Arizona State to offer theology classes through Catholic university

University of Mary President Fr James Shea meets Michael M Crow president of Arizona State University on February 29 2012 CNA US Catholic News 3 1 12 University of Mary President, Fr. James Shea, meets Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University on February 29, 2012.

In a very uncommon partnership between state-run and Catholic universities, Arizona State University students will be able to take courses in Catholic theology or Catholic studies under a new agreement announced March 1.

“This is an astonishing opportunity to bring Catholic higher education to the state of Arizona,” University of Mary president Father James Shea said. “About 25 percent of the population is Catholic, but there is not a Catholic college or university here.”

The Arizona public university, with an enrollment of over 72,000, and the Bismarck, North Dakota-based Catholic university of about 3,100 students have been in talks about the endeavor for more than a year, Fr. Shea told CNA Feb. 29.

The courses will be taught at the Newman Center in Tempe, which is adjacent to the Arizona State campus, and will begin in fall 2012. The effort means that students who wish to continue their Catholic education or who are interested in studying theology may do so without going out of state.

Students will be able to earn a major or a minor in theological studies or Catholic studies through the University of Mary.

“Students are deeply enriched, even if they are not Catholic, by the treasures of the Catholic faith and Catholic teaching. Theology is something that strives for an integrated approach to the most enduring questions of human life. Those are the types of discussions which should take place at every university,” Fr. Shea said.

Despite Arizona State’s “impressive offerings,” they do not offer classes in theology.

Fr. Shea explained that the project will expand the Arizona State’s offerings while giving the Catholic university’s best programs a new home.

He credited the project to Arizona State president Michael Crow’s strategic plan to create a university that is “deeply engaged in the immediate needs of the people of the community.” Carr’s pledge for broad and wide partnerships with all interested parties prompted Fr. Shea to inquire about a partnership with a Catholic university.

“I never thought that they’d have any type of interest in this. But they mean what they say. ASU has been so open, and so eager, and so excited, in all of the talks leading up to tomorrow’s announcement. They’ve been a joy to work with.

“They’re interested in the project of Catholic higher education. They want to make it accessible to their students, so that students can get an academic element which is Catholic as part of their ASU degree.”

Arizona State president Michael Crow said March 1 that the university is “dedicated to the inclusion of all” and that he has invited all faith-based groups to “plant their flags deep at the university.”

The state university said this approach has resulted in an expansion of the LDS Institute and new construction at the Catholic Newman Center.

The Newman Center itself has been part of the planning process. According to Fr. Shea, its priests predict that student interest will be “through the roof.” Feasibility studies have also found strong demand for Catholic higher education in the region.

At the same time, the University of Mary has had to be “very clear” that it is not engaged in “proselytism” at a state university.

“That’s important to them, because they’re a public university, and there are tricky issues of church and state. For Arizona State to stick out their neck like this, and for the enterprise of Catholic higher education, that’s really a courageous thing to do. We don’t want them to get burned along the way,” Fr. Shea remarked.

The university has experience teaching non-Catholics, who make up about half of its students in Bismarck.

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The priest reflected on the balance the Catholic institution must strike in its new project.

“On the one hand, the reason Catholic universities exist is to evangelize, to be a leaven in the culture, and to bring the truths of faith and reason to the wider world. At the same time we don’t evangelize in the way that a catechetical institute evangelizes. That’s really important.”

While on one level the goal might be to bring people to Jesus, the University of Mary classes do so “in the way that a university does it.”

“We offer programs which are widely open to truth in different manifestations. We educate the minds of our students, such that they’re able to get a taste for truth and seek it in all of its forms.”

Arizona State students who wish to take courses from the University of Mary may register as non-degree seeking students without a formal application or acceptance. Students then register for courses through the Catholic university and pay tuition and fees directly to the school.

Fr. Shea believes the project is without precedent.

He said every Catholic university should find a way to place itself at the service of the Church.

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“This is a new way for us to do this.”

“We really want this to be an endeavor that enriches all sorts of people and which is done for the glory of God,” he said. “We’re as interested as anybody to see how it’s going to work out.”

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