In 1866, the bishops of the United States, meeting in the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, decided that the United States urgently needed a uniquely Catholic institution of higher learning.

These were some of the darkest days in the history of the American Church. Just three years before, New York City was devastated by the Draft Riots: three days of social unrest sparked when the US government began conscripting working-class men – and particularly Irish Catholic immigrants – to fight in the Civil War. Anti-Catholic sentiment in America had never been higher.

Yet the American bishops took the bold decision to locate their new university in Washington, DC. It took a few years, but The Catholic University of America (CUA) was officially founded on November 13, 1889. Ever since, CUA has wielded far greater influence than its 7,000-student body might indicate. It was among the first research universities in the country; the neighbourhood it occupies, Brookland, has become known as “Little Rome”.

But now the university is facing a financial crisis. An operational deficit of $3.5 million is forcing the administration to consider laying off or buying out 35 faculty members. According to a recent feature in The Chronicle of Higher Education, this may have to do with CUA’s strong commitment to Catholic moral teaching.

CUA is consistently ranked among the most conservative universities in the country. In 2011 its new president, John Garvey, re-instituted single-sex dorms on campus. He called the initiative “a slightly old-fashioned remedy that will improve the practice of virtue.”

It is true that, more recently, CUA made headlines when Fr James Martin – who favours some sort of recognition of same-sex relationships – was invited to speak on campus. In fact, the invitation, later withdrawn, was not issued by the university itself.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection