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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 643-661

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The Introduction of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, 1895-1915

C. Joseph Nuesse

Sociology as a scientific discipline was still acquiring its academic base when the recently founded Catholic University of America opened its department in the field in 1895. It was the first American Catholic institution to offer the subject. Its establishment of its department followed by only three years the opening of the first department of sociology in the country at the University of Chicago.

The account of the university's initiative that follows is intended to serve two principal purposes. One is to place the event in the history of the discipline. The other is to investigate how sociology could be received in an intellectual milieu faithful to Catholic teaching. Sociology, after all, had been tainted from its beginnings by positivist philosophy and, in the theories of the American pioneers, by evolutionary naturalism. Thus, after a brief presentation of the facts concerning the introduction of the discipline, attention will be given to the motives of its proponents, the approach of the first professor, the nature of the first courses offered, and the enrollment of the first students.

The Foundation

In 1895 the university, at the beginning of its seventh year, was establishing its first non-ecclesiastical faculties. 1 Within the next five years it became, as a student of the field's institutionalization has noted, the only Catholic institution "to develop sociology in any serious fashion before 1900." 2 In this latter year, according to the same author, about [End Page 643] one-third of the 637 colleges and universities then existing in the United States were offering courses under the name. In addition to The Catholic University of America, only five undergraduate institutions under Catholic auspices could be listed among them. 3

The first course in the country announced as sociology had been offered as early as 1873 when William Graham Sumner at Yale University had included it in the range of the many subjects that he was teaching as a professor of political and social science. By the time that The Catholic University of America opened its department others who also are now revered as American pioneers were at work, notably Charles Horton Cooley at Michigan, Franklin Henry Giddings at Columbia, Edward Alsworth Ross on his way to Wisconsin, Albion Small at Chicago, and Lester Frank Ward at the Smithsonian Institution.

Sociology was having a phenomenal growth in the American academe. It has been portrayed as "more a 'movement' than an intellectual discipline" 4 in view of its ready inclusion in institutions founded during the rapid national expansion of higher education and also in view of its support from the several sectors of American society in which a scientific basis for social reform was being sought. One of the most important and most conspicuous of these was the Protestant ministry in which the Social Gospel movement was then widely influential. In 1900 one-third of the teachers of social science courses in American higher education had had some theological training. As perceived by many at the time, "in many respects sociology was social Christianity." 5 There was, however, no movement in Catholic circles that could be compared with this American Protestant thrust. 6

In 1891 the trustees of The Catholic University of America approved conditionally the establishment of a school of the social sciences. Later [End Page 644] in the same year, a lawyer from Yale, William Callyhan Robinson (1834-1911), was appointed to be its dean. This school was announced to the public prematurely in 1893 as a "School of Sociology and Comparative Jurisprudence." It was opened two years later as the School of the Social Sciences with a Department of Sociology. 7 It is of interest that the change in the name of the school may have been a result of a consultation by the dean-elect with his veteran colleague, Sumner, who was reported as having said "that sociology is a word having no meaning and...


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