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Posted April 12, 2010

Catholic Students Who Attend Catholic and Public Universities and Colleges

Eugene Hemrick

“Are Catholic colleges and universities doing more harm than good?”

The question was raised by Dr. Mark Gray & Melissa Cidade, MA of Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in a presentation to the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies [IPR] at The Catholic University of America.

According to the data, no evidence exists that harm to a student’s Catholic faith or education is done. Although the study that reported this was not as far ranging as would be desired, the questions it generated were conscious-conscience-raising challenges today’s Catholic youth need to address. They ranged from attitudes on abortion, affirmative action/Call to Action, same sex marriages, improving the human condition, to attitudes on military spending, capital punishment, praying, reading sacred texts, attending religious services, and spirituality.

As I reflected on these topics, memories of my campus ministry days and attending Theology on Tap sessions surfaced. How I loved those heated and lengthy discussions with our young people! Most of the students with whom I dealt were discovering their enormous thinking powers for the first time in their life. This led to heated debates and wide-ranging discussions into the early hours of morning. I also enjoyed Theology on Tap evenings in which young adults gathered to discuss the application of theological principles to everyday life. New ideas, personal ideals, possibilities for generating good and making the world better abounded. Serious, and soul-searching questions surfaced likewise.

When the questions raised by researchers about Catholic education are examined more closely, where might they lead a student, and for that matter, all Catholics?

Questions Asked in the CARA Report,

"Catholicism on Campus: Stability and Change in Catholic Student Faith by College Type"

The Question of Abortion

Each year the March for Life is held in January. On that day, anti abortionists flood Washington, D.C. and march from the White House to the Supreme Court. As much as the Church and these people are in earnest about stamping out abortion, many of the issues surrounding it are still open for discussion. For example, if those contemplating abortions had a better healthcare policy, would they be more likely to keep a child rather than opt for abortion? As marchers aim at making a statement, so too, do those statements need to be explored lest they be poorly substantiated and ultimately ignored. If a pivotal issue like Pro-Life is not to be ignored due to weak arguments, exploring all of its possible variables is necessary.

The English philosopher, Francis Bacon once said, “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” What better way is available for addressing the pivotal questions needed to combat abortion than our Catholic colleges and universities, and I need to add, campus ministry centers at public colleges and universities? Ultimately these institutions provide a research environment and young inquisitive minds needed for learning the truth of a matter.

The Question of Affirmative Action/Call To Action

In the 1975 Call to Action hearings in Newark, New Jersey, theologian, Harvey Cox was cited as saying, “The decline of the relevance of the major faiths is creating a secular city, indicating that churches have no role in the urban malaise.” As in 1975, Pope Benedict XVI is now raising the same question. And where better to discuss this question than with our Catholic students who are the future of our cities and society? As one of the participants of the Call to Action meeting remarked, “What happens to a dream deferred [the dream of better housing, stemming violence on the streets, and especially racism, etc., and the role of the parish in alleviating these problems]? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun or does it explode?” And where better to create dreams and an explosion aimed at converting secular cities into a Cities of God than with our Catholic, and also non-Catholic students, within our institutions of higher learning?

The Question of Same Sex Marriages

At our meeting, it was asked, “As much as the Church is against same sex marriages, how do we convince a young person living next to a same sex couple who are good, loving neighbors?” No doubt questions like these, plus living in a culture that is more accepting of same sex marriages, is on the minds of young students — questions needing surfacing, discussion and in depth reflection during their educational journey.

The Question of Military Spending

Many feel that if there is less military spending, our economy would most likely be in better condition. Here again, questions abound on the role of the military, the need for military presence and services, the boost military spending gives the economy, and other related questions. The researchers who included this question in their study of Catholic education are to be commended. To forgo or ignore debate on this question could easily result in little to no concern about the overall role the military fulfills and its service to our nation, as well as other nations.

The Question of Capital Punishment

A year doesn’t pass in which criminals are executed. Often, those executed are from the lower classes, raising the question of injustice. And then there is the question of redemption and whether the worst of worst persons can be redeemed, even though they will spend the rest of their lives behind bars. Is our society at its noblest when it practices an eye for an eye principle? Is justice served when the majority of convicts come from dysfunctional backgrounds? It also needs to be asked, “What is the main reason that the Church is against capital punishment?” And where better to explore these questions than with our young people in a Catholic setting?

The Question of Spirituality in the Life of Students

Questions about spiritual reading, practices and attendance at church services were the last to be discussed at our session on Catholicism on Campus: Stability and Change in Catholic Student Faith by College Type. As I pondered the finding that students are indeed spiritual and desire spirituality, I wondered what would happen if priests, lay leaders and parishioners in general worked more diligently at making spirituality really come alive for young people. From my experience, I have seen students become extremely interested in this topic when it is discussed. Contrary to what some think, they truly pine for spirituality and love to discuss it. Today, Catholic university and college, as well as public schools of higher learning libraries are filled with books on spirituality that range from the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis, and St. Benedict to St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa. As old as are these saints, they speak loudly to today’s youth and our contemporary society.

As can be seen from our discussion on what variables best determine the merits of today’s Catholic education, the choice of questions speak loudly to what Catholics should think and do.

We could go much deeper in our discussion on these questions. This we should and must do to expand the education of our young adults, as well as our own Catholic education! To avoid drying up and becoming like a prune, young minds in particular need to grapple with complex questions, imbibe in heated debates and be involved with in depth discussions! Studies like the one discussed here are to be praised for identifying major questions that provide healthy spiritual food for thought.