Imagining the typical college dorm room on a typical weekend is enough to make me understand why, in various parts of the Old Testament, God overthrows cities and sends down sulfur and fire, shaking his non-material head and thinking, in the spirit of John McEnroe, You cannot be serious. I gave you life, and you're responding with keg stands?
To be sure, I was no ascetic during my college days, but attending a Jesuit institution did keep me in the gravity of good and wholesome things. My freshman dorm's nightly Mass and frequent check-ins from the Jesuit priest in-residence were constant reminders of something more noble than the latest party. The St. Edmund Campion Society, a group of students, professors, and priests devoted to apologetics, gave me weekly opportunities to better understand Catholicism and develop friendships anchored in faith. Over the course of four years, a number of people and experiences constantly invited me to think about not only what I was studying but who I was becoming. It was a culture that kept me safe, that kept returning me to the right questions.
At most colleges today, most students lack those centering, ennobling forces. Residential life is increasingly indistinguishable from spring break. Dorm culture mirrors a distant foreign beach with minimal law and order. And when I speak with parents of the students I teach, they are worried at what's to come.
Which makes me especially heartened to hear the good news from Alabama. As reported last week by the New York Times, Troy University, Alabama's third-largest public university, has this semester "opened the Newman Center residence hall, a roomy 376-bed dormitory that caters to students who want a residential experience infused with religion." The hall was built with support from the Newman Student Housing Fund, a private Catholic development company that is spearheading the development of a Catholic residence hall at the Texas A&M campus in Kingsville.
The Times says that the dorms are "among a new wave of religious-themed housing that constitutional scholars and others say is pushing the boundaries of how much a public university can back religion."
The Newman Hall initiatives will evoke litigation, but their growth, assuming they withstand Establishment Clause challenges (and I see no reason why, at this point, they should not), will provide a much-needed alternative for those who cannot attend a faith-based school but who seek a faith-based campus culture. The transformative effect of these dorms will also, I hope, spur college administrators to reconsider the residential system for all of their students, a system that does little to promote academic and personal excellence and which, in many cases, leaves students to languish and make bad choices.