How Values Affect a Controversial Conversation at CSB and SJU

The cluster of conversational behaviors that we have identified as “values” poses some particular puzzles. When asked whether “respecting official Catholic teaching” is a positive or negative behavior in dialogue, CSB/SJU students expressed a level of ambivalence comparable to that found for such “competitive” behaviors as trying to win. Roughly equal numbers rated this behavior positive and negative, with the largest group assigning it a neutral rating of 3. The real and personal scores for this item were virtually identical with the ideal score, suggesting that students who value Catholic teaching bring it into their conversations and those who don’t value it do not do so. Students were significantly more positive about “participants sharing perspectives rooted in their faith tradition,” and still more positive about “emphasizing moral principles” and “gaining a deeper understanding of objective truth.” Yet there was a very close correlation between all four of these questions, as well as between these and such items as “holding fast to their beliefs,” “clarifying their personal values,” “expressing strong feelings,” and even “sharing personal experiences” (see Table 15, Components of Dialogue and Conversational Behaviors).

These findings suggest is that our students are appreciative of the positive role that religious and moral traditions can play in controversial conversations, wary of some of the specific teachings of the official Catholic Church, and largely unfamiliar with other religious and moral traditions. They also, apparently, take their faith more “personally” than the other ideas they bring to conversation. These results, which might be quite different on another campus, probably reflect both the predominance of Catholicism on our campuses and that fact that most of our non-Catholic students are either sympathetic to Catholicism (many are the product of Catholic-Lutheran marriages) or relatively indifferent to religion. There is simply no alternate system of religiosity or even of morality that carries anything close to the weight of Catholicism on our campuses. (More precisely, there is no alternative system of morality that students would designate as “morality.” As we will argue below, the American liberal tradition of freedom and equal rights actually has much influence on students than does Catholicism, at least when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality.) Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, in short, are profoundly Catholic, as any non-Catholic who teaches or studies here will be quick to affirm. At the same time, there is a current of ambivalence and even hostility toward the official church that cuts across the divide between Catholics and non-Catholics.

Early in our research process, we recognized that our students’ ambivalence about Catholicism deserved additional study, and so we designed a web-based survey that was ultimately completed by almost one fifth of our entire student body. We will discuss that survey, and a variety of issues that might have been placed in the present section, in the section on “Controversial Conversations and Catholic Identity” below. Here we simply reflect on the results we gained using our assessment rubric in spring 2007.

In constructing our assessment rubric, we sought to distill out those aspects of “values” that virtually everyone in our community could recognize as positive. This was not an easy task! Ultimately, we decided that a conversation was exemplary in “respect for faith and values” if “participants consistently appeal to underlying values, including those rooted in Catholicism and other faith traditions, [and] explain these values in a manner that is accessible to those who do not share them.” To our considerable surprise, the mean rating for this component was significantly worse than for courage, though not as bad as the rating for inclusiveness. Nearly a third of our observations generated a rating of “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory,” while only 30% were rated as exemplary (see Table 20, Controversial Conversations Assessment Rubric: Spring 2007 Results).

Two factors account for these relatively poor results. First, many conversations were rated as “satisfactory” rather than “exemplary” because students who brought their religious commitments into the dialogue were unable to do so in a publicly accessible manner. Too often, for our students, religious arguments are appeals to authority that provide no opportunity for further dialogue. Second, and even more troubling, our students rarely invoke religious or moral principles at all unless the topic at hand has to do with either religion or sex. This was the case even in a theology class whose topic was violence and nonviolence: students in that class learned about a variety of theological perspectives on war, but when they articulated their own positions on the issues they did not connect them to beliefs about God or morality. If it were not for the fact that so many of our observed conversations were, in fact, about sex, the scores for this component might have been even lower.

It is no accident that we observed many conversations about sex this year, or that religious issues were regularly brought up in those conversations. Our students can scarcely think about religion without thinking about sex, and vice versa. At least at a Catholic college with a racially homogeneous student body—and probably at many mainline and evangelical Protestant colleges as well—the issues at the nexus of sex and religion carry an emotional weight that is unmatched by race, class, or virtually any other issue. In this historical moment, and for the foreseeable future, wrestling with these issues must be one of the central tasks of liberal education at a church-related colleges.