Meeting Point Sex Ed Program Not Ready for Catholic Schools

The Meeting Point: Course of Affective Sexual Education for Young People ( is a high school-level sex education program developed by “a group of married couples in Spain,” supported by the Spanish Bishops’ Conference and released online by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family in July 2016.  It is intended for use in Catholic high schools, parishes and homes.

Although The Cardinal Newman Society does not formally review educational materials, we have taken a close look at this program because of its high profile, parent concerns about its suitability for Catholic families, and our mission to promote and protect faithful Catholic education.

We find that The Meeting Point makes frequent use of sexually explicit and morally objectionable images, fails to clearly identify and explain Catholic doctrine from elemental sources including the Ten Commandments and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and compromises the innocence and integrity of young people under the rightful care of their parents.

With admiration for the work of the Pontifical Council for the Family and confidence in the Church’s authority on faith and morals, we find that The Meeting Point in its present form represents a significant break from the traditional approach to Catholic instruction and learning about human sexuality.

Moreover, we note that no Vatican official has directed implementation of this program in Catholic homes, parishes or schools.  Neither have the United States bishops proposed adoption of the program.  It has only been presented online as a resource—and not even a final program but “an opportunity to convene a large community of people to collaborate, to work, to exchange experiences and knowledge in this special field of education.”  It is hoped, then, that the program may be edited and substantially refined in response to the feedback that has been requested by the Pontifical Council.

For these reasons, and to protect the purity of young men and women and the integrity of faithful Catholic education in school and at home, The Cardinal Newman Society believes that—at the very least—substantial improvement of the program is required under the guidance of Catholic parents and experts in theology, catechesis, pedagogy and developmental psychology.  Catholic parents and educators should not assume that this program in its current form is suitable for a faithful Catholic education simply because of its association with the Pontifical Council for the Family.  Parents especially have the right and responsibility to ensure that their children are presented teaching that is both sound and appropriate.

Lack of Moral Foundations

Since its release, the program’s critics have noted that in its hundreds of pages of materials, little emphasis is placed on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments or on the sexual sins that pervade our culture—and how young people should respond to these threats.  The program also is light on references to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, other Magisterial teachings and Sacred Scripture, especially with regard to moral law.

Instead, the “affective” program asks leading questions with minimal guidance, except what may be provided by the teacher or parent who leads the discussion.  Without clear reference to the Church’s moral teachings, there is the danger that the student could succumb to relativism and false values.

For example, the Unit 2 lesson “Sex or Sexuality?” includes a group discussion (dividing girls and boys “if possible”) on what the words “sex” and “sexuality” suggest—casually noting that “boys can talk about hooking up, one-night stands, maybe making reference to their genital organs, etc., while the girls can talk more about maternity, pregnancy, falling in love…”  The lesson makes no reference to the Church’s moral teaching, and the concepts of sin and chastity are not addressed until later in the program.

Contrast this with the warnings of the same Pontifical Council for the Family two decades ago in its 1995 document The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family:

One widely-used, but possibly harmful, approach goes by the name of “values clarification”.  Young people are encouraged to reflect upon, to clarify and to decide upon moral issues with the greatest degree of “autonomy”, ignoring the objective reality of the moral law in general and disregarding the formation of consciences on the specific Christian moral precepts, as affirmed by the Magisterium of the Church.  Young people are given the idea that a moral code is something which they create themselves, as if man were the source and norm of morality.  (Sec. 140)

While The Meeting Point does point to chastity and virtue, and therefore could not be described quite so harshly as “values clarification,” its affective approach and use of sexually explicit materials often leaves the student uncertain about moral expectations.  The moral authority of the Church is too often hidden from view in The Meeting Point program, in part because it lacks clear and frequent references to the Church’s teaching.

The program also presses students into uncomfortable, inappropriate conversations about sex, which the Pontifical Council strongly opposed in The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: “No one should ever be invited, let alone obliged, to act in any way that could objectively offend against modesty or which could subjectively offend against his or her own delicacy or sense of privacy (Sec. 127).”

This concern for modesty is repeated by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia:

A sexual education that fosters a healthy sense of modesty has immense value…  Modesty is a natural means whereby we defend our personal privacy and prevent ourselves from being turned into objects to be used.  Without a sense of modesty, affection and sexuality can be reduced to an obsession with genitality and unhealthy behaviours that distort our capacity for love. (par. 282)

Morally Offensive Images

In order to spark frank discussion about sexuality among high school students, The Meeting Point incorporates sexually explicit images and discussions that are inappropriate, especially for Catholic schools.

The same “Sex or Sexuality?” lesson mentioned above, for example, has students evaluate a photograph that includes a bare-chested woman in an intimate embrace with a man.  The stated “objective” is for students to feel “provoked” or even confused by the image.  Several other sexually suggestive images are used in the same lesson.

The Unit 5 lesson titled “A Suitable Helper: Morality” contains three morally offensive advertisements that are to be viewed and discussed by students.  One indicates a man’s attraction to pornography and adultery with the caption, “Part good.  Part bad.  That’s man’s essence.”  An electronics ad features a partially naked man and woman in bed with the caption, “The second best thing to do in the dark.”  The teacher’s notes acknowledge that “all three have a clearly erotic component.”

In the section on “Different Bodies,” teachers are instructed to have the students observe two photographs: “one of a newborn and the other of Antonio Lopez’s sculptures of a male and female body… to lead the youth to recognize sexual difference.”  It is suggested that a biology teacher be present for this activity to help “review the identification of primary and secondary sex characteristics, observing the difference between male and female.”  The students are then given a worksheet with a picture of the sculptures, followed by the question: “Can you identify the differences between them in a scientific way?”

It is natural and appropriate that older students should learn male and female anatomy at some point, but several images in The Meeting Point are obviously designed for sexual arousal or moral degradation.  The authors may hope that students exercise perfect maturity and chastity in responding to the images, but that is an unrealistic expectation for most teenage boys and girls.  American children are already bombarded with graphic sexual content; a Catholic educational program does not need to show them more.

Just two decades ago, these and other “abuses” in sex education were opposed by the Pontifical Council for the Family.  The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality warned against schooling “whenever sex education is given to children by teaching them all the intimate details of genital relationships, even in a graphic way” (Sec. 139).  It expected educators to be “positive and prudent” and “clear and delicate” in their presentation of “sexual information”:

No material of an erotic nature should be presented to children or young people of any age, individually or in a group.

This principle of decency must safeguard the virtue of Christian chastity.  (Sec. 126)

The Sacred Congregation of Catholic Education, in its 1983 document Educational Guidance in Human Love: Outlines for Sex Education, advised great care in developing teaching materials for sex education, especially the choice of images.  It recommended consultation with experts who can help ensure that teaching materials are psychologically, developmentally and morally appropriate.

It’s highly doubtful that The Meeting Point satisfies the Congregation’s expectations:

Some school text-books on sexuality, by reason of their naturalist character, are harmful to the child and the adolescent.  Graphic and audio-visual materials are more harmful when they crudely present sexual realities for which the pupil is not prepared, and thus create traumatic impressions or raise an unhealthy curiosity which leads to evil.  Let teachers think seriously of the grave harm that an irresponsible attitude in such delicate matters can cause in pupils.  (Sec. 76)

Parents as Primary Educators

In his introduction to the program, Monsignor Carlos Simon Vazquez, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, explains that The Meeting Point is not intended only for Catholic schools, but also for parish programs, Catholic associations and parents at home.  Looking back on discussions about The Meeting Point at last year’s World Meeting of Families, Msgr. Simon attests that “we clearly saw the family’s primacy in the education of the children, and that emotional and sexual education is not something that exclusively or mainly pertains to the competence of institutions that are as necessary as schools are.”

Nevertheless, the adoption of any sex education program by schools or parish programs—unless with the direct and substantial involvement of parents—conflicts with the parents’ role as primary educators of their children, especially in matters of sexuality.   Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, put sex education squarely under parents’ direction:

Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them.  In this regard, the Church reaffirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents.  (Sec. 36-37)

Moreover, as the primary educators of their children, parents should not “tolerate immoral or inadequate formation being given to their children outside the home” (The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, Sec. 44).

Clarification is needed on these points to ensure that schools and Church programs do not simply implement The Meeting Point under the impression that it is an “official” Catholic education program prescribed by the Vatican.

Not a Helpful Resource

There are other concerns about The Meeting Point program, such as the discussion of abortion in the Unit 5 lesson titled “I Am a Child; Right, Gift or Problem?”  It makes no reference to abortion as a mortal sin; rather, unwanted pregnancies are discussed as a “problem” in society.

The lesson contains a troubling scenario to be read and discussed among students and teacher.  In “the true story of a woman who was led by her circumstances and society to ‘eliminate her problem,’” an explicit description is rendered of a girl’s abortion experience that can be invasive for many young people.  The discussion of the story ends with the instructor talking to students about lessening abortions by helping women with their “problems” in life, without also emphasizing the sacredness of all human life.

Especially in Unit 6, love is not clearly defined and can be confused with lust.  The program resorts to qualitative descriptions like “beautiful love” and “true love,” which can mean virtually anything.  It would be far better if the authors pointed students to C. S. Lewis or Dietrich von Hildebrand, 20th century authors who provide a clear understanding of this very misunderstood term.

It is because of the above concerns and others that The Meeting Point is not, in its current form, a helpful resource to Catholic families for forming students in Church teaching on sex and sexuality, and it needs significant revisions before serious consideration by Catholic parents, schools or parishes.  We nevertheless look with hope to many fruitful efforts in the Church to respond to a hyper-sexualized culture that is often greatly at odds with Catholic morality and respect for the human person.  The Cardinal Newman Society offers our own recently published resource for Catholic educators, Human Sexuality Policies for Catholic Schools, which recommends school policies that promote a faithful understanding of human sexuality, gender, marriage and chastity.

The Church brings to the modern world the guidance of the Holy Spirit and more than 2,000 years of reflection on the Gospel and on the human condition.  Catholic youth deserve no less than to be taught these eternal truths.

Talk to Newman Guide College Presidents and Senior Staff

This talk was originally given at The Cardinal Newman Society Presidents’ Meeting in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2016

Mr. Reilly, esteemed university presidents, dear friends in Christ,

I want to thank you for inviting me to join you for dinner this evening, and to offer a few remarks to you. This is an esteemed, august, and distinguished group, and I’m very humbled that you’ve invited me to offer a few remarks to you this evening.

I have been asked to speak to you about celebrating Catholic identity in the context of your universities and colleges. And in some ways, I feel ill equipped for that task—your institutions already represent some of the most Catholic places in our country—places where Catholic culture, intellectual life, and sacramental life flourishes in beautiful ways.

I am a graduate of a large, land-grant public university. (Rock Chalk Jayhawk!) And my diocese, the Diocese of Lincoln, does not have a Catholic university. But I do hope that I can offer a few thoughts that might be helpful to you in the important work you undertake.

I’d like to talk for a few moments about the Catholic University of Ireland, the university founded by my spiritual patron, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.

Most of you know that Newman is probably the most famous English convert to the faith, a prolific writer and thinker, and most of you are very familiar with Newman’s Idea of a University. In fact, most of your institutions probably draw wisdom and guidance from Newman’s work. But you might not be as familiar with Newman’s term as the founding president of the Catholic University of Ireland. And the story might be instructive for you today.

In 1852, Newman was asked by the bishops of Ireland to be the founding rector of the Catholic University of Ireland.

He didn’t want the job. The Catholic University of Ireland was founded to compete with the anti-Catholic Queen’s University of Ireland, which forbade theology and undermined the Church’s mission. But Newman wasn’t sure the Irish bishops really understood what a Catholic university should be. He took the job, and began in 1854, only after the Holy Father asked him personally.

His first biographer, William Philip Ward, says that “the story of the next three or four years is a long drawn-out history of apparent failure.”

Newman clashed with the Irish bishops—especially Cardinal Cullen, the Archbishop of Dublin. Newman’s vision was a well-educated laity, formed in the humanities, as described in Idea of a University, which he developed as he began the project. But he felt the bishops wanted to found a sort of pre-seminary, whose sole focus would be training for future priests. They clashed over faculty appointments, curriculum, and authority. Newman felt that their promises were often broken. The bishops refused to allow him to accredit the college, which he thought it guaranteed its failure.

Newman’s work in Ireland, says Ward, “made no difference, and wasted his time.”

The clashes between Cardinal Cullen and Newman put the university in dire straits. Its enrollment was too low, its funding was unclear, and its episcopal leadership, at least from Newman’s perspective, expected him to “pick up the crumbs.”

In October of 1858, these frustrations came to a head. Cardinal Cullen had failed to approve Newman’s appointment of a vice-rector. A dean had been appointed without Newman’s approval. It was clear that he had been sidelined. In November, after a period of reflection, Newman tendered his resignation

The bishops of Ireland felt he had failed. Newman felt, in some ways, they had failed him. Some felt that he had failed the Holy Father. The faculty felt that his departure would lead to the University’s demise. And, in fact, the Catholic University of Ireland lasted only 50 years before it was absorbed in to the secular university it had originally sought to defeat.

Newman’s time in Ireland might be seen as a spectacular failure. But Newman believed that the Lord had called him there for a purpose, and had used his service there to further the Kingdom. He had honed and articulated a vision for education—and a vision for the Church—while he was in Ireland. He was now passionate about well-formed and active Catholic laity. And he believed the Lord had wanted that vision, and would use it.

He wrote to a friend. Resignation, he said, “does not prove that what I have written and planned will not take effect some time and somewhere, because it does not at once. For twenty years my book on the Arians was not heard of …

My Oxford University Sermons, preached out as long ago as seventeen years, are now attracting attention at Oxford. When I am gone something may come of what I have done at Dublin. And since I hope I did what I did not for the sake of man, not for the sake of the Irish hierarchy, not even for the Pope’s praise, but for the sake of God’s Church and God’s glory, I have nothing to regret and nothing to desire different from what is.”

The path of Providence, as he had seen before, had been dimly lit. But he believed that for all his failure, the Lord would use his work for great and beautiful good.

I want to make three points about Newman’s experience at the Catholic University of Ireland, and about your role in contemporary Catholic education.

The first point is that Providence is utilizing your faithfulness even when you cannot see it. Many of your colleges and universities are in precarious and difficult situations today. Many of you face real and clear threats because of your fidelity to the Gospel. For some of you, it is no exaggeration to say that your survival is at stake, in the face of threats to religious freedom. And some of you may wonder why the Lord is calling you to persevere in a culture so hostile to your mission and ministry. But, dear brothers and sisters, Providence is utilizing your faithfulness.

Whether your colleges are able to weather the storms, or whether you’re capsized by the winds of persecution, the Lord is utilizing your work, and calling you to faithfulness. Newman’s university did not survive. But the work that came out of his time there—especially Idea of a University—laid the groundwork for faithful and dynamic Catholic university education across the globe. The so-called “failure” of the Catholic University of Ireland was the catalyst for the good work that you’re now doing.

Newman wrote: “God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes….a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work.”

God has created and called your institutions to do some definite service. And in the tribulations that many of you face, you may not see what the purpose is. None of us see clearly the movement and intentions of the Holy Spirit.

But Providence lays the groundwork of the Lord’s will over time. And your work—whether blessed with worldly success or not—is guided by the hand of Providence. And the Church thanks you for your fidelity.

My second point is that our contemporary situation requires new and creative approaches to the mission of orthodox and dynamic Catholic higher education.

The Catholic University of Ireland, as Newman envisioned it, was a new approach to Catholic higher education. The idea of founding a university whose principal mission was the formation of a “well-educated laity,” seemed novel. To us, with the benefit of hindsight, the mission and methodology seems obvious. But consider that the bishops of Ireland had such difficulty envisioning the primacy of the liberal arts, and the role of lay faculty and administrators. At the time, Newman’s thoughts were considered revolutionary, and maybe even subversive.

We need a continued renaissance in our approaches to Catholic higher education. As an example, I should mention that some estimate 90% of American Catholic college students attend public universities. Some of them are poor, or new to this country, or the first in a family to attend college. Some of them are disinterested or poorly formed in the faith. Some of them are studying in programs that small colleges and universities cannot offer. And you know, far better than I, that their education and formation is not only bereft of a Catholic character, it is often hostile to the truths of the Gospel.

Catholic colleges and universities, if they are true to their mission, might spend time asking how they can support the Catholic intellectual and personal formation of these students.

My good friend Steve Minnis, president of Benedictine College, is here with us tonight. Benedictine has formed a partnership with the St. Lawrence Catholic Center to support Humanitas, a program of intellectual formation for freshman and sophomores at the University of Kansas. The University of Mary, under the leadership of Msgr. Shea, offers accredited courses at the University of Arizona.

In the Diocese of Lincoln, in partnership with our college seminary, we’ve begun the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, which will offer accredited courses in the humanities to undergraduates at the University of Nebraska.

These partnerships and projects are not easy. They require an investment of time and financial resources. But they are evangelical, they have life-long impact on students, and they bring the mission of Catholic universities to students most in need of the Gospel. Graduates of these programs have a Catholic foundation, through which to understand their education in areas you might not offer: engineering, technology, biomedical sciences, etc.

Each of you has opportunities to serve and reach students who might never attend Cardinal Newman Society colleges. And in so doing, you’ll be instrumental in forming the network of “well-educated laity” who will build a culture of life.

My third point is that the Church needs you, even when she doesn’t realize it.

Newman bears witness to the challenges and difficulties an institution can face when the hierarchy does not understand or support its mission. He carried the feelings of mutual distrust, disappointment, and disenchantment with the local hierarchy—especially his bishop, Cardinal Cullen.

Many of the institutions represented in this room bear battle scars from difficult relationships with bishops or dioceses that have not always understood your mission. Many of you are, for understandable reasons, wary of collaboration with the local Church. But fidelity to the Gospel requires service to the universal Church and to the particular Church in which you operate. The Lord is calling you to serve the Church in precisely the places in which you are located.

And as a bishop, I can tell you that the Church, and the bishops in the United States especially, increasingly have an understanding and appreciation for what it is that you are doing.

I am 60 years old, and I’ve been a bishop for almost 8 years.  There was a time when I could call myself a young bishop—but increasingly, those days have passed me by!

In dioceses across the country, bishops younger than me, with an even greater appreciation for your mission, are being entrusted with important leadership positions. And the Lord, truly, is calling you to foster and cultivate relationships with them. Ex Corde Ecclessiae calls every Catholic college to “be in close communion with the local Church and in particular with the diocesan bishops of the region or nation in which it is located.”

Newman reminds us of the importance of fostering this communion. Of course, many of you are wondering how to go about this. And some of you have better ideas than I do. But I can tell you that bishops everywhere are concerned with the ongoing formation of their priests, teachers, and lay collaborators. And bishops are eager to find partners in advocating for the faith in the public square. And of course, bishops are concerned with fostering vocations. And finally, I can tell you something that you’ll identify with—most bishops are trying to fulfill their responsibilities while recognizing the reality that there never seems to enough money to get things done!

I’m being sincere when I say that your bishops are in need of the work that you’re doing. And I’m sincere when I say that many of you will experience real and authentic openness to communion and collaboration.

The question for you to consider is what service you can offer to the needs of the particular Church. Can you foster an interest in vocations to the diocesan priesthood, among your students and among other young men? Can you offer training and educational opportunities for diocesan priests, teachers, and leaders? Can you develop authentically Catholic schools of education? Can your accounting and finance faculty offer workshops on parish management and finance for pastors? Can you be a voice for the richness of the Church’s life in your own dioceses?

In the face of ever-greater secularization, bishops are searching for partners. And they’re eager for help. Now, more than ever, the imperative of communion with the local Church is critical to your success, and to the success of the Church’s mission.

Providence is guiding your work, dear brothers and sisters, even in the face of trials and difficulties. Providence is leading even when you cannot see the outcome. You can be at the forefront of continued renaissance in faithful Catholic higher education. You can be of great service to the particular Church. And you can be, and will be, blessed abundantly by the Father for your fidelity and generosity to the Gospel.

Thank you for your good work. May almighty God bless you, +

Experiencing “Transgenderism” on Religious Campuses

On many fronts, the courts are weighing in on the extent to which religious institutions of higher education can follow their faith-based missions.  Recent rulings1 respecting “transgendered” students have granted some exemptions to religious colleges who have set limits on students who choose to live their life as a gender opposite from that in which they were born.

The Cases 

In the first case, a student applied to, and was accepted by, California Baptist University as a woman, but later publicly revealed that “she” was a transgendered male.  The judge ruled that the university was within its rights as a religious institution to expel the student, but at the same time stated that the university could not bar the student from public spaces or online programs. The judge reasoned that some places and programs, such as the library, counseling center, art gallery and online courses “have little or no values-based component … [and] do not require participants to adhere to any moral code of conduct.”  In this case, the university’s standards and behavioral code were accepted, but limited by the judge’s opinion about what was, and was not, material to its religious identity.  While on the surface this may seem to have some rational basis, it completely fails to recognize that for institutions that take their religious identity seriously, there is no area in which their values are extraneous.  For such institutions, their values are an integral, indivisible part of all that they are.  Such values touch every program, every space and every person—with many institutions having explicit behavioral contracts2 and policies3 for their faculty and students.

In the second case, the U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”) rejected a complaint filed on behalf of a “transgender” student (who identifies as a male) whom George Fox University (“Oregon’s Nationally Recognized Christian University”) refused to let reside in male student housing.  Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars gender discrimination by educational institutions, and the DOE has recently stated4 that Title IX covers transgender students.  GFU offered the student a private room, but the student claimed that “he” should be entitled to live with male friends just as other male students have that right.  The student’s lawyer is quoted as stating that the use of such exemptions “will do a lot of harm…  [The students] will be abused.”

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride5 (an organization that serves LGBT student leaders and campus organizations working to free campuses of anti-LGBT prejudice, bigotry and hate) wrote that it is “frightening…that  any private college is now encouraged to use ‘religion’ as a means to justify discrimination.” (quotes in the original)  He goes on to claim that transgender students face threats of harassment and physical violence:  “At the end of the day we must remember this is an issue of safety for transgender young people.”  This statement reflects a standard view that people who do not experience themselves as their biological gender are subject to a number of uncomfortable situations on a typical campus, including difficulty accessing healthcare, navigating their residence halls and utilizing locker and restroom facilities.

While undoubtedly some persons experience negative reactions—and several6 colleges have taken steps to try and address some of those instances—it is unclear that the incidents described above (i.e., abuse, bigotry, hate, violence) are common occurrences.  Rather, a digital search of “danger to transgender students in college” reveals a number of accounts in which students were uncomfortable and distressed by events on campus, but few accounts of violence7 or abuse.

From the data, it appears that while those who disagree with the case rulings above present their arguments in terms of abuse, violence, and safety, the real issue is much more simple: they are offended.  They don’t like the universities’ policies.

Of What Virtue? 

Certainly, any policy by a Christian institution (or any institution, for that matter) should be implemented in a manner that protects all persons’ right to live safely, and any boundaries necessary to that end should be firmly established on the virtues: charity, kindness and compassion among others.  Acts of violence and bigotry, when they occur, must be roundly condemned and reparations made.  But what of “non-offensiveness” as a virtue?  For sure, there is a place for sensitivity in civilized society, and community living requires a respect for human differences.  Yet, this, too, has limits—limits that have traditionally been defined by natural law8, a naturally-knowable and universally-binding law of right and wrong.  One’s gender identity, based upon one’s biological sex, would have clearly fallen into this type of naturally-known limit for many centuries.  The phenomena of gender confusion is not new, but what is new is the idea that this confusion is anything but disordered and something needing intervention and healing.

Unfortunately, gender bending isn’t the only fundamental issue facing shifting opinions with dire consequences for our culture today.  Take for example, the issue of proper human sexual interaction and procreation.  In generations past, it was taken for granted that sexual coupling and childbearing was reserved to marriage between a man and a woman.  Although same-sex marriage is capturing the headlines these days, it is important to consider that the real shift9 began a half-century ago when promiscuity began to be more-widely accepted.  Slowly but surely, the shift took place whereby it became “offensive” to “judge” a person who was exploring his or her sexuality prior to marriage, and some even suggested that such exploration was a healthy advancement beyond the “sexual repression” of the past.  What has come with this shift?  Increasing numbers of children without two parents, and the dire consequences10 that follow.

The normalization of behavior that violates natural law is dangerous; these universities are taking a difficult but laudable stand against the current cultural drift by being clear and unapologetic about their values.  Acquiescing to the demands of a limited number of students in opposition to a school’s core values paves the road to confusion and chaos for the remainder of our young people (not to mention the assault on their own sensibilities).

There is no essential conflict11 between non-discrimination and upholding one’s values. President Michael Lindsey of Gordon College, a liberal arts college that “retains its roots in the Christian faith” and which also has come under scrutiny12 for requesting an exemption, summarizes the issues well: “We have never barred categories of individuals from our campus and have no intention to do so now. We have always sought to be a place of grace and truth, and that remains the case.  As a Christian college, we are all followers of Christ.  As long as a student, a faculty member, or a staff member supports and lives by our community covenant documents, they are welcome to study or work at Gordon.”

Freedom on campuses in the United States is fundamental; such freedom is not, however, rampant license for forcing upon others one’s own predilections. Instead, it is freedom within the boundaries of the community which one joins.  No person is compelled to attend a college or university that has values and goals at odds with those that he or she holds.  But, when he or she chooses to do so, the virtue of integrity demands that he or she do so with the intent of accepting the education sought, on the terms on which it is offered—with the intent of accepting, and giving back.  Such giving involves fostering the mission of the school, upholding its values, and yes, even growing and changing on a personal level.




Catholic Schools, Firing Policies and Teacher Misconduct

This publication is the first in a collaborative series between The Cardinal Newman Society and the Culture of Life Foundation on complex moral issues in Catholic education policy.  These papers are intended to inform discussion and should not be regarded as definitive statements of policy or practice.  The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society or the Culture of Life Foundation.

The question which has been in the news recently is as follows: Should teachers, faculty members or school administrators be terminated if they are found to be guilty of grave moral misconduct in their private lives?

Because each Catholic school has elements unique to itself—mission statements, constituencies, financial needs—and each employment situation is unique, and the circumstances surrounding each instance of misconduct is unique, there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question.  But certain consistent principles can be considered and practical measures taken to assist schools in responding well to the problem of employee misconduct.  This essay discusses both.

What’s the Fuss?

Why is this even a difficult question?  Why not just sack any employee guilty of misconduct, clean the slate and move on?  Or why not be merciful and always offer employees a second chance?  Both options could be licit; at the very least, neither is intrinsically evil.

It’s a difficult question because school officials, in seeking to do what is right, are aware that both alternatives—firing and not firing—risk causing unintentional harms that they are not interested in bringing about, and that could be very impacting on the welfare of the school and the Church.

Making a good decision means not only being realistic about unintentional harms, but assessing whether or not tolerating (but not intending) one or more of them might either violate some moral duty or be an obligation in virtue of some other duty.  Public relations (PR) concerns are often foremost on the minds of school authorities, and they are certainly not irrelevant.  But they are by no means the only—and usually not the most important—concerns, the foremost of which are a true concern to avoid scandal and to maintain the integrity of a school’s Christian witness.

The Fuss Is about Souls!

What’s at stake is ultimately the good of souls, especially the souls of students, and the integrity of the Catholic Church’s apostolic mission.  The first duty of a Catholic school is to bear witness through educational means to the splendor of truth, especially the truths of the Christian faith.  Fund raising, prestige, academic ranking and successful sports programs are important, but if school authorities forfeit their school’s true Catholic identity in their effort to achieve them, they fail in their first duty to their constituencies and to the Church, and worse, they betray Christ.

When it comes to considering termination, making a good decision can be difficult and laborious.  But as I tell my seminarians, moral decision-making is about loving.  And for those who exercise authority, loving means seeing and assessing all the relevant harms caused by one’s action or inaction.  Why?  Because every relevant harm is ultimately a harm to some human being.  And it is human beings who constitute “the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution” (John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, no. 219).  Although some or even many of the foreseeable harms may not be decisive for settling questions concerning misconduct, no harm is irrelevant to these questions’ assessment.

With Whom Does Responsibility for this Decision Rest?

The development and execution of school policy fall to whoever has authority over the school’s employees, and over the school itself: e.g., members of the school’s senior administration, members of the board of directors; the superintendents of Catholic schools; and, ultimately, the diocesan bishop.  There will obviously be differences in the authority structure with non-diocesan Catholic schools, but the point here is clear: those who exercise authority bear responsibility.  At universities, senior faculty are sometimes also consulted, or committees set up to deal with grievances brought against faculty members.

Critical Importance of Hiring Procedures and Conduct Policies

While no set of procedures and no policy can anticipate every possible situation, schools can and should develop hiring procedures and conduct policies that establish a base-line for acceptable conduct for all employees, especially teachers, and specify clearly the results of violating the policies.  In dealing with the problem of employee misconduct, this is arguably the most important practical measure a Catholic apostolate can take to guard its religious identity.

Catholic Apostolates and Mission-Centered Hiring Policies

An “apostolate” is a community of Christian witnesses.  A “mission” is the community’s work.  Catholic schools and universities are—or ought to be—apostolates of the Church.

Hiring procedures should be in place to ensure that all employees support the apostolic identity and mission of the institution.  This is what the term “hiring for mission” means.  Although some jobs are more closely associated with the oral and public communication of the school’s mission, all employees share responsibility for protecting and promoting it.

This does not mean that all employees must be practicing Catholics.  However, it does mean, ordinarily, that a majority of employees should be practicing Catholics.  Otherwise, it will be difficult to ensure a consistent expression of the school’s mission and guarantee continuity of Catholic identity over time.  All other employees should understand, believe in, and be willing to support, the school’s mission.

It follows that:

School authorities ought to hire only people capable of cooperating in carrying out the school’s mission, and that means that they cannot be known to be persisting in any behavior or commitment objectively incompatible with Catholic moral teaching.

This is especially important for the hiring of faculty, as well as administrators who work closely with students (e.g., counselors).

Conduct Policies

This requirement should be supported by a clearly defined, written moral conduct policy.  It should be built into the job description and be an essential and legally binding part of any and every employment agreement.

If the school’s policy is:

  • clearly published and consistent with Catholic Church teaching;
  • closely keyed to the institutional mission statement; and
  • consistently and non-arbitrarily applied,

then there will be structures in place to guide decision making in circumstances where polices are violated.  Absent such a policy, each case will likely be treated differently, depending on the matter at issue and what sort of employment agreement and undertaking exists.  This leaves the institution much more vulnerable to running afoul of the law or being open to a civil suit.

Private vs. Professional Misconduct

My analysis is principally concerned with what school authorities should do in cases of grave misconduct in the private lives of employees.  By “private” I mean life outside of professional employment.  There will be different degrees of private misconduct (e.g., acts one doesn’t want known vs. ones that are flaunted even though they are not on “company time”); this essay concerns all degrees of “private” misconduct.  Once questionable behavior comes to the attention of someone who has authority over the individual, at that point the private becomes public for our purposes.

This essay does not consider misconduct in one’s professional life (e.g., sexual harassment on the job), though that also needs to be handled with consistency and good judgment.  Nor does it address the duties of school authorities to comply with law enforcement in cases where employees are undergoing criminal investigation.

“Grave” Misconduct: Serious Sin, Intransigence, Scandal

In moral theology, referring to a sin as “grave” implies it is a mortal sin.  I am using the term grave here more restrictively.  By “grave misconduct” I am referring to deliberate behavior that meets the following three conditions: first, it is gravely wrong (serious or mortally sinful in type); second, the employee is intransigent in doing it; and third, the situation is potentially an occasion of scandal.

In general, I think that actionable instances of private misconduct should meet all three conditions.

The first condition needs no explanation.  But the next two deserve comment.

Intransigence means that some misconduct is unapologetically habitual.  Some examples of behavior meeting the condition of intransigence could include:

  • Single employees who get pregnant or get someone pregnant and defend their behavior; cohabitating in sexually-active, non-marital relationships;
  • Employees engaged in promiscuous activities with same sex partners or with partners of the opposite sex;
  • Employees engaged in an adulterous relationship;
  • Employees who advocate for public policies explicitly aimed at advancing or defending abortion rights, same sex marriage, polygamy, euthanasia, experimenting on, freezing or destroying human embryos, cloning, or other gravely immoral acts.

Intransigence is not met if an employee engages in some misconduct, but expresses a sincere desire and resolve to change.  For example, if a female employee gets pregnant out of wedlock, or a single male gets a woman pregnant, but she or he sincerely repents, resolves to keep and raise or support the child according to Christian principles, or place the child for adoption, and is willing publicly to support the Church’s moral teaching on marriage and sexual morality, intransigence is not a factor.

Scandal means that the private behavior, if known, could destroy people’s faith, undermine the school’s Catholic identity and be an inducement to sin, especially to the students.  Some sins today are particularly dangerous to the welfare of souls.  Abortion and promiscuity—especially homosexual behavior—because they represent evils that many say are goods, can easily be occasions for scandal.  Since the indissolubility of marriage is also widely rejected, and even doubted by some Catholics, another act especially apt to give scandal could be actively dating when divorced without an annulment or dating an un-annulled divorced person.  If school authorities appear to be indifferent to these behaviors, the consequences can be unacceptable.

Intransigence is not absolutely necessary

As I said, I think that the three conditions ordinarily should be met before instances of misconduct become subject matter for dismissal.

Is this to say that grave misconduct by employees who do not express intransigence is not subject matter for dismissal?  No.  If school authorities have good reason to believe that an immoral act committed by an employee will cause scandal, then even if the employee is repentant, the welfare of the school may require dismissal.  Obviously, the greater the risk of scandal, the more seriously dismissal must be considered.

However, just as it is true that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Lk. 15:7), so it is true that Christians rejoice when their brothers and sisters repent.  It seems to me that evil-doing that is frankly, publicly and sincerely rejected through true repentance is rarely an occasion for another’s sin; and very often it is an occasion of moral growth for wrongdoers and those around them.

It follows that:

If school authorities think that scandal in the case of a repentant employee can be reasonably obviated by measures short of dismissal, they should adopt those measures.  If they do not think scandal can be avoided, then they may be obligated to terminate the employee’s employment.

Two Moral Requirements: Due Diligence and Moral Certitude

School authorities can come to suspect an employee of grave misconduct in several ways.  Employees might publicize their behaviors (including their views) on social media, by email or in scholarly publications.  Or, a member of the school community or somebody outside of it might accuse them of misconduct.

In either case, school authorities ought to carry out due diligence and only act when reasonable doubt has been removed.

Due diligence

The first priority should be to establish beyond a reasonable doubt whether or not the suspicion is true.  Christian charity requires that school authorities should assume the best of their employees until evidence proves otherwise.

The practice of anonymous accusation, not uncommon in Catholic institutions, should be rejected in all but the most extraordinary circumstances (e.g., in cases of danger to the informer).  Although it may be fair to ask authorities to maintain confidentiality when one is revealing sensitive information about oneself, if one accuses another of grave misconduct, one should, in justice, be willing to be made known to the accused.  And the accused, also as a matter of justice, should be given the opportunity to face his or her accuser.  It is not only gravely unjust—evil—to falsely accuse another; it is also unjust for authorities to accept and act on an accusation of grave misconduct without undertaking due diligence to establish its verity.

Upon a revelation of misconduct, school authorities ordinarily should first approach the employee and ask him or her charitably and without dissembling: “Did you do X?” or “Are you doing Y?”  If rumors are flying about, but no solid evidence has been presented, it would still be acceptable to ask the employee directly whether there is anything to the rumors.

Unless school authorities have reasons to suspect an employee’s honesty, a denial of guilt should be taken as sufficiently establishing the truth.

Moral certitude

Only after guilt has been established beyond a reasonable doubt—that is, when authorities have moral certitude of their employee’s guilt—should disciplinary measures be initiated.

And I do mean should be initiated.

Schools must not close their eyes to the grave immorality of their employees hoping it will go away.  It is not uncommon for schools to ignore the private but scandalous behavior of their employees, not acting upon it until the situation grows into an ugly PR problem, at which point, scandal has probably already occurred.

Although they should not take action in the absence of due diligence and moral certitude, as soon as these are fulfilled, they should not delay action because of a fear of unpleasant results.

Confidentiality vs. Secrecy

A common cause of disunity in Catholic educational institutions is inadequate communication between administration and other employees, especially faculty.  Although every person has a right to a good name, and idle curiosity should not be fed, confidentiality should not be taken to the extreme of secrecy.

All school employees share responsibility for contributing to, and maintaining, the conditions of the common good of the institution.  Consequently, they have a right to know at least the minimal facts of serious situations that bear upon that common good.

If a teacher or administrator is convicted of, and dismissed for, misconduct, I believe it is best for school authorities to give other school employees at least minimal information about the event (e.g., “so and so has been dismissed for misconduct”).  Details ordinarily need not be divulged.  Employees should be admonished not to give over to gossip or listening to gossip, or calumny or reviling.  They should be told that if they feel the need to discuss the situation further, they are free to contact proper channels within or outside the institution.

Harmful Effects of Terminating or Not-Terminating an Employee

I said above that making a good moral decision means assessing the potential consequences of adopting, or not adopting, alternatives under consideration.  In this final section, I elaborate on the kinds of unintentional harms that may follow upon the decisions to dismiss or not dismiss an employee for misconduct.

If there is a clear school policy, as I recommend above, some of the harms (especially in clear-cut cases of misconduct) may be less material to the analysis, but no reasonably-foreseeable harm of our actions is irrelevant to conscientious moral analysis.

Therefore, this final section is included to educate readers, especially those who hold positions of authority in Catholic education, of the types of issues that should be considered when undertaking a moral assessment of complex issues such as the one we are considering here.

Not Consequentialist or Proportionalist Reasoning

It bears noting that considering the harmful consequences attendant to a decision to terminate or not terminate is not consequentialist reasoning, the aim of which is to determine by appeal to consequences whether or not intending evil (as an end or means) is licit ‘under the circumstances.’  Evil alternatives should never be chosen and consequently should not be the subject matter of moral deliberation.  As soon as we conclude that some type of behavior would be intrinsically wrongful to choose, we should exclude it from our range of potentially-acceptable choices.

But once we have done this, we must have a reasonable concern for consequences.

Effects of terminating employment

What harmful (unintended) side effects are likely to be caused by terminating an employee for misconduct?

  1. Effects on school pedagogy: perhaps lose a good teacher;
  2. Effects upon students: alienate students who feel sympathy for the teacher;
  3. Effects upon faculty/administrators/other employees: generate or strengthen unhealthy factions within the institution;
  4. Effects on institution/diocese/Church: employee becomes a cause célèbre:
  • Provides an opportunity for those outside the institution who oppose the Church’s teaching to accuse the institution of intolerance, mean-spiritedness, unmercifulness, hypocrisy, etc.
  • Provokes lawsuits with financial implications for the institution.
  1. Effects upon the teacher: stigmatizes him/her which may make it hard to find a new job; perhaps precipitates financial difficulties, relational difficulties, etc.;
  2. Effects upon the innocent:
  • If a teacher gets pregnant, termination may cause harm to the unborn child; if he/she has other children, hardship may come to them.
  • If termination is carried out in a heavy-handed way, those in the community who are weak or ignorant, but good-willed, may be alienated from the Church.

If one or another of these harms can be avoided by undertaking remedial interventions that are not gravely burdensome to the institution, then, when a decision is made to terminate an employee for misconduct, school authorities should consider ways to make those interventions.

Effects of not terminating employment

What are some foreseeable unintentional harms of not terminating employment?

  1. Possibility of scandal: continuing employment may tempt others to sin:
  • Effects upon students: Students who see the school apparently tolerating the behavior may conclude that the behavior is legitimate; may even imitate it.
  • Effects on others outside the school: not taking decisive action can make the wrongdoing seem more acceptable, provide material for rationalization and self-deception, tempt the weak, and confuse the doubtful or ignorant.

Moral principle: if school authorities have good reasons to conclude that not taking decisive action, including termination, will cause scandal, then ordinarily they have an obligation to take appropriate action.  If the risk of scandal can be obviated by measures short of termination, then fear of scandal need not be decisive.

  1. Effects upon the school’s mission: by not taking decisive action, the school may fail in its duty to bear perspicuous witness to gospel values. Catholic schools, as a matter of basic identity, have an obligation to offer credible and charitable witness against these types of wrongdoing and for the goods violated by the misconduct.

Moral principle: if school authorities have good reasons to believe that their school’s apostolic integrity (i.e., its ability to carry out its mission) will be compromised by not taking decisive action, then ordinarily they are obliged to take that action.

  1. Effects upon the school’s Catholic reputation: by not taking decisive action the school may appear to be indifferent towards certain kinds of evildoing and hence lose the respect (as a Catholic institution) that all true apostolates deserve. For schools that have already lost this respect, school leaders should consider their response to employee misconduct in light of the need to restore their good (Catholic) name.
  2. Effects upon school authorities themselves: those in authority should ask whether tolerating grave misconduct in their employees would cause themselves (or other employees) to grow psychologically coarsened in relation to the goods/persons adversely affected by the wrongdoing, or cynical towards the duty to “fight the good fight” against certain widespread kinds of evil. They should take appropriate action against such coarsening and cynicism in themselves (and in their employees, especially faculty members).
  3. Effects upon school policy: not taking decisive action may establish a dubious precedent for resolving future cases; this should be avoided.
  4. Effects upon other schools: other schools may follow the example, when in fact their situations are quite different and demand a different response.
  5. Effects upon the wrongdoer: if wrongdoers are not disciplined, they may be strengthened in their wrongdoing and carry out further wrongful acts.
  6. Effects upon community harmony:
  • Members of the wider Catholic or Christian community, who hear about wrongdoing at a Catholic school and conclude that the school is indifferent to it, may grow alienated from the school and from relevant Church authorities.
  • Disharmony may also be caused between school authorities and possible victims of the wrongdoing, e.g., a spouse who was dumped by a school employee may perceive the school’s failure to terminate the spouse as the school’s indifference towards, or support for, the wrongdoing.

Other Morally Relevant Questions

A few other questions should also be asked:

  1. Are there special circumstances that strengthen the school’s reasons to terminate or not to terminate an employee? For example:
  • Is the employee especially vulnerable at this time for reasons unrelated to the misconduct?
  • Or is the misconduct so grave and the potential harms so widespread that attending to “special circumstances” might be unfair to others?
  • Is the employee recidivist in wrongdoing or is this a first offense?
  • Does he or she as a rule publicly support Catholic teaching or criticize it?
  1. Is the employee close to retirement?
  • If so, could the retirement be moved forward in such a way as to render unnecessary a precipitous termination?
  • In some instances, however, the institution may be obliged to say something publicly about the retirement, so that others do not come away with the mistaken belief—if it is indeed mistaken—that the authorities have done nothing about the misconduct.
  1. Can termination be carried out more discreetly? Could the employee be let go at the end of the contract year, rather than immediately, without undue harmful effects being caused?
  2. Do school authorities have good reasons to believe that terminating employment may prevent or mitigate future wrongdoing by the employee?
  • Certain kinds of decisive action may be advisable, and even obligatory, if doing so is likely to prevent future evildoing.
  • If, however, the intervention is unlikely to have any positive effect on the employee, this may not be a consideration.


This is an analysis of Christian principles important for properly understanding issues surrounding the termination of teachers/faculty, school administrators and other employees who have been found guilty of grave moral misconduct in their private lives.

The principles are offered to assist school authorities to establish clear and consistent policies regarding moral behavior for employment contracts, faculty handbooks, or other documents, which govern the conduct of school employees.  They also may be useful as a basis for the establishment of employment law respecting both the religious freedom of Catholic educational institutions and the rights of employees.

Behaviors and Beliefs of Current and Recent Students at U.S. Catholic Colleges

This analysis is based on a national survey of current and former undergraduate students at Roman Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, conducted by QEV Analytics for The Cardinal Newman Society.  In total, 506 respondents participated: 251 current students and 255 recent graduates or attendees under 30 years of age.  Data were collected in May and June of this year. The theoretical margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.4% at the 95% confidence level.

This survey was administered on-line, utilizing a sample developed by a commercial sample vendor (Peanut Labs).  The vendor develops its sample through social networking Internet sites and reports a recruitment pool of 10 million.  The obtained sample of 506 current and recent students was weighted by age (18-29) to achieve an even distribution, and by institution to limit attendees of any one institution to 3% of the sample.

General Characteristics of Respondents

Half of the respondents are currently students at Catholic colleges and universities.  Nearly one-quarter (23%) have graduated from a Catholic college or university, almost all of them since the year 2000.  Just more than a quarter (27%) are former students at a Catholic college or university, but did not graduate from that institution.

The majority of respondents are female (57%).  This corresponds closely to trends in U.S. undergraduate enrollment reported by the U.S. Census Bureau:  a majority of college undergraduates have been women since 1979, holding steadily around 56% from 2000 to 2006.

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of respondents identify themselves as Catholic today and also while they were students at Catholic colleges and universities.  Six percent (6%) were Catholic in college, but not now (only one percent were not Catholic in college but are now).  Another 29% were not Catholic in their last year of college and are not currently Catholic.

For comparison in this report, we use the term “sacramentally-active Catholic”—those who attend Mass at least once a week and participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year.  Just more than half (53%) the respondents report participating in a Catholic Mass at least weekly during their last year at a Catholic college or university.  Sixty-one percent (61%) report participating in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once in their most recent year attending a Catholic institution.  We combined these results to identify respondents who were sacramentally-active Catholics during their last year at a Catholic college or university.  While 65% of our sample considered themselves to be Catholic while attending a Catholic college, only 48% of respondents actually participated in the Sacraments with the frequency required of faithful Catholics.

More than half (54%) the respondents report a G.P.A. of 3.5 or higher while attending a Catholic college or university.  Nearly a quarter (23%) achieved grades of 3.8 or higher.

Representation of Students at Catholic Colleges and Universities

This random sample of students who attend or recently attended U.S. Catholic colleges and universities provides statistically valid results applicable to current and recent undergraduate students at Catholic institutions generally in the United States, within the theoretical margin of sampling error.

Respondents have attended at least 128 different Catholic colleges and universities, representing 62% of the universe of 208 institutions with undergraduate programs for lay students.  These may not include colleges and universities attended by 101 respondents (20% of the total sample) who provided ambiguous school names (e.g. “St. Mary’s,” which could apply to several institutions).

We undertook a review of the respondents to evaluate characteristics of the colleges and universities they attended, in comparison to all students currently attending Catholic colleges and universities.  We relied primarily on publicly available enrollment, location and admissions selectivity data from the National Catholic College Admission Association (NCCAA).  For several Catholic colleges and universities not included in the NCCAA data set, and missing data for institutions affiliated with NCCAA, we relied on publicly available data from Peterson’s college guides.

The survey respondents, all under 30 years of age, attended Catholic colleges and universities over a span of several years, but our comparison data is for current students only.  Some change in the enrollment and admissions selectivity characteristics of each college and university is likely over time.  Respondents who provided ambiguous school names were not included in the analysis.

Acknowledging the limitations inherent in any survey research of this kind, we found a high degree of comparability between the obtained survey sample and the profile of current students at Catholic colleges and universities.

  All Current Students
at Catholic Colleges
& Universities
Survey Respondents
Locale of School    
Rural/Small Town 8% 11%
Suburban 48% 46%
Urban 44% 43%
Selectivity of School    
Open 5% 4%
Moderately Selective 39% 45%
Selective 46% 35%
Very Selective 10% 16%
Region of School    
North East/Mid Atlantic 31% 35%
South 6% 11%
Midwest 48% 35%
West 15% 20%
Student Body    
<2,000 26% 28%
2,000 – 2,999 22% 28%
3,000 – 4,999 25% 19%
>5,000 26% 25%

Goings-On, On Catholic Campuses

Certain behaviors of many students at America’s Catholic colleges and universities conform more closely to prevailing cultural norms than to traditional Catholic morality:

  • During their last year at a Catholic college or university, 46% of current and recent students engaged in sex outside of marriage (including 41% of respondents who say they were sacramentally-active Catholics during that year).
  • While attending a Catholic college or university, 84% of respondents had friends who engaged in premarital sex.
  • During their last year at a Catholic college or university, 27% of respondents regularly viewed pornography (including 28% of then sacramentally-active Catholics).
  • While attending a Catholic college or university, 19% of respondents personally knew a student who had an abortion or paid for someone else to have one.
  • During their last year at a Catholic college or university, 31% of respondents regularly got drunk (including 27% of then sacramentally-active Catholics).
  • While attending a Catholic college or university, 59% of respondents had friends who regularly used drugs for recreational purposes.
  All Catholic While in College Sacramentally Active in College
During last year at Catholic college or university engaged in sex outside of marriage 46% 48% 45% 53% 41% 56%
During last year at Catholic college or university, regularly viewed pornography 27% 68% 26% 69% 28% 68%
During last year at Catholic college or university, regularly got drunk 31% 65% 30% 68% 27% 69%
While attending Catholic college or university, knew student who had or paid for abortion 19% 76% 18% 78% 19% 79%
  All Catholic While in College Sacramentally Active in College
None Less Than Half Half or More None Less Than Half Half or More None Less Than Half Half or More
Close friends who drank alcohol regularly 7% 27% 64% 10% 31% 58% 13% 40% 46%
Close friends who regularly used drugs for recreational purposes 36% 36% 23% 40% 36% 21% 44% 34% 19%
Close friends who engaged in sex outside of marriage 10% 26% 58% 14% 30% 54% 17% 38% 42%

Each negative behavior tends to correlate with other negative behaviors.  For instance, among those who had premarital sex during their last year at a Catholic college or university, 51% also regularly got drunk and 39% regularly viewed pornography that same year—as compared to 15% and 18% of students who abstained from sex during their last year.  Among those who regularly got drunk during their last year at a Catholic college or university, 74% also had sex and 47% regularly viewed pornography that same year—as compared to 34% and 18% of those who did not get drunk regularly during their last year.

The negative behaviors of respondents strongly coincide with having friends who engage in the same or other negative behaviors.  About two-thirds (64%) of respondents say that half or more of their close friends at a Catholic college or university drank alcohol regularly; 40% of those respondents got drunk regularly in their last year at the Catholic institution, as compared to 17% of students with a majority of friends who did not drink regularly.  Among respondents who reported that half or more of their close friends at a Catholic college or university engaged in premarital sex (58% of the sample), nearly two-thirds (64%) had premarital sex in their last year, as compared to 23% of students with a majority of friends who abstained from sex.

Respondents who were Catholic in college—and especially sacramentally-active Catholics—are somewhat less likely to have engaged in negative behaviors.  The difference, however, is not always very large given the Catholic Church’s strong teaching against these behaviors.  We find no more than a five-point difference between all respondents and sacramentally-active Catholics with regard to having premarital sex and getting drunk during their last year at a Catholic college or university.  There is no significant difference on viewing pornography.  There are significant differences, however, in the behavior of close friends of sacramentally-active Catholics.  Catholic students are just as likely to know a student who had an abortion or paid for someone to have an abortion.

Dissent from Catholic Teaching

Most respondents, including Catholics, disagree with traditional Catholic teachings on key moral issues and the priesthood, but Catholic respondents are more in accord with Catholic teachings on matters of dogmatic theology.

  • Sixty percent (60%) agree strongly or somewhat that abortion should be legal (including 53% of those who currently identify as Catholic, and half those who were sacramentally-active Catholics during their last year at a Catholic college or university).
  • Sixty percent (60%) agree strongly or somewhat that premarital sex with someone you really care about is not a sin (including 55% of current Catholics, 53% of sacramentally-active Catholics).
  • Seventy-eight percent (78%) disagree strongly or somewhat that using a condom to prevent pregnancy is a serious sin (including 73% of current Catholics, 69% of sacramentally-active Catholics).
  • Fifty-seven percent (57%) agree strongly or somewhat that same-sex marriage should be legal (including 53% of current Catholics, 48% of sacramentally-active Catholics).
  • Sixty-one percent (61%) of both current Catholics and sacramentally-active Catholics agree strongly or somewhat that women should be allowed to be ordained as Catholic priests.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of both current Catholics and sacramentally-active Catholics agree strongly or somewhat that the fullness of God’s truth is found in the Catholic Church.
  • Just more than two-thirds of current Catholics (67%) and sacramentally-active Catholics (69%) agree strongly or somewhat that the communion bread and wine at a Catholic Mass truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
  All Currently Catholic Sacramentally Active in College
Agree Disagree Agree Disagree Agree Disagree
“At a Catholic Mass, the communion host and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.” 49% 36% 67% 24% 69% 23%
“The fullness of God’s truth is found in the Catholic Church.” 43% 41% 64% 26% 64% 28%
“Women should be allowed to be ordained as Catholic priests.” 63% 22% 61% 29% 61% 30%
“The law should permit marriage between two people of the same sex.” 57% 35% 53% 40% 48% 46%
“Sex before marriage with someone you really care about is not a sin.” 60% 36% 55% 42% 53% 44%
“Women should have the legal right to have an abortion.” 60% 31% 53% 39% 50% 43%
“Using condoms to prevent pregnancy is a serious sin.” 15% 78% 19% 73% 24% 69%

With regard to traditional Catholic teaching, the average number of canonically correct answers for all respondents is two (out of seven); for respondents who were sacramentally-active Catholics during their last year at a Catholic college or university, it is three.

These next several questions gauge the morality of various acts.  In the following table, we have combined the responses “always morally acceptable” with “usually morally acceptable;” “usually morally wrong” with “always morally wrong.”  Here respondents are less in conflict with Catholic teaching, and a stronger difference is seen for current Catholics and respondents who were sacramentally-active Catholics during their last year at a Catholic college or university.

  All Currently Catholic Sacramentally Active in College
Moral NOT Moral Moral NOT Moral Moral NOT Moral
“Sex between college students who are not married.” 50% 44% 43% 52% 41% 56%
“Sex with someone of the same sex.” 40% 49% 33% 57% 30% 62%
“The regular viewing of pornography.” 41% 52% 34% 60% 34% 61%
“Having an abortion.” 29% 63% 25% 69% 24% 72%

Nearly half (47%) of the respondents who say that an abortion is usually or always morally wrong agree with the proposition that abortion should be legal. This is evidence that some respondents are reluctant to use the law to enforce a moral judgment, a reluctance also found among Catholic adults generally.  This phenomenon is also visible to a lesser extent on the question of same-sex marriage.  One third of those who hold that sex between persons of the same sex is usually or always morally wrong also agree same-sex marriage should be legal.

Student Activities

We asked respondents about their participation in extracurricular activities that are associated with three common emphases of Catholic educators: community service and promoting social justice, advocating respect for human life at all its stages, and spiritual development in the Catholic faith.

Half (50%) the respondents reported that while a student at a Catholic college or university, they participated “in an organization or program devoted to community service, alleviating human suffering, or otherwise concerned with social justice.”  Participation was slightly higher (55%) if the respondent was Catholic while in college, and even higher (62%) if sacramentally active in the last year at a Catholic college or university.

Among all respondents, 44% reported that while a student at a Catholic college or university, they participated “in an organization or program devoted to Catholic prayer or Catholic spiritual development.”  Participation was significantly higher (61%) if the respondent was Catholic while in college, and even higher (73%) if sacramentally active in the last year at a Catholic college or university.

Pro-life activity was less common.  Only 24% of respondents reported that while a student at a Catholic college or university, they participated “in an organization or program devoted to protecting human life from abortion, stem cell research or euthanasia.”  Participation was higher (32%) if the respondent was Catholic while in college, and even higher (42%) if sacramentally active in the last year at a Catholic college or university.

Academic Performance

Earlier it was noted that more than half (54%) the respondents report a G.P.A. of 3.5 or higher while attending a Catholic college or university.  Nearly a quarter (23%) achieved grades of 3.8 or higher.

Some positive behaviors correlate significantly with higher grades:

  • Sacramentally-active Catholics during their last year at a Catholic college or university were more likely (61%) to have a G.P.A. of 3.5 or higher than were those who participated in the Sacraments infrequently (47%) or never (48%).
  • Respondents who prayed more than daily during their last year at a Catholic college or university were more likely (62%) to have a G.P.A. of 3.5 or higher than were those who prayed about once a day (57%), at least once a week (50%) or less than weekly or never (51%).
  • Respondents who did not regularly view pornography during their last year at a Catholic college or university were more likely (57%) to have a G.P.A. of 3.5 or higher than were those who did regularly view pornography (48%).

Sexual activity and alcohol abuse, however, are not strong indicators of lower G.P.A.

Weak Impact on Students’ Catholicity

The experience of attending a Catholic institution of higher education does not appear to increase Catholic faith and practice for most students:

  • Fifty-seven (57%) percent of respondents say the experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no effect on their participation in the Catholic Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation—and 10% say the experience decreased their participation.  A significant minority (30%) say the experienced increased their participation.
  • Similarly, 54% of respondents say the experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no effect on their support for the teachings of the Catholic Church.  Thirteen percent (13%) say the experience decreased their support, 30% increased.
  • Again, 56% of respondents say the experience of attending a Catholic college or university had no effect on their respect for the Pope and Bishops of the Church.  Thirteen percent (13%) say the experience decreased their support, 28% increased.
  • For self-described Catholic students—and especially those who were sacramentally-active Catholics in their last year at a Catholic college or university—the impact of attending a Catholic institution is significantly stronger and more positive.  Nevertheless, a clear majority of respondents who were Catholic in college still report no impact or a negative effect on Catholic belief and practice.
  All Catholic While in College Sacramentally Active in College
None + None + None +
Impact of Catholic college experience on support for Catholic teachings 54% 30% 13% 47% 41% 11% 38% 51% 10%
Impact of Catholic college experience on respect for Pope, bishops 56% 28% 13% 50% 36% 12% 40% 46% 12%
Impact of Catholic college experience on participation in Sacraments 57% 30% 10% 47% 44% 9% 37% 51% 11%

We asked whether the college or university actively encouraged Catholic students to attend Mass and practice their faith (74% said yes), whether it actively encouraged participation in community service (83% yes), whether it actively encouraged unmarried students to abstain from sex (46% yes), and whether it actively discouraged the viewing of pornography (36% yes).

Overall, considering these four questions about efforts to encourage Catholic activity and moral behavior, 25 percent scored the Catholic college or university they attended 4 out of 4; 19 percent gave their school 3 out of 4; 31 percent gave it 2 out of four, 17 percent 1 out of four, and 7 percent zero out of 4.

Although Catholic colleges and universities appear to have had less impact on respondents’ Catholicity than might be hoped for, behavioral messages do seem to have some influence:

  • Students who attended Catholic colleges and universities that actively encouraged Mass attendance (overall, 74% of respondents) were more likely to attend Mass at least once a week during their last year at that institution (59%) than were students who attended schools which did not encourage Mass attendance (37%).
  • Students who attended Catholic colleges and universities that actively encouraged community service activities (83% of respondents) were slightly more likely to participate in a community service organization in their last year at that institution (53%) than were students at schools which did not encourage community service (49%).
  • Students who attended Catholic colleges and universities that actively discouraged sex between unmarried students (46% of respondents) were less likely to have engaged in premarital sex in their last year at that institution (44% versus 55% at schools which did not discourage sex between unmarried students).
  • Students who attended Catholic colleges and universities that actively discouraged the viewing of pornography (36% of respondents) were less likely to view pornography regularly during their last year at that institution (27%) than were students at schools which did not discourage the viewing of pornography (32%).

We also asked about certain influences in campus life at a Catholic college or university that would seem negative from a traditional Catholic perspective:

  • Of the 39% of respondents who say they experienced officials or staff encouraging students to use contraceptives, 53% engaged in premarital sex during their last year at the college or university, as opposed to 43% of the remaining respondents.
  • Of the 31% of respondents who say they experienced officials or staff encouraging the acceptance of gay or lesbian sexual activity, 45% support gay marriage (versus 29% of the remaining respondents), 56% agree that having sex with someone of the same sex is always or usually morally acceptable (versus 30% of the remaining respondents), and 43% say the visibility of gay and lesbian students on campus is fairly or very high (versus 11% of other respondents).

Decline in Catholic Affiliation

Earlier we noted that 58% of respondents consider themselves to be Catholic today and also while they attended a Catholic college or university.  Six percent (6%) were Catholic in college, but not now.  Only 1% are Catholic today, but were not in college.

This net decline in Catholic self-identification suggests that very few convert to the Catholic faith after leaving college.  Nearly a third of attendees of Catholic institutions of higher education (29%) were not Catholic in college and did not become so afterward.  There may be conversions going on during the years on campus which we did not detect, because respondents who say they were Catholic at some point during college may have entered college as self-described non-Catholics.

What is clear, however, is that current students at Catholic colleges and universities are also leaving the Catholic Church.  Among current students who say they were Catholic at some point during their studies, four percent report that they are no longer Catholic.  The percent of Catholic students leaving the Church over the course of a Catholic college education (usually four years) may actually be larger than this, because the current students who responded to the survey are of different ages, and most of them still have one or more years of study before they graduate.

Choosing a Catholic College or University

A majority of respondents (55%)—and especially those who were Catholic in college (74%) or were sacramentally-active Catholics during their last year at a Catholic college or university (84%)—say that the fact that a college or university is Catholic was very or somewhat important to their decision to attend the institution.

For almost half the respondents (47%), the decision to attend a Catholic college or university was made together with their parents—slightly higher (54%) for Catholic students.  Nearly one-third (30%) of all respondents say they made the choice alone, and 17% say it was mainly their parents’ decision.

  All Catholic While in College Sacramentally Active in College
Important NOT Important Important NOT Important Important NOT Important
Importance of Catholic identity to choice of college or university 55% 44% 75% 25% 84% 15%
  All Catholic While in College Sacramentally Active in College
Yours Parents Both Yours Parents Both Yours Parents Both
Whose idea was it, mainly, for you to attend Catholic college or university? 30% 17% 47% 28% 15% 54% 23% 20% 54%

Why respondents chose to attend Catholic colleges and universities has a strong relationship with subsequent behavior and Catholicity while students at those institutions.  Those who say that Catholic identity was very important to their choice of a Catholic institution were, while attending a Catholic college or university:

  • much more likely to attend Mass at least once a week during their last year at a Catholic college or university (89%, compared to 7% of those who were not at all attracted by an institution’s Catholic identity);
  • much more likely to pray at least daily during their last year (87% versus 25%);
  • much more likely to participate in community service (74% versus 37%), Catholic spiritual programs (77% versus 11%) and pro-life activity (60% versus 4%);
  • more likely to have high grades (76% had a G.P.A. of 3.5 or more, compared to 45% of respondents who said Catholic identity was not at all a factor in choosing a Catholic college or university); and
  • less likely to engage in premarital sex during their last year (39% versus 53%).

Desired Directions in Catholic Identity

Among all respondents, 28% say their Catholic college or university would be a better place if it had a stronger Catholic identity, 43% say it is already Catholic enough, and just 12% say they want their school to be less Catholic (17% rendered no opinion).

Respondents’ own Catholic identity is strongly related to how they respond to this question.  Among those who want their college or university to have a weaker Catholic identity, most (62%) are not currently Catholic.  By contrast, 40% of respondents who were Catholic during college and remain Catholic want their school to have a stronger Catholic identity.  Forty-seven percent (47%) of respondents who were sacramentally-active Catholics during their last year agree, as do nearly three-quarters (71%) of respondents who say Catholic identity was very important to their college selection.

We asked those who desire improvement to identify one or more measures that would significantly strengthen a college’s or university’s Catholic identity.  The measures most often identified are encouraging Mass attendance and Reconciliation (74%), encouraging community service and social justice activities (63%), requiring more Catholic theology courses (58%), encouraging sexual abstinence (56%) and providing guest speakers supportive of Catholic doctrine (55%).

  All Currently Catholic and Catholic While in College Sacramentally Active in College
More Enough Less More Enough Less More Enough Less
Would Catholic college or university be a better place if more or less Catholic, or is it Catholic enough? 28% 43% 12% 40% 41% 7% 47% 35% 8%

Male-Female Distinctions

In many of the areas discussed above—including Catholic practice, devotion to Catholic Church teachings, and behavior—this survey indicates some interesting differences between male and female respondents.

When comparing the sexes it should be noted that in this survey, the margin of sampling error for men is ±6.6 percent and ±5.8 percent for women.  This means that the difference between the sexes needs to be 13 percent in order to be statistically significant.  Many of the results highlighted here are within the margin of sampling error, several are not.  However, readers are reminded that the most likely result, were it possible to interview every eligible male or female, would be the result we report here.

Men are more likely than women to currently consider themselves to be Catholic, 65% versus 55%.  However, men are also more likely to report they were Catholic in college, 68% to 61%.  So men and women have left the Church since college at nearly the same rate, 5% of men and 7% of women.

But by the measure of participating in the Sacraments, men report being significantly more Catholic than do women.  Weekly Mass attendance during the last year at a Catholic college or university was more prevalent among men (62% to 46%), as was the incidence of annual Reconciliation during the last year at a Catholic college or university (69% to 56%), meaning the percentage of sacramentally-active Catholic men is 58% versus 41% for women.  And men were a bit more likely to pray daily, 57% to 48%.

Women who currently or recently attended Catholic colleges and universities are also likely to endorse public policies at odds with Catholic Church teachings.  Women say that a woman should have a legal right to have an abortion at a greater rate than men, 65% to 53%.  Women are more likely than men to say that sex before marriage not a sin, 66% to 53%.  And women are more likely than men to endorse the legalization of same-sex marriage, 65% to 46%.  Interestingly, there is less difference on questions regarding the morality of the underlying acts for these policy positions.  For example, on the morality of abortion, 65% of men say that the act of an abortion is always or usually morally wrong, and 62% of women concur.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, men were not found to be more likely than women to have friends who engaged in undesirable behaviors, while attending Catholic colleges and universities:

  • Half or more of my friends (in college) were regular drinkers of alcohol:  56% of men, 71% of women;
  • Half or more of my friends used illegal drugs:  22% of men, 24% of women;
  • Half or more of my friends had sex outside of marriage:  50% of men, 64% of women;
  • I know another student who had an abortion or paid for one:  17% of men, 21% of women.

On questions related to personal behavior, men were more likely to view pornography during their last year at a Catholic college or university:  45%, versus 14% for women.  But women were more likely to engage in sex outside of marriage, 50% to 41% for men.

The experience of attending a Catholic institution appears to have had a positive impact on more men than women, in terms of appreciation of the faith.  Attending a Catholic college increased participation in Sacraments for 41% of men, versus 23% of women.  The experience increased support for the teachings of the Church for 40% of men, and 23% of women.  The experience increased respect for the Pope and Bishops for 37% of men, 21% of women.  While attending a Catholic college or university, men were more likely than women to have participated in an organization focused on community service (54% to 46% for women), defense of life (32% to 18%), or prayer and spiritual development (54% to 37%).

Finally, women were found to be less likely to want their schools to have stronger Catholic identities: 22% of women but 36% of men.  Thirty percent (30%) of females did not graduate from the Catholic school they attended, versus 23% of men.

Recommended Further Study

This survey presents many findings that are worthy of further exploration to assess why students at Catholic colleges and universities behave and believe as they do, and the extent to which students’ experiences at Catholic colleges and universities have a positive or negative impact on students’ affinity for the Catholic Church.

Areas that might be explored—and this is by no means an exhaustive list—include:

  • Obtaining more detailed information on students’ sexual behaviors, their frequency, students’ distinction between morality and legal or other restrictions on sexual practice, etc.  This is especially interesting given the Catholic Church’s clear opposition to extramarital sexual activity.  The Catholic Church has the genius of Theology of the Body to offer these students, with its profound implications for their wellbeing.  How might Catholic colleges and universities best present this Theology so as to impact students’ sexual behavior?
  • Similarly, further analysis of students’ religious beliefs and appreciation for the Catholic Church, including its beliefs and practices, would be of interest for students at Catholic colleges and universities.  The results of this survey encourage analysis of how colleges and universities impact, or fail to impact, students’ affinity for the Catholic Church and Catholic students’ participation in the Sacraments.
  • The male-female differences are interesting and sometimes counter-intuitive.  Further analysis might point to new emphases and approaches that may be appropriate for Catholic educators.
  • For each of the areas studied in this survey, comparison to students at non-Catholic colleges and universities would be interesting.  It might also be useful to pointedly acknowledge the variety among Catholic colleges and universities by comparing subsets identified by size, location, and some measure of Catholic identity.
  • The portion of respondents (6%) who were Catholic in college but now identify as non-Catholic is too small in this study to analyze with an acceptable level of statistical certainty.  Nevertheless, the survey responses from these former Catholics would be very interesting if they were upheld by a larger sample.  For instance, nearly twice the portion of former Catholics (31%) than other respondents (17%) said that they know another student who had or paid for an abortion.  The former Catholics also are more likely to have engaged in undesirable behavior, much more likely to have attended a Catholic college or university primarily based on their parents’ decision, and much more likely to say their college experience decreased their Catholic practice and beliefs.  Again, these results are far from conclusive given their small numbers in this survey, but educators concerned about students leaving the Catholic faith could benefit from further analysis with a much larger sample.