Teagle Research Grant Formal White Paper
Controversial Conversations on a Faith Based Campus Formal White Paper
Table of Contents:
I. Executive Summary
II. Overview of Research
III. The Role of Controversial Conversations in Liberal Education
IV. Our Model of Dialogue
D. Common Ground
V. What's Controversial at CSB/SJU?
1. Sexual Orientation
Note: These numbered links will take you to different pages that relate to these issues.
VI. Controversial Conversations and Catholic Identity
VII. Controversial Conversations and Ideological Identity
VIII. Traditionalists and Anti-Traditionalists in Dialogue
IX. Men and Women in Dialogue
X. Preparing for Public Controversies
XI. Recommendations for CSB/SJU
The “Controversial Conversations” project emerged in response to controversies about gender and sexuality at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, as well as at Catholic colleges nationwide. These controversies emerge from the complex intersection of students’ developmental processes and contemporary struggles within the Church, and they flare up in public debates over productions of the Vagina Monologues or the creation of programs in gay and lesbian studies. Though our campuses have not experienced major divisions over these issues, we are well aware of their potential to wreak havoc—or, if handled well, to enrich our students’ educational experience. Beginning with the conviction that good conversations about these issues are an integral part of a liberal arts education, we have used surveys, observations, focus groups, and visits to other campuses to explore the ecology of controversial conversations at CSB/SJU and elsewhere.
In conducting this research, we have drawn both on the tradition of feminist pedagogy and on the work of many national dialogue organizations. The fact that we currently have so many classes and public events related to gender and sexuality is testament to the decades-long work of feminists and others who have insisted that college curricula address the big issues in students’ lives and empower students to bring their own experiences, convictions, and struggles to the academic table. Likewise, much of what we know about the principles of civil conversation derives from the work of the National Issues Forums, Public Conversations Project, Catholic Common Ground Initiative, and others who have responded constructively to the increasing polarization of American political and religious discourse.
At the same time, our research findings suggest that more must be added to these projects, certainly in our particular context and most likely at other church-related liberal arts colleges. The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University have embraced feminist pedagogy, both in our attention to issues of gender and sexuality and in our consistent use of discussion in the classroom. Yet many students—particularly gay and lesbian students and students who espouse traditional Catholic teachings on sexuality—do not feel free to participate fully in these conversations. Moreover, our preoccupation with gender and sexuality may prevent students from fully engaging in conversations about differences of race, class, and ideology, and in connecting these issues to the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching.
In our context, moreover, dialogue models that seek to promote civility must be adapted to place equal emphasis on courage and inclusiveness. On our campuses, incivility is not a major obstacle to good conversation in the classroom and at public events, but homogeneity and silence most certainly are. In many conversations, important perspectives are simply not represented among the people at the table; in others, persons with minority viewpoints choose not to speak. We can afford to place less emphasis on dialogue “rules” and more emphasis on actively inviting (and inviting, and inviting again) our students to speak. We can also do more to empower our students to extend such invitations to one another.
One concrete fruit of our work is a model of dialogue (developed using a statistical technique called factor analysis) that identifies six key components of a “controversial conversation”: courage, civility, common ground, objectivity, values, and inclusiveness. We have developed an assessment instrument that could be used by a variety of educational institutions to evaluate their own conversations and identify the areas where the most improvement is needed. In our own context, courage and inclusiveness have clearly emerged as priority concerns; other schools might use our instrument to identify quite different areas of concern.
 See especially Bernice Resnick Sandler, Lisa A. Silverberg, and Roberta M. Hall, The Chilly Classroom Climate: A Guide to Improve the Education of Women (Washington, D.C.: National Association for Women in Education, 1996).
We suspect that the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University are fairly typical of Catholic colleges nationwide in the way we approach issues of gender and sexuality. To place our findings in context, though, we should say a bit about the particular demographics of our two institutions. The two schools were founded, respectively, by a women’s and a men’s Benedictine monastery in the middle of the nineteenth century. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, they began cooperating more and more in their curricula. When other Catholic women’s colleges began either to merge with men’s colleges or to shut down, Saint Ben’s decided to pioneer a third path by forming a “coordinate” relationship with Saint John’s. What this means, today, is that the two colleges feel a bit more like one than like two: we have two campuses and two presidents, but a single coeducational curriculum administered by a united faculty. Students shuttle back and forth in order to attend classes on both campuses. The student development offices are separate, but work closely together. One consequence of the coordinate relationship continues to be that the issue of gender has a high profile on our campuses: the two presidents offer a public model of male and female cooperation; we sponsor high-profile speaker series on both “Men’s Lives” and “Women’s Lives”; and our Gender and Women’s Studies program has been a national pioneer in insisting that men have a gender too.
Each college currently enrolls about two thousand students. Though we are academically selective enough to be classified as “national liberal arts colleges,” the overwhelming majority of our students still come from Minnesota and surrounding states. People have mixed opinions about whether our colleges are imbued with the culture of “Minnesota Nice”—and about whether this is a problem. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of our students are European American. The majority are also Catholic, though here the margin is definitely not overwhelming. Though the faculty includes a higher percentage of Benedictines than one would find at virtually any other college sponsored by a religious order, no statistics are kept of the religious affiliations of lay faculty members. The general perception is that fewer than a third are Catholic. Religious differences are thus the most obvious form of diversity on campus. There is a lot of emphasis on expressing “Benedictine hospitality” to non-Catholic members of our community, and a lot of anxiety about efforts to shore up Catholic identity that might compromise this tradition of hospitality. Another area of significant diversity is ideology: roughly equal numbers of our students identify as liberal, conservative, and “middle-of-the-road,” though the middle-of-the-road students tend to hold liberal positions on most issues other than abortion. Democratic political candidates usually carry the campus by about a 3 to 2 margin (see Table 1, A Profile of CSB/SJU Students).
The work of Controversial Conversations began in spring 2006, when we administered our initial campus-wide survey to 341 undergraduates, or about 9% of our student body (see Table 2, Overview of Research Activities). About half of the participants were randomly selected, and about half were enrolled in Core courses required of all students. The resulting pool was disproportionately female and first year, and somewhat more liberal than most CSB/SJU first year students. It paralleled the student body in ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and religious affiliation(see Table 3, Demographics of Controversial Conversations Survey Participants). 79 faculty and staff members completed a very similar survey; given the poor response rate, however, we have chosen to use the data from this survey only sparingly.
The survey began by asking students to identify the most controversial issues on campus. It then provided them with a list about forty behaviors that might occur in a conversation on those issues. For each behavior, respondents were asked to indicate how positive or negative an effect it had, how often they observed it on campus, and how often they personally engaged in it. They were then asked their opinions on a variety of questions related to controversial conversations, as well as on specific issues that might be controversial. Finally, they completed a lengthy demographic section asking about race, gender, ideology, religious affiliation, and class background (see Table 4, Initial Campus-Wide Survey).
During the 2006-2007 academic year, we identified 15 sections of 12 courses as “campus laboratories” (see Table 5, Controversial Conversations Campus Laboratories). Almost all of these courses included an examination of issues related to sexual orientation; most also dealt with other controversial issues including gender, race, class, abortion, war, and access to health care. Students enrolled in these courses were asked to complete extensive surveys at the beginning and end of the semester. In addition, members of our research team (or, in some cases, students enrolled in the particular course) conducted structured observations of individual class periods in which controversial issues were discussed. At the end of each observation, students completed a brief survey about their experience of that class period. More than 300 students participated in campus laboratory courses, though the number completing any specific survey was usually closer to 220. Perhaps because several of the courses were affiliated with the gender and women’s studies or peace studies program, these students were disproportionately female, but similar to the student body as a whole in their religious affiliations. There were very few first year students in this pool (see Tables 6-9, Campus Laboratory Surveys).
Also during 2006-2007, we cosponsored, and observed, a number of public events and one-credit courses related to controversial issues. With the Public Policy Learning Community, we sponsored a fall series of forums entitled “Values and the Election,” in which students from a variety of ideological perspectives spoke on the underlying values that influenced their political positions. With Saint Ben’s Campus Ministry, we sponsored the “Fully Aware Catholic” series, created the year before in response to student requests for more public discussion of official Catholic teaching. We sponsored one-credit classes on “Minnesota Nice,” “Whiteness,” and gender identity among “Bennies and Johnnies.” We also observed public discussions on The Vagina Monologues and Riepp the Whirlwind, a play about the founder of the Saint Ben’s monastic community (see Table 10, Public Event Survey).
In spring 2007 we developed a final survey related specifically to the meaning of Catholic identity at CSB/SJU. All CSB/SJU students were invited to complete this survey electronically. 781 students, or about 21% of our student body, chose to do so. This survey asked students how knowledgeable they were about Catholic teaching on a variety of issues, how much they took Catholic teaching into account in forming their own views on those issues, and how they thought Catholic identity should be embodied in CSB/SJU’s institutional policies (see Table 11, Catholic Identity Survey).
As a final strategy to obtain relevant information about how other institutions similar to ours have handled controversial conversations, teams of faculty and students visited a small number of other church-related colleges, some Catholic and some Protestant, including some that have experienced well-publicized controversies in recent years. These visits occurred throughout the 2006-2007 academic year. Each team was led by a faculty member, and detailed summary reports were provided by the team leader and each member of the visiting team. Insights from these visits appear especially in the discussions below about Catholic identity and public controversies.
Overall, our findings were encouraging. Across the ideological and religious spectrum, students at CSB/SJU agree that good conversations on controversial issues are an integral part of a liberal arts education. On a five point scale, nearly two thirds strongly agreed that “controversial conversations are an important part of a college education,” and the results were nearly as strong when we specified conversations on gender and on sexuality (see Table 12, Students Value Controversial Conversations).
Most students also thought that CSB/SJU does a fairly good job of promoting conversations of this sort. More than three quarters say that they have frequently learned something new as a result of participating in a controversial conversation, and almost two thirds say they have at least occasionally been rewarded for expressing their views in controversial conversations. More than two thirds say that they have never been penalized for doing so. There is an even stronger consensus that our campus culture is polite, with more than eighty percent of students agreeing with this, but few think that this culture of politeness translates into an avoidance of controversy (see Table 13, Students See CSB/SJU as a Positive Environment for Controversy).
We also found a broad consensus about what counts as a good conversation. For most of the forty conversational behaviors we asked about in the initial campus-wide survey, the responses we received were roughly equal across gender, religion, ideology, and class standing. Using a statistical technique called factor analysis, we were thus able to develop a model of dialogue that identifies six core principles that are widely shared by our students (see Table 14, Principles of Respectful Dialogue).
Our model of dialogue is one of the central fruits of our research. It identifies several key components of campus conversations on controversial issues: courage, civility, common ground, objectivity, values, and inclusiveness. We created this model by performing a “factor analysis” of data from our initial survey, particularly the section in which we provided respondents with a list of behaviors that might occur in a controversial conversation and asked them to indicate how positive or negative each behavior is (the “ideal” score), how often they perceive each behavior in conversations on our campuses (the “real” score), and how often they personally engage in each behavior (the “personal” score).
Factor analysis allowed us to identify clusters of behaviors that generated similar responses; we then performed a reliability analysis on each of those clusters of behaviors. Five clusters emerged from this process; we identified these as “flight,” “civility,” “common ground,” “objectivity,” and “values.” The “flight” cluster included only behaviors generally rated as negative, and so we hypothesized a corresponding set of positive behaviors that might be identified as “courage.” The “civility” cluster includes both positive behaviors (e.g. listening attentively) and negative behaviors that correlate inversely with them (e.g. using insulting language). We added a sixth component, “inclusiveness,” to our model to reflect the significance of a single item on our survey, “Participants with extreme views spoke more than those in the middle.” Although our factor analysis did not link this item to any others on our survey, we found a larger gap between “ideal” and “real” scores for this item than for any other behavior. As a result of further analysis of our data, we identified one final cluster of behaviors that we have identified as “competitiveness.” Although this cluster is not included in our model, we have included some analysis of these behaviors below.
Table 15, Components of Dialogue and Conversational Behaviors, lists all of the behaviors from our additional survey, grouped according to these seven clusters. The composite scores listed for each cluster are averages of student responses, all on a five point scale. Tables 16, 17, and 18 show the behaviors that were rated most positively and most negatively by our student respondents, as well as the behaviors that showed the largest gaps between “ideal” and “real” scores.
After we identified these clusters of behaviors, we developed our own model of how each conversational component would be expressed in an exemplary campus conversation. This model is spelled out in the Controversial Conversations Assessment Rubric, which we used to evaluate observed conversations in spring 2007. In the next sections, we analyze each component using data from those observations, from surveys conducted in the campus laboratories, and from the original survey (see Table 19, Controversial Conversations Assessment Rubric,) and (Table 20, Controversial Conversations Assessment Rubric Spring 2007 Results).
V. What's Controversial at CSB/SJU?
When we began our research, one of our first goals was to confirm our initial impression that issues related to sex and gender are among the most controversial on our campuses. Accordingly, we began our survey with open-ended questions asking what issues are most controversial on campus, which controversial issues generate the best conversations, which controversial issues generate the most contentious conversations, and which controversial issues are most often avoided on campus (see Table 4, Initial Campus-Wide Survey). We anticipated that sexual orientation and abortion would top the lists, since these are the issues where the students’ developmental interest in matters of sexual identity intersects with official church teaching in ways that also generate controversy on the national political stage. We were, nevertheless, startled at the clarity with which these two issues emerged. Two thirds of student respondents listed some aspect of sexuality as one of the three most controversial issues and about half identified abortion. No other issue—not race, not class, not the war in Iraq—was named anywhere near as frequently. Indeed, the third most frequently named issue was “religion,” which may have been shorthand for abortion and/or homosexuality. Sexual orientation, abortion, and religion showed up as the top three responses to all four questions, with religion edging out abortion for second place only on the question about good conversations (see Table 41, Controversial Issues Identified as Most Important By Students).
Though our students agree in perceiving abortion and sexuality as especially controversial issues, their actual positions on these issues do not line up in predictable ways. Like most college students nationwide, a majority of our students support gay marriage, although there are more students on the opposite extreme than in the middle. Unlike most college students nationwide, however, students in our initial campus-wide survey students tended to hold pro-life views on abortion, with once again more students on the opposite extreme than in the middle. Students in our campus laboratories, who were typically older than students in the initial survey, were slightly more pro-choice than pro-life, but still much less pro-choice than first-year college students nationwide. Moreover, both of our respondent pools were disproportionately female and thus probably slightly more liberal on both issues than our student body as a whole. One might thus characterize our campus consensus as pro-life and pro-gay (and fairly liberal on most other issues). It should be noted, though, that only a minority of our students find themselves in the majority on both of the two most controversial issues. The fact that most students have had the experience of being in both the majority and the minority may be an important asset in our efforts to promote good conversations on the full range of issues (see Tables 42, 43, and 44).
The special character of abortion and gay marriage is also evident when we compare student opinions on these issues with their responses to the other twelve opinion questions we included on the initial survey. As just noted, these were the only issues that generated a bimodal distribution of responses: there were more students at either extreme than in the middle. When we compared the responses of self-described liberals and self-described conservatives, we found a dramatic difference on virtually every question, but these two had by far the largest degree of polarization. Moreover, students who did not describe themselves as either liberal or conservative tended to hold views on gay marriage similar to the liberals’ and views on abortion similar to conservatives’. It might not be too much to say that, on our campuses, being pro-choice is what makes one a “liberal” and being anti-gay marriage is what makes one a “conservative.” Given the rather different patterns in student attitudes about these two issues, it seems appropriate for us to reflect on each separately (see Tables 45, 46, and 47).
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.
It was, of course, obvious from the beginning that we would focus significant attention on the way Catholicism shapes controversial conversations at CSB/SJU. Early in our research, we decided that we would also look closely at the influence of ideology. In part this was because other demographic factors proved either difficult to study or relatively uninteresting. We are confident that students of color experience controversial conversations very differently from white folks, and that students who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual have their own very distinct experiences. But our samples of these groups were too small to draw statistically valid inferences. Preliminary tests suggested that geographical origins, socioeconomic status (as measured by levels of parental education), and year in school all have relatively minor influence on the ways student engage in controversial conversations. We did find statistically significant differences between Catholics and non-Catholics, but these pointed us back to ideology: our non-Catholic students are significantly more liberal than their Catholic peers. All of these forms of diversity could, nevertheless, benefit from further exploration, as could diversity in academic performance. (Some preliminary testing suggests that that may have a very significant impact indeed.) Ultimately, we suspect, differences of personality rather than of demographics account for most of the variation of conversational behavior and experience. But we lack the expertise to analyze personality differences and in any case doubt that such an analysis would shed much light on ways to improve conversations on campus.
The role of ideology caught our attention both because of the size of the statistical effects found in our preliminary analysis and because of our own experience on campus. Put simply, conservative voices are missing from any of our campus conversations, particularly those on the hot button issues of gender and sexuality. Only a handful of faculty members are publicly identified as “conservatives,” for example, and most of those actually hold an idiosyncratic mix of views. When CSB campus ministry sought a speaker willing to defend the Church’s official teaching on sexual orientation, no member of the theology department stepped forward. Productions of the Vagina Monologues generate criticism, but most comes from beyond the campus community. Yet neither Saint John’s nor Saint Ben’s are stereotypically “liberal” campuses. Very few GLBT students choose to be out in the classroom, in part because of their experience of anonymous hate speech, and both non-Christian and non-white students complain that they are often excluded from the much touted sense of community on campus. The apparent contradiction between these experiences and the silence of conservative voices in public points to a possible solution: perhaps if we could bring all students more fully into the public conversation we would experience less exclusionary behavior in private.
Yet ideology is difficult to study, in part because it is less permanent and less easily defined than race, class, religion, gender, or sexuality. Many academics, in particular, believe that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” obscure more than they reveal. They are applied indiscriminately to an incoherent mix of political, economic, cultural, and religious issues, and their use is highly dependent on one’s frame of reference: a “liberal” in Houston may well be a “conservative” in San Francisco. Anticipating that our survey respondents might resist being pigeonholed by these labels, we offered them a choice of five ideological categories: “mostly conservative,” “mostly liberal,” “middle of road,” “I don’t have strong views,” and “My views don’t fit easily into the labels of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’” We also asked a series of opinion questions, drawn from the Higher Education Research Institute’s American Freshman survey, in order to discern the correlation between ideological labels and actual beliefs (see Table 4, Initial Campus-Wide Survey).
We learned that, at least among CSB/SJU students, the labels “conservative” and “liberal” are not as useless as they might seem. On all three of our surveys, most respondents chose to place themselves on the conventional liberal-moderate-conservative spectrum, with 4 or 5% saying they lacked strong views and between 10 and 16% saying the labels did not fit. Moreover, most students used the labels in roughly the manner we expected them to. On virtually every opinion question, we found large differences between self-described liberals and self-described conservatives. Liberals were much more likely to support gay marriage, abortion rights, women’s ordination, taxes on the rich, and a national health plan; conservatives endorsed a strong military, the death penalty, and the capitalist economy. Members of all three other groups fell between liberals and conservatives on most issues, tending more closely to the conservative position on abortion and the liberal positions on gay marriage, women’s ordination, and social welfare policies (see Tables 46 and 47).
Though we found a high level of correlation between “conservative” (or “liberal”) views on political and religious issues, we also recognized the distinction between these spheres. Accordingly, we developed two composite measures of ideology by averaging responses to highly correlated survey items. The “traditionalist” composite was based on eight items that either related directly to Church authority or to issues on which the Church has spoken especially clearly, namely abortion and gay marriage (see Table 64, Defining Traditionalist Students). The “political conservative” composite was based on opinion questions that are associated with the American partisan divide but have no connection to either sex or Catholicism. Unfortunately, our initial survey included only five items of this sort, so the reliability for this measure is not as strong as for the first. To ensure a clear distinction between the two measures, we excluded items related to gender but not to Catholicism from both composites (see Table 65, Defining Politically Conservative Students).
The names we chose for these two composites reflected our initial sense that “real” conservatism has to do with bread and butter issues, as well as with attitudes about the military and about race. This sense may reflect the experience of those of us who were born before 1970, and who remember that for most of the twentieth century the Democrats and Republicans were divided primarily on the basis of economic policies and the class identities of their primary constituencies. The same sensibility is shared by the most vocal “traditionalist” students on campus, many of whom do not identify as conservative and in fact hold moderate to leftist views on social welfare policy and the war in Iraq.
As it turns out, though, this is not the way most of our students understand the terms. Though liberals and conservatives are divided on all the issues, they are divided more sharply on the sexual issues—gay marriage above all—and the religious issues than on economics, war, or race. And the first set of issues has much more to do with how most students label themselves ideologically. In one particularly interesting comparison using data from the initial campus-wide survey, we compared the traditionalists directly with the political conservatives, discovering that about half of each group overlapped with the other. (In order to obtain a statistically valid sample, for this comparison only we looked at students who were half of a standard deviation above the mean rather than a full standard deviation.) Among the traditionalists who were not politically conservative, 44% still called themselves “conservative,” while only 35% of those who were politically conservative but not traditionalist used this term. Indeed, 18% of the latter group said they did not fit the traditional labels, and another 18% actually described themselves as liberal. (Among the campus laboratory students, students in the politically-conservative-only group were actually more likely to call themselves “liberal” than “conservative.”) The students who fell into both camps, not surprisingly, were quite unambiguous in their labeling: 73% said they were conservative and only a single confused student said that he or she was a liberal (see Table 66, A Profile of Traditionalists and Political Conservatives).
We also found several statistically significant differences between traditionalists and political conservatives. Naturally, traditionalists scored more highly on the “values” scale, since many of the defining items overlapped. But traditionalists also rated themselves as more prone to both flight and civility, although the differences in civility disappeared when campus laboratory students were asked to rate their actual behavior in their courses. Traditionalists were more likely to say that they had learned new things and changed their minds as a result of campus conversations, while political conservatives were more likely to say that they had been asked not to speak on a controversial issue by a professor. Further analysis might well yield other intriguing differences (see Table 67, Significant Differences Between Traditionalists and Political Conservatives).
As these examples suggest, each of the four groups identified through these two composites—“traditionalists,” “anti-traditionalists,” “political conservatives,” and “political liberals”—has the capacity to enrich our campus conversation, but also faces some particular challenges. The same might, of course, be said for middle of the road students, particularly those who lack strong views on the hot-button issues of abortion and sexual orientation. In the remainder of this section, we will focus some special attention on the traditionalists, not because their challenges are necessarily greater than those of other groups, but because they are especially prone to the specific behavioral pattern—flight—that we have already identified as most problematic for our campus as a whole.
By the middle of our research process, most members of our team came to be particularly fascinated by what we called the “problem of the silent traditionalist.” Students who espouse relatively traditional Catholic views—preferring pre-Vatican II devotional styles, for example, or accepting magisterial teaching implicitly even on such issues as women’s ordination and gay marriage—are a minority on our campuses, but by no means an insignificant minority. Yet in many classrooms or public events, their voices cannot be heard. 16% of our survey respondents, for example, strongly disagreed with the statement that “same sex couples should have the right to legal marital status.” This implies that in a class of 25 students, 4 will likely hold this view. Yet it is rare for more than one to express this view openly.
To understand this silence of the traditionalists more fully, we developed a composite score distinguishing them from “anti-traditionalists” who are strongly resistant to the idea of authoritative Catholic teaching, as well as to the specific content of Catholic teaching on abortion, women’s ordination, and gay marriage. The differences between these two groups were not huge. In their descriptions of conversational experiences on our campuses, we generally found greater variation within each group than between the two groups. Indeed, we found virtual agreement between the two groups on a number of items where we might have expected to find differences: half of each group agree that our faculty “hold a wide range of views on most controversial issues”; 40% say that “there is a climate of political correctness” on campus; and fewer than one third agree that “in some classes at CSB/SJU it is hard to get an A if you don’t share the professor’s opinions.” If David Horowitz is correct that conservative students are discriminated against by liberal professors on college campuses, many of our traditionalist students have not noticed—though perhaps our politically conservative students have (see Table 68, Areas of Agreement between Traditionalists and Anti-Traditionalists).
At the same time, we found statistically significant differences in a wide range of areas. Not surprisingly, 43 of the 51 traditionalists identified themselves as Catholic, and all but one of the rest were Lutheran. The anti-traditionalists, on the other hand, were divided almost equally among Catholics, other Christians, and non-Christians. 72% of traditionalists said that religion was “very important” to them personally, and 68% said that it was “very important” to their family of origin: apparently our student body includes few zealous converts to conservative Catholicism. The anti-traditionalists, on the other hand, were widely distributed on both these items, suggesting a diverse mix of students who rebelled against conservative religious upbringings, students who were raised in liberal religious households, and students from secularist backgrounds. In describing their conversational values and behaviors, traditionalist were much more likely to say that they “share perspectives rooted in my faith commitment” and “emphasize moral principles” in controversial conversations, and they were also more likely to see these behaviors as positive. This is not to say that anti-traditionalists were negative about these behaviors; their scores were simply more neutral (see Tables 69 and 70).
We also found large differences between traditionalists and anti-traditionalists on opinion questions, even those with little connection to official Catholic teaching. In addition to strongly opposing abortion rights, gay marriage, and women’s ordination, traditionalist students were more likely to say that “it is important that the United States maintain a strong military” and less likely to say that “wealthy people should pay a larger share of taxes than they do now” or that “a national health care plan is needed to cover everyone’s medical costs.” Evidently, many of our traditionalist students are political as well as theological conservatives and thus less receptive to elements of Catholic social teaching than their anti-traditionalist peers. On the other hand, they are open to some formulations of the “consistent ethic of life”: traditionalists and anti-traditionalists were equally committed to abolishing the death penalty (see Table 71, Traditionalists and Anti-Traditionalists on the Issues).
Traditionalists and anti-traditionalists differed significantly in the way they experience conversations on some specific topics. Traditionalists were much less likely to say they had had positive experiences in conversations about race, gender, sexuality, or politics, and much more likely to say that they had positive experiences in conversations about religion, official Catholic teaching, or Catholicism on campus. When asked an open-ended question about which topics generate the most controversy on campus, both groups—and indeed, all students—were much more likely to name sexual orientation and abortion than other topics. But the order was reversed for the traditionalists: they were actually more likely to name abortion than sexual orientation, which set them apart from the anti-traditionalists and from our total pool. When asked to identify especially contentious issues or issues that our campus tends to avoid, on the other hand, traditionalists were more likely to name sexual orientation than abortion, while anti-traditionalists were more likely to name abortion. Traditionalists, in other words, would probably prefer that we talk more about abortion and less about sexual orientation. This is especially significant in light of the fact that faculty are much more inclined to incorporate issues of sexual orientation than abortion into their classrooms.
Traditionalists were also a little less likely to see conversations about gender and sex as an important part of a college education. Though virtually all students in both groups said that “controversial conversations are an important part of a college education,” the differences widened when we identified specific controversial topics: 92% of anti-traditionalists and only 77% of traditionalists said that “open discussion of gender is an important part of a college education,” while 89% of anti-traditionalists and 44% of traditionalists said that “open discussion of sexuality is an important part of a college education.” It should be stressed, though, that the traditionalists were more inclined to agree than to disagree with all of these statements: they are clearly not a united front of opposition to open discussion (see Table 72, Traditionalists and Anti-Traditionalists on the Importance of Discussion).
Finally, we found some significant differences between the two groups in conversational behaviors that are not obviously related to religion or sex. These differences were not as great as the differences on the opinion questions, but they do mesh with our own observations. Traditionalists were more likely to report that they personally engage in “flight” behaviors—avoiding the most challenging issues, changing the subject, and choosing not to speak. Anti-traditionalists, on the other hand, were more likely to report that the campus as a whole engages in these behaviors, and less likely to report that the campus as a whole engages in “common ground” behaviors like looking for points of agreement or ensuring that a wide range of views are expressed. Indeed, despite the fact that most traditionalist positions are opposed by the majority of students, it is the anti-traditionalists who are more likely to express dissatisfaction with the climate on campus, saying in particular that “the campus culture at CSB/SJU avoids controversy” and that “my views are not well represented at CSB/SJU.” The traditionalists, moreover, had significantly higher “real” composites for common ground, civility, and objectivity, suggesting that they are simply more impressed with the quality of campus dialogue (see Tables 73, 74, 75, and 76).
There are, we suspect, multiple reasons for the silence of Catholic traditionalists. Three in particular come to mind. First, Catholic traditionalists, at least on liberal campuses, are subject to what communication scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann has called the “spiral of silence.” Most people have an intuitive awareness of the majority sentiment within a group, and most are less likely to speak up when they find themselves in the minority. The silencing effect thus reinforces itself: if a 40% minority does only 20% of the talking, they perceive themselves to be even more outnumbered than they truly are and are thus even less inclined to speak.
Second, many Catholic traditionalists do not place as much emphasis as do their liberal counterparts on such issues as women’s ordination or gay marriage. For liberals, the magisterial position on these issues is a source of moral outrage. For many traditionalists, the real issue is respect for authority. The official teaching may actually be a source of moral discomfort—the cross they must bear in order to retain a sense of connection to authoritative pastoral figures. One traditionalist graduate student, for example, told a member of our team that he remains quiet when these issues come up because he does not want to appear “mean.”
Third, some Catholic traditionalists harbor reservations about the value of open dialogue. They may question the purpose of “sharing opinions,” preferring to listen attentively as the church’s official teaching is set forth by a priest or bishop. We have heard this position expressed in casual conversation with some traditionalists on our campuses, but this factor should not be overstated. While it is true that the traditionalists in our survey reported somewhat higher levels of silence and somewhat lower levels of commitment to controversial conversations, it is also true that 94.1% said that controversial conversations are an important part of a college education, 76.5% said that open discussion of gender is an important part of a college education, and 45.1% said that open conversation about sexuality is an important part of a college education (see Table 72).
The traditionalist resistance to “sharing feelings” may be related to a larger tendency on campus to value common ground and “comfort” more than direct engagement with controversy. In one discussion of this issue, a student member of the advisory group noted that many of our students come from backgrounds where heated debates were non-existent, and they chose CSB/SJU because these schools were comfortable places to be rather than because they hoped to be challenged and have their world torn wide open. Even though students surveyed acknowledged the importance of discussing controversial topics, we suspect that this student’s perceptions are correct, and that when students are uncomfortable with disagreeing with what is perceived as the dominant perspective, most will continue to resist our efforts to actively engage in controversy and to say things that they fear—or know—will be unpopular or potentially offensive.
Shortly after this conversation, a professor on our advisory group read a collection of educational autobiographies submitted by her students. She was amazed to find that all but one student in the class talked about choosing CSB or SJU for college because of how comfortable they were when visiting here. One student wrote, “I quickly realized that this was like a second home before I ever moved in… The small community of St. Ben’s and St. John’s were a perfect fit. I was confident in my decision, and although people in this community were bound to know my older siblings, I decided it would only add to the comfortable atmosphere.” Another student wrote, “When I visited the campus I felt quite at ease, as though I was “home.” There are multiple factors that led to this immediate comfort. Both of my parents come from families with seven children; all of whom, including my parents, attended St. Ben’s or St. John’s… I also felt comfortable at St. Ben’s because of its rural location. Coming from a Northern Minnesotan town with a population of roughly 8,000, I felt comfortable with the school’s size. Upon my college visits, I noticed the homogeneous population that comprises St. Ben’s and St. John’s. Although I didn’t have the conscious thought at the time, I felt so comfortable because everyone was so much like me. I felt such a pull towards St. Ben’s, that it was the only school I applied to.” When comfort and fitting in are so highly prized, even low levels of conflict and disagreement can be frightening, and students report a hesitancy to say anything that may be regarded as mean-spirited or judgmental.
Whatever its sources, campus liberals do not always recognize the silence of their traditionalist counterparts. When we report these survey findings to liberals, they often express surprise and recall times when traditionalist views (especially those related to abortion) were expressed aggressively; when we report them to traditionalists, they often say, “yes, of course” and share anecdotes of times they chose not to speak up in class. Liberals fail to hear traditionalist silence, perhaps, because they are all too aware of the very noisy voices of organizations like the Cardinal Newman Society. Especially in the context of the ongoing controversies over productions of the Vagina Monologues and similar plays, it is tempting for liberal professors to see our traditionalist students as agents of the Cardinal Newman Society who would like to suppress our academic freedom and strip us of tenure.
This would be a terrible mistake. Again, we would point to our survey data: most students who say that official Catholic teaching should have a privileged place at Catholic colleges ALSO say that open discussion of sexuality is an important part of a liberal education.
One Notre Dame alumnus responding to the controversy over the Vagina Monologues on that campus pointedly asked “about the very essence of a Catholic University. . . . Does the Catholic add something to the magisterial university, or subtract?” The Cardinal Newman Society, with its calls for the exclusion of certain events from Catholic campuses, has obviously chosen the latter option. But at least on our campuses, traditionalist students prefer the additive approach: when they complain to us, they typically request more opportunities to wrestle with Church teaching, not fewer opportunities to hear the voice of dissent. But if we fail to respond to such requests, we run the risk of pushing them closer to the subtractive approach of the Cardinal Newman Society.
We also, perhaps, run the risk of making our campus less hospitable for the anti-traditionalist students who are at the opposite end of the spectrum. One of the more puzzling survey findings is that, even though traditionalist students disagree with the majority of their peers on homosexuality, women’s ordination, and virtually every issue except abortion and premarital sex, it is the anti-traditional students who are more likely to say that “my views are not well represented on campus” (by a margin of 43% to 33%; only 21% of our total pool share this sentiment). This difference may reflect the especially vitriolic character of the abortion debate: perhaps it is simply harder to be in the minority on this issue than on any other. But it may also be that the traditionalists’ silence actually makes them loom larger in the anti-traditionalist imagination. When no one is willing publicly to defend church teaching on gay marriage or women’s ordination, there are fewer opportunities for students who oppose that teaching to respond. Those students who are predisposed to distrust the church may thus assume that the equally silent folks in the middle share the traditionalist viewpoint. A more open discussion, if conducted carefully, might simultaneously reassure the traditionalists that they can express their views without being attacked or penalized and alert the anti-traditionalists to the fact that many faithful Catholics dissent from the church’s teaching on a variety of issues.
The present moment is ripe for such a discussion at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s because in the past few years at least three groups of traditionalist have begun to speak. One cluster formed “Fides et Ratio,” a Catholic club for students preferring a more devotional liturgical style than that provided by our two campus ministry offices. A group of theology majors asked the department to incorporate more official church documents into our curriculum; the department responded with a one-credit reading course on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical entitled “Fides et Ratio.” Still another group asked Saint Ben’s campus ministry to sponsor a series of deliberately one-sided panels, in which a theologian would present official Church teaching on a controversial topic and a group of ordinary Catholic would explain how they personally live out that teaching. The resulting series, entitled “Fully Aware Catholic,” was among the events observed by Controversial Conversations during the past year.
Two sessions of the “Fully Aware Catholics” series were held during the 2005-2006 academic year. The first session addressed the issue of birth control, and the second session addressed the issue of pre-marital sex. In 2006-2007, discussion featured such topics as authority in the Church, just war theory, and teachings regarding infallibility. Interestingly, there has still not been a session on homosexuality, the topic that was first identified by the students who initiated the series. The reason for this is that the organizers were unable to identify anyone on campus willing to speak publicly about what it meant to live out the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
Attendance at Fully Aware Catholic events has ranged from a handful of students to close to one hundred. Though a variety of factors influence the number of students who attend campus events, our general sense has been that the sessions focusing narrowly on issues of sexual morality have been most popular—suggesting that a significant group of students feels a deep hunger to engage the Church’s teaching on these issues, but does not yet see how those issues connect to such broader themes as authority and infallibility.
What we are seeing in all of these “on the ground” experiences are students seeking a venue in which they can more fully develop their understanding of Church teaching in an environment that is more attune to their need to want to know more about the Catholic Church’s practices. For these students, they see a particular “brand” of Catholicism operating on the CSB/SJU campus and within CSB/SJU campus ministry, and in many cases it is not the “brand” they are used to interacting with and/or dialoguing with. They have a genuine desire to “see” more of what they are familiar with, be that on the level of ideology or practices. Because of this, some have willingly and successfully created settings in which their voice and their interpretation is no longer sequestered or drowned out by louder voices that claim majority status at CSB/SJU.
In light of these experiences, Controversial Conversations has and will continue to advocate a few specific strategies for bringing traditionalists more fully into our public dialogues:
1) Give Traditionalist Students a Platform
We strongly recommend creating platforms in which traditionalist voices can be heard. One example is the “Values and the Election” series co-sponsored by Controversial Conversations and the Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement. A given number of CSB/SJU students (usually 4 to 6 panelists each holding a variety of viewpoints) were invited to reflect on the values they hold up when considering “hot button” issues for the upcoming 2006 elections. The first “Values and the Election” panel discussion focused on the following question: What are family values? Two of the five panelists clearly fell into our “traditionalist” category. Creating such a platform enables traditionalist student’s voices to be heard alongside other anti-traditionalist voices. Interestingly, however, even the presence of traditionalist students on the panel did not empower traditionalists in the audience to speak up for themselves.
2) Shift Authority
As some of our CSB/SJU theology majors have indicated, some “traditionalist’ students see themselves in a particular dilemma. They are more inclined than anti-traditionalists to treat their professors as authority figures, and as a result they can be confused and troubled when they witness faculty—particularly in the theology department—challenging a teaching and/or claim made by the Church.
We suggest that faculty members try and address this issue in the following manner: encourage both “liberal” minded students to express their “anti-traditionalist” position and at the same time encourage “traditionalist” students to express their own position. In other words, professors need to pay attention to both groups and actively help both groups sharpen their arguments before suggesting objections. We believe this kind of approach can respond to “traditionalist” students’ complaints that do not always know enough about a particular issue to just immediately pick “sides” and engage in debate. By encouraging each side to express their opinions and refine their arguments, students are able to move to the next step, i.e., engage in controversial conversations without the engaging in fight or flight behavior.
3) Find Out What Else They Want to Talk About
On a practical level, faculty need to reach out to “traditionalist” students and simply ask what ask the question, what do you want to talk about? It is clear from our conversations with the student leaders of the “Fully Aware Catholics” series, the Fides et Ratio student club, and some CSB/SJU theology majors that they want to talk, and they have ideas about what they want to talk about. For example, Fides et Ratio wants to see more opportunities on the CSB/SJU campuses for Eucharistic adoration. Making a conscious and deliberate attempt to reach out to these students, in whatever venue seems most appropriate under the circumstances, is crucial if we are going to successfully meet the challenge that the “silent traditionalist” poses to quality campus conversations.
4) Present “justice” as a Common Vocabulary for Individuals with Very Different Positions on the Issues.
Another lesson gleaned from our survey and observations is that the concept and issue of “justice” is more often than not employed by both “anti-traditionalist” and “traditionalist” students alike when they are attempting to discuss controversial issues like abortion or sexual orientation. Because of this, we suggest designing opportunities for students to learn more about the concept of “justice” and then encouraging them to use “justice” as common vocabulary aid when conversing with others who hold very different positions. A learning opportunity could be designed similar to the format used by the “Fully Aware Catholic” series in which students could learn more about the issue of “justice” and then be asked to reflect on how they apply this concept to issue that are important to them. In other words, get all students to reflect on how certain “hot button” topics may or may not reflect concerns about “justice.”
5) Encourage talk about Abortion
Finally, we would like to encourage civil discussion around the issue of abortion. This suggestion is made first from as practical standpoint. Most “traditionalists” will find themselves in the majority during a conversation centered around abortion. By discussing an issue like abortion first, we believe this can help stem the tide of the “spiral of silence” that often happens to “traditionalist” students. Second, we have observed some “traditionalist” students framing the issue of abortion in terms of justice and they have done this with relative ease. Again, by encouraging traditionalist students to successfully frame their arguments, all participants in the conversation benefit. Similarly, encouraging discussion of abortion gets pro-choice faculty members out of their own comfort zone and “levels the playing field” so to speak for “traditionalist” and “anti-traditionalist students to engage one another in the classroom. And finally, we believe students are already talking about abortion in the dorms in ways that undermine open conversations in other contexts (e.g., “How was baby killing today?” to the students returning from a College Democrats meeting). Given this, we recommend addressing this issue among a plethora of issues, mostly again, to combat the “spiral of silence” among “traditionalist” students.
During the spring of 2007, Controversial Conversations took a further research step by exploring the parallels between the traditionalist experience and that of another marginalized group on campus: gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. A group of five researchers (three students, one alum, and one faculty member) conducted focus groups with and examined the histories of two campus student organizations, representing these two constituencies. PRiSM (Persons Representing the Sexual Minority) is our campus Gay/Straight Alliance Group and represents the anti-traditional end of the spectrum when traditional refers to adherence to the official magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church. Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), at the other end of the spectrum, is a student organization of Catholics committed to living an authentically Catholic life, respecting the teaching authority of the Pope and Bishops and striving to live faithful to that teaching. We wanted to learn more about their feelings, their experiences on our campuses, and the factors that either silence or draw them into honest conversations about issues of immense importance to them. In studying the members of these two organizations, we focused primarily on pedagogical issues. We hoped to learn how to create safe, inclusive spaces where all perspectives are voiced and the work of a liberal arts education can most effectively be accomplished. Academically, we were interested in exploring two additional hypotheses, the first having to do with identity and the second with how institutional legitimacy on Catholic campuses shapes student perceptions and either invites them into the conversation or effectively silences them. We began this research believing:
Identity issues, especially at the undergraduate level where identity is still relatively tentative, where students are discovering who they are and wanting others to recognize, affirm, and validate that identity, especially when there is stigma or societal devaluing involved, will have a silencing effect when students are confronted with discussions of topics they identify as directly related to their sense of self. For example, gay and lesbian students will find that discussions of gay marriage elicit feelings of fear, discomfort, and a lack of safety. Similarly, the Fides Et Ratio students will feel threatened and uncomfortable because the predominant views being expressed are likely to challenge the official Catholic position on the issue. Students on both extremes are likely to feel that jumping into the conversation and speaking honestly their beliefs will “out” them to the rest of the class and will leave not just their ideas but their persons open to attack. While most students will find these debates ideological or philosophical—and uncomfortable because they may find their beliefs being challenged, for the students on the margins, the debate is PERSONAL. “It’s not my ideas or even my beliefs that are on the table being discussed, it’s ME. I am being judged, condemned, devalued.” If this is true, then the people most affected by the debate, those most committed to the outcome, are least likely to enter the conversation, and all of our students will suffer because those voices are missing from the conversation.
Institutional messages will also influence the willingness and ability of these students on the margins to enter the conversation. These messages may come directly from administrators or professors, or they may be implicit in press releases, awards given, and decisions on whether to allow certain events and activities on campus. If the institution is interpreted as being supportive of a particular group and its students, students will be empowered to speak. If, however, it is interpreted as opposing the group, questioning the group’s legitimacy, relevance, appropriateness on our campuses, then the SILENCE will be reinforced.
Before examining the data from the focus groups, it is important to first address the histories of the two clubs and consider how events surrounding their foundings are likely to influence the perceptions of current members. This year marks the 20th anniversary of a GLBTA group on campus whose focus is on education, visibility and providing social opportunities on campus. Formed first as a support group in 1987 out of the counseling office, the group provided a safe space for members of the GLBT community to meet and talk with each other. They received official club status as the Ten Percent Club. From this group FLAG evolved in 1992—Friends of Lesbians and Gays. There was some opposition from concerned persons outside the campus community, but letters of complaint sent to the institution were handled in a way clearly supportive of the student group. Campus ministry helped to draft a response letter which, while affirming the official Catholic position on homosexuality, stated that the club followed Catholic pastoral teachings regarding the goodness of homosexual persons and the need for their inclusion within the church community and for the defense of their human dignity and rights. In 1994 a Les-Bi-Gay group tried to form, met resistance from people who felt that it would be a duplicate of the FLAG group, but it was ultimately approved for club status in 1995. The name of the group changed from Les-Bi-Gay to its current title, People Representing the Sexual Minority (PRiSM) in 1997.
The traditionalist group, Fides et Ratio, is much more recent, with a group of students envisioning and developing the group through Spring and Summer of 2005. In fall these students applied for official club status on campus, but they met with institutional resistance. Questions of legitimacy arose, raising concerns similar to those faced by the Les-Bi-Gay group, but from the opposite direction. While ten years earlier the questions challenging the legitimacy of the club had come from outside the institution, this time the challenges came from inside—in part because the club was perceived as threatening the legitimacy of the institution itself (see Table 77, Challenges to Two Student Organizations).
The desire of students for a club seriously engaged in studying and discussing the official teachings of the Catholic church evidently bothered some within the campus community (administration, campus ministry, for example). Questions arose such as: “Why do we need a Catholic club on a Catholic campus?” “Are these students trying to question our current ministry as not being legitimate?” Many recalled a recent incident when another religious club—a worshipping community drawing largely on the evangelical tradition—excluded a lesbian student from its leadership and was disciplined for violating the institution’s human rights policy. Fides et Ratio’s proposal was brought to the Joint Club Board in October, but a moratorium on new religious clubs on campus put the club on hold for another 6 months. The rationale given the students was that the board planned to propose new guidelines for faith-based clubs, but understandably, the students involved remain suspicious of that reasoning.
In April 2006 the club was formally accepted, and in May of 2007 it finished its first year of activities. For our purposes, it is important to note that unlike PRiSM which has a memory of the institution fighting for them, Fides et Ratio is very much aware of the institutional opposition they have faced, and we expect that to affect their willingness to participate in controversial discussions. As with any group that feels threatened, the tendency is to circle the wagons. For such a young organization, the group has been quite successful. They have developed a rich website and a group averaging 8 to 15 people meets frequently. The group’s distribution list is much larger.
The websites of the two groups provide some additional insights into student perceptions of how they are viewed. Both groups identify three goals for their organization, and though these take very different directions in the two groups, they are amazingly similar. Both have an educational focus: PRiSM on educating the broader campus community on issues of sexual orientation; Fides et Ratio on deepening their understanding of Roman Catholic teachings through study, prayer, and reflection. Both have a community dimension: PRiSM provides for the social needs of group members, and Fides et Ratio develops community through service and fellowship. The third goal of PRiSM is making GLBT persons and issues more visible on campus, while Fides et Ratio stresses spiritual growth through participation in the Roman Catholic Mass and making Catholic devotions like Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament more available on campus, a form of Catholic visibility. The PRiSM website recognizes that GLBT students face opposition and may feel unsafe: their site includes a non-discrimination policy, and anti-hazing policy, AND a disclaimer which states: “The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the author. The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the College of St. Benedict/Saint John’s University.” Fides et Ratio does not have or need a disclaimer, but that does not mean that members feel safe expressing their views. Both groups are aware that their members have some beliefs and take some stands that are not readily accepted by the broader campus community—with PRiSM members feeling attacked by religious teachings, and Fides et Ratio members feeling attacked by a liberal secular ideology and an atmosphere of political correctness which is sometimes at variance with religious practice. Once again, it is significant to note that even though both groups see education as one of their three primary goals, in focus groups these students made it clear that they rarely if ever spoke to anyone outside their own group and friendship circles about issues as controversial as homosexuality. Perhaps the hope is that the group will be able to accomplish what they individually feel unable to even attempt. This is a topic in need of further study. It would appear that these groups could, if able to trust a research group like ours, become valuable allies in the pursuit of facilitating difficult conversations.
Our primary means of data gathering for this part of the grant work, was through Focus Groups, meeting with members of the two organizations separately. Our research team (and Controversial Conversations Advisory Board) included from each of the two groups, a student who had been active in the group and who therefore facilitated the arranging of the focus groups and led the discussions. A Sociology alum did the recording and transcription of discussions. We completed three focus groups and hope to do several more next semester, revising our questions somewhat to build on what we learned in these initial groups. Our results are tentative and require additional analysis, but we found interesting similarities and differences in the responses of the two groups.
Students in both groups talked about the difficulty of talking about issues like homosexuality and abortion on our campuses. One PRiSM student said, “I feel threatened and freaked out which can cause me to shut down.” They spoke of tense situations, of feeling personally attacked, of what one student called the “spotlight effect”, feeling like all eyes are on him, expecting him to represent the gay community as a whole. A PRiSM management major said, “It can be tense discussing this (homosexuality). I feel like I am stereotyped because I am a gay man going into the business world.” Another student complained about “Feeling like you are only seen as a gay kid—you only like gay things.”
Identity issues were more explicit and voiced more regularly in the PRiSM group, but some of the Fides et Ratio people also raised them. In both groups there was some acknowledgement that “being out/known” is problematic. A Fides et Ratio student, when asked whether their participation in a controversial discussion varies depending on whether people know or don’t know about your strong Catholic positions replied: “People say you’re Catholic, right? Some know… If people don’t know, I tend to speak more.” Similarly, a PRiSM student admitted, “I try to talk without bringing up my orientation. If I did I could lose credibility. Students would say you are only responding that way because you’re gay. When you out yourself in class people’s thought process is affected.”
In both groups we heard that students are most comfortable discussing these issues with their friends, with those who have similar perspectives. Most students find the structure of the classroom and direction from the professor facilitate good conversations on controversial topics, but we also heard that often students and sometimes the professor steer classroom discussion away from controversy in an attempt to avoid tension. While it was more common in the Fides et Ratio group, one PRiSM student also raised the issue of biased professors who didn’t like it when students disagreed or offered differing opinions. Most PRiSM people, however, saw professors as allies. For example, one PRiSM student explained, “Professors are better to talk to…they want to know more about the issues. Professors discuss with me how to better deal with the GLBT students. Professors seem to really want to learn about it and how it affects students in the classroom.”
Students in both groups spoke of the increased likelihood of engaging in conversations when they were convinced of their position. Listen to the similarities in these two students: first, from a PRiSM student who commented that when talking about homosexuality, “I know I am right when I am speaking. I know this sounds bad but I can’t agree with someone who has other perspectives that I know aren’t right.” Similarly a Fides et Ratio student reported that she is more likely to participate in questions about issues where the Catholic church has a clear position, “Because I am Catholic I know what I am talking about. I tend to speak up more because people don’t know what Catholics stand for.” We need to explore this further—is the need to be right tied to the identity issues? If this is who I am, and I leave room for compromise, am I betraying myself?
There were also a number of significant differences between these two groups. The first difference was the willingness of club members to participate in the focus groups. While it was difficult to find times for both groups, PRiSM students were genuinely excited about participating, eager to have an opportunity to talk and participate in this research. A number of students who were not free on the dates set for the groups expressed the hope that more groups would be arranged so they would be able to participate. Conversation in the groups was animated and fast-paced. Members of Fides et Ratio, in contrast, were much less willing to talk, and if the group had not been facilitated by one of “their own”, it quite probably would never have happened. Even at that, it was a challenge to get a session scheduled, and he eventually organized the group though his own network rather than through the organizational leadership. He recruited five members to participate which we expected to make for an interesting conversation, but here’s what the observer wrote in her fieldnotes: “I would say the ‘flight’ response does describe Fides et Ratio. It was very hard to get them to answer the questions. The comfort level seemed low… often they avoided eye contact, didn’t seem to want to elaborate further when answering questions, there was often a long pause of silence between Adam asking the question and them responding (especially for question 8 and 11). .. This group was very different from the Prism meeting where I couldn’t keep up with everything being said… I felt I had no problem keeping up this time since so little was said.” PRiSM students seem to believe that if they can be heard, the campus will become more accepting and inclusive. Fides et Ratio appear to feel differently; for them, discussion doesn’t seem to go anywhere and being honest about their views is likely to result in them being denigrated or judged “a jerk”.
Secondly, the classroom seems a safer place for PRiSM students than for Fides et Ratio students: “The classroom is a safe space. There is no fear, easy conversation, structure and you know the audience.” On the other hand, they find the informal life of the campus more threatening. One PRiSM student spoke of a conversation in Psych class in response to an article in the school paper. Students were commenting about how awful gay marriage was. The student reported that he was able to speak out to the students about this, whereas if he had been involved in the conversation on the bus between campuses, he “just would cringe and don’t say stuff.” In contrast one of the Fides et Ratio group has had her best experiences OUTSIDE the classroom; she talked of a conversation that occurred on the bus: “With a lot of people the conversation can get interesting. Everyone seems to understand something that is being said—everyone got their say—people were listened to.” From our other research, it seems clear that our anti-traditional students consider the professors their strong allies. The traditional students, however, lack that kind of vocal support from the faculty and report having been silenced. Perhaps some of the difference in the classroom experience is also related to the direction these discussions tend to go if they go anywhere. A PRiSM student spoke of a classroom discussion on gay marriage: “Before class there was a vote for a ban. Everyone except 3 students raises their hands [in support of the ban] and at the end only 3 or 4 students were for the ban…. It was nice to see opinions change.” When issues are made personal, given a face, it becomes increasingly difficult for our students to “be mean”, “sound like a jerk”, or in any public way attack another person, but this factor almost invariably wins support for the GLBT minority and silences the Traditional minority.
A third important difference in these groups was the role religion plays in controversial conversations. While Fides et Ratio members report that the Catholic church is the most important factor shaping their views on homosexuality and abortion, and it is a primary source of their personal identity, PRiSM members speak of religion as a source of homophobia, discrimination, and condemnation. A number of these students describe themselves as religious, but gave examples of “bashing e-mails” or conversations with pastors where God, the Bible, and religion were used to attack them. One student complained, “Religion stops conversations about GLBT issues.”
Where do we go from here?
1. Both groups have a relatively negative view of the administration and question their level of support. We need to do further research to discover how much of student perception is colored by identity issues. When students are insecure in their identity or fear the stigma much of society attaches to that identity, it is easy to read negative intentions into actions that may or may not be accurate. For example, a PRiSM student clearly interpreted her chemistry teacher rushing past a table where she was selling PROUD week t-shirts as an indication that he disapproved of what the club was doing—and therefore disapproved of homosexuality. Similarly Fides et Ratio students have a right to be skeptical of administration in light of the opposition they faced in founding the club, but for both clubs, there are activities and events happening on campus that challenge student perceptions. For example, strong administrative support and participation in PROUD Week events and in the annual Lavender Graduation that has been held for the past four years on the Saint Ben’s Campus, demonstrate a solid commitment to visibility and affirmation of our GLBT students. Similarly, the initiation and implementation of the Fully Aware Catholics Series which has over the past two years sponsored two events each semester through which the official Catholic position on issues of concern to students is presented and discussed, demonstrates the responsiveness of the institution to the expressed needs and wishes of the traditional students. Yet many of the very students these events are designed to serve avoid them because of an insufficient level of trust of students for college leadership. Religious correctness is seen as antithetical to political correctness, so even when events are structured to minimize polarization, students perceive that it is not safe to express their religious views. We need to find more effective ways to institutionalize support in such a way that students will recognize and trust it. This is probably especially true for the traditional students who perceive faculty as the enemy.
2. Closely related to this, we need to do more research on identity formation, the role that stigma plays on self-esteem, and the impact of “concealable stigmas” on student willingness to engage in difficult conversations.
3. A major contribution from campuses like ours could be finding a way to bridge the religious divide—find a way to utilize religion (for example, the Catholic Social Justice teachings) to build a foundation where the full spectrum of our student body—from Fides et Ratio to PRiSM and the thousands of students in between—can find common ground to engage in critically important discussions without the conversation deteriorating either into silence OR into irrational and personal attacks. Two of us recently presented at a conference on Social Work for Social Justice where we prepared teaching modules that attempt to do exactly that. For example, in a sociology course on Marriage and Family, one of us will familiarize students with the key principles of Catholic Social Teaching and then give them two documents issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops dealing with gay/lesbian children (Always Our Children) and with gay marriage (Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-Sex Unions). Students will apply the principles of Catholic Social Teachings to these documents. Hopefully this will provide both the traditional and the anti-traditional students with material that both challenges their thinking and backs them up on some of their positions. In coming to a clearer understanding of the complexities and contradictions even within the Bishops’ publications, they will find both common ground and respect for diverse perspectives that will allow for meaningful conversation.
4. Perhaps most importantly, for a first step on a campus like ours, we need to address the issue of students avoiding situations that are uncomfortable for them. If we can provide a secure enough homefront on our campuses, we will hopefully, at least in this context, be able to lure them into the fascinating world of controversy. Based on the research we have begun with the help of this grant, we hope to find ways to model for our students the richness of confronting diverse viewpoints, even strong ones, showing them that while it may be uncomfortable, such controversy need not be deadly. Our students may come here seeking a familiar and comfortable place in which to study, but their time here does indeed change them. By midway through their sophomore year, we see large numbers of students eager to spend a semester exploring China or Chile or South Africa. We need to find ways to show our students that, just as they are able to enter those foreign worlds without losing their own cultural identity, they might similarly find richness in exploring another person’s values and viewpoints without loss of their own values and identity.
In conclusion, several things have become extremely apparent as we have done this work over the past eighteen months. One is that students look to faculty for signals; to a great extent, it will be the faculty who determine whether students at either end of the traditional/anti-traditional spectrum will participate in discussion. When “friendly faculty” are silent, the discussion is often killed by the “friendly fire” of a supporter’s silence. But faculty must learn to do this in a way that supports and affirms the critical thinking of all their students, not just those who fall on the same end of the spectrum on any given issue. It is a hard lesson for all of us to learn that TRUTH is complex, and in this world, none of us has a claim on perfect truth; we are all still searching.
This research has made it much more evident that as strange as it sounds to those of us who identify as liberal, the very inclusiveness that is espoused in effect excludes the traditional. Logic and reason are too often assumed to reside on the liberal side; and the traditional students (at least on our campuses) know that and respond by withdrawing.
Finally, we have seen how the polarization so evident in political rhetoric and within religious congregations as well, leaves its mark on our campus community and our classroom conversations. It seems that our greatest challenge will be to establish common ground where students will have the courage to voice their beliefs, their concerns, and their perspectives. We did not find that fight behaviors were prevalent (we saw very little incivility), but perhaps because the polarization in church and society so often leads to unfair and hostile attacks on “the other”, student perception is that they, too, are making themselves vulnerable to such an attack if they honestly express their views.
 Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, The Spiral of Silence: Public Opinion, Our Social Skin, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
 Thomas P. Carney, Jr., “The Catholic University: Commending Jenkins’ Position,” The Observer Online, 21 April 2006, at http://www.ndsmcobserver.com/media/storage/paper660/news/2006/04/21/Viewpoint/The-Catholic.University.Commending.Jenkins.Position-1865165.shtml?norewrite200610310943&sourcedomain=www.ndsmcobserver.com
The gender differences discovered by this survey were minimal but none the less important. More often than not the differences found existed within the different genders than amongst the different genders. For the majority of individual behaviors, and for three of our clusters, we found no significant sex differences. Indeed, gender stereotype might have led us to expect to see more women engaging in such “common ground” behaviors as seeking points of agreement or more men engaging in “objectivity” behaviors such as sharing factual information. But we found no difference in these areas, nor in the cluster of “values” behaviors such as invoking Catholic teaching or moral principles.
On the other hand, we did find significant differences in the clusters of behaviors we identified as “flight,” “civility,” and “competitiveness.” Flight and civility have a special importance because these are the areas where our respondents identified the largest gap between the ideal conversational situation and our campus reality.
Gender stereotype would suggest that women are more inclined to flight than men and that men are more inclined to incivility and competitiveness, but our results bear this out only partly. It would appear that, on our campuses, women have made more progress in overcoming the problematic aspects of stereotypical femininity than men have in overcoming stereotypical masculinity. We found significant sex differences related to flight, but these are small and hard to interpret. The biggest difference was in the “ideal” score: though men and women agreed that flight behaviors are very negative, women were more emphatic in this judgment. At the same time, women scored slightly higher in the composite score for personally engaging in flight behaviors. This difference barely reaches the standard of statistical significance. As it turned out, this was a consequence of significant difference in only one of the three flight behaviors—“choosing not to speak.” Again, the difference was just barely significant—although it should be noted that this is a behavior that we identified as especially problematic on our campuses as a whole (see Table 78, Women, Men, and Flight).
At the same time this project was being executed, one of the student employees was working on a project of her own. This project examined feminism at the College of St. Benedict and involved a questionnaire and interviews with the female students at the College of St. Benedict. This project revealed a hesitancy among women at the College of St. Benedict to strongly affiliate themselves with issues relevant to feminism. Though many women admitted to caring about these issues, many were scared to be labeled a feminist because of the negative stereotypes and connotations this label often carries with it. Many women said trying to avoid these negative stereotypes often caused them to not speak up about certain issues. This could help explain why females are more likely to participate in flight behaviors than males. This hesitancy is consistent with the measurement of the statement “I choose not to speak.” This could especially be relevant to the controversial issues of abortion and homosexuality prevalent on the campuses as both of these issues are considered by many as issues of feminism.
When we looked at personal behaviors related to civility, on the other hand, we found a statistical effect more than twice the size reported for flight. Men were significantly less likely to report that they used polite language, and significantly more likely to say that they interrupted and used insulting language when engaged in controversial conversations. We found a smaller, but still significant, difference in the ideal score: though men had little trouble identifying civil behaviors as positive and uncivil behaviors as negative, they were a bit less emphatic in these judgments than their female peers (see Table 79, Women, Men, and Civility).
Many specific behaviors are implicated in these sex differences. Of our respondents, more than twenty percent of men and fewer than two percent of women said that they frequently use insulting language in controversial conversations. Ninety percent of women and only seventy-six percent of men said that they frequently use polite language. Twice as many men as women say that they raise their voices frequently, and almost twice as many say that they interrupt frequently. A second survey administered to students in our “campus laboratory” classes revealed similar results.
The research done on feminism may also explain the differences experienced with civility. Feminism is often seen as a radical movement that goes against the status quo. This stereotype is what many who did not identify as a feminist were trying to avoid. Women at the College of St. Benedict seem to feel a pressure to follow the rules and guidelines and not go against the grain. Historically civility and politeness has been a feminine characteristic. If students at the College of St. Benedict are trying to avoid going against stereotypes, they would then be more likely than males to use civil behaviors when participating in controversial conversations.
The differences in civility also suggest that some men find it difficult to participate appropriately in controversial conversations. This finding is especially significant in light of the recent, and sometimes heated, media coverage of the “boy crisis” in education. A number of studies since 2000 have suggested that men are falling behind and disadvantaged when it comes to their participation and success in higher education. Key studies completed by the American Council on Education (ACE) in 2000 and 2006 as well as data analyzed and discussed by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2000 have fueled headlines like, “At Colleges, Women are Leaving Men in the Dust” an article by Tamar Lewin from the New York Times and “The Trouble with Boys,” from the January 2006 issue of Newsweek. The hype has generated terms like “boy crisis” and “masculinity crisis” and purports to include all men and boys in all educational situations.
Jacqueline King, the main investigator in the ACE studies, authored a follow-up to her own research titled, “Gender Equity in Higher Education: Are Male Students at a Disadvantage?” King, like a handful of other researchers and authors has pointed out that gains made by women have not been made at the expense of men, but reflect rapidly accelerating participation by women in higher education. Moreover, the gender differences are most stark for men of color (especially African-Americans and Hispanics) and those of lower socioeconomic status; they virtually disappear when the research focuses on white men from the middle and upper classes. Men continue to hold a majority of positions of power (which translates to greater financial reward), make more money than women in general, and dominate the high-paid fields related to science and technology.
At CSB/SJU, where most students are white and middle class, very few men appear to be in “crisis,” though men’s GPAs do lag significantly behind those of their female peers—in part because (accordingly to their own reports) men spend less time studying than their peers. It may be that the conversational differences we have identified also reflect an important part of this story.
To avoid misinterpreting the data, it is important to note that only a minority of men report serious problems with civility. Strategies for dealing with male incivility should not, therefore, presuppose that all men are uncivil any more than approaches to sexual violence should assume that all men are rapists. A better approach would be to focus on people who struggle with incivility, recognizing that most of these people will be men.
Providing these students with the resources they need to change should be an important priority, because the uncivil behavior of even a small number of students can have a major impact on the educational experiences of an entire campus. Classroom discussion is an important pedagogical tool that requires the classroom to be a “safe” place for self-disclosure and for exchange and critique of ideas. The milieu can easily be disrupted by even one student, male or female, that chooses not to engage in conversation that promotes learning and idea sharing. The consequences of disruptive and uncivil students may include teachers leaving the field, students leaving the academic setting, lower intellectual skill development and hampering of personal and intellectual development. Although our results did not find rampant breaches of civility and did not find that men were the only offenders, there is evidence both in research and in our results that a larger proportion of these behaviors are occurring with male students.
A number of researchers have attempted to explain the propensity of some men to engage in problematic classroom behavior. One group of researchers proposed that it is related to male gender role conflict as a result of rigid gender expectations that may be impossible to live up to. A great deal of debate amongst researchers regarding the feminization of learning environments and feminist pedagogy has centered around whether or not this framework prevents boys and men from being successful. Social control theories, social exchange and bond theories, and social learning theory also provide insight into the possible sources of disengagement and incivility.
Our own data suggests that part of the explanation may also be found in the complex relationship between incivility and competitiveness. When we compared men’s and women’s level of engagement in competitive behaviors, we found statistically significant differences roughly equal to those we found for incivility. The overall personal competitiveness for females was 3.24 as compared to a male score of 3.62. Women were also more negative than men in their judgments about the effect of competitiveness on controversial conversations. The overall ideal competitive score for females and competitiveness was 3.24 as compared to males in which the overall ideal score was 3.62. There was no significant difference found between males and females in perceiving competitive behaviors in controversial conversations (see Table 80, Women, Men, and Competitiveness).
When comparing personal behaviors the three statements in which there were significant differences were “I try to win”, “I focus on the weakest aspects of other peoples arguments”, and “I question the expertise of those with whom I disagree.” Thirty-five percent of females said they frequently “try to win” as compared to 63.5 percent of males. 30% of women and 41% of men say they frequently “focus on the weaker aspects of other people’s arguments,” while 42% of women and 53% of men “question the expertise of those with whom I disagree.”
Though the gender patterns for civility and competitiveness seem similar, we would highlight two differences. First, with regard to competitiveness, we found large sex differences in both the “ideal” and “personal” scores. That is, men do not only report engaging in more competitive behaviors than women, they are also more likely to believe that these behaviors make a positive contribution to the conversation. Second, all the mean scores on these behaviors tend to fall close to the middle of our five-point scale, suggesting that both men and women feel real ambivalence about the role of competition in controversial conversations. With regard to civility, we found widespread agreement about what counts as a good conversation and a significant minority of men who failed to live up to that standard. With regard to competitiveness, we found widespread ambivalence and a genuine disagreement between most women—who rate competitiveness behaviors somewhat negatively—and most men—who rate them somewhat positively.
Clearly, competitiveness is a factor in conversation for most men. But, again, it is important to stress that this does not involve ALL men. Indeed, we found an especially wide range of male attitudes and behaviors related to this conversational factor. While very few women rated “trying to win” as positive, for example, 38% of men rated it as positive and 38% rated it as negative. Though nearly two-thirds of men said that they frequently try to win controversial conversations, more than twenty percent said that they seldom or never do so. To the extent that competitiveness causes problems in conversations, then, it makes more sense to direct interventions toward the most competitive students, rather than to all men indiscriminately. And those interventions, as we have previously suggested, should also recognize the possibility that competitive students may have something very special to contribute to our efforts to foster a more courageous campus.
 Jacqueline King, “Gender Equity in Higher Education: Are Male Students at a Disadvantage?” American Council on Education, 2006, available at http://www.acenet.edu/bookstore/pdf/2000_gender_equity.pdf; and Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett, “’Boy Crisis’ in Education is Nothing But Hype,” Women’s eNews, 15 March 2007, available at http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2671/context/archive.
 Amy S. Hirschy and John M. Braxton, "Effects of Student Classroom Incivilities on Students," New Directions for Teaching & Learning 9: 67-76; and Kathrine M. Kolanko, et al., "Academic Dishonesty, Bullying, Incivility, and Violence: Difficult Challenges Facing Nurse Educators,” Nursing Education Perspectives 27 (2006): 34-43.
 Shaun R. Harper, Frank Harris III, and Kenechukwu (K C.). Mmeje. "A Theoretical Model to Explain the Overrepresentation of College Men among Campus Judicial Offenders: Implications for Campus Administrators," NASPA Journal 42/4 (2005): 24.
 Brendan Gough and Paul Peace, "Reconstructing Gender at University: Men as Victims," Gender & Education 12 (2000): 385-98.
 Nathaniel J. Bray and Marietta Del Favero, "Sociological Explanations for Faculty and Student Classroom Incivilities," New Directions for Teaching & Learning 9: 9-19.
Much of the original impetus for our study came from a desire to develop strategies for managing the high-profile, disruptive controversies that have rocked many church-related colleges in recent years. Most notably, the ongoing dispute over productions of The Vagina Monologues has affected virtually every Catholic college in the United States, in part because well organized traditionalist groups have sustained a national campaign against that play for several years. Other Catholic campuses have garnered both praise and censure for sponsoring programming and, in one case, an academic minor, related to Gay and Lesbian Studies. This issue is also prominent on both mainline Protestant and evangelical campuses. A number of Catholic and Protestant colleges have faced intense faculty and alumni criticism for inviting President Bush to speak at graduation; most recently, this controversy has rocked our sister Benedictine school, Saint Vincent’s in Pennsylvania. Other schools have struggled with more local issues, many of them related to gender and sexuality.
Though the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University have not been immune from struggles of this sort, we have largely avoided the national spotlight thus far. The College of Saint Benedict regularly hosts readings of The Vagina Monologues, usually paired with academic discussions of issues raised by the play. Though the president’s office invariably receives mail criticizing these productions, very little of the criticism comes from within our student or alumni communities. A campaign visit by the Bush twins, sponsored by a student organization and not open to the entire campus community, generated more anger on campus, but much of the anger dissipated when it became clear that this was an isolated and idiosyncratic event. Community members with long memories recall more heated struggles over public speakers in the past.
Our visits to other campuses thus provided us with an opportunity to explore the experiences of those who have struggled more directly with public controversy. One of these visits was to a Catholic campus where the president had invited a very public dialogue about The Vagina Monologues and similar events, culminating with the president’s decision to allow but not formally “endorse” such events on campus.
What follows is simply a report on some of our gleanings from these visits. By the end of the grant period, we had not yet fully digested these experiences, though everyone who participated found the visits to be quite valuable. We learned that we have much in common even with schools that seem quite different in their practice of church relatedness. We also learned that ongoing dialogue between faculty and administrators—groups that can experience public controversies very differently—is the key to the successful weathering of the controversies that will inevitably emerge from time to time.
The purpose of this visit was to interview administrators, faculty, and students to hear various perspectives on the process that occurred surrounding this university’s president’s consideration of whether or not to allow The Vagina Monologues and comparable events to continue to be presented on campus. This consideration came in the aftermath of disagreement among faculty, students, and especially alums, who represent a formidable force at this university. Our goal was to learn about how an institution like ours—a Catholic university—honors both its Catholic traditions as well as its values as a university where academic freedom is a basic tenet.
While it is still too soon to decide if the president’s process of establishing an ad hoc committee to foster a wide range discussion on gender relations, roles, and prevention of sexual violence on this campus will facilitate conversations or not, the visiting team thinks that his effort at addressing these issues publicly in his first year in office has provided an impetus by which such discussions can happen. The campus is divided about the wisdom of the president’s public addresses and his decision to allow The Vagina Monologues; as one faculty member put it, many faculty and students feel this university has become too secular and needs to foster the Catholic traditions by taking a firmer stance on not allowing such productions. Interestingly, both this professor and several who were on the other side of the debate were quick to insist that Catholic identity and academic freedom are not incompatible; the challenge is thus to clarify the gray areas on the basis of a shared commitment to these two values. Some faculty suggested that the president may have jeopardized his tenure as president for going so public with the issues surrounding The Vagina Monologues. The team’s impression is that changing the name of another controversial annual campus event seems to have satisfied those who opposed it. Not so with a play that was written and performed by students of this university and that addresses the issue of censorship on campus. In general, faculty and students are divided about the distinction that the president is making between allowing such plays in the name of preventing sexual violence and not endorsing them because they do not promote a Catholic stance toward consensual sexual relations within marriage.
Seeing the student-written play certainly provoked strong emotions for some team members and in the audience as well; attendance during the four nights of the play’s run suggests that this play has engaged faculty, administrators, and students at this university. This audience on the night that the team leader attended clearly endorsed the performance in their standing ovation; there was no discussion following the play on that night, so we cannot be certain if the audience’s engagement was on behalf of the quality of the performance or with the play’s goal of bringing the prevalence of sexual assault and rape out of the closet on this campus. Students we interviewed feel that these issues have by and large been denied at this campus and that such denial is damaging to the integrity of the university and certainly threatens female and gay/lesbian students’ sense of safety. This play may act as a platform for further discussions in classes and campus groups; for example, the Men Against Sexual Violence met the day following the November 16th performance for a post-play discussion. The model CSB/SJU have established around the reading of The Vagina Monologues in which discussions take place before and immediately following the reading is one that this university is starting to also use; perhaps if something of this sort had been done, much of the tension around the performance of this play on this campus might have been lessened.
This visit was to a college in the Reformed tradition. The visiting team concluded that there are more differences on the objective level than the subjective level between this college and CSB/SJU. At the objective level, the common commitment to evangelical and Reformed theology means, on the one hand, that certain conversations simply do not happen at this college, and on the other hand, that the conversations that DO happen are deeper than those at CSB/SJU because the participants share more presuppositions. At the subjective level, though, the range of attitudes about this situation seems quite similar. Some members of the community believe that the rules regarding church-relatedness stifle conversation and should be loosened up, while others believe that precious aspects of that church-relatedness are on the verge of being lost.
One other difference between the two schools is that the students at the school that was visited are more religiously diverse than the faculty. While all faculty must have a Reformed theological commitment, about half the students come from other backgrounds—almost all of them evangelical of one sort or another. This is a relatively new development. Many of the non-Reformed students are more culturally conservative than the college’s norm—that is, they come from traditions that tend to draw a sharp distinction between “church” and “world,” while the Reformed tradition emphasizes vigorous engagement with the world. The team asked a lot of questions about the college’s responsibility to these students and received ambiguous replies. The impression that the team left with is that most of this college’s faculty find the sectarianism of American evangelicals to be very disturbing, and they place more emphasis on inviting students to contemplate the Reformed alternative than on affirming the full range of student opinions. The team wondered if the two groups of students might experience this college very differently—for Reformed students, it is an affirmation of the values they grew up with; for other evangelicals, it is a strong challenge to the faith of their families.
There also appears to be a tendency for people at this college (and at CSB/SJU) to conflate “becoming more open-minded” (certainly a central goal of liberal arts education) with “becoming more liberal.” The team sensed that many professors—again, both at this college and elsewhere—have in fact gravitated to the left over the course of their own academic formation. Does this leave students with the impression that a leftward drift is an intrinsic part of the life of the mind? If so, is that a bad thing—or just inevitable?
Throughout the various interviews, the team found that homosexuality came up as a top choice; others were premarital sex and the faith requirements for faculty. One event that came up several times throughout interviews was an annual week of activities related to homosexuality, including a forum in which students and alums at this college who are gay or lesbian share their experiences. In past years, members of the community have been encouraged to wear a ribbon as an expression of “love and respect for the homosexual person.” Though this was very positively received on campus, it generated some negative publicity in the evangelical press. In part because of that, the annual panel has been subsumed under a broader series of events related to sexuality in recent years—a change that has virtually eliminated the external criticisms. Some who were interviewed explained that the annual panel discussion has been effective because it is clearly designed. This event is not a debate, but simply a chance for people to share their experience, and it has been very positive for the community. Leaders have been careful to steer the discussion away from debate—if someone wants to make an argument against homosexuality, they will say, “that’s a fair question but not in this forum.” The team also heard about a group for gay and lesbian students sponsored by the college’s counseling center; this sponsorship was originally justified as a form of “pastoral care,” but gradually has evolved into something more like a student club, still organized through the counseling center to protect the student members.
Team members also heard talk about the culture of “niceness” at this college. For example, many people are reluctant to express the official church view on homosexuality because it is seen as “not nice” or politically incorrect. One person interviewed feels that, “The theological position silences one side and the culture of niceness silences the other.”
Interviewees also identified some complexities with the way this school balances academic freedom and confessional identity. Though all faculty must sign a confessional statement, they have the option of expressing specific reservations when they do so. But many department chairs discourage faculty from taking the risk involved in doing this: a reservation might be quietly accepted, but it could also lead to a campus-wide or even church-wide debate. The result is an inconsistent understanding of confessional identity, which in turn makes it difficult to have a good discussion about whether, for example, gay marriage is a confessional issue. The problem with an open conversation of such a topic is that people’s jobs are on the line.
At this women’s college with a nominal church affiliation, students felt that the most controversial issue on their campus involves transgender students. There have been disagreements about living situations, admissions, etc., particularly because it is an all-women’s school. For example, the question has been raised as to whether or not to admit men who identify as women. Homosexuality is also a controversial issue, and flyers related to GLBT programs are often torn down. The group also believes that racism is a significant issue and that in some ways there is a Neo-plantationist attitude, particularly related to campus employees who do manual labor. There have been recent conversations about ensuring a living wage for campus employees. Class issues and immigration were seen to be issues that interrelated with racism and held a high profile on campus. Discussions about creating a more environmentally sustainable campus have also been controversial. Controversial issues have dominantly been framed as different oppressions. Stereotypes about non-traditional students are also seen to persist, particularly against students with children. The campus is not very accessible to disabled students, and some campus groups have attempted to raise awareness about this issue. Many of these controversial issues have been discussed through the strategic planning process. The group agreed that conservative students don’t speak up as much as their peers. The Dean of Students has frequently said that conservative Christians are the most oppressed group on campus.
- In promoting more and better conversations on controversial issues, we can build on the fact that our students already believe these conversation are an essential part of a liberal education.
- In designing dialogue activities and events, we should place a strong emphasis on inviting students to speak up and express disagreements openly. For students who have been silent or excluded in the past, this may require repeat invitations.
- We should empower students to lead controversial conversations, and to invite their peers to participate. Such empowerment may be closely linked to our efforts to promote a more vigorous academic ethos on campus.
- We should seek to overcome the homogeneity of our campus community, both by inviting students to reflect on the differences of religion and ideology that do exist, and by bringing a more diverse range of speakers to campus.
- We should continue to experiment with a variety of dialogical models, recognizing that no one size fits all.
- We should continue to provide students with multiple opportunities to discuss controversial issues related to gender and sexuality. These conversations should invite students to explore their personal experiences and values, the experiences of diverse persons, the insights of the academic disciplines, and the teachings of religious traditions.
- At the same time, and in light of the preoccupation with gender and sexuality at church-related colleges, we recommend that we provide equal numbers of opportunities to discuss issues related to economics, race, the environment, and other important contemporary issues.
- In conversations about sexual orientation, we should make special efforts to include both GLBT students and students with traditionalist viewpoints, recognizing that both groups may interpret the silence of their peers as hostility.
- We should be less afraid of classroom conversation about abortion, seeking to provide an antidote to the harsh polarization of conversations on this topic outside the classroom.
- We should recognize that our students have very diverse ideas about the meaning of our Catholic identity and promote open dialogue on this issue.
- We should recognize that official Catholic teaching on sexual orientation and women’s ordination is so well known and so offensive to many of our students that they have difficulty engaging Catholic teaching on other topics. As an antidote, we must do more to spread awareness of Catholic social teaching, and we must be explicit about the links between Catholicism and our commitment to social justice.
- We should recognize the special challenges faced by religiously and political conservative students on a campus where the overwhelming majority of faculty members are liberals of some stripe. Our first response to these students should not be to challenge their beliefs, but to help them find their own voices, and then to guide them into critical conversation with their peers.
- We should address the conversational challenges experienced disproportionately by men or by women, without assuming that all men or all women face these particular challenges.
In order to be well prepared for the sort of public controversies that have occurred at other Catholic colleges, it is essential that faculty and administrators communicate regularly about the different ways they are affected by pressures from beyond campus. We should recognize that these pressures are likely to intensify whenever a new college president comes on board.