Catholicism on Campus: How the Faith Is Presented at Secular Schools

By Reidy, Maurice Timothy | Commonweal, April 7, 2006 | Go to article overview

Catholicism on Campus: How the Faith Is Presented at Secular Schools


Reidy, Maurice Timothy, Commonweal


On leafy Stockton Street, a short walk from the Princeton campus, sits the Aquinas Institute, home to the university's Catholic ministry program. Housed in the elegant residence once owned by the German novelist Thomas Mann, the institute has been the official representative of the church on the New Jersey campus since the 1920s. Princeton's Catholic Club, as it was first known, was started by a group of faculty members and originally staffed by Dominicans. Since the 1950s, the Aquinas Institute has been under the control of the local ordinary in Trenton. Fr. Tom Mullelly, a jovial diocesan priest affectionately known as "FT" by students, has served as chaplain since 1995.

Founded as a Presbyterian school, Princeton was long the most religiously conservative school in the Ivy League. The great evangelical theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) served briefly as university president, before dying unexpectedly. In the nineteenth century, Princeton held tightly to its religious heritage as Harvard and many other colleges shed theirs. Because of its Presbyterian roots, Princeton did not really welcome "papists" until the early years of the twentieth century. Today, Catholics make up 20 to 25 percent of the student body, or roughly 1,200 students, and are the largest single religious group on campus.

To many, the significant Catholic presence at elite universities is a cause for celebration--a sign that Catholics truly have arrived. Yet there are reasons for concern. Although these students will be among the nation's future leaders, their future attachment to the church is far less certain. At most secular colleges, a minority of Catholics practice their faith. Mullelly estimates that 30 to 40 percent of Catholic students at Princeton take part in Aquinas activities. At a time when a thick Catholic subculture has disappeared and most young people know little beyond the basics of the faith, the challenge of religious formation is daunting. Catholic chaplains need to find imaginative ways to entice students into the fold.

In an effort to see how one university is dealing with this challenge, I visited Princeton several times last fall. I also spoke to chaplains at other prestigious private colleges. Since I graduated from Princeton in 1997, the Aquinas Institute has turned to a more traditional model of ministry. To his credit, Fr. Mullelly stresses the importance of catechesis and pastoral care. He is especially proud, for example, of bringing a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament to the school's nondenominational chapel. Given Princeton's Presbyterian past, establishing such a prominent place for traditional Catholic devotion is seen as a remarkable achievement by some. As might be expected, Mullelly shies away from any hint of theological controversy or "dissent." The chaplaincy will not sponsor speakers who are known to publicly disagree with church teaching. Mullelly has also cultivated a relationship with Opus Dei, which operates a residence near campus and is viewed with suspicion by many for the group's supposed secretiveness and rigidity.

According to Donald McCrabb, the former director of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, many chaplains are adopting more traditional models of ministry. Williams College and Columbia University are some of the places where the voice of conservative Catholics is now dominant. Both for "cultural" and "ecclesial" reasons, McCrabb said, chaplains on non-Catholic campuses are increasingly taking something of a "ghetto approach." "We do a little more circling of the wagons," he said. "The benefit of that is that it helps people to form a strong identity; the disadvantage of that is that they're unable to engage others."

A "ghetto approach" may appeal to some, but whether it serves the majority of students is dubious. Students are asked to develop a rigorous and skeptical eye in the classroom. No premise or tradition is held to be beyond question.

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