What’s needed in today’s college environment is diversity, said Abbot Placid Solari of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina.
But his definition of diversity is not the one most people are used to hearing about.
The 70-year-old, spectacled abbot told CNA that though sorely needed, “religious diversity is not the diversity people want,” most especially not in academia.
Forgoing his normal lunch after Mass and noonday prayers, Solari sat in his office for an interview on a rainy Friday in March.
Inside the 100-year-old-plus Benedictine monastery, located in the town of Belmont, a suburb of Charlotte, Solari answered questions in a quiet voice, reflecting on his 23 years as abbot at North Carolina’s only Catholic college.
The college experience today is almost always associated with either binge-drinking parties and sexual promiscuity or intense anti-Christian indoctrination.
But to Solari, a Benedictine monk who serves as Belmont Abbey’s chancellor, the Catholic faith and college naturally go together.
“An education is not only to bring students to an intellectual perception of the truth but also to a moral life that’s based on that truth,” Solari said. “Students are in a transitional time in their life, growing into the independence of adulthood and having to face up to the consequences and responsibilities for their decisions.”
As a college built on the Benedictine principles of “ora et labora” (prayer and work), Belmont Abbey seeks to form students in the truth both intellectually and spiritually.
“We’re convinced there is objective truth to be learned,” Solari said. “The education we offer … is really to train [students] to perceive what’s true.”
Among the vast array of anti-Catholic forces threatening higher education, the abortion industry has long targeted students. According to the Guttmacher Institute, most abortions — 72% — are committed on women between the ages of 18 and 30.
Now, since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the abortion industry continues to target college students through its shift to unsupervised chemical abortion pills, which can often be secretly mailed to students’ dorms, even in states where abortion is illegal.
Belmont Abbey is not ignorant of these harsh realities. That is why, Solari said, it opened and currently operates an on-campus maternity home and pregnancy resource center to minister to needy pregnant students and local women who may be targeted by the abortion industry.
First opened in 1994, Belmont Abbey’s MiraVia maternity home and outreach center offers free housing, assistance, and material aid to pregnant and new mothers.
As Solari put it, Belmont Abbey wants to create an environment where all can pursue the truth, both for the good of the individual and society.
“[There is] objective truth, objective moral values, which one needs to discover, and to which one needs to conform oneself if you wish to be truly happy and successful,” Solari said matter-of-factly.
Belmont seeks, said the abbot, to teach its young students “the importance of learning how to form a human community that is conducive to human flourishing” and “the obligation of good people to precisely form those communities whether it be their family community, their neighborhood, their professional office community, or the United States.”
Though many bemoan the rise of LGBTQ+ ideology among Generation Z and forecast gloomy predictions for the future, Solari’s outlook is much brighter.
“There’s sometimes nothing more daunting than to go into a class at 8 a.m., [full] of freshmen, and to think these are the future parents of America?” the abbot said with a smile.
“But to see those same students as they mature over their college experience and then to see them later as they come back as alumni with their professional careers underway, with their families underway … is a very hopeful thing both for the Church and for the country,” he said.
Whereas many Catholic colleges have stepped away from their Catholic identity in pursuit of greater academic recognition, higher enrollment numbers, or competitive athletics, Belmont Abbey remains one of the few firmly rooted in the truth of Catholic teaching — without sacrificing the college’s academic integrity or its commitment to competitive sports.
Despite an enrollment of only 1,500, Belmont Abbey has more than 30 different sports teams for students to participate in and has one of the largest college sports programs of any school in the country.
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Neither does academic excellence need to be sacrificed for true Catholic teaching. As Solari explained, the monks’ monastic vows only strengthen their commitment to academic excellence.
“We founded the college as an outgrowth of our monastic commitment,” Solari said. “Therefore, for those of us who are involved in the college, it demands the same intellectual formation as the professors would have, or the administration or staff at whatever job they do, in fact even more commitment to that because that’s an aspect flowing out of our monastic commitment to service of God.”
Yet, that is not to say that Belmont Abbey has not been impacted by a culture that discourages religiosity and attempts to replace it with ideas antithetical to Catholicism.
During his time as abbot, Belmont has had to fight to continue to be an authentically Catholic voice from the educational sphere.
In 2012, Belmont became the first school to successfully sue the federal government over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Then in 2016, Belmont sought and obtained exemptions from aspects of Title IX regarding LGBTQ+ issues that would have violated the college’s Catholic identity.
These actions, Solari said, were necessary for the school, “so we can function within the tenets of our faith traditions.”
Despite these victories, Solari thinks it’s very likely the college will come under fire again, this time for upholding its Catholic faith on the transgender issue.
“[We’re] likely to be challenged yet again by the Biden administration,” Solari said. “But we’ll fight that. We’re American citizens; the First Amendment applies to us as well as to everybody else.”
Founded by a lone Benedictine monk in 1876, when Catholics made up less than 1% of the North Carolina population, Belmont Abbey has begun to rise as an unlikely bulwark of Catholic values in an increasingly anti-religious society.
“As a Catholic college we are heir to the Catholic intellectual tradition out of which actually the university tradition grew Western culture,” Solari said. “That tradition right now is big on diversity except any type of religious faith, but that’s their problem, not ours.”