New strands of Catholicism are challenging Rome's traditional centres of scholarship in theology, philosophy and canon law.
Universities run by Opus Dei, founded in 1928 in Spain, and the Legionnaires of Christ, established in 1941 in Mexico, have begun to compete with traditional centres such as the Gregorian University of the Jesuits, the Lateran University of the Rome Diocese, the Salesian University, the St Thomas Aquinas University of the Dominicans and the Urbanian University of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.
Both Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ are more militantly doctrinaire than the traditional Catholic intelligentsia, and less inclined to debate and discussion.
Opus Dei's University of the Holy Cross, which opened in 1985, has 1,300 students. The Legionnaires' Regina Apostolorum University, founded in 1993, has grown rapidly to cater for 3,400 students.
There are 3,000 students at Gregorian, 1,200 at St Thomas Aquinas, 1,600 at Salesian, 1,350 at Urbanian and 2,500 at Lateran.
"Both Opus Dei and the Legionnaires are young, dynamic forces in Catholicism," Gerard O'Connell, a Vatican analyst, said. "They are proud of their Catholicism and dedicated to transmitting the Church's official teaching, which they do not question. Their growth was favoured by John Paul II and they now have the wholehearted support of Benedict XVI."
Traditionally, the Jesuits embody the "high end" of Catholic thinking and Catholic higher education. Gregorian University, founded in 1551 and based in Rome, is the nerve centre of a global network of universities, schools and seminaries that reflect the Jesuits' highly intellectual tradition of teaching and learning.
Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda SJ, the rector of Gregorian, said: "We are not interested in the number of students, but in their quality. Each student who leaves Gregorian is fully equipped to tackle the needs of today, of both the Church and the society in which he or she will work.
"I would not say there is competition among the Pontifical universities, rather, a wider range of educational offerings from which prospective students can choose."