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.


Catholicism on Campus

In 2003, the Cardinal Newman Society asked, “Are Catholic Colleges Leading Students Astray?” After the analysis of longitudinal survey data from a national sample of college students collected by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the Cardinal Newman Society answered this question in noting, “[Catholic] graduating seniors are predominantly pro-abortion, approve of homosexual ‘marriage,’ and only occasionally pray or attend religious services” (p.38).

In 2009, CARA submitted a research proposal to HERI’s Spirituality in Higher Education research award program. This proposal, entitled Catholicism on Campus: Stability and change in Catholic student faith by college type, sought to replicate, update, and expand on the Cardinal Newman Society study with more recently collected data by HERI.

CARA was selected as one of the 12 awardees. Over the past year, CARA has been analyzing HERI data and participating in HERI’s Spirituality in Higher Education symposia. Like the Cardinal Newman Society, CARA had no control over the questionnaire design or sampling.

The data CARA analyzed included 14,527 students at 148 U.S. colleges and universities and were collected from students as freshman in 2004 and again to these students as juniors in spring 2007. CARA's analysis focuses primarily on Catholic students and a wider breadth of potential outcomes than studied by the Cardinal Newman Society—including beliefs and attitudes about social and political issues (e.g., abortion, death penalty, same-sex marriage, reducing pain and suffering in the world) as well as religious behavior (e.g., frequency of attendance at religious services, prayer, reading of religious texts and publications). CARA utilized 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) to select questions in the survey with measurable outcomes. 

To truly understand the potential effects of Catholic higher education one must isolate changes that are occurring to students’ attitudes and behaviors on campus. Here we agree with the author summarizing the Cardinal Newman Society study who notes, “Regardless of where students begin their college journey, Catholic colleges should be helping students move closer [emphasis added] to Christ, and certainly doing a better job of moving students toward the Catholic faith than secular colleges do” (Reilly, 2003, p. 43). 

Thus, CARA’s analysis is based on the measured differences between the freshman and junior year surveys. Those responding in the same manner in the junior and freshman years are “unchanged” by their college experience. Any other response is one where they have either moved closer or further away from the Church on any given issue or behavior. These methods allow CARA to isolate the changes occurring during college. Also, our analysis includes only those student respondents who self-identified as Catholic on both surveys as these are the only respondents who could be expected to follow the teachings and practices of the faith at both points in time (thus, it excludes college converts and those who leave the faith in college).

The tables below summarize comparisons between Catholic students who are attending a Catholic college or university to those attending a public or state college or university. A more complete analysis including comparisons to all types of colleges is available here in CARA Working paper #9. We show the comparison to public colleges below as this is the type of college attended by most Catholics in the United States.

Catholic students at Catholic colleges and universities are generally less likely than Catholics at public or state colleges and universities to move away from the Church’s teachings on a variety of issues.  However, in some cases, such as abortion, same sex marriage, and Affirmative Action, there is still a net loss of students responding in a manner consistent with Church teachings and statements during college at Catholic institutions. 

In terms of religious practice, Catholics in general are significantly less likely to regularly attend religious services in college than they were in the 12 months prior to initially taking the freshman survey.  This shift represents their departure from their parents’ level of Mass attendance. A decrease in frequency of Mass attendance was least likely among Catholics attending a Catholic college or university if they indicated that they were living with family during the fall semester of their freshman year.

As the table below shows, Catholic students at Catholic colleges and universities are generally less likely than Catholics at public or state colleges and universities to become less religiously active. Yet again, there is still a net loss of activity for Catholics at Catholic colleges in terms of Mass attendance, prayer, and reading about religion and spirituality.  There is a net gain in activity for reading the Bible (or other sacred texts) for students at Catholic colleges.

In comparison to other types of higher educational institutions, CARA’s analysis indicates that Catholic colleges and universities are not the place where students would be most likely to be led astray from Catholic Church teachings and practice. More so, it is unlikely that the changes—both negative and positive—occurring on campus are due to institutional leadership rather than the effects of broader cultural forces that impact students on all types of college campuses.

More broadly, the survey results indicate that Catholic students at Catholic colleges and universities remain profoundly connected to their faith in their junior year with 87 percent saying that seeking to follow religious teachings in everyday life is at least “somewhat important” to them and 86 percent saying their “religiousness” did not become "weaker" in college.  Many move away from the Church on specific issues (while also moving more toward the Church on other issues) but it does not appear that students at Catholic colleges are experiencing some form of broad secularization.

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