Established in 1983 in the Arlington diocese by Bishop Thomas Jerome Welsh, CDU offers an accredited bachelor degree completion program in theology, a masters degree in theology, and a variety of catechetical certificates. There are no residency requirements for earning a degree at CDU. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia authorizes CDU to grant degrees, and the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) has accredited CDU's degrees since 1986. In 2005, CDU launched its online campus. According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, in the academic year 2007-2008, CDU was the top Lay Ecclesial Ministry Program by number of enrollments.
CDU's programs aim to meet the goals set out in the Ex Corde Ecclesiae issued by Pope John Paul II regarding Catholic colleges and universities. . CDU was the first Catholic institution to offer an MA in Theology with no residence requirement. Several Catholic dioceses partner with CDU to help train their catechists. The school stays closely connected with the local Catholic bishop, Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde, who is chair of the Board of Trustees.