Catholic education (wink, wink)

Elizabeth Fiore didn't expect Georgetown University's freshman orientation program to include a condom demonstration.

When the mandatory safe-sex session was over, the student leaders apologized because policies on the Catholic campus prevented them from handing out condoms to needy newcomers. But - wink, wink - they could leave a few on a nearby table.

What was shocking was not the candid talk, but the assumption that students had already rejected Catholic teachings, said Fiore, at a conference backing efforts to give church authorities more clout on America's 235 Catholic college campuses.

"It is this attitude - the attitude which subscribes to society's shameless values system and superimposes it on young people at a Catholic university - that is just as harmful as the values, or the lack thereof, which it endorses," said Fiore, who is now a graduate student in theology at the Catholic University of America. "In addressing us as though we were sexually active, they have made a decision for us - they have presented an image to which we are, in some way, challenged to conform."

The question, she said, is not whether institutions such as Georgetown will listen to the views of non-Catholics and try to meet their educational needs. The question is whether Catholic educators will be just as sensitive to the concerns of Catholics who support church teachings.

For example, Fiore said she was glad the cafeteria served matzo bread during Passover and gave Muslims special take-home containers so they could eat at appropriate times during Ramadan. But she found it strange that the cafeteria served three meat dishes on Good Friday in Holy Week, forcing students who wanted to observe the Catholic fast to resort to peanut butter and jelly. The priests got fish.

The Jesuit campus has become a May pole for Catholic controversies - from the on-again, off-again decision to remove classroom crucifixes, to a campus lecture by Hustler's Larry Flynt, to a student's shame when Women's Center workers ridiculed her request for information on how to enter a religious order.

Many speakers at last weekend's Cardinal Newman Society conference focused on Pope John Paul II's "Ex corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)," a philosophical map for Catholic education. During their Nov. 15-18 meetings in Washington, D.C., America's Catholic bishops will make a second attempt to implement the pope's views, amid ongoing protests by academics.

At some point, said a concerned outsider, Catholic leaders will have to answer two questions: Will church doctrines impact decisions about who they will, and will not, hire as professors? And, will they set limitations on the moral conduct of students, staff and faculty?

Either Catholics share some enforceable moral laws, or they do not, said Richard Williams, an administrator at Brigham Young University.

"Half-way measures will be worse than no attempt at all," he told the conference. An honor code or set of moral guidelines cannot merely contain "positions of personal preference, but rather the stuff that sins are made of, and you must not be willing to compromise for other more traditionally academic reasons. Be aware that in the climate of the current culture, any attempts to establish standards will be met with skepticism, if not derision."

But the last thing administrators can afford to be is vague, in an age when accreditation committees and lawyers split every hair in academic life, he said. Brigham Young has been able to enforce its faith's moral codes, and insist that Mormon and non-Mormon employees at least respect church teachings, because its policies are clearly communicated to each and ever person before they are hired, when they sign a contract and throughout their years on campus.

Catholic educators may be shocked at how many students will want to attend this brand of school and how many scholars will seek to teach and do research there, he said. Plus, building morally conservative schools will only add to the diversity of American higher education.

"There is a spiritual hunger abroad in the land that you can help to satisfy," said Williams. "Have faith that you will achieve the highest levels of academic excellence not in spite of your religious mission, but precisely because of it."