higher education

Some serious shopping tips for Catholic parents (and others) seeking traditional schools

Some serious shopping tips for Catholic parents (and others) seeking traditional schools

Buried inside the websites of colleges and universities are the calendars covering the nitty-gritty details of academic and student life.

That's a great place for research by parents considering places for their children to spend some of the most formative years of their lives, according to a Catholic scholar involved in fierce debates about postmodern trends in education.

Anthony Esolen thinks parents should pay special attention to student-life offerings on Friday and Saturday nights.

"You aren't just looking to see what kinds of things they're doing, you're looking for what is missing," said Esolen, best known for his translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy." He has also written "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization," "Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child" and other books on hot-button subjects.

For example, Esolen once noticed that calendars at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., contained lots of dancing -- swing dancing, to be precise. That sounded fun, but it didn't sound like business as usual in this day and age.

"What you're trying to find out," he explained, "is whether campus leaders are making serious attempts to build some wholesome community life. You're looking for chances for young men and women to get together in settings that tend to reinforce what a Catholic college is all about. … Otherwise, the weekend is just the weekend and we know what that means."

This topic may not sound controversial, said Esolen, but it is because of cultural issues looming in the background -- the defense of ancient doctrines on sexuality, gender and marriage. What happens in classrooms is important, but so are the expectations campus leaders establish for campus life, especially in their dormitories.

"Like it or not, parents have to learn whether a school is or is not on board with the whole Sexual Revolution," he said. If a school "has capitulated on that front" then traditional Catholic parents, or serious religious believers in other flocks, "have to run away and not look back. You can't compromise on that, right now."

The irony is that these kinds of doctrinal issues are critically important to both liberal and conservative Catholics. The bottom line: They are seeking different answers to the same questions.

Secular unions vs. Holy Matrimony, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two columns on current debates about Holy Matrimony and civil unions.

Gay-rights advocates know the formula and so do their opponents: If gay marriage becomes a civil right, then religious believers who dare to defend ancient doctrines on marriage will become de facto segregationists and suffer the legal consequences.

The problem for the left is that this happens to be true.

"Before we shrug and reply, 'So what if it's religious? It's still bigotry, it's still intolerable,' we need to remember that religious liberty is America’s founding principle. It is embedded in the country’s DNA, not to mention in the First Amendment," argued gay commentator Jonathon Rauch, writing in The Advocate.

"If we pick a fight with it or, worse, let ourselves be maneuvered into a fight with it, our task will become vastly harder. ... Even if you don't happen to believe, as I do, that religious liberty is, like gay equality, a basic human right, the pragmatic case for religious accommodations is clear: Being seen as a threat to religious freedom is not in our interest."

This is the state of things, as the U.S. Supreme Court ponders whether the time is right to address this hot-button topic. Meanwhile, gay-rights groups recently won several ballot-box victories in liberal zip codes.

Some conservatives have proposed radical strategies in response, such as scholar George Weigel's suggestion that it may be time for the Catholic church to "preemptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law."

That would be a powerful symbolic gesture, but "taking that action would do nothing to resolve the religious-liberty issues that are causing conflicts here in America, or will cause additional conflicts in the future," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. Even if traditional religious leaders attempt to legally separate Holy Matrimony from secular marriage, it is still the government's definition of marriage that will decide a variety of issues outside sanctuary doors, especially in public life.

"The other question, " he said, "is whether those on the cultural left will be willing, at this point, to settle for civil unions. ... We will need people on both sides to work together if there are going to be meaningful compromises."

One divisive issue in these gay-marriage debates overlaps with current fights over White House mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called "morning-after pills." These Health and Human Services requirements recognize the conscience rights of employers only if they are nonprofits that have the "inculcation of religious values" as their primary purpose, primarily employ "persons who share ... religious tenets" and primarily serve those "who share ... religious tenets."

Critics insist this protects mere "freedom of worship," not the First Amendment's wider "free exercise of religion."

Here is the parallel: In gay-marriage debates, almost everyone concedes that clergy must not be required to perform same-sex rites that violate their consciences.

The question is whether legislatures and courts will extend protection to religious hospitals, homeless shelters, summer camps, day-care centers, counseling facilities, adoption agencies and similar public ministries. What about religious colleges that rent married-student apartments or seek accreditation for their degrees in education, counseling or social work? What about the religious-liberty rights of individuals who work as florists, wedding photographers, wedding-cake bakers, counselors who do pre- or post-marital counseling and other similar forms of business?

These are only some of the thorny issues that worry many activists on both sides of the gay-rights divide. Law professor Douglas Laycock, then of the University of Michigan, provided this summary in a letter to the governor of New Hampshire.

"I support same-sex marriage," he stressed. Nevertheless, the "net effect for human liberty will be no better than a wash if same-sex couples now oppress religious dissenters in the same way that those dissenters, when they had the power to do so, treated same-sex couples in ways that those couples found oppressive.

"Nor is it in the interest of the gay and lesbian community to create religious martyrs in the enforcement of this bill. ... Every such case will be in the news repeatedly, and every such story will further inflame the opponents of same-sex marriage. Refusing exemptions to such religious dissenters will politically empower the most demagogic opponents of same-sex marriage. It will ensure that the issue remains alive, bitter, and deeply divisive."

Future nuns, priests face big questions

Once a month, female students pack the cozy chapel at the Holy Spirit Friary that overlooks the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

These gatherings are confidential, with no one discussing who is or who isn't among the 50 to 60 gathered in the pews. Students come to listen and to pray as they seek discernment about whether to pursue religious vocations -- as nuns.

"They keep this private for an interesting reason," said Father Seraphim Beshoner, a history professor. "If word gets out that someone is trying to discern if she has a vocation, then our guys are afraid to date her. I mean, how can you compete with Christ and his church?"

Meanwhile, the campus offers a similar program for young men considering the priesthood. In its 25 years of existence, this Priestly Formation Program has produced about 400 priests for various orders and dioceses and, at the moment, another 40 or more students are taking part.

Many of America's 244 Catholic colleges and universities offer similar programs, of course, in part because of rising concerns about the thinning and graying ranks of priests, brothers, sisters and nuns. The number of priests in America has declined from 59,000 in the 1960s to 40,600 last year. There has been an even sharper decline in the number of sisters and nuns, from 180,000 in the '60s to approximately 59,000 today -- with 90 percent of them 60 years old or older.

One factor that shapes Franciscan University life is the presence of three male and four female religious orders that maintain houses near the campus and its 2,040 undergraduates, noted Father Richard Davis, leader of the campus friary and former regional vocations director for the Third Order Regular Franciscans. Many other orders regularly send younger members to visit the campus or study there.

"Our students are very sensitive to this," said Davis. "New styles of habits and robes keep appearing here all the time. The students see that and it makes them curious. ... This campus produces a large number of priests, but I believe even more of our young women become sisters and nuns."

While the atmosphere is highly charged -- Franciscan is known for its standing-room-only Masses, even on weekdays -- students face the same tough questions that shape the decisions of young Catholics elsewhere, said the friar. Based on his experiences over four decades, these include:

* How to respond if family members say they will -- in one memorable phrase -- be "wasting their lives." In an era of increasingly smaller Catholic families, many parents worry about "losing" a child and future grandchildren. In February, the U.S. Catholic bishops released a survey noting that 51 percent of women who recently took final vows said their parents or other family members actively opposed this choice.

* After decades of sexual scandals and abuse, Davis said some students literally ask: "Will I be safe? ... If I visit a monastery or a convent, will someone hit on me?"

* Students often want to know which orders are "faithful to the Magisterium" -- meaning the Vatican and core Catholic doctrines -- and which are not. The majority of students today, he said, are seeking orders that emphasize a life of prayer and service to the poor, in America and abroad.

* Many students bluntly ask: "Do I have what it takes?" This question may center on celibacy, poverty, a rigorous prayer life or some other personal issue. The key, said Davis, is that "you don't take religious vows to run away from marriage and family, or from hard questions about your own weaknesses or talents. You have to face these issues."

* Another question -- "Will I be alone?" -- is especially poignant in an age of fading religious orders. Some students in this highly social generation fear that choosing the religious life will mean a shortage of friends and companions.

"They don't want to join a community in which the life they will live looks pretty much like the life they would have lived if they had never joined a religious community in the first place," said Father Seraphim, dressed in his plain black Franciscan habit.

"However, they also want to join a community that has other young people in it. They don't want to be the ones left to turn out the lights someday when their order dies."

A Catholic education flashback

The young pope was friendly, but blunt, as he faced the 240 college leaders from across the nation who gathered at Catholic University to hear his thoughts on faith and academic freedom.

"Every university or college is qualified by a specific mode of being," said Pope John Paul II, who was only 57 on that day in 1979. "Yours is the qualification of being Catholic, of affirming God, his revelation and the Catholic Church as the guardian and interpreter of that revelation. The term 'Catholic' will never be a mere label, either added or dropped according to the pressures of varying factors."

It is especially crucial, he said, for theologians to realize that they do not teach in isolation, but are part of a body stretching from the local pews to the Vatican. Working with their bishops, theologians are charged with preserving the "unity of the faith," said John Paul, sending a shock wave through many Catholic schools that lingers to this day.

"True theological scholarship, and by the same token theological training, cannot exist and be fruitful without seeking its inspiration and its source in the word of God as contained in Sacred Scripture and in the Sacred Tradition of the Church, as interpreted by the authentic Magisterium throughout history," said John Paul.

While embracing "true academic freedom," he stressed that the work of truly Catholic theologians must take into "account the proper function of the bishops and the rights of the faithful. ? It behooves the theologian to be free, but with the freedom that is openness to the truth and the light comes from faith and from fidelity to the Church."

It was a word of encouragement and warning. A few years later, the Vatican revoked Father Charles E. Curran's authorization to teach theology at Catholic University, after public debates about his views on birth control, abortion and homosexuality. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith noted that this censure was the result of his "repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches."

That public letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a theology professor from Germany who, nearly two decades later, would become Pope Benedict XVI. And now, Benedict has called the leaders of more than 200 Catholic institutions of higher learning back to the Catholic University of America to hear another address about the state of Catholic education.

The pope will almost certainly use this forum next month in Washington, D.C., to discuss the further implementation of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church)," John Paul II's urgent 1990 call for reform in Catholic colleges and universities. It took the U.S. bishops nine years -- amid fierce protests by many academics -- to approve any guidelines seeking to enforce this Vatican document.

"To understand what all of this means, you have to look at the whole sequence of what has happened in the past few decades," said Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, a pro-Vatican think tank on education. When John Paul II made his 1979 visit, "Catholic University was known as a center of dissent. Now, we see Pope Benedict coming to a campus that -- from the viewpoint of Rome and the bishops -- has completely turned around. Catholic University will greet him with open arms."

Meanwhile, many Catholic campuses keep making headlines.

There was, for example, that University of Notre Dame performance of "The Vagina Monologues" and the teen pregnancy conference at the College of the Holy Cross featuring speakers from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League. On some campuses it's easier to find free condoms these days than it is to obtain guidance on how to become a nun or a priest.

During a recent meeting of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome, Pope Benedict included five clear references to current and future educational reforms in his speech -- making it clear these issues are on his mind.

"Today, the ecclesiastical disciplines, especially theology, are subjected to new questions in a world tempted on the one hand by rationalism which follows a falsely free rationality disconnected from any religious reference, and on the other, by fundamentalisms that falsify the true essence of religion with their incitement to violence and fanaticism," he said. "Schools should also question themselves on the role they must fulfill in the contemporary social context, marked by an evident educational crisis."