Catholic colleges and Catholic confusions

Published March 26, 2003

The Catholic Difference

Catholic high school seniors and parents facing the difficult choice of where-to-go-to-college didn’t have their lives made any easier on March 6, when the New York Times published a story indicating that Catholic colleges can be bad for your intellectual, moral, and spiritual health.

The sample used by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA wasn’t perfect by any means, but even granting that the results should be disturbing. At the 38 Catholic colleges surveyed, 37.9% of Catholic freshmen said in 1997 said that abortion should be legal; four years later, as seniors, 51.7% supported legal abortion. As freshmen on Catholic campuses in 1997, only 27.5% of the Catholics surveyed said that premarital sex was “all right” for people who “really like each other;” as seniors, four years into Catholic higher education, 48% thought that premarital sex was just dandy. The survey was skewed toward what one of the researchers called “highly selective Catholic schools,” which in fact makes matters worse: the rot seems deepest at schools that claim to be the best.

Lecturing at Boston College this past December on today’s Catholic crisis of sexual scandal and episcopal misgovernance, I caused something of a campus stir (primarily among middle-aged faculty members, including Jesuits) with this assertion: “…Catholic universities and colleges where the Catholic sexual ethic is treated intellectually as a curious medieval artifact, and where the Church’s sexual ethic has no discernible place in the ordering of college life, are not Catholic universities and colleges where we can expect adequate analyses of the Catholic crisis of 2002, or adequate prescriptions for genuinely Catholic reform in the 21st century to emerge.” To which I would now add: “Nor can we expect such colleges and universities to produce thoughtful, committed Catholics, capable of challenging the debonair nihilism that shapes so much of American high culture these days.”

But would that bother the leaders of contemporary Catholic higher education? Many, surely, but not all. Take, for example, the response of Dr. Monika Hellwig, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, to the striking statistics I just cited; Dr. Hellwig told the Times, “Students look at movies, at their friends, at their families, at everything around them, and that doesn’t mean Catholic colleges are failing. The question is whether the task of higher education in our pluralistic, changing society is to lock students into rules – even rules I agree with – or to teach them critical thinking.”

No, that’s not the question.

Students hardly need “critical thinking” to treat sex as just another contact sport; critical thinking – and courage – are what’s needed to break free of the world of sexual self-indulgence portrayed in Abercrombie & Fitch ads, on MTV, in the lyrics of pop songs, and in so many other aspects today’s youth culture. And while it seems absurd to remind a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America of the rudiments of Moral Theology 101, Catholic moral theology, properly taught, doesn’t “lock students into rules;” it introduces students to a compelling understanding of human goods and virtues from which “the rules” emerge naturally as the rails along which to lead a life worthy of one’s baptismal dignity and eternal destiny.

Parents are being asked to pay anywhere from $100,000.00 to $160,000.00 for four years of Catholic higher education. Surely they have a right to expect that their children won’t be turned into cynical pagans as a result. And surely those parents have a responsibility to investigate the degree to which Catholic truth shapes Catholic life at any campus to which they’re thinking of sending a son or daughter.

Donors are being asked for millions of dollars to endow chairs of Catholic theology and Catholic studies on Catholic campuses. Surely they should insist that what happens in the name of “Catholic theology” and “Catholic studies” bears some resemblance to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

And to those who are, at this juncture, screaming “What about academic freedom?” I would simply ask, “What about consumer fraud?” If some Catholic colleges and universities have become venues in which Catholic students stop thinking and living like Catholics, something is desperately awry. Boilerplate appeals to life in a “pluralistic society” cannot change that fact.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today