Don’t Know Much About Liturgy, Don’t Know Much Theology

Almost every year since 1989, I have been teaching the Arts and Letters Core Course at the University of Notre Dame, an introduction to the liberal arts curriculum that is required of all undergraduates in the College of Arts and Letters. This yearlong seminar includes a variety of readings grouped around four major themes: “nature,” “society,” “self,” and “God.” Since Core classes are limited to 18 students or fewer, by the time we get to the “God” section in the spring, I have come to know my students quite well, including their religious opinions. And what I have found out suggests something pretty surprising: Although 85 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates identify themselves as Catholics, very few of them either know much about or understand even the most basic Catholic teachings, and a significant number report that neither they nor their families practice the faith.

Are Notre Dame students Catholic? “Yes! Look at all the community service work they do.” “Of course! Look at how many of them attend dorm Masses.” These are the answers one often hears from the university administration. “Notre Dame students like being Catholic,” argues sociologist Andrew Greeley in a 1999 article in Commonweal magazine. In fact, says Greeley, the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, with its “Touchdown Jesus” painted on the stadium and its statue of Mary atop the golden dome of the main campus building, is a veritable “Catholic theme park.” But what does Catholicism mean to my students—to the undergraduates who go there?

On the first day of my Core class, I have my students fill out an information sheet that queries them about their interests, their future plans, their major—and their religion. Almost all of them write down Roman Catholic. Initially, I was somewhat surprised to hear and read comments like, “I never go to Mass,” or, “I haven’t gone to Mass since I came to Notre Dame,” or, “My family never goes to church except for Christmas and Easter.” After ten years of teaching Core, however, I am no longer surprised.

Two years ago I decided to include James Joyce’s novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as required reading for the “self” section of the course. Joyce’s account of a young man’s coming of age seemed a natural choice for exploring the theme of how one becomes a unique individual. Additionally, Portrait is a major work of literature by an author who, although he left the Catholic Church during his youth, wrote fiction that is saturated with the stories and images of Catholicism. It soon became obvious to me, however, that the students did not recognize many of Joyce’s references to such elementary Catholic material as Easter duty (the requirement that Catholics receive communion during that season) and mortal sin. As I found myself explaining reference after reference to my class, I decided at the end of the semester to give my students a nongraded “Catholic quiz” to which they could respond anonymously. I asked them to name the seven sacraments, the joyful mysteries of the rosary, and the liturgical seasons and their colors, and to define terms like “Immaculate Conception” and “Assumption.” I also asked some questions about Church history, such as what the Council of Trent was and when papal infallibility was defined; and I asked them to name one papal encyclical and its general theme. I also asked them to identify several saints and important people from Church history.

The good news was that a little more than half of them could name the seven sacraments. The bad news was that most of them knew nothing else about Catholicism.

Is Jesus’ Message All That Matters?

Many people may say these things aren’t really important, that they are the externals, the trappings of Catholicism, that what matters is the heart of Jesus’ message: that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. If you believe that this is all the knowledge of Catholicism that undergraduates—young Catholics who are going to be the Catholic intellectuals of the future—need to possess at the university that aspires to be the greatest Catholic university in the world, then you will be satisfied. For that is about all they know.

A professor of British literature at a Jesuit university recently lamented the fact that many students today have difficulty grasping the thematic structure of Victorian novels because they are nearly ignorant of basic concepts of Christianity. He had to explain metaphors of the fall, grace, redemption, and so forth before he could teach the classic literature of Britain! Asked what being a Christian meant, his students typically replied that it meant “to be kind” and “to love people.”

I deliberately included in my Catholic quiz matters of Church history, popular Catholic piety, and the papacy because I think it is important that the Catholic intellectuals of the future know something about the institution in which they practice their Christianity, and about what makes Roman Catholicism distinctive among Christian sects. How else will they be able in the future to answer the question “Why are you a Catholic?” as opposed to an Episcopalian, a Baptist, a Unitarian, a Buddhist? Furthermore, they should know the history of the Church, not only so they can meet the frequent attacks and criticisms that are replete in contemporary culture, but so they can understand their Church’s mediating role in Christian life. For Catholics, a sense of history and of embeddedness in a tradition is essential.

In all the many articles I have read about the question of the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and the ramifications of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Vatican’s 1991 document on Catholic universities, I am struck by the fact that the needs of the students are so rarely mentioned. In fact, one might think, from some of the discourse, that a university is primarily a place for faculty: a place for them to do their research, pursue questions of special interest to them, and enjoy the benefit of being in a community of scholars. Hence, with regard to the Vatican’s insistence in Ex Corde that a majority of the faculty at a Catholic university be Catholic, the contested issues usually pertain only to the faculty: academic freedom, the anomalous position of non- Catholics if they are seen as second-class citizens, how one can determine whether a prospective faculty member is a “faithful Catholic.” What is almost never discussed by either liberal or conservative commentators is what it would mean to the students themselves to have, say, faithful Catholics as the majority of their teachers, or what it would mean for them to have a truly Catholic education, in which the faith permeates the subject matter.

My students strongly reflect the surrounding secular culture. They express the relativism and individualism so rampant in our society, insisting repeatedly that “it all depends on the individual.” In matters of religion, they often assert that what’s true for you may not be true for me, that no one should try to impose his or her religion on anyone else. Some argue that not only should Catholic missionaries not try to convert the people to whom they offer humanitarian aid, but even parents should not impose their religion on their children. They strongly resist the idea that there can be one set of moral rules for everyone.

Too Much Christianity

Although almost all say in the survey that they believe in God and an afterlife, they question whether Christianity is more valid than any other religion. Last year I began the “God” section of the course with an open discussion of religious issues. Several students voiced their disappointment that the course readings were too focused on Christianity; they wanted a comparative-religions approach. Although we did read two books that explore the intersection of Hinduism and Christianity, there was still too much Christianity in class to suit most of them. Along the same lines, a student objected that the required theology course at Notre Dame, which is primarily an introduction to biblical studies and early Church history, was “too Christian.” He was not objecting that it was too Catholic but too Christian. He thought that a university should not privilege any one religious view. Some of his fellow students objected that if he wanted a completely nonsectarian point of view, he could attend a secular college, but most of them seemed to have some sympathy with his views.

When we were discussing a book arguing that we need to expand our notion of God beyond childish concepts, a student complained about the very idea of discussing God at all. Who should presume to tell anyone what his or her notion of God should be? If someone has a concept of God that she is comfortable with, then fine. This student continually reiterated, “No one, absolutely no one, can tell anyone else that what they are doing is wrong, or that what they believe is untrue.” Although this student was not a Catholic, none of the Catholics in the class challenged her, except for one poor girl who meekly asked, “Isn’t that relativism? What about absolute truth?” She was immediately challenged by the other students, who insisted that everyone has to decide for himself what is true and right.

Unsurprisingly, my students largely reject Catholic teaching on contraception and homosexuality and the ban on married and female priests, teachings which many contemporary Catholics—including many of my students’ own parents—also reject. Fewer, but still a significant number of students, also reject Catholic teaching on abortion and premarital sex. Here are some answers to my survey questions (this evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, but it does represent what I read from my students year after year):

I was confirmed Roman Catholic, but I have always been just that: a confirmed but non-practicing member of the church, like my parents.

Why should you have to go somewhere (such as a church for Sunday Mass] to prove your faith?

I do think religion should be a personal and private matter.

Some people are so traditional and stuck to rules, limits, and eventually scare people away. I find more meaning in my personal relationship with God.

[At Notre Dame] I found out that Mass is a very calming experience for me. I love the music and the lighting and I find it very peaceful. I also find it nice to be able to talk to God if I’m in the mood to do so. I’ve discovered that God is one of the few facets of Catholicism that I actually do believe in.

I don’t pay attention at Mass, and I don’t pray there, and I don’t have faith, so my going to Mass is hypocritical, and I don’t believe it will in any way hasten my father’s recovery. I have my own form of worship, which my parents don’t understand.

I find it ironic how my faith ended when I came to a Catholic university and became immersed in Catholicism. Notre Dame, however, is where I encountered my doubts. In my Theology 100 class our textbook was the Bible. I enjoyed the familiar stories I had heard as a child and the many others unfamiliar to me but just as interesting. I also discovered that I didn’t believe most of what I read. The parables were cute, but they seem to me to be more like fairy tales.

For the first time in my life, I doubt the importance of religious rituals. Many Catholic traditions, performed repeatedly, and universally, are beginning to seem impersonal to me. I have started to wonder if an hour of solitary reflection and intimate conversation with God would function as a better means of worship than chanting the same memorized prayers at Mass. . . . I am starting to see how leaders of the Catholic Church have overstepped their boundaries and played God.

I am learning that Catholic theology has drastically changed. Before, Catholic theologians were focused on asserting what is truth and then trying to see where this truth exists in our daily lives. Now, we are learning to take the experience from our daily lives and try to apply it to the discovery of truth.

I have no intellectual reasoning behind my commitment, but know in my heart that He is the Way. Just as love cannot be quantified, I believe faith cannot be quantified either. Thus, faith is not a matter of intellect.

One’s faith in God is completely personal but as equally valid as anyone else’s belief. However one chooses to believe and whatever one chooses to believe in are not important; the fact that one believes is important.

Ironically, some students claim that the very overt symbols of Catholicism that they see on campus—the statues and crucifixes—have driven them away from true spirituality. They often seem to see spirituality and Catholicism as antithetical:

Contrary to my expectations, the past eighteen months at ND have proved more detrimental than advantageous to my faith. Not only has the pervasive, and practically forceful, religious theme on campus prompted me to neglect my spiritual side, but also, I have allowed others to influence me in ways that endanger my faith…

I do not think, however, that I am immoral because I do not agree with the Church on all issues. I do not see the importance of the sacraments because I can go to be with God in my “God spot” whenever I want simply by closing my eyes or letting my mind roam.

Why do today’s Catholic college students have so little interest in, respect for, or even knowledge of—let alone belief in—the historic claims of Catholicism to be the fullness of Christianity and to embody the authoritative apostolic tradition? Primarily because they have never been taught it. You cannot respect or affirm what you do not know. It seems that fewer than half of my students have attended Catholic elementary or secondary schools, and even those who have know no Church history or apologetics.

Culture of Disbelief

Superimposed on this void in my students’ substantive instruction are the powerful and insistent messages of what Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter calls “the culture of disbelief”: that what is true for one person is not true for another, that the truth claims of Christianity, based on the Bible and the miracles of Christ, are highly dubious, that what really matters is being kind and helping others, not what you believe.

Added to this are the frequent reminders of the “sins” of the Catholic Church so frequently aired in the media and popular entertainment: the Inquisition, Galileo, the forced “conversion” by missionaries of native peoples, the failure to help the Jews during the Holocaust, the sexual scandals among the clergy. It’s no wonder, then, that many students have a less-than-positive view of Catholicism when they arrive at Notre Dame. Furthermore, those problematic “sins” of the church are rarely discussed and explored, or studied in a systematic way, in the course of their Notre Dame education. Catholicism is communicated primarily as a matter of doing good works, and the hard questions are for the most part ignored.

If few of our students are personally committed to Catholicism, why do they choose to come to Notre Dame when there are so many good secular universities they could attend? For many, Notre Dame is a family tradition. “I’ve heard about Notre Dame since I was a baby.” “I’ve always wanted to come here. My dad, uncle, and brothers all graduated from Notre Dame, and my mom went to St. Mary’s [a women’s college affiliated with Notre Dame, which was originally for men only].” Some are attracted by the beautiful campus, the football spirit, the excellent academic reputation, the high acceptance rate of Notre Dame students into medical, law, and graduate schools. Some are recruited as athletes or members of minority groups.

For whatever reasons, many nonreligious come. Notre Dame may not be responsible for this state of affairs, and the faculty may not think it is its job to catechize students in the basics of their faith, but can we really just turn away from this problem because we didn’t create it? Of course, the situation bespeaks the critical, urgent need to do something about the deplorable state of catechesis in parish churches, especially for adolescents. But that is a separate issue.

When I listen to my students in class and read what they write in answer to my survey questions, I find myself wondering how many of them will be practicing Catholics five, ten, or twenty years from now. Again and again I talk to parents of Notre Dame graduates whose children do not practice the faith. In most cases they have not joined another church; they have simply dropped out of organized religion altogether on leaving home. Many of these parents are themselves faculty at the university. The few examples I know of practicing Catholics among  Notre Dame graduates are faculty children who have stayed in South Bend and remained part of a close family structure. Those graduates who take up careers in other cities, who remove themselves from the family network, are far less likely to stay close to the Church.

One explanation for this fall-off in Catholic practice among Notre Dame graduates may be the worship experiences offered to them on campus. The high number of students who attend Masses in the chapels inside most Notre Dame dormitories is often cited as one of the strongest indicators of their Catholicism. I cannot help but wonder about these figures, however, when so many of my students tell me in my survey that they go to Mass seldom, if at all. The point I wish to make, however, is how different many of the dorm Masses are from those in a typical Catholic parish. The Masses are held late at night and are very informal. The students often attend clad in sweat suits or pajamas, and in some chapels they sit on the floor. The homily is, of course, aimed directly at their experiences as college students; and at the greeting of peace before communion, they can hug all their friends. It is a warm, friendly, intimate experience—much like the warm, experiential, undemanding spirituality that they associate with religion in general. Alternatively, many Notre Dame students attend Sunday Mass at the imposing campus basilica, where the splendid music is also unlike what is found at most parish churches.

What happens, then, when these students leave Notre Dame and start attending Mass at their local church? I suspect that some of them, disappointed at the huge discrepancy between what they experienced at Notre Dame and what is available in their parishes, simply stop attending. Also, students who say they find more of a connection to God in a walk around the lakes or elsewhere on the beautiful campus than they do in church or in formal prayers are unlikely to encounter such a beautiful natural setting to inspire their prayer life when they find themselves working in Manhattan, Kansas City, or St. Louis.

A Strong Foundation

I am not proposing that Notre Dame should cut back on dorm Masses (although it might try to nurture an understanding of the Eucharist at those Masses rather than simply good feelings), or that it should make the campus less attractive. But I do think that a spirituality that is entirely dependent on these things is likely to falter once the props are removed. That is why it is essential that students be given not only satisfying worship experiences while they are at Notre Dame but a strong foundation in sacramental and liturgical theology that may carry them through parish liturgies that are less than inspiring. Many older Catholics can remember plenty of dismal liturgies in the days before the Second Vatican Council, but it was often their deep understanding of the theology of the Mass, an understanding that grew out of their solid grounding in basic catechetics, that kept them coming.

As for the argument that Notre Dame students are Catholic because they do community service work, the same point can be made for college students on any secular campus. True, the percentage of students engaged in community service is probably higher at a residential institution such as Notre Dame than at large state schools that cater to commuters who often hold down part-time or even full-time jobs while they study. It is easier and more convenient for “Domers” to do service work. Social justice and humanitarian concerns, however, are not peculiar to Catholics, or even to Christians. Many atheists and agnostics are heavily involved in humanitarian efforts. Doing good works is, as St. Thomas Aquinas might have said, a necessary but not a sufficient cause of being a Catholic.

What about the fact that so many students at Notre Dame continue to call themselves Catholics, despite their attenuated connection to Catholic doctrine and practice? Few other Catholic universities have so many self-identified Catholics as Notre Dame. Many of them meet their future spouses at Notre Dame, and thus marry Catholics, and if they choose to make formal church affiliation a part of their family life, the religion they choose is likely to be Catholicism. It is a function of critical mass. But I do not sense in my students much commitment to search for Catholic mates if, as often is the case, they do not happen to find a kindred spirit at Notre Dame. Although many of my students believe that it is important to have religion in the home in order to transmit moral values to one’s children, they do not seem to think that the particular religion one practices matters.

This is not to say that Notre Dame graduates who do not practice Catholicism are not generally good people. They are for the most part upstanding, law-abiding citizens, often doing valuable and productive work, trying to be good spouses and parents, contributing to their communities, and going out of their way to help the less fortunate. They do not, however, believe the doctrines of the Catholic Church, do not look to the sacraments as supernatural sources of God’s grace, do not take part through the Mass in the liturgical reenactment of the story of salvation history and Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. Perhaps this does not matter much to many of the people currently associated with Notre Dame. But it matters to those who wonder who will be the Catholic intellectuals of the future, and it matters to many parents who pay Notre Dame’s tuition bills. It even matters to some of my students, who realize that they have missed out on something.

Theology professors at universities like Notre Dame often point out that their job is to do theology—not to teach elementary catechetics to the uninstructed. Naturally, they want to work on an intellectual par with their colleagues in other departments, not get bogged down in “remedial religion.” Yes, Catholic children and adolescents are often woefully underserved at the parish level long before they reach college, and perhaps the problem should be solved at that level, not with crash courses at the university. These are valid points; yet trying to do sophisticated theology with young people who have no basic foundation in their religion seems an untenable project, one not likely to produce fruitful results. Is there some way that Notre Dame—and the dozens of other Catholic universities whose undergraduates are mostly ignorant of their faith—could try to raise the Catholic IQs of their students without betraying their commitment to serious intellectual and scholarly work? One way that administrators and faculty members could meaningfully implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae would be to devote some thought to solving this problem that goes to the very heart of a Catholic university’s Catholic identity.


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