The Search for Catholics in Catholic Schools

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When visiting Catholic college campuses with their teen-age children, two friends of mine did not limit their fact-finding mission to tours and speeches. They wandered the campuses and asked various students where the chapel was, and, if the students knew, they asked what time Mass was.

The answer was often a blank stare or shaking of the head. My friends discovered what others have noted – many Catholic schools are less Catholic than others.

It is why my daughter – No. 5 in the pecking order – is going through the hassle of transferring from her Catholic college, to one that will offer less financial aid but, she hopes, more of a Catholic experience. She has worked extra jobs to make up the monetary difference. Her faith is that important to her.

I’ve referred to college searches before. My tour of Fairfield University, with my oldest son, featured a student tour guide pointing to a building, saying “That’s the chapel. Don’t worry. They don’t make you go.” 

Sadly, that could serve as the theme for several Catholic colleges:  We’re Catholic but, don’t worry, we hide it well.

One official at Regis, a Jesuit college in Denver, proves the point. In a 2014 story in the Atlantic, titled “The New Brand of Jesuit Universities,” Traci McBee, an assistant director of fund raising, said, “we hide the word ‘Catholic’ from prospective students. We focus on the Jesuit piece rather than the Catholic piece.”

At least she was honest. Yet two other statements from that Atlantic article were disturbing in their stereotype of religion.

Gonzaga president Thayne McCulloh:  “There is a tension between desire to be strongly identified as Jesuit and Catholic and the desire to respond effectively to the call to be a contemporary, competent university in North America.”

If I read that correctly, the president of a Catholic college is saying you cannot be identified as both Catholic and competent? 

This from Reverend Michael Sheeran, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities:  “The last thing you worry about is whether [students] are making a religious quest. Are they asking the ‘meaning questions’? What we are doing is invitation Catholicism versus command Catholicism …”

What does Father Sheeran mean by “religious quest” and “command Catholicism”?

Does he use “religious” in the bigoted, stereotypical sense of ignorant zealousness? Because, if not, a religious quest infers a search for God – and an asking of the ‘meaning questions’ – and such a quest is something that students (and everyone else) should be introduced to.

The term “command Catholicism” indicates when students are forced to believe Catholicism. I’ve never encountered such a place. Again, this plays into the stereotype that openly faithful Catholics are not only uneducated (incompetent), but also shove their beliefs onto others.

A Catholic college should be welcoming to all, but without compromise. If belief is hidden or watered down, how can we invite anyone to share the richness of the Catholic faith?

If I attended a college run by another Christian denomination, or another faith, I would expect to be exposed to all their beliefs and teachings. If they hid them, or acted against them, I would question how serious they were.

The Cardinal Newman Society, a group founded 25 years ago to “promote and defend faithful Catholic education,” composed a list of recommended colleges that place “a premium on their Catholic identity in all aspects of academic and campus life.” Of the 225 Catholic colleges in the United States, only 17 with student housing made the list. (A handful of commuter and online schools were also included.)

Only 17? According to the society:

“Among those colleges not included in the Guide are some with strong academic credentials but that do not have, in our opinion, the same commitment to Catholic identity … The opportunity for strengthening spiritual formation during the college years is enhanced where Catholic teachings are constantly reinforced.”

Are Catholic teachings reinforced at schools like Georgetown, which not only honors a pro-abortion senator, but also allows a student council to take a vote on defunding a student group (Love Saxa) because it’s considered oppressive because it advocates for views of chastity and traditional marriage in line with Catholic teaching?

How about Fordham, which will not allow a Chick-fil-A restaurant on campus because the franchise owner favors traditional marriage (again, in line with Catholic thought).

Providence College has sent mixed messages. It not only shunned an esteemed professor for promoting Catholic beliefs (he later resigned), a student was harassed and threatened for espousing traditional marriage.

Then there is the College of Holy Cross, the school my daughter is transferring from. Holy Cross is a good academic school with some fine spiritual people whom I know. But the school did little to support my daughter’s orthodox (some might say “conservative”) Catholic views.

Of course, Holy Cross has had its troubles recently, from changing the Crusader mascot, to one of its theology professors found to have previously referred to Jesus as a “Drag King.”

Holy Cross offers a required seminar for all freshmen. “It is supposed to encourage engagement with a broad range of themes and issues,” the school’s web site says. My daughter’s instructor continually bashed conservatives and ridiculed Republicans.

Trump-bashing was common in the seminar, as well as in certain priests’ homilies. You wondered if the real battle was between Heaven and Hell, or Democrats and Republicans.

My daughter loves the theater, bur her drama course teemed with politics and one-sided ideology.

As for her “Women in Literature” class, it turned into Male Bashing 101.

Then there was campus life. Why bother separating the sexes by floor in the coed dorms? An early-morning fire alarm revealed how many guys were enjoying “sleepovers” in the girls’ rooms.

Holy Cross taught my daughter a lot – how to defend her faith and how important her Catholic faith is (and not in name only). Traveling to Worcester was convenient and the financial aid generous. But my daughter is packing this week for the drive to Front Royal, Virginia, home of Christendom College.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.