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Are Catholic Colleges Suffering an Identity Crisis?

by Susan Ciancio

When parents send their children to college, they expect them to grow emotionally and intellectually, and to develop into healthy adults. When a child is sent to a Catholic college, the expectations are even grander. Parents expect that their children, who are immersed in Catholicism, will grow spiritually as well. Through theology classes, enriching dorm life, and extracurricular activities, children should flourish in the faith. Yet, what exactly are our children learning? 

In 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote about the expectations for Catholic colleges in Ex Corde Ecclesiae: “In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching. In particular, Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.”

Written by the infallible pen of a pope, and aligned with Catholic tradition, these guidelines seem pretty easy to follow. Yet, just as the entire country seems to be of the mindset that anything goes and tolerance of this takes precedence, so it seems that many administrators at Catholic colleges feel the same. Colleen Carroll Campbell, journalist and host of EWTN’s Faith & Culturediscussed this very issue in a recent interview: “In their haste to prove how non-judgmental they can be in their attitudes and policies, administrators often squander the opportunity to guide students toward more life-giving extracurricular pursuits and to help them see Catholic teachings as an avenue toward greater freedom and fulfillment.” 

Administrators are so quick to fear offending someone that they forget what it means to inspire or teach someone. Those who look to these institutions for guidance cannot see past this mixed identity, and this creates confusion. 

Many current events at Catholic universities cause great concern. A recent study conducted by the Cardinal Newman Society found that there are many Catholic colleges that allow something other than Catholic theology to be studied as the theology requirement. While it’s important to understand other faiths, it’s integral to understand your own. The college years are often fraught with questions and uncertainty about faith. Allowing Catholic students to forgo studying the Catholic religion is sheer irresponsibility. 

At Boston College, a group has recently created Facebook and Twitter pages in an attempt to entice Ellen DeGeneres, an openly gay comedian, to campus to talk about issues related to the gay and lesbian community. In a letter to Ellen, the group writes, “We are a collection of students, faculty, staff, and administrators at Boston College . . . inviting you to be a keynote speaker here at BC for our sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary.” 

What are students at a Catholic college to think about the fact that “faculty, staff, and administrators” are a part of this plea? Their inclusion in this letter screams of advocacy. And so the seeds of confusion are spread a little wider.

Along these lines, the University of Notre Dame recently recognized a homosexual student organization. While stating that the university intends to adhere to Catholic teaching in all dealings with this group, the mixed messages it sends say otherwise. In this pastoral plan, the university writes, “Such initiatives, already under consideration by each of these units, will involve speakers, conferences, retreats, support groups, and other programs, all designed for the support, holistic development, and formation of GLBTQ and other members of the Notre Dame community.” How is the university going to uphold Catholic teaching throughout all of these venues? And does it really expect to, or is it just caving to outside pressure to be accepting?

In another example, the University of Detroit-Mercy has on staff a philosophy professor who, though she has spoken against the Church’s teaching on abortion, is touted as a “religious expert.” On the faculty page describing each professor, it states that Professor Elizabeth Oljar is “currently engaged in research on feminism and the morality of abortion.” Oljar wrote, in a 2003 paper on abortion, “Although there is some sense in which a fetus has a future like mine, this is not sufficient to establish that abortion is on a moral par with the killing of an innocent adult human being.” Killing an innocent adult human being? How much more innocent can you get than being a defenseless child in a womb, Professor? 

Within a university setting, administrators must uphold all that the Church teaches at all times. They cannot pick and choose which to believe in today, which will serve them best, and which will not offend those who live lives contrary to what Our Lord has taught. God never told us following His ways would be easy, yet He asks us to do it. He gave us a roadmap to eternal happiness and that means following all the teachings of the Catholic Church—not just some of them. If we were to read a map to a grocery store, but not follow all the directions, would we expect to magically end up at the destination? Of course not. So it is with faith. We have the means to achieve salvation. If we choose not to take it, our souls are in jeopardy. If we choose not to teach this to our children, the students in our charge, or anyone else, our souls—and theirs—are in jeopardy. 

If faculty and administration continue to send mixed messages, what will happen to the faith and souls of the next generation? 

Susan Ciancio is an editor at American Life League. She has written stories and edited for the University of Texas at Houston and for the University of Houston. Prior to that, she taught psychology and sociology at community colleges in South Bend, Indiana. Susan is a 1993 Notre Dame graduate who lives in Tennessee with her children.