By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
There has been an ongoing disagreement among Catholic parents with traditional values over whether it makes sense any longer to choose a Catholic college for their children. Those who say no point to the predominance of secular leftists in the theology and philosophy departments at modern Catholic colleges, arguing, as did Archbishop Sheen decades ago, that it is better to have our children’s faith ignored at secular and state colleges, than attacked openly and systematically by professors hostile to the Church and the Magisterium.
Those who disagree take the position that the best-known Catholic colleges remain “culturally Catholic,” in spite of their left-wing faculties; that they are likely to have a nucleus of professors loyal to the Church and a student body drawn from practicing Catholic families. The proposition is that these students will set a tone on campus reflective of Catholic moral values that will not be found at private or state universities. Those who make that case owe it to themselves to read the latest bulletin from the Sycamore Trust. It might not change their minds, but it offers information that should be factored into their decision.
The Sycamore Trust is an organization of alumni of the University of Notre Dame concerned about the loss of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity in recent decades. The university’s sponsorship of the play The Vagina Monologues and its decision to honor President Obama with an honorary doctor of laws degree at the school’s commencement ceremony in 2009 were the final straws for those who organized the Sycamore Trust. (More information about the trust can be found at the organization’s web site, sycamoretrust.org.)
The trust’s September bulletin states flatly that “Notre Dame is no exception” to the “alcohol, sex, and the hookup culture” that have become “deeply troublesome features of campus environments across the country. Alumni often tell us they like to hear student views. So do we. We bring you now what Bob Burkett (’13), last year’s editor-in-chief of The Irish Rover [Notre Dame’s student newspaper] and recipient of the Sycamore student award, had to say at our June annual breakfast.”
Burkett relates his impression of student life upon entering the school as a freshman. “I wondered what my first weekend as a college student would be like here, surrounded by people with the same interests, background, and of course Catholic faith as me. . . . I was appalled when I saw the immorality of the activities going on around me. It seemed that Our Lady’s University was really no different on the weekends than any other college I had ever heard about. . . . I felt like I had been tricked.”
Burkett judged the “religion” of a “great many students” at Notre Dame to be a reflection of what “the distinguished Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith calls ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’ Students are interested in religion insofar as it makes them feel happy and good.” They believe that we should “be free to do whatever we would like insofar as no one else is harmed, with ‘harm’ largely limited to physical violence.”
What does this mean in specific terms for life on Notre Dame’s campus? According to Burkett, it “allows ‘perfectly moral teenagers’ to engage in alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity. My biggest fear is that this mentality of cafeteria Catholicism . . . has run amok at Notre Dame.”
The editors of the Sycamore Trust bulletin agree that the behavior of the Notre Dame student body is a reflection of “the debased morality of today’s dominant secular culture”; and that “Notre Dame has to work with what it gets.” Fair enough. But if you accept that proposition, the central question should be whether “four years at Notre Dame would change them.” What the trust found was that those four years did “but not in the way one would hope and expect. Certainly many students enter Notre Dame firm in their faith and become ever more committed to Church ethical teachings. We have come to know many of them. They are crucially important to the Catholic character of the university.
“But this is not true of the student population as a whole. A four-year study by the respected Higher Education Research Institute of a Notre Dame class disclosed that, as a group, the class was less attached to Church teachings on sexuality and abortion when it left than when it entered.” And “the proportion of the class who saw nothing wrong with premarital sex if the parties ‘really like each other’ rose from 21 percent to 36 percent — an increase of 71 percent!”
On another topic. H.L. of Idaho Falls writes to take issue with the arguments made in defense of the Common Core requirements by Edward L. Glaeser, cited in the July 18 edition of First Teachers. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, serves on the Gates Foundation’s domestic program and is a prominent supporter of Common Core. Glaeser believes that critics of Common Core “misunderstand what Common Core does”; that it will not radically change our schools and that the fear of a “nationwide curriculum” is a “terrifying but phantom bogeyman. No one is seriously proposing it.”
H.L. doesn’t buy it. He argues that government programs inevitably grow in size and scope, becoming far more expensive and intrusive in our lives that originally stated by their proponents. He points to the Social Security system, “designed by Roosevelt to help the aged in their waning years. A tax was assessed on all workers and employers to cover this. But soon the funds were not separated but dumped into the general fund, from which they were spent.
“There is also the Medicare system, for which taxes on wages of workers and employers were also set aside. We are now at the point where half or more of the doctors in the country don’t take Medicare patients. Now it is threatened by Obamacare. Then there is the tax system, in which retirement income was not taxed. At present, 85 percent of it is subject to taxes. Tax rates float all over the place, depending on the politicians in office.”
H.L. concludes with the observation that a better solution for our failing schools and declining educational standards would be to “eliminate the Department of Education. Then divide the dollars saved among the states, without preconditions. In addition, eliminate unions for publicly funded entities paid for by tax money.”
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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is firstname.lastname@example.org, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.