Association of Students at Catholic Colleges

Thomas Harmon
The Need for an Association of Students at Catholic Colleges

Thomas P. Harmon, Founder, ASCC

Presented at the "From Death to Life Conference," University of Notre Dame, September 28, 2002, and the first national conference of the ASCC, Washington, D.C., November 10, 2002.

The Catholic University In Crisis

The Catholic university is one of the most important and influential organs in the life of the Church.  There, the Church educates her future leaders in light of the faith and inculcates in them a sense of apostolate and, hopefully, vocation.  This is where the Church engages the culture intellectually.  As such, the Catholic university is hugely significant in the movement to evangelize the culture and transform it into a culture of life.  As the Holy Father says in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, "Catholic universities are called to continuous renewal, both as 'universities' and as 'Catholic.'  For what is at stake is the very meaning of scientific and technological research, of social life and of culture, but, on an even more profound level, what is at stake is the very meaning of the human person."

No one is more concerned with the transmission of the authentic meaning of the human person than are those gathered at this conference.  It is, therefore, necessary to attend to the state of the Catholic university today.  Most Catholics know that our Catholic colleges are not what they once were, but those same Catholics are often unaware of how urgently renewal is needed.  Without an immediate rededication to the spiritual as well as the academic development of students, the faith of another generation is at stake.

Catholic identity discussions today center around the mandatum for theologians and issues of institutional fidelity to the Church.  But despite their importance, Catholic identity and the reasons for the mandatum are awfully abstract ideas, and sometimes the debate and confusion over these abstract ideas obscure the urgent and pronounced problems that exist in today's American Catholic colleges and universities. 

The bottom line is that students at Catholic colleges tend to emerge from those colleges less devout, practicing their faith less, and believing less that the Church teaches.  For example, support for legalized abortion among Catholic colleges students increased shockingly from 40.4% to 58.5%.  As part of the powerful secularizing trend in Catholic higher education since the 1960s, Catholic universities have largely descended into a spirit of fideism.  That is, while claiming to profess the truths of the Catholic faith, Catholic universities actively avoid "imposing" that faith on their own institutional functions.  They have adopted a secular understanding of the relationship between faith and reason.  To a large extent, they have preferred a religious studies model of religious education over that of theology.  Theology is essentially ecclesial in character and takes the teachings of the Magisterium as its data and first principles, whereas religious studies is an anthropological study of religion.  

Other departments in the Catholic university, especially the natural sciences, no longer, for the most part, see themselves as having any sort of relationship to the faith.  Student life policies at many Catholic universities are indistinguishable from those of secular universities.  Health Centers, in order to avoid being judgmental refuse to label any reproductive choices as immoral, including abortion and contraception.  A few colleges even refer students to Planned Parenthood.  A vanishingly small amount of Catholic colleges offer programs to encourage chastity among students.

In order to receive government funding, many universities have dissociated themselves from their religious orders (a move that many legal scholars now judge was unnecessary and imprudent).  So, most Catholic universities are owned and governed by a lay board of governors or trustees.  So, they lack any sort of official ties to the Church.

There have been hopeful signs, though.  University administrators, for the most part, see that American Catholic higher education has problems and see the strengthening of Catholic identity as the major question to be answered in the early part of this century.  The problem is getting them to define Catholic identity in the same way that the Catholic Church defines Catholic identity.  So far in the debate about Catholic identity, there have been only two viewpoints heard: the American Catholic hierarchy and the faculties and administrations of American Catholic universities.

That discussion has gone something like this: Ex Corde Ecclesiae is released, followed by an outcry from theologians and university administrations.  The U.S. Catholic bishops listen sympathetically to protests that Ex Corde violates academic freedom.  Then, they release a draft of norms to implement Ex Corde seemingly designed to placate the apoplectic Catholic intelligentsia, but the norms are so vague about who implements Ex Corde and how it should be implemented that they might as well not have released anything.  Unsurprisingly, Rome shoots down the norms.  The intelligentsia become even more disgruntled.  So, the U.S. Bishops release an implementation document that the Holy See can finally approve.  The Catholic intelligentsia, especially theologians, cry foul and claim the pope wants to squelch academic freedom.  So, most bishops in the U.S. decide to placate the schismatic theologians again and declare that the most controversial part of Ex Corde, the requirement that all theologians have a mandate from the local bishop to teach Catholic theology, will be a private matter between the bishop and the theologian.  The rest of the document has received hardly a glance since the norms came out.

Perhaps you may have noticed what is conspicuously missing from the whole process: any sort of serious appraisal of the interest of the Catholic student.  Both the U.S. bishops and the faculties and administrations of Catholic universities have altogether ignored this most fundamentally important piece of the puzzle, acting as if the university is simply a community of scholars with no end other than their own intellectual edification.  Certainly there has been no talk of the responsibilities that both the Bishops, as teachers of the faith, and the universities, as Catholic educational institutions, have to Catholic students.

If Catholic universities were merely research institutes or think tanks, the exclusion of the student's perspective makes sense.  They are not, though.  Both the proximate and the final end of activity in the university is the education of students. 

The right to academic freedom is a vitally important part of university life, as the pope declares consistently throughout Ex Corde.  But, because the education of students is the most fundamental end of university activity, the right of academic freedom must be limited.  The right to academic freedom may be exercised only so far as the right of the student to be educated in the truth is respected.  In the case of the theologian, he or she may exercise the right to academic freedom so far as the right of the student to be educated in the true teachings of the Church is recognized.  Theology (or religious studies) departments are free to pursue almost whatever course of study they find fitting as long as, at a Catholic university, they honestly teach the authentic Catholic faith when they say they are teaching Catholic theology.  If they find this distasteful, they are then free to renounce the inaccurate adjective, "Catholic."  They are not free to define Catholic faith for themselves, in violation of the Bishop's canonical right and duty to teach the faith and the right of the student to receive instruction in the authentic teachings of the Church at a Catholic institution.

Of course, there are other compelling arguments against absolute academic freedom, the best of which are outlined briefly in Ex Corde and fleshed out significantly in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian and even further unpacked in Cardinal Ratzinger's essay, The Nature and Mission of Theology.

The First Buds of a New Springtime at Catholic Universities

It has been frustrating for me and the rest of the members of the advisory board that has created the Association of Students at Catholic Colleges that university administrations and faculties are interested in selfishly protecting their own rights and uninterested in the rights of us faithful Catholics who, in choosing to attend Catholic colleges, expect an honest education in the faith, opportunities for genuinely Catholic service to those in need, and a campus culture that supports the living out of the life of faith. 

In the last few years at Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington), I have worked with many of my fellow students and with an administration that is supportive of the aims of Ex Corde to build the kind of campus culture of life envisioned by the Holy Father.  We have accomplished an astonishing amount in a few short years.  There has been a palpable shift in the campus culture.  Mass attendance is way up, perhaps as much as an astonishing 250%, including and especially daily Mass, there are dozens of Bible studies, a wide array of new faith-based clubs that have emerged and continue to emerge, a Catholic fellowship group, weekly Eucharistic adoration, Rosary groups, the exponential growth of Gonzaga Right to Life, a full RCIA class, the proposed development of a St. Vincent de Paul Society conference group on campus, and much more. 

This Catholic mini-Renaissance is, I hope, a small prelude and pre-figuration of what the pope has been calling for when he speaks of the "New Springtime."  Being fairly isolated in Eastern Washington, we at Gonzaga, at least among the students, thought that what we were doing at Gonzaga was pretty much unique.  That changed when I started my job for the summer, an internship at the Cardinal Newman Society.  As I was familiarizing myself with the various activities of the Cardinal Newman Society, I kept coming across small signs of similar renaissances at other Catholic universities.  The most interesting thing to me at that point was that these renaissances were happening at fairly diverse campuses.  They were happening, for example, at small places like Benedictine College in Kansas and St. Mary's College of Ave Maria Unviersity in Michigan, at medium-sized campuses like Gonzaga in Washington state and Desales University in Pennsylvania, and at very large campuses like Notre Dame.

Finally, I came to an article written about three years ago about the revitalization of Catholic culture at Notre Dame, which, as I understand, is not a small thing at all.  This article was really the first in-depth account of a Catholic revitalization at a university I had read, and I was astonished at how similar many of the initiatives at Notre Dame were to those we were working on at Gonzaga.  At the same time, there were initiatives at Notre Dame that we at Gonzaga had not thought about, but which I had a feeling could be fairly easily tried at Gonzaga. 

What struck me about most of these goings-on, though, was that they were largely student-initiated and student-maintained, with varying degrees of assistance or hostility from the faculty and administration.  Right after I read the article about Notre Dame, I got up from my chair, went into the office of my boss, Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, and said something like, "Wouldn't it be cool if there were some kind of organization out there to link and support all of these grass-roots Catholics activities at these colleges?"

At a small, fairly young organization like the Cardinal Newman Society, it's always pretty dangerous to air an idea about a new project.  His answer was something along the lines of, "Yeah.  Go for it."  Then, reading through Ex Corde itself, I found this line that seems to precisely address the project of the ASCC: "Various associations or movements of spiritual and apostolic life, especially those developed specifically for students, can be of great assistance in the developing the pastoral aspects of university life." (ECE 42)

The Proper Role of the Student at a Catholic University

A natural question at this point is: What is the proper role of a student at today's Catholic universities in light of the legion of problems I have outlined briefly?  The student goes to school in order to be educated.  At best, the proposition that students have some sort of positive role to play in the renewal of Catholic higher education seems tenuous.  Students have neither the teaching authority of the episcopal office nor the authority that comes from expertise and greater knowledge possessed by university faculty members and administrators.

Nevertheless, the student has the right to expect certain things when attended a university calling itself Catholic.  Among others, that student has the right not to be deprived of the truths of the faith through distortions.  In essence, the Catholic student has the right not to be scandalized.  If such a situation exists, as it very often does, then the student has the right to petition the Church, as all of the faithful do, and to demand correction by the university.

Further, the Catholic student necessarily has the right to engage in Christian apostolate.  Because all the faithful share in the priesthood of Christ by virtue of their baptism, they also share in the teaching authority of the Church.  As Dominican Father Michael Sweeney says in his essay reflection on the importance of the Holy Father's apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici: "Each Christian has authority to speak for the whole Church in presenting Christ to the world, and each Christian is called to exercise authority for the sake and mission of the Church."  He continues:
Christ has conferred upon you -- through baptism and anointing -- the authority to teach the world about Him.  You have the authority to speak in His name.  But you have also been given the power to do so.  In other words, when you speak to others about Christ, the Holy Spirit will move the hearts of others to hear you -- exactly, that is, to the degree that you really do speak with and for the Church.  The result is that the person will respond, not simply to you, but to Christ speaking through you.
In other words, the faithful Catholic, including students, teach with authority when they proclaim Christ while in communion with the Church. 

Christifideles Laici is a treasure trove for Catholics.  The Second Vatican Council was much less about saying Mass in the vernacular than it was, perhaps most significantly among other things, an unprecedented emphasis on and theological development of lay vocation.  Christifideles Laici is the Holy Father's apostolic exhortation on lay vocation written in the authentic spirit of Vatican II.  Catholic students benefit from this wisdom as much as the rest of the faithful.

In Christifideles Laici, the Holy Father defines the vocation of the lay faithful as being to "seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and ordering them according to the plan of God" (CL 9).  In this context, lay Catholic share in Christ's mission as priest, prophet and king.  Lay Catholics are to offer themselves as sacrifices in their daily lives and work, to proclaim Christ, and to spread His kingdom through the world and through time.  (CL 14)

Put simply, the mission of the Association of Students at Catholic Colleges is to help Catholic students live their lay vocations at Catholic colleges and to help make them aware of the power and authority they share in by virtue of their baptism.  Because that power and authority come from being in communion with the Church, we also insist that our members be entirely faithful to the Catholic faith as it comes to us through the Magisterium of the Church.

The Association Itself

The ASCC's mission statement reads: "The Cardinal Newman Society's national association of students, the Association of Students at Catholic Colleges (ASCC) is designed to serve students at Catholic colleges and universities interested in preserving and building up the Catholic identity at their schools through a variety of means.  The organization assists in fostering collaboration among existing groups and individual students at Catholic institutions throughout the country and acts to help students found groups concerned with living the Catholic faith in a way that is faithful to the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and guided by the Apostolic Constitution on Higher Education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

Because of the roughly fifty year process of secularization, especially intensive in the seventies through the nineties, Catholic universities, for the most part, fail spectacularly to live up to their institutional commitments to the Church.  The personnel on the faculties, in the administration, and on the boards of trustees are largely uninterested for the pope's call for a New Evangelization and the creation of the culture of life.  Because of the consequences of tenure among faculty members and the fact that most universities have dissociated legally and officially from their religious orders (including Notre Dame), there is simply no way juridically to force universities to live out their Catholic mission faithfully.  The bishops have, thus far, shown an alarming reluctance to stand up for the faith scandalized terribly at American Catholic universities.  Instead, the prefer to abandon their obligations to the faithful Catholics working at those universities and attending them as students in favor of placating schismatic theologians and university administrators who have, thus far, shown themselves to be completely unwilling to teach the faith faithfully.

Because they consider, strangely, the bishops and the governors of the Church to be, somehow, an outside element in relation to the operation of the Catholic university, which stands in opposition to the understanding of the Church, which is that the Catholic university is "born from the heart of the Church," (ECE 1), most faculties and administrations have not made the reforms called for by the Holy Father.  I suspect that they will not reform if the only impetus to renewal comes from an element they consider to be "outside."

This is where the ASCC comes in.  Our strategy is to change the campus culture first.  Out of that renewed, inspired culture, the students themselves will demand that their university lives up to its moral and, frankly, fiduciary responsibility to be Catholic.  So, the ASCC will launch projects designed to strengthen the Catholic identity and the culture of life on campus.

In Ex Corde, the Holy Father lists four essential characteristics a Catholic university must have.  These are:
 "A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such; A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research; Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us though the Church; An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life." (ECE 17)  The ASCC hopes to serve the Church by strengthening the Catholic identity of Her universities, especially in these four critical areas. 

The main foci of the ASCC are to link and support already existing student initiatives on campus and to help students start initiatives on campus that help to strengthen the Catholic identity of the school.  I have, therefore, structured the organization into departments that deal with the types of clubs found on campuses.  They are:

1.  Pro-life activities: Most Catholic colleges have a pro-life club on campus.  There are particularly active pro-life clubs worthy of emulation at schools like Franciscan University at Steubenville and Gonzaga University.

2.  Prayer and Devotions: This department will promote a variety of activites, from Eucharistic Adoration, to Rosary groups, to various initiatives to establish and educate about Catholic devotional practices and the life of prayer.  One of the most acute regrets of many young Catholics is that they have not been introduced to the incredible depth and breadth of Catholic prayer life.  This department will try to promote various traditional Catholic prayers like the Angelus, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Novena, etc.  Many of the small, consciously orthodox colleges like Thomas Aquinas College and Ave Maria University feature an exceptional devotional life.

3.  Evangelism, apologetics, and Catechetics:  The vast majority of Catholics at Catholic universities around the country are either badly catechized or not catechized at all.  There is, therefore, a great need for this sort of activity at college.  So, this department is concerned with students who want to learn the faith, how to defend it, and how to transmit it.  There are excellent programs in this vein at Marquette University and at St. Louis University.

4.  Bible Studies:  This one goes without saying.  Holy Scripture has been and will continue to be an unending source of inspiration for Christians.  Whatever we can do to promote the study of the Bible, we will try to do.  I am aware of good Bible Study programs at the Unviersity of Dallas and at Notre Dame.

5.  Retreats: For many students, a huge part of their spiritual development at college happens through the retreats program.  These are usually, but not always, put on by the campus ministry office, led by university staff, but crewed by students.  As the crew, students have influence on how the retreat is organized.  Because of the disproportionately large influence retreats have on students compared to the time spent at the retreat, it is very important that the student have a well-formed retreat.  This department is dedicated to the dissemination of ideas about what works and what doesn't on retreats.  I am aware of excellent retreat programs at Gonzaga University and at Notre Dame.

6.  Catholic Fellowship:  At many universities, the campus culture is not conducive to a genuinely Catholic culture.  So, it is necessary sometimes to create a group specifically for the development of Catholic fellowship.  The model we will use for this department is the program I helped developed at Gonzaga University, the Newman-Stein Fellowship., which combines elements of most of the other departments.

7.  Student Liturgies:  Frequently, students are given a large role in the planning and the carrying out of liturgies on campus.  This department will serve those students active in student liturgies. 

8.  Service:  Too often service programs at Catholic universities are divorced form their foundation in the faith.  This department will seek to assist and create service programs interested in doing the works of mercy.  Benedictine College and Xavier University (Cincinnati, Ohio) both have strong Catholic service programs. 

9.  Student Publications: Anti-Catholic media bias is not confined to major press outlets.  It has also crept into many publications at Catholic universities, including here at Notre Dame.  This department will work hand in hand with the Cardinal Newman Society's Campus Media Project to found and support alternative Catholic newspapers or official student papers with strong commitments to the faith.  Excellent Catholic newspapers exist at Boston College and Georgetown University.

10.  Women's Issues: Among the strongest anti-Catholic forces at Catholic universities are the Women's Studies programs, which have, for the most part, bought into a postmodern, secular view of the woman.  This department is dedicated to helping students interested in the Church's beautiful, authentically liberating message about what it means to be a woman.  Along with the Men's Issues department, one of the projects of this department will be the promotion of the Holy Father's theology of the body.  This department will also actively promote vocations to the religious life.

11.  Men's Issues:  This department will be devoted to assisting students and student groups interested in promoting and living what it means to be a Catholic man.  It will assist the Women's Issues department as explained and promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

12.  Faculty/Administration Relations: As many students have found, dealing with administrations and faculties, both those that are hostile and those that are friendly, is a challenging task at best.  This department focuses ways to work with faculties and administrations.

In addition to the departments of the student association, the ASCC also has planned several projects to further its mission.  They are:
  • The Student Handbook, which provides an introduction to the Cardinal Newman Society, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and the thought of John Henry Cardinal Newman.  It also provides guidance on how to establish a club on campus, suggestions for officers, how to write a constitution, and a few suggested activities.  It also includes a list of organizations with missions friendly to that of the student association which students can contact for resources.
  • The Speakers Bureau, which consists of an extensive list of speakers who address topics relevant to students at Catholic colleges along with contact info, suggested honoraria, and an outline for a speaker's contract.  At present, the speakers list includes over 80 high-profile Catholic speakers.
  • The Annual Conference is held upon the conclusion of the Cardinal Newman Society's annual conference, the ASCC's conference will address issues specifically relevant for students.  It will provide a basis in theory, nuts and bolts training, and time for fellowship and networking.  The first conference was held on November 10, 2002, in Washington, D.C.
  • The Web Site will be the depository for information accessible by the general public, including a speaker's list, essays and articles dealing with Catholic higher education, links to organizations with missions friendly to the goals of the ASCC, and tools for networking among students and student organizations, including a bulletin board system, a weblog, and a list of various groups at Catholic colleges and universities working to renew Catholic culture and their activities.
The Association is still very young.  The theory is in place, but we still have to hammer out, concretely, we will go about performing our mission.  Someone once said that the Christian should pray as if everything depended on God and to work as if everything depended on him or her.  That's what we plan on doing.  So, please pray for us.  I would be grateful if you would join me in beseeching the Blessed Mother of Our Lord for her intercession on behalf of the ASCC.

Hail Mary . . .

Association of Students at Catholic Colleges
10562 Associates Ct.
Manassas, VA 20109

Phone: 703-367-0333 
[email protected]