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Richard G. MalloyOctober 11, 2004

Catholic Universities are not “really” Catholic. So, at least, charges Burton Bollag, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education in April. As one who is on the front lines in the classroom and in campus ministry and lives in a freshman dorm at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, I can attest that this Jesuit university is truly Catholic, not in a seminary style, but in the more important spirit of the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a papal document on Catholic higher education issued in 1990. We at Saint Joseph’s are mission-driven and engaged in the struggle to convert young people, many of whom have not yet fully incorporated the Catholic faith into their ways of thinking and being.

To those who want to start up seminaries for lay people, where students attend daily Mass and pray the Rosary every night, I say: “Great! But don’t pretend you’re reaching out to the majority of Catholic 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S.A.” Such seminary-style schools are tailoring their ministry and message to an already converted crowd. Anyone can pretend to have a “really” Catholic university when all students and faculty admitted are already ardently practicing Catholics, albeit in distinctly pre-Vatican II ways. We in the more traditional Catholic universities are engaging today’s young adult Catholics in the complicated, contentious and controversial “media-ized” world within which our students (and many of our younger faculty members) have been formed and now live.

“If you were accused of being Catholic, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” With this question, I often challenge the students in my classes at Saint Joseph’s University or during the evening programs on “basic Catholicism” we run in the dorms. We want the young adults, many of them only nominally Catholic, to ponder and pursue the intrinsic power and promise of our Catholic way of being. Our desire is that they come to know the living God who offers us the opportunity to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pt 1:4). We want them to experience Catholicism as a viable pathway to ultimate union with God. We attest that Catholic social teaching has much to offer through its analysis of the contemporary condition of our world. Indeed, most intelligent young adults find that body of thought interesting, intriguing and attractive. We hope our students begin to realize that the Catholic faith is a fascinating, lifegiving, sane alternative to the hedonistic, materialistic and nihilistic ways of life offered them by other cultural currents amid which we all swim.

Students’ Lives as Mission Territory

This is my mission territory, deep in the imaginations, the heads and hearts of today’s millennial generation. We take what the Catholic parents and Catholic schools of today send to us: on the whole, rather ill-informed, only partly converted and often quite confused young adult Catholics, as Dean Hoge described them in Young Adult Catholics (2001).

College is the last stop for these students before the workaday world gets them for the next 50 years. Our mission is to present them with the Catholic faith while they are attending a university. Here what “Catholic” means has to take into account and engage the real students at hand, the young people who are the reason for any university’s existence and mission. These young adults are moving through the slow and multidirectional processes of human development. Faith must be presented where these young people are, not where we think they ought to be.

As a Jesuit on a university campus today, I am immersed in the cultural world of young adults. (Come and spend a weekend in the dorms!) It is here that we strive to point our students toward the divine at the depths of human experience. To do so is not easy. I am trying to reach a generation formed in the turbulent waves of the postmodern world, a social order without foundations, lacking clear, unquestionable authorities, devoid of communally accepted, bedrock truths. For these young adults, there have always been 100 channels and the immensity of the Internet. They know music lyrics much more intimately than Scripture passages, movie scenes (often word for word) more than church rituals, and are convinced that capitalism is real and operative while unable to give a cogent definition of grace. Capitalism makes demands on their lives. Students tremble at the thought of never getting a high-paying job, yet salvation in Christ is a vague notion at best. The gospel of the Donald too often trumps the call of the good news of Jesus.

Partly because of their intense focus on getting ahead and “making it,” most Catholic students reveal a daunting ignorance of our tradition’s beliefs and practices, though they exhibit an intimate and extensive knowledge of what was needed to get into a top tier university. A Catholic student at an Ivy League university once phoned me, looking for help with an art history paper. The question: “Who denied Jesus, was it Peter or was it Paul, and if you don’t know, can you tell me where I can look it up?” Even though many cannot name the four Gospels, college students can quote verbatim from episodes of “The Simpsons” that deal with religion.

Some charge that Catholic students “lose the faith” while in college. In fact, only a very small percentage of “Catholic” students coming to Catholic universities see the practice of the faith as central to their lives. Most students I have met hold some basic hope that there is a God. But a commitment to Jesus elicits subtle resistance. Somehow young people sense that a real relationship with Jesus entails certain radical challenges to the behaviors taken for granted by too many college students raised on endless showings of “Animal House.” Cheating on tests, or on significant others, is too present a pain for some, too easy a way out for many. From experience they know the loneliness, emptiness and dangers of the dynamics of “friends with benefits” and “hooking up.” Obviously, seriously following Jesus contradicts the practice of consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs on campus. Most important, students sense that the radical call for social justice voiced by Jesus and the church contradicts their current life goals: money, affluence and comfort.

The Catholic Church as an institution is not an easy sell to the majority of this millennial generation. A mall culture inculcates in them (and in their parents) an expectation that you can and ought to “have it your way,” as at a McDonald’s. An uncompromising, legalistic, rules-bound Catholicism is not only incomprehensible to these young people, it is appallingly unattractive. Denying women access to real power in the organization makes church leaders seem out of touch with the real world in which women teach, preach and lead in our society. Faculty members live in a professional world in which the right of women to be treated equally is a given. Bishops do not inhabit this sort of universe. Bishops, who have had such difficulty handling clergy scandals, do not impress such faculty members, or those in their 20’s, who are looking for leadership in their lives. Even when our bishops take a prophetic stance, as they did in 2003 by opposing the war with Iraq, faculty and young people are not paying any more attention than their parents paid earlier to the church’s teaching on birth control. Many faculty members think the church is simply not listening to their questions about power and the status of lay people in the institution. Even worse, young adults are not greatly interested in these questions. Catholic universities in the 21st century present a challenging pastoral situation: How should we respond?

Our Response: Dialogue and Diversity

Too many conservative Catholics imagine we can dictate Catholicism to young adults. Monologues are safe. The speaker, that is to say, the authority, can control the discourse. What a monologue cannot provide is an arena within which a young adult can formulate, choose and live out a free response.

The goal ought to be to engage young adults in dialogue. Dialogues are risky, especially in settings where diversity is valued. Jesuit leadership at the society’s 34th General Congregation (1995) called for “dialogue, a spiritual conversation of equal partners, that opens human beings to the core of their identity.” John Paul II, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, also champions dialogue: “A Catholic university must become more attentive to the cultures of the world of today, and to the various cultural traditions existing within the church in a way that will promote a continuous and profitable dialogue between the Gospel and modern society.”

Dialogues lead to conversions. In the same way that churches should be hospitals for sinners and not showcases for saints, our universities should be developers of dialogue and schools for searchers, not “camps for conservative Catholics” or “oracles of orthodoxy.” Young adults trying to ascertain what our faith means and how it is to be lived out are not accepting simple answers from the simple-minded. When the church deems premarital sex immoral, those who promulgate the teaching need cogent arguments to support this view. (There are many such arguments, but too many church officials fail to articulate them in a style comprehensible to the MTV generation.) When the excesses of “unbridled capitalism” are decried, those who present the teaching must have answers to the questions posed by young adults raised in an era of right-wing talk radio. If the institutional church is going to refuse dialogue, and decrees that the issue of women priests cannot even be discussed, one should not be surprised when faculty and young people shake their bewildered heads and sadly walk away.

Lost in all the bombastic rhetoric and charges of “not being really Catholic” is a celebration of the pluralism that has always strengthened, not threatened, truly Catholic ways of life. Thomas Clarke, S.J., once articulated the argument that we need schools steeped in the practice of theological reflection to overcome the limitations of religious education done in strictly seminary styles or according to the canons of absolutely academic theology. Seminary-style colleges, where the Catholic tradition and answers are simply passed on unquestioned and unexamined, may be welcomed by a small number of Catholics, but only a miniscule percentage of today’s Catholic students will opt for that kind of college experience. Theology departments can avoid the responsibility and challenge of catechesis, but the question arises: why do we require students to take three theology courses? To foster their ongoing conversion, the vast majority of Catholic students need creatively Catholic universities that lead and engage students and faculty in theological reflection in all areas of human learning.

Theological reflection is a dialogue about God and how God relates to all that we humans hope for and endeavor to achieve. It is also a dialogue about God in ways that lead to personal and social transformation. Theological reflection permeates all really Catholic classes, courses, service learning opportunities and service projects overtly, or more subtly, in ways the mysterious Holy Spirit uses. Visit a creatively Catholic university and you will see a vast array of programs, professors and people doing theological reflection in a wide variety of ways. The fact that students recite the Rosary every day is not proof that a place is “really” Catholic. Catholicism as a tradition of thought, a faith vision and a vibrant, justice-fostering way of life is best experienced through theological reflection in multiple arenas.

In previous eras, Jesuits and other Catholic educators could be like bass fishermen. When you’re going for bass, and they are biting, you can throw out any old lure and the fish smack it. Today we have to be more subtle and precise, more like trout fishermen. You can float a fly right by a trout’s nose, and if it is not what they are biting on that day, you’ll fail to catch anything. In the same way, we cannot be anachronistic in our efforts to attract the majority of today’s young Catholic adults. We must be as willing, ready and able to discuss “Wall Street,” “American Pie” and “Dogma” as to discuss “The Mission,” “The Apostle” and “The Passion of the Christ.” Young Catholic adults have questions about faith and the church, questions often rooted in their experience of 21st-century life and culture. To ignore those questions and attempt to impose poorly understood ritual practices on uncomprehending 20-year-olds is not really Catholic. Such blind ritualism frustrates rather than fosters conversion.

A faith that does not stay close to perennial questions is no faith at all. Faith flourishes in the search for God, and in communion with others working for justice through love. A faith with all the answers is nothing more than an ideology; and, as we saw all too often in the bloody 20th century, when ideologies roam the earth, men, women and children are killed. Simplistic, unquestioned, unexamined faiths become ideologies. The sad truth of the matter is that ideologies imposed brutally on people destroy freedom, and true freedom is the essence of real Catholicism. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1).

Freedom means accepting people where they are on their life journey. Any school can accept only the already converted and claim to be “really” Catholic. The rest of us courageously take up the mission of reaching out to today’s Catholic young adults, especially those who are not fully formed in our Catholic faith. We take the young adult Catholics who actually live in the United States today, and labor to continue the transformation in Christ begun in their family life, school experiences and parish settings. For intelligent, searching, questioning young Catholics, we offer the promise of freedom, the revelation of service and the challenge of Christ. Anyone who wants a really Catholic education is welcome to apply.

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17 years 5 months ago
While I agreed with much of the recent article on Catholic universities by Richard G. Malloy, S.J. (10/11), I think he is overly optimistic on one point. Having done graduate work in history at a Jesuit university in the late 1990’s, I found that not a few of the faculty in the department had little or no interest in promoting the Christian ideals of the university. Many of these professors were hired in the 70’s and 80’s when the Catholic and Jesuit identities of this institution were downplayed. When the university recently undertook a self-study of its religious identity, a number of professors were hostile to the discussion, arguing that when they were hired they were told that the “demands” of the university’s mission statement were largely ceremonial. This indifference has had an effect in the classroom, when specifically Catholic and Jesuit topics (promoting justice and the importance of prayer and reflection) rarely find a place in the curriculum. For example: I was a teaching assistant for a course in the religions of Asia. When I asked the professor what he thought of Thomas Merton’s interest in Eastern spirituality, he asked me who Merton was.

If Catholic colleges and universities want to preserve and promote their religious identity, an individual’s familiarity with Catholic (or Jesuit/Mercy/Vincentian, etc.) tradition must be taken into consideration in the hiring process. The classroom is a critical if not the central place for enlivening a student’s interest and commitment to issues of faith and justice. It would be a mistake to relegate mission and spirituality to the campus ministry and Christian service offices.

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