Program #0043 for Monday, May 9, 2011: Getting a great Catholic education

May 9, 2011

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry

Today’s guest(s): From the College of St. Mary Magdalen in Warner, NH: Dr George Harne, president; Dr. Mark Discher, academic dean; and Tim VanDamm, vice president of advancement and admissions.

Today’s topics: Getting a great Catholic college education

A summary of today’s show: Scot talks with Dr. George Harne, Dr. Mark Discher & Tim Van Damm of the College of St. Mary Magdalen about what it takes to find an authentically Catholic college and get a good Catholic education. Drs. Harne and Discher also discuss their individual journeys into the Catholic Church and the role that beauty and intellectual pursuit played for them.

1st segment: Many Catholic parents and high school seniors are finalizing decisions now about where to study in college. They seek to find a place where they can learn, make lifelong friends, prepare themselves for a good career and see their virtues grow and their Catholic faith strengthened. There are so many factors involved that it can often be a difficult decision. We’ll focus on many of these questions of getting a great Catholic education in college with 3 leaders of the College of St. Mary Magdalen which is located about an hour north of Boston in the state of New Hampshire. This college is reinventing itself in many ways to meet the needs of Catholic college students today. Now I’d like to welcome Dr. George Harne, Dr. Mark Discher and Tim VanDamm.

George said one thing that many do not consider when attending a college is how it will affect my soul? Catholic parents and their children should consider where they can go to get both the intellectual and spiritual formation.

Scot asked what a liberal arts education means. Mark said that classically, liberal learning is for a free man, one who has the leisure for study t come to a deeper understanding of themselves, of humanity, and of God. Scot asked why someone who wants a business degree would want to study a liberal arts education. Mark said most of the presidents and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies hold liberal arts degree. Those degrees should help one to carry through an argument, to look at general perspectives, and have a general grasp of existence. It should lead to a lot of trainability and adaptability.

George said the classical liberal arts are seven: four verbal and three mathematical. He has a friend in New York City who his is doing very well in the corporate world who studied rhetoric. The subjects are ordered to help one to think clearly and speak well. Most modern liberal arts education is like a salad bar where you aren’t sure what you’re going to get.

In terms of student like on a college campus, Tim said a parent should ask whether the culture on campus will build up their children’s faith that they worked so hard to bring to that point. Look at what maintains and continues what I’ve already started as a parent. At Magdalen, there are students who get up early in the morning to pray in adoration or at daily Mass or to pray before an abortion clinic.

What are warning signs at other schools? Tim said if you see aspects against the Catholic faith: for example, gay/lesbian/transgender clubs; plays that are anti-Catholic or immoral. When parents are paying student and academic fees that support activity inimical to their faith, that’s a warning sign.

George said parents can start with the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College by the Cardinal Newman Society. The Society’s website also keeps up with current news about what’s going on at Catholic colleges. Parents should get the most current information on the colleges from the college’s own websites as well. Also, call the college and talk to those working in student life. Do the faculty take the oath of fidelity? Are the dorms co-ed?

Mark said the Oath of Fidelity is extended to faculty members so they can state in writing that they will not teach anything contrary to the Church’s teachings. It is voluntary at Magdalen but all of the faculty at their school sign it. This is somewhat rare to get 100% voluntary compliance. Tim said at Magdalen that the staff signs it as well, so that it’s not just what is being taught, but also how they live their lives. Young people are searching for truth and there is an authenticity that they are living the Catholic faith they profess to hold.

Scot asked why some colleges do not encourage the Oath of fidelity. George said in some cases Catholics in the US have an inferiority complex and a desire to belong to the wider society, which inclines them to make compromises, like when some Catholic colleges might hire a superstar faculty member who dissents from some aspect of Catholic teaching.

This began with the Land O Lakes Conference in the 1970s where leaders of Catholic colleges asserted that the bishops do not have a right to tell the schools what they can teach. Pope John Paul’s “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” was a response to that conference. At the same time, some small Catholic colleges began arising with specific identity of charism.

Scot said he sees that some Catholic colleges put their academic college ahead of their Catholic college. He asked Mark if this is a function of the size of the college, whether they remain faithful. Mark said it seems to be a matter of mission and vision and intentionality of hiring. He does see that as a college grows larger, it might be tempting to want to hire more well-known, widely recognized names to impress those who give money to the college. George agreed that central to the vision should be maintaining an inherent vision of the world that comes from the source of Truth, which is God.

2nd segment: Scot asked what happens at a Catholic college to help form 18- to 22-year-olds to graduate at 22 and go out to help strengthen the faith of others.

Tim said Magdalen’s goal is to give not only the best of the academic world, but also to be able to engage the culture both intellectually and spiritually. Many people can cite facts about the faith, but what they want is for the students to have a love for the Lord and want to bring it out to the culture and engage it.

Scot asked how one invites students to an experience of deepening their faith? George said it must be a multi-pronged approach. At the basic level, they make the sacraments available and they model the Catholic faith for them. They are available as mentors and also pray for them. It’s also important to have students who have a vibrant faith. If a student comes without a strong faith life, they want to help in a transformation through living a sacramental life and to see the faith life lived by other students and faculty and staff. They also want to motivate them to take action through the various campus activities.

Scot asked George how a strong Catholic college forms the wills intellectually. George said in the medieval tradition, there was a sense that we can approach the divine through beauty, in liturgy, but also other ways. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. For people who might balk at the Truths of the Faith, they can be brought a long distance toward the Faith through the Good of the saints and the Beauty in the Church. The vocation of the students is to be a student and so their work of study happens in a close alignment with a life of prayer.

He said after Land O Lakes, there was a tendency by smaller, faithful Catholic colleges. to discard the old classical Catholic learning inherited from the Jesuits. Magdalen is trying to integrate it with the newer, 20th Century Great Books tradition, to take the best of both.

Mark said at Magdalen, they’re not afraid of ideas, including those in the secular culture and the wider academic sphere. They will be exposed to Marx and Freud and the like, and the students will learn how to assess them in terms of the entirety of Catholic thought.

George said their students get four years of theology and catechesis and the program has been validated by the Vatican in the 1980s. The classes are built around discussion and the students are called to engage the content. Philosophy courses are integrated into other humanities for four years. They take a 5 hour philosophy and humanities class each semester. There also classes in logic, music, and grammar and others that are historically seen as supporting philosophical inquiry.

Tim said spoke of where Magdalen’s graduates end up. They are in all walks of life: military service, lawyers, corporate leadership. They can go into any area because they are being taught fundamentally how to think. Many are going for advanced graduate degrees as well.

Scot asked where the students are coming from. Tim said a large part is homeschooled and Catholic schools. Students come from all over, including China, Nepal, and Jamaica. There are students from Alaska, Arizona, and Michigan. They are trying to grow in the Boston regional area. There are now a number of new students from New England. Tim drives from his house in Boston to the college in Warner in about 1-1/2 hours each day.

3rd segment: Scot noted that beauty helped George’s conversion experience into the Catholic Church. Growing up, he was an evangelical Protestant, but started attending an Episcopalian church in college and fell in love with the liturgy. He started to see parallels with the Catholic liturgy and asking why there were distinctions between the Episcopalian and Catholic liturgy. At a Corpus Christi celebration in Philadelphia, he experienced a Eucharistic procession and was struck by the beauty and came to believe in the Real Presence that night. That set off a Domino effect in his own mind that toppled all of the Protestant objections to Catholicism and within a year he started reading the Catechism. He discovered that most of his issues with Catholicism, he was either wrong in what he thought the Church believed or was wrong in what he believed. In the face of the Church’s 2,000-year continuity, he was drawn in.

Scot asked Mark about his conversion to Catholicism. He said it was a slow process from low-church Protestantism that valued Scripture alone. His conversion was more intellectual and began to realize in his graduate work, as he tried to make moral arguments, that “Bible alone (sola Scriptura)” was inadequate for that. As he was trying to develop arguments for human equality through a religious tradition and metaphysics, he found that Scripture by itself did not have a single verse espousing human equality. So if the Christian tradition supports the idea of human equality, Christianity must have an interpretative authority, i.e. the Church. He was helped in his journey by a growing relationship with the Dominicans that he knew.

Tim is a cradle Catholic, but working with converts has helped him deepen his faith. Being around converts, including these very well-educated men, helps him to appreciate his faith more. There is something profound about being with these men who counter the world’s claims that religion is for the uneducated. When you go looking for the truth, you can find it.

What advice would George and Mark have for someone who would be wrestling with questions about God? Mark said they shouldn’t give up no matter what and to be relentlessly honest in their search. George said no matter what your pace in your journey, keep going. Whatever problems the Church faces, being in full communion with the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church is a great joy.

College of St. Mary Magdalen is taking rolling admissions, which means they are continually admitting new students. For those who are interested, check out their website. Everything that the school teaches is on the website. They are very transparent. They also welcome school visits.

That will conclude today’s presentation of The Good Catholic Life. For recordings and photos of today’s show and all previous shows, please visit our website: You can also download the app for your iPhone or Android device at to listen to the show wherever you may be. We thank our guests Dr. George Harne, Dr. Mark Discher and Tim Vandamm. For our our Production team of Rick Heil, Anna Johnson, Justin Bell, Dom Bettinelli, and George Martell, this is Scot Landry saying thank YOU for listening, God bless you and have a wonderful weekend!

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