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Catholic higher education: A trust betrayed

By Kevin and Marilyn Ryan
Posted: 3/20/2009

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It was about 10 years ago that we took our then high school aged son on the ritual magical mystery college tour. As most parents know, these campus visits are well orchestrated sales jobs, designed to send two distinctly different messages. The message to the potential tuition-paying parents is something on the order of, “Be assured that your child will be safe with us here in our intellectually and morally enriched community.” To the yearning-to-be-free teenager, the message is, “Hey, we’re a fun palace! Come join the party!”

On one such campus visit to a local Catholic university, one of us asked our student tour guide [read: salesperson] whether she has had much contact with the priests who were all over the college’s handout literature [read: sales brochures]. She smiled coyly and replied, “No, not really, but there is one old priest who is always around. I don’t think he teaches anymore. He’s a kinda cute old guy. But, no, the priests don’t bother us.”

Apparently not. Nor do the rest of the faculty when it comes to teaching Catholic college students our faith. A 2002 study reported on 7200 Catholic incoming freshmen at 38 Catholic colleges revealed what happened during their years on campus. Surveyed again as these same students were graduating, in turns out that they were further from the Church’s teaching on key social issues. In four years the Catholic college students’ support for legalized abortion went from 40 percent to 52 percent; support for premarital sex jumped from 28 percent to 48 percent; and for same-sex marriage support moved from 52 percent to 70 percent. As if that were not enough, this same study showed that during the four years, students on Catholic campus moved further away from the Church’s teachings than their Catholic counterparts attending secular campus.

In a follow-up study conducted just last year, QEV 9Analytics, a survey research firm, conducted a random study of current and recent Catholic college students, all between the ages of 18 and 29. Among their key findings are the following

-- 54 percent of respondents said that their experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no effect on their support for the teachings of the Catholic Church.

-- 57 percent said the experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no effect on their participation in Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation.

-- 57 percent agreed strongly or somewhat that same-sex ‘marriage’ should be legal.

-- 60 percent agreed strongly or somewhat that abortion should be legal.

-- 60 percent agreed strongly or somewhat that premarital sex is not a sin.

-- 46 percent of current and recent students -- and 50 percent of females -- said they engaged in sex outside of marriage.

-- 56 percent said their experience had no effect on their respect for the Pope and bishops.

-- 78 percent disagreed strongly or somewhat that using a condom to prevent pregnancy was a serious sin.

The lead researcher summarized the results this way: “Key findings clearly demonstrate that large numbers of students at Catholic colleges and universities are in clear conflict with the Catholic Church.”

While these findings are disturbing and disappointing, we should not be surprised. For forty years, administrators and faculty at most Catholic colleges and universities have been trying desperately to be like their secular counterparts. Catholic academics have lusted to be published in the various scholarly journals and to be well thought of by their sponsoring associations. Operationally, at a minimum that has meant low-balling their own Catholic identity. To be truly accepted, it often meant publically staking out a position in opposition to Church teachings. At its worst, it meant black balling faculty colleagues who are “too Catholic” and recruiting to one’s department scholars who are antagonist to the faith. That somehow demonstrates one’s objectivity and openness to the academy’s twin zeitgeists: diversity and relativism.

On the other hand, administrators at our Catholic colleges chase a simpler golden calf. They want ratings. They want to break into higher education’s social register, the annual U.S. World and News Report survey where a mere three Catholic universities were listed in 2006. Besides going along with the faculty’s drive to “increase diversity and open up the campus to new voices,” they have worked hard to make their institutions indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. They have aggressively chased every new fad from same-sex dormitories to welcoming productions of the Vagina Monologues, from hosting Queer Film Festivals to sponsoring Gay/Lesbian/Transvestite Student clubs. All, mind you, in the cause of opening up Catholic young men and women to the world outside their narrow upbringing.

More telling, faculty and administration have initiated the dramatic watering down of formally required religion courses. Instead of taking actual theology, requirements have been changed and students now can take care of a substantial part of their former religion requirements by doing “service.” Being a tutor in a public school or a reader in a home for the elderly may, indeed, be good for their souls. However, most of these students have only the shakiest understand what a “soul” is. For many, these service courses are little more than gut courses, a nice diversion from more serious study.

The theology professors at our Catholic colleges are central to all these activities. While many are devoted to the Church and energetic in teaching the faith to students, many teach “against” the Church, schooling their students in the various current critiques of Church teachings, such as female priesthood and eliminating priestly celibacy. Students who have only minimal religious education or who have never been exposed to the teaching of their faith are treated to the new “new thing” in secular theological circles.

Sadly, on many Catholic campuses, the most lionized theologians are the ones to whom the Boston Globe or the New York Times rush for opinions on the latest, hottest issue. Not content with being specialists in God’s Word, they lust to be recognized as “public intellectuals.” Today, the most strident feminist critiques of the Church and the most twisted pro-abortion and pro-same sex marriage come from our own institutions. On the other hand, the most pro-Catholic opposition to cloning and stem cell research come from the likes of Princeton University.

The Church and the country need our Catholic universities. They must be places where the faith is taught, the Catholic intellectual tradition flourishes and the Catholic life is nourished. There are, of course, some fine colleges, such as the University of Dallas and the new Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, institutions committed to the older ideal of Catholic higher education. Also, some of the more established colleges are making gestures to return. All of us, though, must work and pray that Catholic higher education recaptures its mission.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.