 schools — canon law, philosophy and theology and religious studies — grant ecclesiastical (or Church) degrees. Two of those — The School of Philosophy and the School of Theology and Religious Studies — also grant civil degrees. The ecclesiastical degrees are accredited and certified by the Holy See, whereas the civil degrees are established according to requirements defined by secular authorities.

As a pontifical university with ecclesiastical faculties, Catholic University has a special relationship to the Church, one that is different from her peer institutions. The schools of canon law, philosophy, and theology and religious studies, because they play a significant role within the Church by providing instruction in what used to be called the sacred sciences, have an obligation under Church law to not only be in full communion with the Church but also to "teach in the name of the Church." The canonical mission is the obligation of the institution to obtain for the Catholic professor before his/her faculty appointment. Professors on ecclesiastical faculties who are non-Catholic also must receive permission to teach in the name of the Church. In both cases, the permission is granted by the archbishop of Washington, who is also the University’s chancellor.

Candidates for ecclesiastical degrees are not limited to Catholic clergy and religious. Lay Catholics and non-Catholics may — and do — also obtain such degrees. Examples of ecclesiastical degrees granted at Catholic University are Bachelor of Sacred Theology, Licentiate in Philosophy and Doctor of Canon Law.

Not surprisingly, given the history and mission of Catholic University, the three schools that grant ecclesiastical degrees are often referred to as the University’s "foundational schools.” The first school to be established at Catholic University was the School of Theology and Religious Studies (1889), followed by the School of Philosophy (1895). The School of Canon Law is CUA’s fourth oldest (1923), preceded in its establishment by the School of Arts and Sciences (1906).

The ecclesiastical component of these schools, coupled with their long history, give them a special, and in some instances unique, status. The School of Philosophy, one of only three schools of philosophy in the country, has one of the nation’s oldest doctoral programs and the only one with ecclesiastical standing. The School of Canon Law is the only graduate school of canon law in the country. In the breadth and depth of its scholarship and teaching in the disciplines of Catholic theology — including biblical studies, Church history, liturgical studies/sacramental theology, moral theology/ethics, and pastoral and ministerial studies — the School of Theology and Religious Studies is second to none in the U.S.

Relevant Documents

The following documents are applicable to CUA’s Catholic intellectual tradition.

Sapientia Christiana (“Christian Wisdom”)

Apostolic Constitution of Pope John Paul II on ecclesiastical universities and faculties issued April 15, 1979.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”)

Apostolic Constitution of Pope John Paul II on Catholic universities promulgated Aug. 15, 1990.

Address of Pope Benedict XVI to U.S. Catholic educators

Speech given at The Catholic University of America on April 17, 2008.