Student groups test Catholic identity on campuses

Catholic universities and colleges have two aims that are sometimes in tension. 

One goal is to be an institution where orthodox Catholicism is vitally present and the animating force behind campus life and activities. 

The other aim is to foster a community of scholars searching for truth and probing difficult issues in light of the Catholic intellectual tradition. 

“You’re trying at one end to listen closely to what young adults are saying today and the community of scholars engaged in dialogue and searching for truth, and simultaneously being a place where Catholicism is vitally and actively present,” said Dr. Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). 

He told Our Sunday Visitor that Catholic universities and colleges strive to evaluate student activities and campus clubs in light of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“The Heart of the Church”), Blessed Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution that describes the identity and mission of Catholic colleges and universities. 

The schools also rely on the document “Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities,” which says good practices must be based on civil law, Scripture, ethics, Church teachings and Christian tradition. 

“The universities put together policies that they feel best represents Ex Corde Ecclesiae in a (United States) setting,” Galligan-Stierle said.

Violating values, tradition

Oftentimes, student groups and activities arise that challenge the universities and colleges to maintain their Catholic identity, such as when students want to organize birth control clinics or distribute condoms. 

Boston College recently dealt with that kind of situation when students were operating a network of dorm rooms and other locations — called “safe sites” — where free contraceptives and safe-sex information were being distributed. 

On March 15, Boston College officials sent a letter to those students informing them that the condom distribution violated their “responsibility to protect the values and traditions of Boston College as a Jesuit, Catholic ­institution.” 

“While we understand that you may not be intentionally violating university policy, we do need to advise you that should we receive any reports that you are, in fact, distributing condoms on campus, the matter would be referred to the student conduct office for disciplinary action by the university,” wrote Paul J. Chebator, dean of students, and George Arey, director of residence life. 

The response prompted threats of lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union, but other Catholic universities — including Providence College, Georgetown University and Fordham University — expressed support for BC by noting they would not allow condom distribution on campus.

Upholding commitments

Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn told OSV that “there are certain Catholic commitments that Boston College, and all Catholic colleges and universities, are called to uphold.” 

“We ask those who choose to attend our university to be respectful of these commitments and the values upon which they are based,” said Dunn, who noted that all BC students who live in university residence halls agree to abide by the university’s code of conduct. 

“This particular group of students has violated that code by distributing condoms from dorm rooms,” Dunn said. “As a result, after repeated verbal warnings were ignored, the dean of students and the director of residential life issued a letter advising them to cease in their actions. 

“Our hope moving forward is that in meeting with BC administrators in the coming days, this group of students can gain a better understanding of our position and why it is important to us as a Catholic institution,” Dunn said. 

Fordham University faced a somewhat similar situation in 2011 when the university’s chapter of Law Students for Reproductive Justice organized a well-publicized off-campus contraceptive clinic, where at least 40 students were prescribed birth control and others made appointments for intrauterine devices. The group also criticized the school for not telling students that birth control is not available at campus clinics, to which Fordham released a statement affirming that it “follows Church teachings on reproductive issues.” 

“We’re sure that our students are well aware of Fordham’s Jesuit, Catholic identity: It is central to our mission and is featured prominently on our website and in our publications,” the university said.

Addressing sexuality

Recently, Catholic universities also have been thinking through how to respond to the reality that homosexual and transgendered students attend their institutions in a manner that affirms the students’ human dignity and that remains faithful to the Church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage. 

The University of Notre Dame, Fordham, Gonzaga University and Georgetown University are among those institutions that have allowed student clubs — similar to gay-straight alliances — to operate on their campuses with the goal of reaching out to students who identify as gay, lesbian and transgendered, as well as those questioning their sexuality. 

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, said gay-straight alliance groups “rarely provide healthy support for students struggling with same-sex attraction,” arguing they tend to be political and social, and encourage romantic relationships. Often, he said, members are united in opposition to Catholic teaching. 

“Catholic colleges can best address sexuality in the context of Church teachings on chastity, with an emphasis on avoiding near occasion of sin,” he said. “The needs of students can and should be addressed through normal channels, including campus ministry, counseling, health services (and) policies protecting students from harassment, rather than forming groups and activities that are centered on homosexuality.” 

However, university officials point out that Church teachings call on Catholics to respect and love homosexuals, and that the university has an obligation to support and educate them. In December, Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, accepted recommendations from his university’s Office of Student Affairs to expand support and services for GLBTQ students, including the creation of a university-recognized student organization. 

Father Jenkins said in prepared remarks that the plan followed a months-long process of studying Catholic doctrine and teaching, listening sessions with students and examining student clubs’ structures at other Catholic universities. Notre Dame said the program’s objectives were consonant with Church teachings, and noted that all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, are called to chastity. 

Alex Coccia, a Notre Dame junior who recently was elected student body president, participated in the process to create new support programs for GLBTQ students. Coccia, 21, told OSV that many of those students did not feel welcome on campus and feared they would be judged if they talked about their sexual orientation. 

“I think Father Jenkins said it well when the pastoral plan was released,” Coccia said. “His explanation made it pretty clear how this falls in line with Church teaching and that in fact this enhances our identity as a Catholic university.” 

Spokesman Dennis Brown also told OSV that Notre Dame takes its Catholic identity seriously by offering 40 to 45 retreats a year, requiring students to take two courses in both theology and philosophy, having crucifixes in every classroom, and arranging for Mass to be celebrated 80 times each week on campus. 

Living in the broader culture is just as challenging on campus as it is in society, said Galligan-Stierle, who added that Catholic universities and colleges strive to show students the reality that they will live a cohesive authentic and happy life if they live within a Catholic worldview. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.