Years ago, The University of Texas at Austin had a similar program to the UI program that the Institute of Catholic Thought has previously offered for-credit course work. The Texas Bible Chair, as it was known, offered for-credit classes from a perspective of the Disciples of Christ, but other denominations also offered for-credit classes through the arrangement, including the Catholic faith through the work of the Paulist Fathers. In 1985 and 1987, the Attorney General for the State of Texas, Jim Mattox, offered two opinions, JM-352 and JM-711 that led to the end of the arrangement. Basically, Mattox stated his opinion that constitutionally a state university could not have a member of the faculty to be selected or his/her position to be funded, in whole or in part, by a religious institution.
Students wanted to take courses by instructors who had the support of their respective faith traditions, but those instructors could not be chosen, or approved, by a faith tradition. The University, likewise, can not offer credit for a course not taught by a faculty member. The Attorney General did say, however, that the courses themselves were not unconstitutional and in fact, The University of Texas at Austin still allows such courses to count as electives for Liberal Arts degrees.
Back to the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, this is a huge step forward for them and for that region of the country. They will be the first Catholic graduate program in 150-mile radius; before now, individuals had to go to Chicago or South Bend, IN for advanced Catholic theological coursework.
At the University Catholic Center, we are in the beginning stages of our religious education program. Currently, we’re offering Catholicism 101, a non-credit sequence of courses designed to bridge the gap between what was taught in parish religious education classes during the student’s younger years and a college-level understanding of the basics of the faith. Ideally, this program would have four semesters worth of course work and additionally expand to more advanced discussion on particular aspects of the Catholic Church.
Thankfully, we have a number of options for graduate-level religious education in the Austin-area, including the Diocese of Austin’s distance program with St. Mary’s University of San Antonio.
God bless the folks at St. John’s and hopefully many will take advantage of this offering.