Do Catholic Colleges Make Students Less Catholic?

Inside Higher Ed reports on debates within Catholic higher education over how well Catholic colleges nurture the faith of their Catholic students.

In 2003 the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization that serves as a sort of watchdog group for Catholic college’s loyalty to church teaching, released a study claiming that graduating seniors at Catholic colleges are “predominantly pro-abortion, approve of homosexual ‘marriage,’ and only occasionally pray or attend religious services.”

But at the recent meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, new evidence was presented to challenge the Newman Society study. The new study suggests that students at Catholic colleges and universities are more likely to “turn toward” their faith than Catholic students at non-Catholic colleges.

This raises a really interesting issue. To what extent are church-related colleges required to inculcate students in the faith-tradition of the sponsoring denomination or religious institution? To what extent are church-related colleges “churches” and to what extent are they “colleges?” I think the answer to these questions vary from institution to institution and from denomination to denomination.

On the one hand, it would be a shame if a Catholic student’s faith was deliberately undermined at a Catholic college. In fact, any faculty member in the business of destroying the faith of their students should not be teaching at a church-related school. Church-related liberal arts colleges should be safe places where religious students can feel comfortable asking questions about their deeply-held beliefs without having them attacked by professors.

On the other hand, church-related colleges should be challenging their students to think critically about the tradition. The goal is education, not indoctrination. They should be committed to creating spaces where this kind of intellectual engagement can take place.

This balance is not always an easy one to pull off, but it seems to me to be absolutely essential to church-related liberal arts education.

3 thoughts on “Do Catholic Colleges Make Students Less Catholic?

  1. John: Great insights. Actually, I think there is a larger point here–the disappearance of “Catholic culture” in American life. (I just blogged about this a few days ago). I agree with you that the 60s was a watershed in this regard. Growing up Catholic in the 1970s I did not experience the kind of “Catholic culture” that my parents did in the 1940s and 1950s.

    As for “attacking” one's faith, I could not agree more. I probably was a bit too harsh in my choice of words. Having said that, I still think church-related schools should provide a safe environment where the discussion of religion can take place.

    Of course, as historians, I really see no real reason why we should EVER be rendering moral judgments on the religious beliefs of students or of those in the past. But that is another conversation.


  2. One brief follow up: I am not sure if any faculty member who works to destroy the faith of undergrads belongs at a university. Maybe it's a semantic difference, but *challenging* students to think about their faith is a good thing, while *attacking* it, is not. College is an intellectual environment where core ideas do need to be put to the test, I think; I don't believe that knowledge or growth come without challenge. But that puts a responsibility on professors to ask probing questions without undermining.

    (Somehow, though, I seem more ok with the idea of atheistic professors railing against all religion. Is this some residual feeling that there's no discrimination involved if they hate all faiths? I'm not sure.)


  3. I'll confess to having taken just a quick look at the Newman Society study before commenting, but I should note that I think it is wrong-headed in one crucial respect. For me the key is in one of the pull quote: Catholic students' support for gay rights and abortion rights increased just as dramatically at Catholic schools as at non-sectarian or other Christian schools. The implication to me here is that the school's institutional character is somewhat irrelevant–22 year olds hold more “liberal” views on marriage and sexuality than 18 year olds, no matter the environment.

    The other factor that is tough to control for is one of motivation and self-selection. Catholic education is no longer the self-contained system it once was. I think this was a major generational shift after the 1960s. To put it in starkly generational terms: I am the first member of my family, immediate or extended (reaching out to all first cousins) who has never attended a day of Catholic school (high school or lower) in my life. Neither of my parents ever attended a school that *wasn't* Catholic–all the way up through college and, in my father's case, medical school. The same is true on my mother's side of the family; my father's younger brother attended a non-Catholic college. I don't believe that my mother even considered applying to any college that was non-Catholic; my father had one other elite school in mind, but my grandfather said no, you're going to the religious school down the road.

    Today, of course, things look somewhat different. My father was shocked when I told him that Catholics so highly represented among Yale's undergrad population when I was there; he was thinking it would be more like William Buckley's experience (before my dad's time, but still). The range of opportunities for 17-18 year old Catholic high schoolers is different, both in actual terms and in perceptual ones. Deciding to go to a sectarian college is a choice in a way it wasn't before.

    (One possible analogy is that of women attending same-sex schools. When my oldest sister decided to attend one of the so-called “Seven Sisters,” it was a very self-conscious decision about her own personal values. My undergrad institution, by contrast, had gone co-ed less than two decades before my sister graduated high school.)

    This long, rambling digression brings me to my point: that students attending Catholic schools are most certainly self-selected. Where are they vis a vis their faith compared to students attending non-Catholic schools? Does that affect their journey? I could easily suggest that those deciding to attend sectarian schools are more “conservative” at age 18, and thus have more room to change yet still be less “liberal” than their counterparts at other schools. But that is a guess. I suppose my larger point would be that it is all very complicated–more than I think the Newman Society would have you believe.


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