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Catholic Students Losing Their Religion

Study says tuition doesn’t fund faith at Catholic colleges.
by Tim Drake | Source:

Catholic students are confused about their faith and acting out in ways that most parents and university administrators would find shocking. That’s according to a landmark national survey examining the behaviors and beliefs of students at Catholic institutions of higher education.

The study was commissioned by the Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Study of Higher Education in Manassas, Va., and conducted by QEV Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based public opinion research firm.

The results have so far been released only to the Register.

The poll surveyed Catholic college students’ behaviors and beliefs. Among its findings: Most students reject key moral teachings of the Church and significant numbers engage in premarital sexual activity and regularly view pornography.

Attending a Catholic institution of higher education made no difference in their view of the Church or their participation in the sacraments, said respondents.

That makes this study the first of its kind.

“When parents send Catholic students to Catholic colleges and they leave the faith, that’s a major concern,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

Data was collected in May and June of this year. The 506 respondents are current or recent Catholic college attendees ages 18 to 29. They represented at least 128 different Catholic colleges and universities, representing 62% of the total number of 208 such institutions. The survey was administered online, utilizing a sample obtained through social networking Internet sites and included a recruitment pool of 10 million.

Melissa Cidade, research associate with the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities said that she wasn’t aware of any nationally representative surveys looking at Catholic college students’ beliefs and behaviors.

“The data is pretty sparse,” said Cidade. “There have been some studies, but they haven’t been very representative of the whole picture.”

The Register publishes a yearly Catholic Identity College Guide, in which colleges and universities respond to 10 yes-or-no questions based on relevant Church documents, especially Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education. Among them are: “Do you publicly require all Catholic theology professors to have the mandatum?” “Did all Catholic theology professors take the oath of fidelity?” and “Do you exclude co-ed dorms?” The number of participants has grown to 28, representing more than 10% of Catholic institutions of higher learning. The guide can be found under “Resources” at

The Findings

Among the Newman Society survey’s results:

46% of current and recent students said they had engaged in sex outside of marriage.

84% said they had friends who engaged in premarital sex.

60% agreed strongly or somewhat that abortion should be legal.

One out of five students knows someone who has had an abortion or who helped pay for one.

60% agreed strongly or somewhat that premarital sex is not a sin.

78% disagreed strongly or somewhat that using a condom to prevent pregnancy was a serious sin.

57% agreed strongly or somewhat that same-sex “marriage” should be legal.

Such behaviors and opinions appeared to be supported by a significant percentage of staff and faculty at the schools. According to the survey, 39% of students said they had experienced university officials or staff encouraging contraceptive use; 31% said they had experienced officials or staff encouraging the acceptance of homosexual activity.

The survey’s findings also showed that the experience of attending a Catholic institution of higher education did not appear to increase Catholic faith and practice for most students.

57% said the experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no effect on their participation in Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation.

54% of respondents said that their experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no effect on their support for the teachings of the Catholic Church.

56% said their experience had no effect on their respect for the Pope and bishops.

Finally, the survey also found that 6% of students who were Catholic while in a Catholic college are not now Catholic. Only 1% who were not Catholic while at a Catholic college are today Catholic. According to the survey, “This net decline in Catholic self-identification suggests that very few convert to the Catholic faith after leaving college.”

Counting Catholics

The survey’s findings are supported by research done by Donna Freitas, assistant professor of religion at Boston University, for her book Sex & the Soul. She studied seven college campuses, surveyed 2,500 students, and conducted 112 face-to-face interviews with students.

“My most striking finding was that Catholic colleges were virtually indistinguishable from the private secular and public schools in terms of prominence of sexual behavior, hook-up culture and attitudes about sex,” said Freitas. “Chastity and purity and saving sex for marriage was virtually nonexistent at Catholic colleges. The only place where it even came up as a value was evangelical Christian colleges.”

Others support the survey’s findings, as well.

Jeffrey Trimbath, former director of abstinence education in the Bush administration, said that the data corresponds to research he’s familiar with, such as the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“People of faith need to think about this issue culturally,” said Trimbath. “There are many actors pushing youth to act in ways that are not healthy for them — popular culture, music, film, the Internet, even parents who fail to hold out high expectations for their children.”

The Newman study’s results are “no surprise,” said Anne Hendershott, a professor of urban studies at The King’s College in New York. “It’s depressing, but I don’t think it’s any worse than we thought.”

Hendershott is the author of the new book Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education.

What did surprise — and sadden — Hendershott were the gender differences in the study.

The study showed that women were more likely than men to engage in sex outside of marriage — 50% to 41% — and that attendance at a Catholic institution had a positive impact on participation in the sacraments and supporting the teachings of the Church for far more men, 40%, than women, 23%.

“It comes from a distorted sense of feminism,” said Hendershott. “They’re sold this bill of goods that to be competitive they need to have access to abortion. It’s the idea that empowering women includes reproductive rights.”

Sample Too Small?

While Richard Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, was unable to comment on the survey because he hadn’t seen it, he did question the survey’s sample size.

“A national sample of 506 is too small to draw a sample from,” said Yanikoski. “While I wouldn’t say there isn’t any value, it’s likely the results are unreliable because the sample size isn’t very representative of any particular campus.”

Cardinal Newman Society’s Reilly said the sample size is similar to what’s found in other popular studies, such as political surveys.

“You can’t take this data and apply it to one institution, but no one is doing that,” said Reilly. “It’s representative of students at Catholic colleges overall. We’ve deliberately not released and won’t release the names of the schools because we don’t want people applying it to any one school.”

If anything, said Reilly, the study demonstrates the need for additional research.

“It’s amazing that since 1990, when Ex Corde Ecclesiae was issued, that Catholic colleges and universities have still not been proactive in collecting this sort of data,” said Reilly. “One can only guess that they would rather it not be published.”

At a Glance…

A groundbreaking study of Catholic college students and recent alumni found:


60% say abortion should be legal.

60% say premarital sex is not a sin.

57% say same-sex “marriage” should be legal.

39% saw officials or staff encouraging contraceptive use.

31% saw officials or staff encouraging acceptance of homosexual activity.

Men vs. Women

50% of college women engage in premarital sex.

41% of college men engage in premarital sex.

23% of college women are drawn to the sacraments.

40% of college men are drawn to the sacraments.

Source: Center for the Study of Higher Education, QEV Analytics

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