Sex, drugs & Catholic education

It's hard to talk about college life without covering sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

But face it, America's Catholic bishops had other problems in the 1990s. They had to find a way to embrace the pope's "Ex corde Ecclesia (From the Heart of the Church)," a manifesto on Catholic education, while trying not to fan fires of dissent in faculty lounges.

The last thing they wanted to discuss was Friday-night dorm life. So bishops didn't ask and campus leaders didn't tell.

"We know that where most students are losing their faith is not so much in the classroom as in the social atmosphere that dominates their campuses," said Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, a pro-Vatican think tank on education. Curriculum and faculty issues matter, but the "parts of Catholic education that have changed the most have all been related to campus life. ... The culture of students sleeping around and getting drunk is just as big a problem at many Catholic universities as it is at state schools."

There have been some public fights, with headlines about administrators removing crucifixes from classrooms or asking lawyers to finesse questions about campus funds supporting groups that promote anti-Catholic stands on abortion and gay rights.

Other issues loom in the background. Like their secular counterparts, most of America's 235 Catholic colleges and universities now bombard students with information and questions about safe sex, drug abuse, date rape, eating disorders and sexual harassment. These subjects are no longer controversial.

But Catholicism itself is controversial. What would happen if colleges merely taught the church's moral doctrines and asked -- using an honor code -- Catholic students to obey them? What about promoting confession and fasting? Could colleges even try?

That's what the Cardinal Newman Society ( will ask Nov. 10-12, during a conference at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. One session will focus on a "working draft" of principles to guide Catholic campus life. One passage soberly notes: "It is not enough that colleges and universities bearing the name Catholic should cease to serve the culture of death, although merely attaining that goal may prove to be the lifework of Catholic educators of this generation."

An earlier draft even included an "attire" clause opposing "dress that is sexually suggestive or otherwise disrespectful of other students' efforts to live chastely." Another passage said constant "electronically-offered sensory stimulation is a distraction to the mind and, hence, must be subject to regulation."

That kind of language had to go, because it's important to remain realistic, said Reilly. After all, many campus leaders will fight to keep traditionalists from taking any of these "minimalist rules" to Rome.

The document's bottom line: "Catholics abide by rules and standards defined by the Church." Other principles in the 6,000-word draft include:

* "The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine."

* "The university ... should help students identify alternatives to 'partying' " and find "alternatives to contemporary styles of dating and courtship." Co-ed dorms don't help.

* While allowing lively political discussions, schools "should be careful not to diminish known truth by encouraging debate on settled issues (such as the morality of abortion)."

* "In no case should the university health service, or any campus personnel, encourage or facilitate abortion or the use of artificial contraceptives, nor should students be referred to non-campus" facilities that do.

* "For unmarried students, the state of life should be virginity, primary or secondary." While it's hard to enforce such laws, universities should "forbid extramarital sexual activity by students on and off-campus."

Reilly knows that many Catholic educators will "accuse us wanting to go back to a 'nanny culture.' " Many were "furious that the Vatican thought it had the right to define what a Catholic college is, or is not, in the first place. Now they're going to say we want the bishops to police what goes on in dorm rooms as well as classrooms," he said.

"All we are saying is that our colleges and universities should help students live Catholic lives, or at least stop attacking students that try to do so."