Catholicism on Campus

How the Faith Is Presented at Secular Schools

On leafy Stockton Street, a short walk from the Princeton campus, sits the Aquinas Institute, home to the university’s Catholic ministry program. Housed in the elegant residence once owned by the German novelist Thomas Mann, the institute has been the official representative of the church on the New Jersey campus since the 1920s. Princeton’s Catholic Club, as it was first known, was started by a group of faculty members and originally staffed by Dominicans. Since the 1950s, the Aquinas Institute has been under the control of the local ordinary in Trenton. Fr. Tom Mullelly, a jovial diocesan priest affectionately known as “FT” by students, has served as chaplain since 1995.

Founded as a Presbyterian school, Princeton was long the most religiously conservative school in the Ivy League. The great evangelical theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) served briefly as university president, before dying unexpectedly. In the nineteenth century, Princeton held tightly to its religious heritage as Harvard and many other colleges shed theirs. Because of its Presbyterian roots, Princeton did not really welcome “papists” until the early years of the twentieth century. Today, Catholics make up 20 to 25 percent of the student body, or roughly 1,200 students, and are the largest single religious group on campus.

To many, the significant Catholic presence at elite universities is a cause for celebration-a sign that Catholics truly have arrived. Yet there are reasons for concern. Although these students will be among the nation’s future leaders, their future attachment to the church is far less certain. At most secular colleges, a minority of Catholics practice their faith. Mullelly estimates that 30 to 40 percent of Catholic students at Princeton take part in Aquinas activities. At a time when a thick Catholic subculture has disappeared and most young people know little beyond the basics of the faith, the challenge of religious formation is daunting. Catholic chaplains need to find imaginative ways to entice students into the fold.

In an effort to see how one university is dealing with this challenge, I visited Princeton several times last fall. I also spoke to chaplains at other prestigious private colleges. Since I graduated from Princeton in 1997, the Aquinas Institute has turned to a more traditional model of ministry. To his credit, Fr. Mullelly stresses the importance of catechesis and pastoral care. He is especially proud, for example, of bringing a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament to the school’s nondenominational chapel. Given Princeton’s Presbyterian past, establishing such a prominent place for traditional Catholic devotion is seen as a remarkable achievement by some. As might be expected, Mullelly shies away from any hint of theological controversy or “dissent.” The chaplaincy will not sponsor speakers who are known to publicly disagree with church teaching. Mullelly has also cultivated a relationship with Opus Dei, which operates a residence near campus and is viewed with suspicion by many for the group’s supposed secretiveness and rigidity.

According to Donald McCrabb, the former director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, many chaplains are adopting more traditional models of ministry. Williams College and Columbia University are some of the places where the voice of conservative Catholics is now dominant. Both for “cultural” and “ecclesial” reasons, McCrabb said, chaplains on non-Catholic campuses are increasingly taking something of a “ghetto approach.” “We do a little more circling of the wagons,” he said. “The benefit of that is that it helps people to form a strong identity; the disadvantage of that is that they’re unable to engage others.”

A “ghetto approach” may appeal to some, but whether it serves the majority of students is dubious. Students are asked to develop a rigorous and skeptical eye in the classroom. No premise or tradition is held to be beyond question. In such an environment, chaplains need to work creatively to introduce students to the richness and intellectual rigor of the Catholic tradition. On issues like the morality of war, bioethics, economic injustice, the relationship between religion and science, or the faith that informs the work of Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor or Graham Greene, Catholicism can enrich a student’s education immeasurably. Exploring and wrestling with the church’s intellectual resources can decisively shape a young person’s faith. So can educating students about the diversity of views embraced by faithful Catholic scholars and writers. Young people need to see that the Catholic faith is an evolving intellectual and spiritual tradition, one that welcomes their questions and takes their doubts seriously.

The Newman model

In the early twentieth century, priests and religious built centers for Catholic study and worship on secular campuses. Many of these centers were known as Newman clubs, to honor the English convert, theologian, and cardinal, who was arguably one of the greatest writers and intellectual figures of the nineteenth century. He is perhaps best known for his Apologia pro Vita Sua, one of the greatest spiritual autobiographies ever written, and for The Idea of a University. Of course, Newman’s theological legacy, especially his work on the development of doctrine and the importance of consulting the laity, is a matter of intense dispute between liberal and conservative Catholics. Newman was not conventionally liberal in the way we use the term today, but he was a staunch defender of the sanctity and importance of conscience and stove to temper ultramontane Catholicism. Although he affirmed the need for religious authority, he cautioned that the pope was not to be regarded as an oracle of religious truth.

In their early days, Newman clubs were meant to shore up Catholic identity in sometimes hostile environments. According to Empowered by the Spirit, the U.S. bishops’ 1985 letter on campus ministry, before Vatican II Newman club ministry was “often characterized by a defensive and even hostile attitude on the part of Catholic students and their chaplains toward the academic world, which was perceived as dominated by a secularist philosophy.” Since Vatican II, that relationship has greatly improved. As the bishops wrote, “Catholics have developed a greater understanding of the positive values and legitimate concerns of higher education” and “many [school] administrators view campus ministry as an ally in the common effort to provide an integrated learning experience for the students.”

What the bishops’ summary did not mention is that tension still exists between what McCrabb calls a “ghetto mentality” and a broader “engagement mentality.” This may be because, as Paul Dinter, former Catholic chaplain at Columbia University, told me: “It’s not easy to build your own faith community and be interfaith at the same time. You have to make a very conscious strategy.”

At Columbia, where Dinter served from 1973 to 1988, he provided catechesis and sponsored lectures by Catholic intellectuals geared toward strengthening Catholic identity. He also reached out to the wider community through interfaith discussion groups and work in soup kitchens. Much depends on the personality of any particular chaplain. Some focus on social justice, others on more intellectual fare. For instance, during my undergraduate years at Princeton, the chaplain, Fr. Tom Hagan, was a passionate proponent of the church’s social teaching.

Whenever possible, bishops appoint chaplains who are comfortable in a scholarly environment, says Michael Galligan-Stierle, the assistant secretary for Catholic higher education and campus ministry at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At Harvard, for example, foreign-policy expert Fr. J. Bryan Hehir served for many years as a chaplain while teaching at Harvard Divinity School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Hehir’s dedication and skill as both priest and scholar were seen as a powerful model for Catholic students.

In recent years, official Catholic life on the Princeton campus has taken on a definite conservative coloration, one with not-so-subtle political overtones. In a recent syndicated column, for example, papal biographer and neoconservative writer George Weigel declared that a “Catholic renaissance” was underway on campus. “If you’re a student looking for an intellectually challenging education and a Catholic community whole-heartedly committed to the new evangelization, or if you’re a parent looking for such a school for your son or daughter, you could do far worse than look at Princeton,” he wrote. “There has been a true flowering of John Paul II Catholicism on this campus,” Weigel quoted one professor.

Weigel applauded the charisma of Fr. Mullelly and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the university chapel. He also praised the “distinguished speakers” who are brought to campus, including Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, on whose editorial board Weigel serves. The Aquinas Institute was further lauded for providing the funding for a new course in the religion department on post-Vatican II theology. John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” and the writings of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, figure prominently on the syllabus. “You won’t find any of these things, alas, on too many putatively Catholic campuses,” Weigel writes. “But you’ll find them at Princeton.”

It is axiomatic to many conservatives that schools such as Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston College can no longer be considered truly Catholic. Like the academy as a whole, this argument runs, an explicitly antireligious secular liberal bias drowns out all competing views and undermines traditional Catholic values. Few would dispute that in the pursuit of academic excellence many Catholic colleges underestimated the challenge posed by secularism. Preserving the distinctive Catholic identity of historically Catholic colleges is a real concern, one Catholics of all stripes share. What should give pause, though, is the eagerness with which some Catholics seek to marginalize, or even excommunicate, anyone to the left or right of them. Catholicism should be catholic enough to embrace von Balthasar and Karl Rahner, George Weigel and Richard McBrien. Catholic chaplaincies at secular colleges should too.

To some considerable extent, the conservative character of public Catholicism at Princeton can be attributed to Robert George. George, a professor of jurisprudence, is the university’s most visible and outspoken Catholic. He is also well connected in the Republican Party, serving on President George W. Bush’s bioethics commission and advising the president on religious issues. A contributor to First Things and the National Review, George, a dexterous proponent of natural law, is seen by many students as a model of how to act as a Catholic in the academy or the public square. As director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, he has brought many like-minded Catholic intellectuals to campus to speak, including Oxford natural law philosopher John Finnis and Joseph Bottum, the new editor of First Things.

As a consequence, Princeton appears to be a very comfortable place for a certain kind of Catholic, one who is drawn to traditional devotions and to a self-consciously “countercultural” (at least on sexual, if not economic, questions) Catholicism. How hospitable the institutional Catholic presence seems to students who have reservations about church teaching is the question. Rev. Thomas Breidenthal, the Episcopal dean of religious life, told me he was pleased with the vitality of Catholic life on campus, especially the way many students regularly pray before the Eucharist in the university chapel. But Breidenthal did note that “Catholic students and staff and faculty [with] opposing viewpoints may not feel that they have a chance for their voice to be heard very much.”

Over the course of ten days last fall, for example, George Weigel was lecturing on the papacy of Benedict XVI, Robert George on the politics of abortion, and Patrick Lee, a moral theologian from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, on the evils of sodomy. None of these speakers was sponsored by Aquinas or the Madison Program, but their joint presence on campus sent a very strong message about the implicit parameters of Catholic debate.

Commonweal columnist Cathleen Kaveny, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and a Princeton graduate, was also on campus that week, although she was not speaking on a Catholic topic. (She delivered a paper on Princeton religion professor Jeffrey Stout’s book, Democracy and Tradition.) She questioned whether Lee’s lecture, which she said was described on a flyer as “decrying sodomy,” was the “most helpful way to create a conversation about Catholic ethics, or whether this is just another form of defensive identity politics.”

Kaveny’s concern is that Princeton students are not being made aware of the breadth and strengths of the Catholic tradition. She points to the high profile and influence of the Madison Program, which explores questions of constitutional law and the role of religion in public life, among other issues. Independent of the university, the program has received substantial funding from the politically conservative Bradley and Olin foundations, as well as from groups with ties to Opus Dei. In a recent article in the Nation, Max Blumenthal wrote that the Madison Program “functions in many ways as a vehicle for conservative interests, using funding from a shadowy, cultlike Catholic group and right-wing foundations to support gatherings of movement activists, fellowships for ideologically correct visiting professors, and a cadre of conservative students.”

Kaveny and Jeffrey Stout think the Madison Program presents too narrow a slice of Catholic thinking. George rejects such criticism, arguing that his program does a better job of representing a variety of viewpoints than other departments or organizations in the university, all of which he thinks exhibit a transparent liberal bias. But it is the Madison Program’s failure to reflect the legitimate diversity within Catholic thinking, not its principled opposition to academic liberalism, that Kaveny objects to. “Because [Princeton is] not a Catholic school, the students are really vulnerable to limited portrayals of Catholic thought,” Kaveny said. “There are few other takes on Catholicism around to counter the presentation they’re getting [from the Madison Program].”

The role of the chaplain

College, of course, is a time when many students drift away from the church. Rather than condemning or judging students for not attending Mass or other Aquinas activities, Mullelly thinks it is better to maintain a welcoming presence. “Hospitality, I think, is such an important part of ministry. If you’re hospitable, and also you have confidence in God to touch and to lead people, then you can be comfortable with people who maybe aren’t practicing as much as maybe you’d hope they would.”

In addition to Sunday Mass, Aquinas sponsors weekly classes in Catholic doctrine, regular retreats and social events, pilgrimages to Rome and other sites of religious importance or interest, and weekly ecumenical vespers with the school’s Lutheran and Episcopal communities. In Robert George’s opinion, the Aquinas Institute is doing “all the stuff the church should be doing in any community.”

Paul Sigmund, professor emeritus in the politics department, is somewhat less enthusiastic. Sigmund thinks Mullelly has done more to engage students than his recent predecessors, but thinks he could still do more. For example, Sigmund would like to see Aquinas sponsor more public events, like lectures. Speakers are brought in occasionally, but only to present church teaching, not to discuss or debate it. When they do, tensions arise. The Aquinas-sponsored appearance last spring of biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson is an example.

Johnson, a professor of Scripture at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, is perhaps best known as an outspoken critic of the Jesus Seminar, the much-publicized group of biblical scholars who began meeting in 1985 with the purpose of investigating the “historical Jesus.” In his book The Real Jesus, Johnson criticized the group for its “insufficiently theological approach” to questions of religious truth and for its overestimation of what historical research can tell us about Jesus. Johnson is also skeptical about scholars who have popularized the idea that Gnosticism was, and is, an authentic expression of Christian belief. In Commonweal and elsewhere, he has criticized Princeton’s Elaine Pagels for glorifying the supposedly rich, “inclusive” spirituality of the Gnostics while demonizing the early church leaders who defended the creed and the importance of tradition. For these reasons, Johnson is seen as a conservative by many. At the same time, he is criticized by self-styled “orthodox” Catholics for his “progressive” views on sexual morality, women, and the exercise of authority in the church.

Pagels attended Johnson’s talk on “The Da Vinci Code, the Culture Wars, and the New Gnosticism,” using the opportunity to object to Johnson’s treatment of her own work. In doing so, she criticized the church’s refusal to ordain women. Johnson replied that he himself was in favor of women’s ordination. That remark visibly upset some Catholics in the audience. Afterward, according to Johnson, one of the students who helped organize the event told Johnson that he felt betrayed. Mullelly was also uncomfortable with what Johnson said.

“The official organ of the Catholic Church on campus should bring in people who are pretty solidly with the church on issues,” Mullelly explained. “We’re not a theology school, we’re not a religion department, we’re not even a partisan student organization, but rather we are the Catholic Church on campus, and as such our responsibility is to bring in people who can explicate the teachings of the church.”

Certainly, explicating church teaching is one of the chief responsibilities of any chaplain. But that teaching is not static, something Judge John T. Noonan Jr. convincingly demonstrated in A Church that Can and Cannot Change (University of Notre Dame Press) and other books. Cardinal Newman himself wrote that “one source of corruption in religion is the refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past.” In his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and in his insistence on consulting the laity in matters of doctrine, Newman defended the dialogical nature of religious truth. And in his first book, he reminded believers that during the Arian crisis of the fourth century, it was the laity who remained faithful to the church’s orthodox understanding of Christ’s divinity while the majority of bishops fell into apostasy. Similarly, theologians such as Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, once silenced by Rome, saw themselves vindicated at the Second Vatican Council. What a waste if today’s Princeton students are denied access to possible future Congars and de Lubacs. At the very least, Catholic chaplains should make it clear that there is a hierarchy of truths, that some doctrines are more central to Catholicism than others. As Newman wrote, “so difficult is it to assent inwardly to propositions, verified to us neither by reason nor experience, but depending for their reception on the word of the church as God’s oracle, that she has ever shown the utmost care to contract, as far as possible, the range of truths and the sense of propositions, of which she demands this absolute reception.”

Chaplains at some other elite universities have taken a different approach from the Aquinas Institute’s. “We find that students have a tremendous illiteracy of things Catholic,” said Fr. Robert Beloin, the Catholic chaplain at Yale. Students are looking for a “vocabulary for their faith,” he said, and talks given by notable Catholics can help provide them with that vocabulary. With the help of grants from prominent Yale graduates, such as former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, Yale’s Thomas More Center hosts speakers from across the ideological spectrum. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan spiritual writer, and John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, spoke this year. In the past Judge Noonan, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, Peter Steinfels, and Sr. Helen Prejean have come to the center. In 2003, the More Center held a remarkable conference on governance and accountability in the church in the aftermath of the sexual-abuse crisis. Bishop Donald Wuerl and also members of Voice of the Faithful participated.

“There’s a great pluralism, an authentic pluralism within Roman Catholicism,” Beloin said. “We try to offer students a window into that range of theological thinking.”

Promoting a distinctive Catholic intellectual life should be a priority in Beloin’s opinion. “Students are living in a very engaging academic environment,” he said. “They question everything in an academic setting, and they question things when it comes to faith. The task incumbent upon Catholic ministers is to respond to that intellectual inquiry.”

Fr. Patrick LaBelle, OP, chaplain at Stanford University, agrees. He describes his job as providing the “best experience of church” possible. That includes “good music” and “good preaching,” but also “good leadership.” To that end, the Stanford chaplaincy offers classes on Catholic doctrine and spirituality, but also helps students deal with difficult questions regarding controversial issues. Students are routinely questioned about church teaching by friends and roommates, and they need to be able to respond with reasoned arguments, LaBelle said. He wants young Catholics to develop a sense of “ownership” of their faith. Rather than simply repeating what the church teaches, he encourages students to work toward the sort of authentic inward assent to which Newman alluded. He tells them it is irresponsible to “blow off” church teaching. At the same time, an unexamined faith can easily collapse in a time of crisis. “We try to get them to...make conscientious decisions,” LaBelle said “[We don’t] just tell them, ‘Go look at the Catechism,’ or ‘Here’s what the pope said.’ That’s not an effective way to teach.”

Too many chaplains and their bishops seem to be moving away from this sort of engagement. When he was at Columbia, Paul Dinter conducted a ministry aimed in part at students who had “taken a vacation” from the church. “The art of ministry resides in getting [students] to encounter a community of faith in a new light,” Dinter wrote in Commonweal in April 1988. “Show students that there’s more to Catholicism than their stereotypes allow and you’re on your way to helping them develop a very different sense of what it means to be Catholic.” Dinter helped establish the university’s Merton Lecture series, which has featured many distinguished speakers, including Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, biblical scholar Raymond Brown, and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels. He also helped found Columbia’s campus volunteer organization.

Dinter’s ministry, however, met resistance. In the late 1980s, when Cardinal John O’Connor was New York’s archbishop, Dinter was removed from his post. In his memoir, The Other Side of the Altar, Dinter writes that O’Connor’s auxiliary bishop, Edward Egan (now archbishop of New York), told him that “he had a plan for campus ministry, and I didn’t fit in. He wanted a more intellectual tenor, not my socially active brand of campus ministry.” Dinter’s liberal political views were the source of controversy among some Catholics, but to most observers the archdiocese’s actions were even more ideological. The chancery wanted a conservative ministry program at the city’s most prestigious university, and that is what has been put in place. A few years ago, Cardinal Egan installed a group of Polish Dominicans at Columbia. Under their leadership, officially sponsored Catholic speakers are drawn from a narrow conservative roster. This year, for example, the Merton Lecture was delivered by none other than Robert George. Recent speakers also included Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Richard John Neuhaus.

It’s no secret that Catholic conservatives target elite schools. Opus Dei has set its sights on the Ivy League: in addition to its residence at Princeton, the group operates houses near Brown and Harvard. The Web site for Compass, the student group for the Legionnaries of Christ, reports that the organization has student members at Princeton and Cornell. The group tried, but failed, to start a chapter at Yale. For these groups, elite, secular schools present a unique opportunity. On Catholic campuses, conservative groups have to compete with many Catholics of varying views and dispositions. At places like Princeton or Columbia where Catholics are not a majority, conservatives can more easily appropriate the Catholic label.

No doubt some students find the kind of Catholicism exemplified by Opus Dei or George Weigel attractive. At Princeton, Aquinas’s traditional approach to ministry has attracted an impressive group of young Catholics. Ashley Pavlic, a junior, is president of Princeton Prolife. Silvio Pellas, a junior in the Woodrow Wilson School, is considering the priesthood. Michael Kenneally, a graduate of St. Louis Priory School in Missouri, serves as a cantor and teaches classes on Catholic doctrine. These young people are deeply engaged by the church, and the Aquinas Institute serves them well.

Yet the majority of Catholic students for one reason or another don’t attend weekly Mass or other Aquinas events. If only 30 percent of Catholics go to Mass, what happens to the rest? During a formative time in their lives, these future doctors, lawyers, and business men and women have little contact with the church.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta is one such student. A senior majoring in classics, Peralta attends Mass regularly when he is home, but less regularly at Princeton. He candidly admits that he lets church slip by because of “the sheer volume of my commitments but also more often than not out of sloth.”

Peralta’s experience is common on campuses across the country. Current data indicate that most Catholic students choose not to participate in Catholic life. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) has recently conducted a series of studies on college ministry programs. According to one, 73 percent of respondents reported they had never attended a Catholic college and had never taken part in a Catholic activity on campus.

Not surprisingly, CARA studies also indicate that students who do participate are far more likely to be practicing Catholics after college. According to one survey, 82 percent of respondents who took part in chaplaincy programs still attended Mass at least monthly, 52 percent considered becoming a priest or brother, and 68 percent had read a Catholic newspaper, magazine, or book in the past year. In short, drawing students into campus ministry programs is a good idea.

Peralta told me via e-mail that “within the [Princeton] Catholic circle, the pressure is strong to adopt tenets of Republican ideology that most closely correspond to church teaching.” Asked about Aquinas and the activities of Opus Dei, Peralta said he saw them as “fair representations of the letter of the faith, holding as they do to the clearly demarcated substance of church teaching. Whether they represent what I would deem the more ecumenical spirit of the faith remains to be seen.”

Peralta would like to see “a nuanced awareness of what it means to think about the faith and not simply accept its values on face.” Princeton would also benefit by having “speakers who can address areas of contention/dissension within Catholic tradition and practice,” he said. He is eager, for example, to hear how more liberal Catholics might approach what he thinks conservatives too readily condemn as the evils of “secular humanism.”

Peralta is not alone in his wish that the Catholic presence at Princeton was less monochromatic. Yes, chaplains should offer devotions and classes in the Catechism, but they should also try to demonstrate that the Catholic faith is a living tradition, one that faithful thinkers continue to wrestle with and continue to come to different conclusions about. Giving students permission to do the same may be the best way in which to inoculate them against drifting away from the church altogether. As Donald McCrabb told me, “higher education is the place where the culture and the church meet, and [they] can meet in a positive, creative way. The common ground there is the search for truth.” As Cardinal Newman preached, truth is not the possession of any one faction within the church.

Published in the 2006-04-07 issue: 

Maurice Timothy Reidy is a former associate editor of Commonweal.

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