Catholic Identity

What we have found out about conversations related to Catholic identity:

As our analysis of conversations about sexual orientation and abortion makes clear, the Catholic identity of CSB/SJU has everything to do with the way we engage in conversations on controversial topics. With the solid majority of students identifying as Catholic and with a significant number of Benedictines still serving on our faculty (and many more living on campus!), Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s are profoundly Catholic places. Yet members of our community are hardly of one mind about Catholicism. We are certainly not as polarized in our attitudes about the Church as we are about sexual orientation and abortion, but we are deeply ambivalent.

This ambivalence showed up in the responses to virtually every question on the initial campus-wide survey that had to do with Catholicism. Nearly half of respondents said that it was neither positive nor negative for “participants to respect official Catholic teaching” in controversial conversations. Most students were unwilling to say that our Catholic identity makes it easier to have good conversations or that Catholic teachings should have a privileged place on campus, but they were equally unwilling to say that Catholicism is discussed too much at CSB/SJU (see Table 53, Ambivalence about Catholicism).

On our Catholic identity survey, we asked a variety of questions about our curriculum, campus worship, and institutional policies. The ambivalence comes through in these responses, though for the most part students endorsed our current campus practices. Students strongly agreed that Catholic colleges should provide worship opportunities not only for Catholics, but for people of other faiths, and our campus ministry offices have made a number of efforts to foster ecumenical worship. Students overwhelmingly agreed that Catholic colleges should offer courses on Catholic theology, other Christian traditions, and world religions but were deeply divided over whether such courses should be required. (In fact, we do require two theology courses, covering Catholicism, other Christian traditions, and in some cases world religions.) They were also divided about the place of Catholic teachings in courses outside the theology department, and our faculty has similarly been unable to reach consensus on this matter. Students strongly agreed that Catholic colleges should present official teachings on morality, the dignity of life, and social justice, as well as criticisms of those teachings. But the point on which there was greatest consensus was that “a Catholic college should ensure that its students are aware of the diversity of Catholic opinion on important subjects.” (Perhaps this is because liberal students wanted to ensure that dissenting voices would be included, while more traditionalist students felt that official voices are currently neglected!) Students agreed that institutional policies should reflect both Catholic teachings and principles of social justice, but there was far more consensus on the latter point. Finally, most felt it was not necessary for a majority of the faculty to be Catholic, but they were divided again about whether faculty should be required to support the Catholic identity of the institution—something that is ordinarily identified as a job requirement in hiring advertisements (see Tables 54, 55, and 56).

There are at least two distinct sources for our ambivalence about Catholicism. The first is the two-fold character of our mission and, we suspect, of many church-related colleges. Many observers assume that church-related colleges were founded as bulwarks against secularism: if students attend Saint John’s or Saint Ben’s instead of the University of Minnesota, this theory goes, their faith will be reinforced and they will grow into adults capable of passing the faith on to the next generation. For those who understand church-related colleges in this way, Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s would appear to be classic examples of secularization. We do not take religious affiliation into account in hiring faculty, have a faculty that is mostly non-Catholic (as far as anyone can tell), and have a student body that appears to slide away from Catholic observance over the course of their four years here.

This account, we would suggest, tells only half the story. If church-related colleges were founded as bulwarks against secularism, they were also founded as gateways out of parochialism. From this perspective, the other mission of Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s was to help the children of Catholic immigrants move from the farm into the professions, gain the tools they would need to engage in the larger society, develop an appreciation for American values, and learn to think critically and constructively about their faith. It was this more cosmopolitan understanding of their mission that led early twentieth-century faculty at both schools to anticipate the great opening of Vatican II, and this heritage is still well remembered and honored on campus. Indeed, when our students express doubts or ambivalence about certain aspects of Catholic teaching, many of our most Catholic professors and administrators see this as evidence not of a slide away from the Church, but of our ongoing success in providing the Church with self-critical leaders.

So long as Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s continue to struggle against both secularism and parochialism, we are likely to experience continued ambivalence. At any given moment, some members of our community will believe that we are neglecting one struggle or overemphasizing the other. Depending on how they are handled, these disagreements can be the source of fruitful conversations or of bitter divisions.

The tension between these two views of our mission does not, however, fully explain our current ambivalence or its frequently bitter character. The other source is more recent, having to do with the particular way in which the official Catholic Church has engaged in public controversies, particularly those about gender and sexuality, in the past few decades. To make sense of this, it may be helpful to distinguish three clusters of issues on which the Catholic hierarchy has staked out public positions in recent years. On all of these issues, official Catholic teaching is rooted not only in scriptural revelation but also in principles of natural law that are, in theory, accessible to all people of good will regardless of religious affiliation. The bishops have thus generally been willing to advocate for their positions in the public and political arena. While it would be virtually unthinkable for any Catholic (at least in the United States) to ask the legislature to mandate mass attendance or observance of the Lenten fast, the Church has not hesitated to speak out, and even to endorse specific legislative proposals, when issues of natural law are at stake.

The first cluster of issues has to do with the relationship between men and women. Recent popes have become increasingly clear that, while men and women are equal in human dignity, their natures are sufficiently distinct to justify some distinction of roles. This sexual complementarity is most evident, of course, in the different procreative roles of men and women. On this basis, the bishops have taught that civil marriage (and not only the sacrament of marriage) should be defined as a complementary relationship between one man and one woman. A similar logic informs the church teaching that restricts ordination to men, though that teaching is also rooted in ecclesial tradition. Interestingly, the Church’s teaching on sexual complementarity is rarely featured in presentations of “Catholic social teaching,” even though it plays a significant role in the Church’s legislative interventions.

The second cluster of issues concerns what is usually referred to as the “dignity of human life,” sometimes with the clarifying phrase “from conception to natural death.” Because all humans are created in God’s image, the Church teaches, the intentional taking of human life can never be justified. This principle, which heads most lists of Catholic social teachings, informs the Church’s strident opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty, practices that have led many Church leaders to characterize modernity as a “culture of death.” It is also the basis on which the bishops have, in recent years, adapted the traditional just war teaching to place increased emphasis on the presumption against violence, as well as acknowledging the legitimacy of pacifism as a valid Catholic position.

A final cluster of issues has to do with the “common good,” or the idea that all people have a responsibility to attend to the well-being of the whole human family. Arguably, this principle is even more central to Catholic social teaching than the “dignity of human life.” It can be traced to the teachings of the prophets and to Jesus’ ethic of neighbor love, though it was given more systematic expression in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. In the late nineteenth century it achieved prominence as the basis of the Church’s critique of both capitalism and socialism. As developed in social encyclicals from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus, the doctrine of the common good meant that individual rights must always be qualified by social responsibilities. More concretely, this position inspired bishops to fight for a “living wage” for all workers, for the right to form labor unions, for generous social welfare programs, for hospitality to immigrants, for fair trade policies, and (more recently) for care for the natural environment.

On the Catholic identity survey, we asked students how much they knew about Catholic teaching on a variety of issues, and the extent to which they took Catholic teaching into account in forming their views on those issues. The results suggest that our students relate to the three clusters of issues in dramatically different ways. Students are very much aware of Church teaching on gender and sexuality, but the majority find this teaching virtually incomprehensible. Most refuse, to use traditional theological language, to “let their consciences be formed” by what the Church has to say on these matters. While 81% of students say they know what the Church teaches about sexual orientation, only 67% say they can explain why the Church teaches what it teaches—yet 85% say they know why thoughtful people might disagree. (Somewhat disturbingly, students were consistently more willing to say they could explain why people might disagree than the Church’s own reasons.) Students were less confident about Church teaching on men’s and women’s roles—only 53% said they knew what was taught, 42% said they knew why it was taught, and 59% said they knew why some people might disagree. The real commonality between these two issues, though, is our students’ emphatic refusal to take Church teaching into account in forming their own views. Only 24%--fewer than for any other item—said they did this for men’s and women’s roles, while 46% said they did not. Only 35% said they took Church teaching on sexual orientation into account, while 47% said they did not do so. The gap of 46 percentage points between students who said they knew Catholic teaching on sexual orientation and those who said they took it into account was far greater than for any other item on this part of the survey. Of course, some students don’t take Catholic teaching into account because they are not Catholic. But even among Catholic students, fewer than half take Church teaching on sexual orientation into account and only a third do so for men’s and women’s roles (see Tables 57, 58, 59, and 60).

The reason students find Church teaching on these issues so incomprehensible, most likely, is that it directly contradicts the cherished American tradition of equal rights. From this perspective, it is outrageous to treat men and women differently, whether the context is the home, the workplace, or the Church, and equally outrageous to treat GLBT people differently from straights in the Church or marriage chapel. This sense of outrage, moreover, is readily comprehensible even to the minority of our students who support the Church’s teaching on sexual orientation. Most of these students, after all, readily say that they can explain why some people might disagree with Church teaching. Moreover, when it comes to aspects of gender roles on which the Church has not taken a strong stance—including childrearing responsibilities and participation in the workforce—students across the ideological spectrum embrace egalitarian positions. 94% say that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work, and 92% say that they should participate equally in caring for children (see Table 45). It would appear, therefore, that many students who support Church teaching on gay marriage and women’s ordination do so out of respect for the authority of the Church, not because they are deeply convinced by the Church’s reasons. When these topics are discussed on campus, these students experience conflict not only with their peers but also within their own psyches.

Our students’ experience of the second cluster of issues—those dealing with the dignity of life—is quite different. The Church’s position on abortion is even better known than its position on sexual orientation, and two-thirds majorities said they also knew what the church had to say about end of life issues and war and peace. But on these topics, the Church’s position is much more readily comprehensible. Most likely because the Church’s position on the dignity of human life fits readily with the American tradition that all people are “endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights,” our students both understand the Church’s teaching and take it into account, even if they do not fully agree with it. Solid majorities of students said they knew why the Church teaches what it teaches on all three issues. Though greater numbers said they knew why people might disagree, the differences were far less significant—4 percentage points for abortion, 1.5 for end of life issues, 8 for war and peace. Students, moreover, were more likely to say they took Church teaching into account on these three issues than on any of the others: 58% said they did so for abortion, 54% for war and peace, and 49% for end of life issues. It is especially noteworthy that 33% of liberals, and 69% of Catholic liberals who say their religion is important to them, report that they take Church teaching on abortion into account. Since most of our liberal students are pro-choice, it seems likely that we have a significant pool of pro-choice students who nevertheless have a basic respect for the Church’s pro-life position.

These findings reinforce our earlier suggestion that CSB/SJU professors should be more willing to address the topic of abortion in the classroom. The professors in our campus laboratories worked valiantly during the past year to help our students grapple seriously with Church teaching on sexual orientation. But they were fighting an uphill battle, because that teaching is so foreign to many students’ core values. It seems likely that, professorial good intentions notwithstanding, many students left those courses with anti-Catholic prejudices reinforced. A serious engagement with Church documents related to abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, or just war would be much more likely to impart a sense of Catholicism as a tradition worth getting to know.

Indeed, it would appear that our students’ preoccupation with Church teaching on the gender and sexuality issues has had a troubling and even bizarre impact on how they hear what the Church has to say on a third cluster of issues, those having to do with the common good. Students are much less familiar with what the Church teaches about economics, the environment, or other religions than they are about either sex and gender issues or dignity of life issues. 47% say they know what the Church teaches on the environment, 38% say they know what it teaches on non-Christian religions, and 32% say they are familiar with Church teaching on economics. This is despite the fact that we regularly offer courses on all three topics, but not on abortion or end of life issues!

Even more troubling, our students’ lack of familiarity is coupled with considerable hostility to what the Church might have to say about these matters. 45% say they know why people might disagree with Church teaching on other religions, and 40% say they know why people might disagree with Church teaching on the economy. Likewise, only about a third say they take Church teaching on these matters into account, though it is not immediately clear whether that is merely because they lack the knowledge needed to do so.

The bizarre, though not entirely surprising, aspect of this is that even on issues where official Catholic teaching would ordinarily be considered “liberal,” conservatives are far more likely than liberals to say that they take Church teaching into account. Two thirds of conservatives and just one third of liberals say they take Church teaching on war and peace into account, while on economics and the environment half of conservatives and only a quarter of liberals honor Church teaching. The gaps are significantly larger for abortion and sexual orientation, of course, but on every single issue the gap is statistically significant. In many cases, conservatives and liberals are more divided about whether to take Church teaching into account than they are about the substance of the issues. In part this is because liberals are less likely than conservatives to be Catholic or to be serious about their faith. But even when we looked only at Catholics who are serious about their faith, we found conservatives more inclined to take Church teaching into account on the full range of issues (see Tables 61 and 62).

Obviously, these statistics could be interpreted in a variety of ways. But the most likely explanation is that the Church’s teaching on such issues as gay marriage and women’s ordination is so troubling to our most liberal students that it poisons their attitudes about virtually everything the Church might have to say. This is truly unfortunate, because Catholic social teaching—and particularly Catholic teaching about the common good—should be the place where our most liberal students and our most traditionally Catholic students find common ground. Traditional Catholic students are predisposed to respect the teaching of the bishops on issues such as economics and the environment, while liberal students—without realizing it—already agree with the substance of what the bishops have to say about these matters. Coming together around these issues might make it easier for these two groups of students to engage in the more difficult conversations about sexuality and church authority.

Ironically, a broad campus consensus already surrounds many of the Church teachings that are least recognized as such on campus. Catholic bishops and ethicists, for example, were the first to introduce the idea of a “living wage” into the American political conversation, arguing in the 1920s that every worker should receive sufficient wages to support a family. Today, 80% of CSB/SJU students, including more than two-thirds of self-identified conservatives, agree with this proposition. 70% percent of all students, and 64% of conservatives, are even willing to say that “the government should guarantee the basic necessities of life to all Americans.” In part, this is because principles of economic justice (and of racial and environmental justice) are even more widely shared by the faculty, who cultivate these values in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. But apparently we do far too little to highlight the Catholic connection: fewer than a third of students say that they have been introduced to Catholic teaching on the environment or the economy during their time at CSB/SJU (see Table 63).

We thus have a major educational opportunity in the form of Catholic social teaching, particularly the teaching about the common good. It is not clear that we need to spend more time presenting the content of this teaching, but we need to be much clearer about its relationship to Catholicism. The time has long passed when we can simply assume that our students know that Catholicism is the historic faith of the American working class, of the labor union movement, and of many of the shapers of the New Deal. The themes of Catholic social teaching should be presented extensively not only in specialized electives, but in Core classes and major campus events. The idea of the common good should be part of the shared vocabulary that students bring to their studies.

We would caution only that conversations about the common good be structured in such a way as to ensure that the handful of politically conservative students who are not Catholic are not entirely marginalized. Some of these students are still reeling from last fall’s Heritage Day event, at which evangelical activist Jim Wallis spoke at length about Catholic social teaching, all the while espousing what these students rightly took to be far-left positions on economic issues. One way to ensure the full inclusion of these students would be to structure conversations on the common good to include not only bishops’ documents but also the more economically conservative interpretations of Catholic social teaching espoused by Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and George Weigel.