Catholics on Campus
Tim Reidy’s new article in Commonweal on campus ministry at Princeton is the kind of thick, juicy piece of reporting and analysis that makes me want to invite Tim back out to San Francisco so I can argue with him over Irish Coffees at the Buena Vista.
Tim’s argument is that an increasing number of campus ministry programs are presenting a vision of the Catholic faith that appears to discourage intellectual wrestling with Church teaching and that favors more traditional forms of piety over other ways of being Catholic. Tim wonders whether this narrowness is discouraging more Catholics from participating in campus ministry activities and whether students are being adequately equipped to deal with challenges to their faith that they will encounter as students and ultimately as adults living in a religiously diverse society.
I hope I got that right and I’ll count on Tim to correct me if I didn’t.
Now I think Tim and I are probably in agreement that if your campus ministry speakers’ list is drawing primarily on the Neuhaus-Weigel-Novak team, then you are certainly getting a somewhat one-sided view of things Catholic, particularly on issues related to the economic, social and foreign policies of the United States. Why not, for example, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick on the responsibilities of Catholic politicians? Or former Archbishop John Quinn offering his views on the exercise of papal primacy that were inspired by John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint? Both are somewhat bete noires in conservative circles, but they are solidly in the mainstream of the tradition. Students should know that the “theology of the body” is just that—a theology—and does not possess, in and of itself, magisterial authority.
Now let me offer a couple of areas where Tim and I may differ moderately. I have no problem with campus ministry programs emphasizing catechetics over social action, which appears to be part of the subtext of Tim’s argument. As noted by a number of regular Commonweal contributors over the years like Peter Steinfels, John Cavadini and Dean Hoge, the level of religious literacy among teenage and young adult Catholics is simply appalling. One of my own professors at the JSTB recalls the time that an undergraduate told him how excited she was to find out there were actually books you could read about your faith. I’m not against having social action be a component of campus ministry. But as I like to tell my clients, strategy is about making choices and if I was a campus minister with limited resources and time, liturgy and catechesis are what I would focus on.
I’m also not convinced that making a self-conscious effort to root oneself deeply in a tradition makes it more difficult for you to intellectually engage your faith. Are those who participate regularly in Aquinas Institute programs really less able to do this than Catholics formed by other types of campus ministry programs? One can disagree deeply with someone like Robert George about many things, but there’s no question his arguments have intellectual rigor. While I don’t accept everything in the neoconservative critique of higher education in the United States, it seems inarguable that university students these days are far more likely to be exposed to intellectually rigorous liberalism than intellectually rigorous conservatism. With regard to Catholics colleges and universities, I think that students are far more likely to be exposed to critiques of certain controversial Church teachings than a full-throated defense.
Finally, I’m not as disappointed as Tim that the Aquinas Institute only seems to involve about 30 percent of Princeton Catholic students in its activities. Given how well campus ministry programs were doing when I went to college that seems to be a pretty respectable number. One could always hope for more, certainly, but I’m not necessarily convinced that a more “inclusive” approach would yield significant gains.
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the article and I hope Tim (and others) can take some time to respond to my reflections.