Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Research Outside the Spin Cycle

In a recent commentary piece in the National Catholic Register, researchers from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) were said to “spin” data regarding the effects of Catholic college enrollment on Catholic students.

CARA is not now nor has it ever been characterized as an organization that spins anything to push an agenda (e.g., think tank, lobbying, advocacy group).  CARA has consistently worked with Church organizations—parishes, dioceses, schools, colleges, religious institutes, seminaries, charities, national membership organizations, Catholic media, and the U.S. bishops—in all aspects of Catholic life in America for more than 45 years as a social science research center.  Our policy has always been to let research findings stand on their own.  In a 1967 article in Review of Religious Research, this design was noted as such: “CARA is the first instrument established by representative leaders of all facets of the American Catholic Church, at the service of all as a national liaison unit promoting the application of research insights.”  Our data and reports are regularly cited by those who would call themselves conservatives or traditional and by those who would self-identify as progressive or liberal.

In one of our most recent studies, CARA researchers worked within the Spirituality in Higher Education research program from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.  In this research we sought to replicate, update, and expand on a 2003 study conducted by the Cardinal Newman Society that used older HERI data.  This previous study had focused on attitudinal and behavioral changes among students in eight areas: abortion, pre-marital sex, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, Mass attendance, prayer, religious identity, and religious strength.

The CARA study references the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) and Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States (USCCB, 2007) in the selection of HERI questions—in addition to those used by the Cardinal Newman Society—where measurable outcomes were possible, including additional measures of religiosity, reading of Scripture, as well as attitudes about issues involving weapons, war, racism, economic justice, and poverty.  This choice reflected the reality that Catholicism consists of much more than those original eight issues or the broader set of issues we were able to analyze.  We recognize that Catholic students and parents may seek a higher education that includes many different aspects of the faith.  Our intention was to produce a report with the widest scope possible to speak to every aspect of the faith that we could within the data.  We have released the results and let the readers focus on the areas of interest to them. 

The CARA findings regarding the original eight areas are very consistent with those of previous research and this led Patrick Reilly, in his focus, to proclaim, “There's a crisis in Catholic higher education.” However, in doing so he and others have at times either misunderstood and/or mischaracterized the more advanced statistical analysis used in the CARA report (i.e., interpreting the results of multi-level multivariate regressions) and largely disregarded the broader scope of the study (which anyone has the right to do).

The overall topline results indicate that Catholic students at Catholic colleges move closer to the Church (links to USCCB-related pages regarding issues) regarding the death penalty, reducing and regulating the availability of weapons (militarily and personally), on several economic justice/poverty issues, and in frequency of reading Scripture. Although the frequency of Mass attendance among students at Catholic colleges shows some net decline, the drop-off is much greater among the students at non-Catholic colleges.  Movement away from the Church on the issue of abortion by students is least likely to occur at Catholic colleges.  Students at Catholic colleges and other private religious non-Catholic colleges are least likely to move away from the Church on the issue of same-sex marriage.  However, the more advanced statistical analysis showed that we cannot be sure how much any of the changes described in the report—good or bad—are attributable to what a Catholic college does (or does not do) as Catholic college students are not randomly assigned to institutions of higher learning.  These effects instead are related, at least in-part, to differences between those students who select a Catholic college and those who do not.  This is what the more sophisticated statistical analyses picked up.

Most choose their college over others for a very specific reason: it fits them and who they are and who they want to be.  If you randomly assigned Catholic students to any specific Catholic college campus we might find that the average Catholic teenager will not turn out the same way that a student who specifically selected that college would.  It is not possible to definitively and absolutely isolate the effects of a Catholic college on students absent self-selection unless we could randomly assign a cohort of young students to different colleges (Catholic and non-Catholic) and measure outcomes.  The problem is this experiment cannot be done for reasons that are obvious.  Thus, we are left with the real topline differences in the HERI data as the best available indicator at this time; however, we are careful not to blindly attribute these directly to the institutions (as is reflected in the results of the regression analysis) as self-selection effects are evident.

After additional analyses, CARA concludes that “the results do not indicate any significant secularizing trend among Catholic students attending Catholic colleges.”  This statement is made immediately after we note that nearly all Catholics at Catholic colleges in their junior year believe in God without doubt, nearly nine in ten seek to follow religious teachings in everyday life, more than eight in ten regularly discuss religion and spirituality with their friends and only 18 percent say their religiousness is “below average” or among the “lowest 10 percent.”  As noted above and in the report, it is the case that Catholic students are more likely to move away from the Church than toward it regarding abortion and same-sex marriage (although in each case the largest sub-group of students includes those who do not change their opinions at all in college) but that does not mean they are becoming non-religious (i.e., secular).  It certainly makes some of the students less consistent with important teachings of the Catholic faith but it does not mean they are now identifying themselves as agnostics or atheists.

Yet, we also show in the report that some Catholics at Catholic colleges do in fact end up changing their religious affiliation while on campus (12 percent of those entering college self-identifying as Catholic; 8 percent of students at Catholic colleges overall).  This finding is of great concern but it is also of little surprise given other widely-circulated research regarding the issue of religious switching from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), and CARA.  For example, other CARA research shows that the median age for a Catholic who leaves the faith is 21.  Four in ten of all U.S. adults that were raised Catholic and no longer self-identify as such left the faith between the ages of 13 and 21.  These changes often occur during high school and college (the report also details how most of those who change religious affiliations come into college already religiously weakened).  Pew estimates that one out of every ten adults in the U.S. was Catholic at one time yet no longer identifies as such today.  This is the case even though the Catholic retention rate (percentage of those raised in the faith who remain in it as adults; 68 percent for Catholicism) is among the highest of any faith in the country.  The fact and reality is that people change religions and there is no faith nor set of institutions—certainly not colleges—that has been shown to be universally successful at preventing this.  This issue of religious switching is also evident by the fact that 11 percent of students who enter Catholic colleges as non-Catholics end up converting to Catholicism on campus (representing 4 percent of all students attending a Catholic college or university).

I was quoted in the National Catholic Register as saying, “Holding Catholic colleges and universities to an unrealistic standard to think they can beat back the broader culture forces and be completely successful [emphasis added] is unrealistic. [But] the study shows they are capable of positive change.”

A close reading of the statement above falls well short of Mr. Reilly’s response to this: “CARA suggests that Catholic educators are nearly powerless to encourage faith in a highly secular culture.”  There is a universe between “completely successful” and “nearly powerless.” Given the results above and those in the working paper, I stand by my quote without doubt or question. 

More so, when the working paper is eventually expanded and published it will also include CARA's research on the long-term effects of Catholic college enrollment from a series of nationally representative surveys including more than 21,000 adult Catholic respondents (Note: these data do not suffer from some of the limitations of the HERI data that includes only students at 34 Catholic colleges and universities and where question wording is not written to reflect Catholic teachings and statements of Church leaders).  With these CARA surveys we examine the latter life-cycle of students and here we do find that, “across the board, Catholics who have attended a Catholic college or university are more likely than those who attended a non-Catholic college to respond in a manner that is more consistent with Church teachings and practice.”

Stay tuned, there is more CARA research on this topic to be released...

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