There’s more to this issue than I want to take time for, or that I have the experience to address. dotCommonweal has a second post on Catholic identity, following up from an earlier one, as well as the Cardinal Newman Society here:
In “The Effect of University Characteristics on Student Religiousness: A Meta-Analysis of Catholic Universities,” Father Sullins reports on his meta-analysis of 26 research studies published since 1960 that considered the religiousness of students at Catholic colleges. He finds three common measures in the studies: students’ frequency of church attendance and prayer, and the importance of religion to student respondents. Sullins concludes that only Mass attendance, a distinctly Catholic practice, is an objective and useful indicator of a college’s Catholic identity:
Objective public religious activity such as church attendance is strongly related to institutional differences, such as would be suitable for “benchmarks” of Catholic identity, but subjective private religious activity or feeling like personal prayer or sense of being religious is not. Peer influence and its associated norms have an influence, but these are associated most strongly with higher religiousness in very religious schools. …[R]equired theology or philosophy courses predict most clearly low religiousness in schools that have fewer such required courses.
I witnessed a conversation with Archbishop Charles Chaput earlier this year in which he seemed surprised at the large numbers of non-Catholics going to Catholic universities. In Kansas City, I worked about two blocks from a small Catholic college. Their student body was drawn to study education, business, and physical therapy. It was about 30 to 40% Catholic. Maybe twenty to thirty went to Sunday Mass offered on campus. Some others might have worshiped in the parish, and others possibly went home for the weekends, worshiping in their family parish. Or not. And then we have large percentages of non-Catholics, and I assume we don’t expect them to go to Mass, at least not in large numbers. Until they become Catholic.
So the CNS is searching for Catholic identity in a rational, enlightenment, scientific kind of way. I’m not sure how Catholic that is. But they are looking for it, or at least finding (if not searching) for tools to criticize people they already disagree with.
I’ve seen a lot of this in the homeschool movement among Catholics over the past generation or so. “Really good” Catholic parents demonstrate their orthodoxy by pulling kids from Catholic grade schools and conducting education in the home. What does this mean? If you can’t trust Catholic educators when the kids are mostly clean slates, how can you turn over your old teenager to any old “Catholic” college?
I suspect Catholic identity is something a bit more ineffable. Large numbers of people coming to the chapel for Mass might indicate students have an identity as Sunday worshipers. But Protestants go to church on Sunday, too. Large numbers of students might also sign on for service opportunities, both locally and on academic breaks. But they already do that through secular opportunities.
As an aside, I think that those of us who conduct campus ministry at secular universities have a more ideal situation. Maybe expectations are low. Maybe out of thousands or tens of thousands of students, when a thousand or two show up on Sunday, it looks like we’re doing a good job.
My sense is that the politicization of the Catholic identity discussion, the intent to turn it into a debate where the “faithful” are the winners and the “institutions” are the losers, is already a lost cause. It tends to obscure the real issue, that whether a Catholic young adult is going to college or not, we are losing them in droves. We are losing from about the time of First Communion, and into the following twenty years. And I don’t think we’re getting them back.
The studies all tell us that.