Is there a difference between Catholic colleges and any state university?
For many, there is, with the image of a Catholic college being smaller maybe, with cassocked priests criss-crossing the greens, quiet halls and ordered dorm rooms where crucifixes on the walls remind students of their faith, church bells ringing out morning and evening prayers, and the voices of religious brothers echoing in the approaching twilight.
With well over 250 institutions of higher learning in the United States, Catholic colleges like Georgetown University (founded in 1789), have been in business since the nation’s founding. Over most of that time, all managed to maintain their identity as primarily religious institutions with the occasional Hollywood film reinforcing their image during the 1940s and ’50s.
The reality however, is that most Catholic colleges, having been a part of the American scene for over 100 years, have evolved over time, accommodating themselves to scholastic standards valued by their secular counterparts.
That image began to change in the 1960s even as more secular institutions were being convulsed with vast societal changes that ushered in the era of co-ed dorms, abandonment of college administration oversight of students, black and gender studies, and speech codes. The result: an oppressive atmosphere of increasingly aggressive political correctness.
Gradually, even as secular, left-leaning values spread from college campuses to begin eating away at traditional American values including those of faith and family, so too did they work their way into once sturdy Catholic colleges where administrators became far more concerned about the opinions of their peers in the scholastic community than their diocesan superiors or the faraway Vatican.
Eventually, Catholic colleges also had their speech codes and co-ed dorms and with them, a reluctance to defend and even teach Catholic doctrines and values, even displaying hostility to anyone, student or church official, who attempted to make them live up to their own professed values.
Such was the situation in 1990 when Pope John Paul II issued his Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae and began an effort to give local bishops more oversight over Catholic colleges within their diocese. That effort had limited success as most colleges were controlled by religious orders not beholden to local dioceses.
Since then, Catholic colleges have largely gone their own way while things have grown worse every year with one recent study commissioned by the Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Study of Higher Education finding that attendance at a Catholic college did not necessarily translate into more faithfulness on the part of students.
On the contrary, 57 percent of 506 students from 128 Catholic colleges who participated in the survey conducted by QEV Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based public opinion research firm, said the experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no effect on their participation in Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation.
Further, 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 and 56 percent reported that their experience had no effect on their respect for the Pope and bishops.
The survey also found that 6 percent of students who were Catholic while in a Catholic college are not now Catholic while only 1 percent who were not Catholic while at a Catholic college are today Catholic.
And all that doesn’t even include the findings on sexual behavior and belief as most students at Catholic colleges follow unresistingly the spirit of the times: 60 percent of those participating in the survey said that abortion should be legal and that premarital sex was not a sin.
Not surprisingly, 50 percent of women who answered the survey and 41 percent of the men respectively said that they had engaged in premarital sex.
With all of that activity going on, it will come as no surprise that only 23 percent of those women and 40 percent of men felt drawn to the sacraments.
“Our Catholic education system is a disaster, from kindergarten to the university level,” said Fr. George Rutler, pastor of New York City’s Church of St. Michael.
“I am continually appalled by the ignorance of Catholic college graduates I meet. They know nothing at all about the Faith or Western culture. We’ve returned to the period of 800-1200, with the Church the repository of learning in the midst of the total dearth of the life of the mind.”
But if Catholic colleges are an educational disaster, then they’re simply following in the footsteps of their secular counterparts, eager to earn their acceptance and shut down any voices that might challenge the accepted norms of the Left.
In that light, the stats found in the Newman Society survey don’t seem so surprising, but what still has the capacity to alarm is the fact that 39 percent of respondents said that they witnessed college officials or staff encouraging the use of contraceptives and that 31 percent saw officials or staff encouraging the acceptance of homosexual activity. Such findings indicate that not only have Catholic colleges lost control of their student bodies, but they’re not even putting up a fight to keep them in the fold.
Indeed, in some cases, they seem to be willing accomplices in the secularization of students.
How else to explain such actions as Georgetown’s covering up the letters IHS (that spell out the name of Jesus) for a speech by President Obama made in April of 2009? Or performances of the infamous Vagina Monologues being allowed at Catholic institutions around the country? Or the most recent outrage at Milwaukee’s Marquette University where the administration moved to silence students and professors who dared question homosexual marriage?
Is it any wonder then, that the loyalty of faithful Catholics to their colleges and universities, especially their alumni, has begun to fade?
But there is some good news amid all the gloom as Rutler says:
“Fifty years ago, parents had some sense of their obligations to God and tried to pass them on to their children. But today, many parents are a blank slate when it comes to religion. They have nothing to pass on to their children. Some have turned to homeschooling, but that’s a small percentage of the total. There are also some splendid new academies and colleges faithful to the Magisterium which are opening, which I hope will serve as models for renewal for some existing institutions.”
Having given up on reforming or changing the culture at longstanding Catholic colleges, some have opted to establish new institutions, among them Thomas Aquinas College, founded in 1971; Christendom College, founded in 1977; Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, founded in 1978; Ave Maria University, founded in 2003; John Paul the Great Catholic University, founded in 2006; and Wyoming Catholic College founded in 2007.
At colleges like these, priests can still be spotted hurrying to Mass, crucifixes can be seen proudly on display, and bells ring calling students to the sacraments.
Thus, the groundwork has been laid to prepare students facing an increasingly perilous social environment with a future cadre of Catholic leadership ready to pick up where older, spiritually exhausted colleges have left off.
image illustration via shutterstock / Nagel Photography