"Catholic colleges weakening students' faith, new study finds," declared the conservative-leaning Catholic World News.
"Study: Catholics at Catholic colleges less likely to stray from church," went the headline from Catholic News Service, the media outlet of the American bishops.
So which is it? Are Catholic colleges undermining the faith? Or are they an effective if leaky levee against the growing tide of secularism? The study, "Catholicism on Campus," was released on Jan. 31 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), at Georgetown University, which compiled the data from national surveys of more than 14,000 students at nearly 150 U.S. colleges and universities. Students were surveyed as freshmen in 2004 and then in 2007 as juniors.
The upshot is that while college-age students at all schools tend to move away from Catholic practices and beliefs, Catholic students at Catholic colleges are less likely to drift than Catholics at non-Catholic schools. The CARA authors conclude that "students self-identifying as Catholic at Catholic colleges and universities remain profoundly connected to their faith" by their junior year. While the study's authors acknowledge that Catholic schools could always do better, they "appear to be doing no harm—certainly in comparison to other types of higher education institutions—and at a more subtle level may be increasing their student's Catholicity."
Rebellion tends to define youth in every era, just as marriage and childbearing tend to draw adults back to their faith. But 46% of the Catholic juniors at Catholic schools surveyed said their "religiousness" became "stronger" or "much stronger" during college and 39% said there was "no change." Almost all expressed a strong belief in God, and nearly nine in 10 said "seeking to follow religious teachings in everyday life" was at least somewhat important to them. Overall, they were slightly less likely to pray when they left Catholic universities than when they entered, but slightly more likely to read the Bible and other sacred texts.
Yet nearly a third of Catholic students at Catholic schools were less likely to attend Mass—the baseline of Catholic practice—than they had been before arriving on campus, and just 7% said they were more likely. And the church teachings to which these students at Catholic colleges adhere most strongly are those that, in a sociopolitical context, would be called "liberal." For example, 21% of Catholic students at Catholic schools moved away from the church's teaching against capital punishment, while 31% moved closer to the church's position—a significantly higher shift in that direction than from Catholic students at non-Catholic schools, where it's almost a wash. On a range of social-justice issues, Catholic students at Catholic schools are even more likely to maintain or move toward church teachings and policies: opposing increased military spending; supporting higher taxes on the wealthy; and expressing much stronger support for "reducing pain and suffering" and "improving the human condition."
By contrast, on issues of personal sexual morality generally considered "conservative," students show the furthest drift from Catholic teachings over their college years.
For example, a significant number of all college-age Catholics tended to shift toward a more permissive view of abortion, with 31% of those at Catholic schools saying they were more supportive of legal abortion after their time on a Catholic campus and only 16% saying they had moved closer to the church's teaching. Catholic students' shift away from church teaching on legal abortion was slightly greater at non-Catholic schools. Overall, 56% of Catholic juniors at Catholic colleges say they disagree "strongly" or "somewhat" that "abortion should be legal." On the question of same-sex marriage, 39% of Catholic students at Catholic colleges distanced themselves from the church's opposition and only 16% moved toward that stance—a net change nearly as high as at other universities. By their junior year, only one in three Catholics at Catholic schools disagree "somewhat" or "strongly" that same-sex couples should have the right to marry.
Given that opposition to abortion and gay marriage are now the twin markers of orthodoxy for conservative Catholics—many of whom are also less likely to agree with the church or their kids on trimming military spending, increasing taxes for the wealthy, or ending the death penalty—it's no surprise that conservatives might be dismayed by the survey's findings.
Of course, Catholic colleges have been blamed for instilling "liberal" values since Catholics started attending colleges in large numbers in the postwar years—a criticism that has grown more pronounced as Catholic higher education became an arena for battles in the culture wars. "By inviting Barack Obama to be the 2009 commencement speaker, Notre Dame has forfeited its right to call itself a Catholic university," the noted Catholic philosopher Ralph McInerny said last spring as he prepared to retire after 54 years at the iconic university of American Catholicism. McInerny, who died on Jan. 29, seemed to confirm the predictions of Archbishop Fulton Sheen: Four decades ago he reportedly recommended that his family and friends "send their children to secular colleges and universities where they will be forced to defend their faith, rather than to Catholic ones, where their faith will be taken from them."
The CARA report now suggests that Catholics at non-Catholic schools tend to fare worse as far as fidelity and practice goes. But the larger issue is that Catholic higher education simply can't bear all the weight of passing on the faith.
Parents and families are the greatest single influence on a young person's faith, experts note, and the deterioration of family life often leaves Catholic students religiously adrift even as dioceses, parishes and the shrinking priesthood are increasingly ill-equipped to take up the slack.
Viewed from that perspective, perhaps Catholic colleges should be praised for providing young Catholics a sanctuary and incubator for at least some of the tenets of their faith until, let us hope, these men and women help birth a wider Catholic culture to better support their own children.
Mr. Gibson, a biographer of Pope Benedict XVI, covers religion for PoliticsDaily.com.