Catholic World News News Feature

Are Catholic Colleges Leading Students Astray? March 05, 2003

Even while many Catholic colleges in the United States are making exciting progress in their efforts to renew Catholic higher education, the challenges faced by reformers just keep growing worse.

Dozens of Catholic colleges recently hosted productions of "Vagina Monologues," a vulgar play in which the lesbian seduction of a 16-year-old girl is portrayed as her "salvation." [See sidebar.] A womens center at Saint Marys College in Notre Dame, Indiana, funded four students' travel to a pro-abortion leadership conference in Washington, DC--at a time when thousands of pro-life college students were finding their own way to the same city for the annual March for Life. And now comes hard data that confirms the failure of many Catholic colleges to tend to their students' spiritual needs.

A survey of students at 38 Catholic colleges--including major universities like Creighton, Loyola Marymount, Notre Dame and St. John's of New York--reveals that graduating seniors are predominantly pro-abortion, approve of homosexual "marriage," and only occasionally pray or attend religious services. Nine percent of Catholic students abandon their faith before graduation.

The annual survey of college students, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California-Los Angeles, is important because it provides the only useful data on Catholic colleges that cuts across institutions. There simply isn't any other publicly available assessment of the student experience for the 223 Catholic colleges in the United States.

Catholic World Report and the Cardinal Newman Society--the national organization of which I am president, dedicated to restoring Catholic identity in America's Catholic colleges--commissioned HERI to analyze data on students at Catholic colleges who participated in HERI's 2001 national survey (the latest for which data is currently available). These findings have never been reported elsewhere.


The HERI report commissioned by CWR and the Cardinal Newman Society draws from a 1997 survey of incoming freshmen at American colleges, and a near-identical survey of graduating seniors in 2001. We excluded responses from students who participated only in one of the studies, thereby ensuring an accurate account of how students changed during their college experience. We included non-Catholic as well as Catholic students, but tracked each groups responses separately.

HERI compared the 38 participating Catholic colleges (including 20 four-year colleges and 18 universities) with nonsectarian four-year colleges and other religious (mostly Protestant) four-year colleges. It also provided data for Catholic four-year colleges--excluding Catholic universities to ensure a proper comparison with the other four-year college groups--but the results indicated no significant difference when Catholic universities were thrown into the mix. This was something of a surprise to me, since I expected students at the larger universities to be more liberal, but the HERI data do not indicate any significant variations. So to avoid confusion, we have not reported data from the Catholic four-year college group.

Although there is some reason to expect that the results from the surveys at 38 Catholic colleges hold up well if the survey had been conducted at all of the 223 Catholic colleges nationwide, the HERI survey was not designed to be applied generally to all US Catholic colleges. The 38 colleges included in the survey were not selected with an eye to obtaining a representative sample of the whole group, and so the results are statistically valid only for the schools involved. (See the explanation of the HERI survey's limitations on page XX.) Still, in the absence of any other comparable material showing the performance of Catholic schools, the survey results deserve careful scrutiny. And what the available data do show about the 38 participating Catholic colleges is cause for alarm. The full results of the HERI survey are shown on page XX. A few of the most noteworthy findings are:

 In 1997, 45 percent of incoming freshmen at Catholic colleges said they support keeping abortion legal, with 55 percent opposed. Four years later, the same students were 57 percent pro-abortion, 43 percent pro-life. Similarly, students' support for legalizing homosexual marriages increased from 55 percent to 71 percent. Approval of casual sex increased from 30 percent to 49 percent.

For all three issues, the increase in support among students at Catholic colleges was far more dramatic than increases at other religious colleges. This difference, however, is largely explained by a disturbing trend among Catholic students generally, rather than any particular factors at the institutions involved in the survey. HERI's analysis shows that Catholic students' support for abortion, homosexual unions, and casual sex increased at roughly the same dramatic rate regardless of whether the students enrolled at a Catholic, nonsectarian, or other religious college. Support for these issues increased rapidly at Catholic colleges where most students are Catholic, while other religious colleges with fewer Catholics reported less support.

Nevertheless, Catholic colleges ought to be alarmed when most students thumb their noses at Church teaching. The Vatican and the Catholic bishops have vocally opposed abortion, homosexual unions, and premarital sex. If significant numbers of Catholic students are turning against Church teaching, non-Catholic colleges cannot be expected to reverse the ideological drift, but Catholic colleges should be combating such trends in the classroom, the campus chapel, and the residence hall. By and large, students graduating from Catholic colleges ought to have views more in line with Catholic teaching, assuming that the Church's teaching is accurately presented and lived out by college faculty and staff.

 At non-Catholic religious colleges, 24 percent of seniors reported much stronger religious beliefs and convictions than when they were freshmen. Even liberal Protestant colleges are known for placing a high priority on the spiritual development of their students. But at Catholic colleges, only 15 percent of students reported the same sort of spiritual growth. Catholic educators should be asking how they can achieve better results by emphasizing the needs of Catholic students.

The HERI study also found that 9 percent of Catholic students at Catholic colleges leave the Church. That is a frightening statistic--even though defections were almost twice as common at nonsectarian and other religious colleges.

One welcome development is shown in the fact that 11 percent of non-Catholic students enrolled at Catholic colleges reported converting to the Catholic faith during their undergraduate years. Still, despite that influx of converts, the much greater number of students dropping away from the active practice of their faith left the Catholic colleges with a net 4 percent loss in the number of practicing Catholics enrolled.

 In 1997, more than two-thirds of Catholic freshmen at Catholic colleges attended religious services frequently, while the remaining third attended occasionally. By senior year, 13 percent stopped attending services altogether, and nearly half attended only occasionally.

Similarly, only 37 percent of seniors at Catholic colleges said they prayed or meditated more than one hour a week. Almost one-third of the students reported that they do not pray at all.


Michael James, assistant executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), dismisses the HERI survey results as having little importance for anyone beyond the participating colleges. "In terms of this being representative of the Catholic student population," James says, "I find it difficult to make that case."

Certainly there is no scientific basis for the assumption that the HERI data from 38 Catholic colleges would apply without modification to America's 223 Catholic colleges. But the set of 38 colleges seems sufficiently varied by size, location, and controlling religious order or diocese to resemble the national set, so that we might draw some inferences about what a national survey of students at Catholic colleges might find. We may never know.

Strong similarities among most Catholic colleges' approaches to teaching, curriculum, campus life, campus ministry, and extracurricular activities also contribute to the case for drawing national inferences from the HERI data. For example, in my experience working with Catholic colleges, I have seen that most require similar types of core courses, provide similar campus ministry programs and sacramental opportunities, and have similar policies for allowing dissident speakers on campus. Most Catholic colleges are becoming increasingly homogenized, often mimicking prestigious secular colleges.

Even the recurring scandals on many Catholic campuses suggest strong commonalities. The pro-abortion politician who is given an opportunity to gain some favorable publicity on a Catholic campus by speaking on world peace, the environment, or women's rights seems almost obligatory for many colleges--as does the harassment of a pro-life speaker who may not even intend to discuss abortion. Sometimes even the names of the guest speakers are the same, from one school to another. Leon Pannetta, the former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, makes the rounds at Jesuit colleges; former Senator George Mitchell and author Garry Wills also make regular appearances on the Catholic-college lecture circuit. Dozens of Catholic colleges presented "Vagina Monologues" this year. Liturgical abuses at Mass are common, as are referrals to Planned Parenthood for contraception and abortions. The campus culture of excessive drinking and sexual activity is near-universal.

Given similar problems, policies, and programs at most Catholic colleges, the HERI study might indicate broader concerns for all of Catholic higher education. But even if there is no attempt to generalize the HERI data beyond the 38 participating colleges, it is certain that the survey results are appalling. Are Catholic colleges to blame?

The ACCU's Michael James argues that even a college that receives disappointing survey responses from its students might blame those responses in part on "mitigating factors" such as the broad diversity of students who attend Catholic colleges, many of them poorly formed in the faith and not much different from students at non-Catholic colleges. "We have some real challenges when those students come to Catholic colleges and universities," James says.

That much is certain. The lack of spiritual formation among Catholic youth prior to college is well documented. In Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (Notre Dame Press, 2001), noted researcher Dean Hoge and his co-authors summarize national surveys of young Catholics showing overwhelming dissent with Church teaching on sexual ethics and weak allegiance to the Vatican and bishops.

Hoge, a sociology professor and director of the Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America, acknowledges that one would hope to see Catholic colleges producing better results than what the HERI data indicates, especially on issues like abortion--where the Church's teaching is clear and more widely embraced by lay Catholics, unlike issues such as contraception and homosexuality on which there is more widespread dissent. But Hoge suspects that the changing opinions of students on moral issues is primarily a result of their entry into adulthood and integration into American society. Catholic colleges are comprised largely of Catholic students, and Hoge is not surprised that young Catholics experience a more dramatic swing toward views that are prevalent in American society, reasoning that they start as freshmen with more traditional attitudes than their peers. "College students are more volatile to making changes in attitudes than older people," Hoge says.

All this is natural at Catholic colleges that showcase dissenters as campus lecturers, subsidize student clubs that dissent from Church teaching, and do little to stem sexual activity in residence halls. But Hoge embraces the typical line of American Catholic academics, arguing that colleges should allow free and open discussion of all issues, and saying that this process inevitably allow Catholic students to encounter and possibly embrace views contrary to Catholic teaching. (More conservative observers reply that open debate should be distinguished from outright propaganda, and by observing that Catholic institutions have no duty to invite speakers whose conduct is notoriously immoral, or whose views are incompatible with fundamental Catholic doctrine.)


But while free and open discussion among students is vital to higher education, and while many freshmen entering Catholic colleges may be ready quickly to abandon their parents' religious principles because they lack a strong spiritual formation, Catholic colleges still have the option of being authentically and firmly Catholic, thus shoring up their students' faith. The sad fact is that the HERI survey results show increasing dissent and declining morality among students during their four years of a Catholic college education. Regardless of where the students begin their college journey, Catholic colleges should be helping students move closer to Christ, and certainly doing a better job of moving students toward the Catholic faith than secular colleges do. In fact, the HERI data show that the Catholic colleges are not significantly different from the secular schools in terms of their effect on students' beliefs and conduct.

"When students graduate from a Catholic college with less understanding of the Church, or with beliefs incompatible with Church teaching, such as being pro-abortion, then I would call into question what that college has done or failed to do," says David House, president of St. Joseph's College of Maine. "To be fair, it may not necessarily be the fault of the college, but I would still wonder what happened over a four-year period."

House says he is surprised by the number of parents he meets who send their children to Catholic colleges expecting at least basic instruction in Catholic teachings and intellectual traditions. "That this often doesn't occur would be occasion for consumer-fraud lawsuits in just about any other industry," House says.

Thomas Dillon, president of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, agrees that many Catholic colleges do not seem to be adequately pursuing the mission of Catholic higher education. Dillon says:

In general, a turning away by students from the Catholic faith seems to be the inevitable result of an education that does not take seriously the intellectual underpinnings of the faith. In addition, students only rarely witness in the academic or administrative staff the living out of the principles of our faith. All too often they find, instead, outright disdain for the faith.

In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Pope John Paul II instructs colleges to ensure that students "realize the responsibility& of being witnesses to Christ in whatever place they may exercise their profession." He also calls for the combination of academic and professional development with formation in moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the Church as well as "ethical formation" in each discipline.

The Holy Father's use of the word "formation" is a reminder that colleges should provide more than simple textbook instruction in Catholic teachings, which could theoretically be accomplished without any faith commitment. The Pope places some emphasis on outcomes, reasoning that colleges should graduate students who are well formed and active in their faith, and embrace the Church's teaching as truth that must be lived.

David House of St. Joseph's College argues:

I think the notion of, "Heres Catholic teaching; take it or leave it," is better than nothing, but it is still far from the mark, and doesnt really approach formation. Ultimately, of course, each human being is free to exercise his will, but to present Church teaching at a Catholic college as neutral or as one of many offerings in the cafeteria of belief systems is more than just weak. It's wrong.

Active Catholic students enrolled at Catholic colleges often complain that core curriculum requirements are inadequate, and fail to give most students a college-level understanding of the Catholic faith. "The required theology classes for all students don't necessarily cover Catholic teaching," complains Christina Dehan, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame. She continues:

Everyone [at Notre Dame] has to take a Scripture class, but mine was taught by a Protestant graduate student who knew nothing about Catholic teaching. The second theology requirement can be completed by any of a wide variety of classes that don't normally pertain to Church teaching specifically.

Dennis Martin, associate professor of theology at Loyola University of Chicago, says the problem is not only whether students are assigned Catholic theology courses, but what is being taught in those classrooms. "Many major Catholic colleges do teach students to appreciate 'Catholicism Lite' and to take offense at the magisteriums teaching on sexuality and marriage," Martin says, "because any self-respecting American intellectual simply 'knows' these things are hopelessly out of date, and Catholics have been hungry for respect for more than two centuries on this continent."

There are problems outside the classroom as well. David Endres, a graduate student in religious studies at the Catholic University of America, sees classroom instruction as only one aspect of students' spiritual formation at a Catholic college. What students experience outside the classroom--including campus lectures, student clubs, social events, peer encounters, dating, community service, the liturgy--can have a significant impact on students' spiritual lives. "Catholic colleges should work to build a culture that encourages spiritual and moral growth at every level," Endres says. Of special importance is avoiding even the appearance of accepting inappropriate student conduct, notably including premarital sex and substance abuse.

Thomas Kneier, dean of student life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, notes that Ex Corde Ecclesiae requires that "all the basic academic activities of a Catholic university are connected with and in harmony with the evangelizing mission of the Church."

"This says to me that the mission of a Catholic university goes beyond intellectual formation and includes what Cardinal Ratzinger describes as the heart of evangelization: namely, 'teaching the art of living,'" Kneier says. But for many floundering campus life programs, "the standard is mediocrity."

Kneier make his case this way:

Oranges grow best in Florida because of the ideal climate and conditions. A Catholic university with a strong Catholic culture that pervades campus life is the best climate for students to grow spiritually. The truth taught in the classroom is reinforced and applied outside the classroom.

Whether in the classroom or the residence hall or the cafeteria, what is needed is a genuine commitment to helping students live moral lives.

"Professing to be a Catholic college, but then tacitly allowing or tolerating openly immoral behavior, is worse than a secular institution that, after all, makes no particular claim to a religious tradition or a religious belief," agrees David House.


In the debate over whether Catholic colleges can and should have a more positive impact on students' spiritual growth, one important missing ingredient is solid, reliable information about the effects of Catholic campus life on undergraduate students. There is simply a dearth of good research on the outcomes produced by Catholic institutions of higher education. The limitations of the HERI study--and a controversy that arose out of the premature use of some HERI findings--have made that shortage of hard data all the more noticeable.

The controversy over the HERI data began when Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis magazine, sent out an email newsletter in which he used the HERI results as the basis for some sweeping and wholly justified criticism of American Catholic colleges. His criticism in turn was based on a preliminary summary of HERI data, prepared by the Cardinal Newman Society but not intended for broad public distribution. Unfortunately Hudson was unaware of, and thus failed to explain, the facts that only 38 Catholic colleges participated in the survey, and that the original HERI data included results from many students who participated in the survey only once, either as freshmen or as seniors. Those responses from one-time participants obviously did not, and could not, offer any information about how the students' attitudes were influenced by their years in college; only the before-and-after interviews afforded such information on the outcomes of undergraduate education.

Critics of Hudson's analysis, and defenders of the American Catholic colleges, pounced on this methodological error as a reason to dismiss his argument. Ironically, the heated debate that ensued almost resulted in a decision to shelve the only available study of Catholic college outcomes. HERI researchers angrily protested the misuse of their findings. Catholic college leaders denounced the public embarrassment caused by the premature release of incomplete findings. The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education both reportedly canceled plans for articles describing the HERI results.

Only Catholic World Report and the Cardinal Newman Society insisted on taking a closer look. Together we persuaded the HERI researchers to prepare a report using fully accurate and complete data. This HERI report analyzed only the responses from students who had participated in the survey twice--thus eliminating the methodological flaw in Hudson's analysis, and offering the best available study of Catholic college outcomes.

About a decade ago, institutional researchers attempted to design a national survey for Catholic colleges, according to Michael James of the ACCU. But the project fell apart because of disagreements about the data to be collected, a lack of sufficient funding at some colleges and "some sensitivity" among college leaders about the collection of potentially embarrassing data. "We need to continue to look for ways to assess ourselves and be honest with ourselves," James says. James was one of the readers who was unhappy with Hudson's analysis of the incomplete HERI results. "When I saw those numbers, I asked myself, what other data can we rely on to put these numbers in perspective?" he reports. "But there's nothing."

But it is evidence of negligence bordering on irresponsibility that Catholic colleges have not yet developed any instrument for tracking students' four-year experiences across all 223 Catholic colleges, and across relevant subsets of that large group, such as the country's Jesuit-run colleges. And there seems to be a plethora of competing explanations for this failure to gauge outcomes--which continues to this day, more than a decade after Ex Corde Ecclesiae called for a movement toward reform of Catholic colleges.

Thomas Dillon of Thomas Aquinas College thinks the absence of data reflects the fact that there is simply no motivation to study the essential characteristics of a Catholic institution at colleges, since those characteristics have faded away in recent decades. Dennis Martin of Loyola doubts that Catholic college leaders in the past few decades would have had much use for survey results, and he suggests that any surveys they did produce would have been shaped by what he calls 'Catholicism Lite,' and thus would not have truly measured fidelity to the Church. Thomas Kneier of Steubenville notes that research requires time and money, and "perhaps there has not been a felt need for such an investment until now."

David House believes that most Catholic colleges are interested in comparing themselves to national norms, so that administrators put their focus on comparisons with secular institutions, leaving little room for consideration of their Catholic identity. "Of course, the result is that Catholic colleges are then gauged by secular norms, which then reinforce the notion that if they waver too much they are abnormal," House says. "Or, conversely, if the attitudes and behaviors of students at Catholic colleges are well within the national, secular norms, this is used to affirm the institutional culture, not to challenge it."

If a survey instrument were designed to test students' beliefs and behaviors, would the results help spur needed reforms at Catholic colleges? Is better data a solution to the lack of spiritual formation?

House suspects that many college leaders and even many American bishops are already "fully aware of the deleterious effects of college on the spiritual and religious lives of students." Unfortunately, he continues, "I don't think many of them care about it, otherwise there would be more done to address the issue."

Endres also doubts that many Catholic college leaders would recognize student views and behavior as connected to their essential educational mission. "It seems that 'belief' is not considered an essential determination of a Catholic colleges strength," Endres says.

But it is difficult to believe that there are not many administrators and researchers who would make good use of hard data on students at Catholic colleges. So again, why is that data still lacking? Jennie Bradley, a junior at the University of Notre Dame, asks whether other administrators are deliberately avoiding public embarrassment. "As long as you keep on talking about a problem, you have an excuse not to take action," Bradley says. A national survey of students at Catholic colleges "would highlight the desperate need for reform at these schools, and then there could no longer be any excuses."