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Catholic College and Universities

Meet today’s Catholic college undergrads

NCR Staff

From a moral perspective, they are much like the characters in John Updike’s tragicomic Rabbit novels, chasing the trappings of middle-class life and coming away unfulfilled.

Heavily influenced by evangelical notions of Christianity, they find the Bible impossible to reconcile with modern science, and they regard salvation as a one-time, life-changing event.

As for Catholicism, its roots deep in the past, they know little about its tradition or teachings.

Who are these folks?

Theology professors from Catholic colleges and universities might like to say they’re members of the nondenominational church down the street rather than face the truth: Such characteristics define many of the students who show up for their introductory classes.

“I didn’t think when I got into this 20 years ago that I was going to be a missionary,” quipped Mary Ann Hinsdale, chairwoman of the religious studies department at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass. Hinsdale, a member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation, Monroe, Mich., said, “You can’t assume any kind of cultural background, even with Catholic students, so you begin from ground zero.”

Hinsdale was among the professors participating in a session on students at the annual meeting of the College Theology Society in June. Society members mostly teach at undergraduate Catholic institutions. The session was called “Students in the Introductory Course: Where are they coming from? Where are they going?”

For the most part, students today regard religion as a choice they make in life rather than an obligation, Hinsdale said. Often they were reared with little religious structure, by parents who “sort of chucked the church” and left it to the kids to decide. Yet many are eager to learn, she said.

Hinsdale said many Holy Cross students have turned down invitations from prestigious secular schools because they are “searching for roots.” Administrators estimate about 90 percent of the school’s students come from Catholic homes.

Other professors on the panel, later interviewed by NCR, were William Portier of Mount St. Mary’s College, Emmitsburg, Md.; Thomas Wangler, associate professor of American religious history at Boston College, and Elizabeth Newman, a Southern Baptist who teaches scripture at St. Mary’s College, South Bend, Ind.

Portier, chairman of the theology department, said his students view the church as “a good thing, a part of life, of family,” but think faith has to be “caged off” from intellectual life. “They don’t know anything about Catholicism,” he said.

Because Catholicism’s understanding of faith as rooted in reason is foreign to them, they believe, along with Protestant fundamentalists, that people have to choose between the Bible and findings of modern science, he said.

Portier said it takes weeks to convince them otherwise. His approach is to go slowly, assume nothing, take time.

“I spend weeks just on Genesis 1-3,” he said, introducing students to various levels of interpretation. “When I talk about it, it is from a Catholic perspective, as a story of freedom and human choice,” he said. Portier also puts Genesis in context, showing students, for example, that such early church thinkers as St. Augustine gave analogical and metaphorical interpretations to Genesis and other biblical texts. He uses the Nicene Creed to introduce students to the basics of the Christian faith.

Students are very American

Boston College’s Wangler, whose specialty is American religious history, describes his students as “very American” in the way they view their faith. They regard religion as private, for individuals to choose and shape according to their preferences and needs.

It was Wangler who likened students to Updike’s fictional Rabbit, the quintessential American whose life’s tale is told in four novels, from his escapist young adulthood to his death in a hospital with a blue tube up his nose. Like Rabbit, a sort of utilitarian hedonist, today’s college students often equate happiness with middle-class trappings and material success.

For all of that, most are “doctrinally and historically illiterate” when it comes to Catholic tradition, Wangler said. Like most Catholic schools, Boston College has in recent decades sharply reduced the number of required credits in theology and philosophy.

In some ways, though, students are more receptive to religion courses today than they were 15 to 20 years ago, when hostility toward the church was the norm, according to both Portier and Hinsdale. Students today “complain less about taking theology,” said Portier. “They have no clue, no understanding of Catholic culture or history. But that doesn’t mean they don’t like it,” he said. “They want to find out if there is something there.”

Students of the 90s are “intrigued,” Hinsdale said, less likely than in the recent past to consider the church an “antiquated fossilized institution” and a waste of their learning time. Today’s students recognize “a lack of meaning in their lives, a lack of a sense of community,” and think the church might be able to help, she said. All the same, they “don’t feel obliged by some of the claims that go along with it,” she said.

Students presume Catholicism operates by American ideals, she said. When they hear the term cafeteria Catholic, they view it positively, even when it’s used derisively by members of the hierarchy. Students “take American values -- individualism, the marketplace of ideas, basic freedoms and rights -- for granted,” she said. “They expect to find those values in Catholicism.”

Portier finds the religion of most of his students, 80 percent of whom come from Catholic homes, to be “generic evangelical Protestant” rather than Catholic -- probably, he said, because it’s the religion they are most often exposed to through American public life. Elizabeth Newman of St. Mary’s sees the confusion in part as “reflective of a culture where values and even religion get associated with one’s personal feelings and lack a solid knowledge base.”

Portier said his students aren’t likely to see the world as “charged with the grandeur of God” in the sense of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, nor do they understand that religious experience “is something that could happen to anyone in everyday life.” Rather, they are inclined to regard salvation as a conservative Protestant might, as a dramatic, life-changing moment. Portier said he has to work very hard to convince students of God’s presence in the world, “to create a sense of wonder.”

What does engage students, he said, is the pope, the Bible and discussion of “God’s moral character.” Portier said professors can use both the pope and the Bible as a way of getting interest -- the pope because “they have this idea the pope is important”; the Bible because it’s valued in American culture.

Students don’t necessarily agree with Pope John Paul II, Portier said -- in fact, they don’t know much about what he thinks -- yet “their visceral reaction is to like the pope.” He doubts that many students would find anything problematic about artificial contraception or ordaining women, even though Pope John Paul II has reiterated the church’s bans. Still, he said, “If you’re a Catholic theologian, and you take an adversarial posture toward the pope, it seems counterintuitive to them.”

As for God’s moral character, Portier draws on the Bible and builds discussion around the question of whether God is trustworthy. Such a question helps counteract another view prevalent in American society, this one found mostly among liberals: the Deist understanding of God as distant and uninvolved.

Don’t focus on controversies

And while Portier isn’t sure he knows how best to help students explore their faith, he’s pretty sure he knows “how not to do it” -- by focusing on controversies dividing the church.

“It’s a different landscape than it was in 1968,” he said. If you assume students look at things in the same way, if you operate from a liberal-conservative framework, “it will interfere with your ability to communicate with them. How Karl Rahner saved your soul is not going to work.”

“Their favorite course is sacraments,” Portier said. “But when it comes to firsthand knowledge of some of them, that’s another story.” Many students “have never seen a walking, talking, breathing priest under 65.”

Hinsdale said students are surprised to find Catholicism distinguished from Protestantism by a higher regard for sacraments and sacramentals and an emphasis on mediated truth and community, in contrast to the Protestant’s more individualized, “direct line to God,” approach.

“There’s a kind of physicality” to Catholicism, Hinsdale said, “and they’re quite interested in that.” Many students are unfamiliar with devotions common just a few decades ago -- rosaries, scapulars, Benediction -- and are fascinated by them, she said. But they are also attracted to Protestant evangelical artifacts, such as bracelets carrying the letters WWJD: “What would Jesus do?” Such devotions and artifacts carry no political weight, she said. “These things are just out there in the cultural mix for them to choose from.”

Videos and Web pages

Hinsdale uses videos and Web pages to connect students with Catholicism’s distinctive tradition of music and art. The visuals work much better “than anything I could say,” she said. She also likes to send students to Mass as an assignment, instructing them to approach the worship experience as an anthropologist would, raising as many questions about the experience as they can and avoiding religious language in their descriptions. Through that exercise, many realize “they have no idea of the origins of some of the practices, or why the church does things in certain ways,” she said.

“These are the parents and teachers of the next generation,” Hinsdale said. By sending them to Mass and -- another assignment she likes -- asking them to interview older Catholics about their faith, she hopes to broaden their horizons, “to give them something to pass on.”

But then, she said, she asks herself, “Am I trying to supply or replace a culture that is lost and can’t be restored?” She justifies her approach by telling herself, “I’m doing it for historical reasons rather than for nostalgic reasons of my own,” she said.

John Cavadini, chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, said he hears “lots of horror stories” about how little students know -- but not just about the Bible and other aspects of the faith. Cavadini was interviewed by NCR by phone, although he was not a panel member at the theology society.

Cavadini disagrees with the view that students are uninterested in liberal-conservative debates. “I find that debate about issues of theological significance is pretty hot here,” though not necessarily the issues of the 1960s. “For example, the debate about homosexuality is pretty hot on campus right now,” he said.

“I think religion on this campus is taken very seriously by students,” Cavadini said. “They are polarized over some issues and united on others.”

Cavadini, like some of the other professors, said certain types of Catholic piety are becoming more popular. At Notre Dame, some students, not necessarily conservatives, pressed for, and got, round-the-clock eucharistic adoration.

Cavadini finds “a zeal for theological inquiry” among students “across the board. I think they come hoping to find a sophisticated way of talking about their faith,” he said. “It’s a classic case of faith seeking understanding.” When a professor doesn’t help them do that, students “feel disproportionately gypped,” he said.

Hinsdale finds that as students begin to think more about the church, some begin to realize how dramatically the numbers of priests and nuns have declined. And for some, “it’s kind of overwhelming” to be faced with the responsibility of being a layperson in today’s church, she said.

For others, though, said Portier, the church is an institution there to serve the students, not the other way around. When presented with Avery Dulles’ ecclesiastical archetypes, set forth in his book Models of the Church, “students often resonate with the model ‘servant church.’ But they don’t mean it as Dulles did, a church in service to the world.” Rather, he said, they think it means a church in service to them, a sort of “gas station” where they can go for some of the things they need.

Portier finds his job easier at Mount St. Mary’s because of a requirement, unusual at Catholic colleges and universities today, that students complete two semesters each of Western civilization and philosophy before taking the introductory religion course. Those prerequisites lay down “tracks I can follow,” he said.

Hinsdale points out, though, that a common store of knowledge is hard to find. “I have a lot of kids who come from suburban Boston public schools, but everybody in them is Catholic,” she said. “But students on the West Coast grow up in a culture that’s far more diverse. That’s the regionalism in American Catholicism that isn’t taken account of today,” she said.

Those who teach theology “have to know their audiences” in a way that wasn’t necessary decades ago, Hinsdale said. “It’s challenging, exasperating -- and exciting.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998