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Jesus Is Lord!
NOTRE DAME, IN — Alcohol, sex, and the hookup culture are deeply troublesome features of campus environments across the country. Notre Dame is no exception. How Notre Dame deals with these phenomena is important to its Catholic identity. The facts are not encouraging.
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 and recipient of the Sycamore student award, had to say at our June annual breakfast.
You can read his address here, but it is brief and we hope you will watch it here. We cannot do all of it justice in this bulletin.
Bob's opening was arresting, to put it conservatively:
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 head about….I felt like I had been tricked.
While Bob went on to identify “parts of Notre Dame’s Catholicism that are truly exceptional” and said he “grew significantly as an individual” in consequence, he judged the “religion” of a great many students to reflect what the distinguished Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” the pervasive “religion” of today’s youth.
Students “are interested in religion insofar as it makes them feel happy and good,” Bob said. “[W]e are free to do whatever we would like insofar as no one else is harmed,” with “’harm’ largely limited to physical violence.”
This “allows ‘perfectly moral teenagers’ to engage in alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity.”
“My biggest fear,” Bob said, “is that this mentality of cafeteria Catholicism…has run amok at Notre Dame.”
But, one might object, Notre Dame has to work with what it gets, and what it gets are students many of whom reflect the debased morality of today’s dominant secular culture. Surely four years at Notre Dame would change them, right?
Well, yes, 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.
Specifically, the proportion of the class who saw nothing wrong with premarital sex if the parties “really like each other” rose from 21% to 36% — an increase of 71%!
With more than a third of the graduates of the premier Catholic university in the country believing that sex without marriage is perfectly fine, no wonder marriage is in deep trouble.
Then there is the excessive drinking and the alcohol-fueled hook-up culture that are epidemic in colleges and universities and have taken hold at Notre Dame as well.
The administration acknowledges that “[s]tatistically the drinking culture at Notre Dame is not much different than most colleges across the nation,” with 20% of the students regular, and another 60% occasional, abusers.
There are no data showing the reach of the “hookup culture” or fornication among students “who like one another,” though there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. The student newspaper The Observer, for example, runs articles on the search by lesbians and homosexuals for sexual partners; the Scholastic published a Notre Dame sociologist’s description of the benefits of premarital sex under the heading "Don't Wait" and regularly features accounts of supposedly funny stories of students’ drunken sexual encounters; a senior writes in The Notre Dame Magazine, “Our romantic advances fall into the categories of ‘hookup’ or ‘husband’….[W]e live in the land of books and beer….“
Then there are the blog accounts of drinking and partying at Notre Dame on sites like College Confidential and jarringly crude entries on a new Notre Dame Confessions Facebook site that the Observer reports has “taken over” the campus. There is more, but this is enough. It is a commonplace that there is a good deal of alcohol abuse and illicit sex at Notre Dame. The question is not precisely how much or whether it is more or less than at other schools, but rather what the school is doing about it as a Catholic university.
The answer is “nothing” in the classroom, except for those who seek it. There is no longer a required course in moral theology, nor even a moral theology unit in any required course.
And this against the background of the pervasive religious illiteracy of entering students. In their comprehensive study, The Hook-Up Culture on Catholic Campuses (Center for Advancement of Higher Education, Cardinal Newman Society), Anne Hendershott and Nicholas Dunn cite the work of Christian Smith of Notre Dame and Melinda Denton in observing, “Many Catholic students seem to arrive on Catholic college campuses with little idea about what the Church teaches about sexual morality.”
To be sure, in its “Guide to Student Life,” the university says it “embraces” the Church’s teaching on sexual issues. But attend carefully to how it says it:
The University embraces the Catholic Church’s teaching that a genuine and complete expression of love through sex requires a commitment to a total living and sharing together of two persons in marriage. Consequently, students who engage in sexual union outside of marriage may be subject to referral to the University Conduct Process.
This is both incoherent and a toothless and misleading description of the Church’s teaching. What’s wrong with something just because it’s not “genuine” or “complete”? Why does it merit punishment? Those are descriptive terms, not normative.
Here’s the Church’s teaching in its words rather than the university’s: “Fornication” is a “sin gravely contrary to chastity.” (Paragraph 2396, Catechism of the Catholic Church)
Notre Dame’s abandonment of organized and comprehensive instruction in the Church’s ethical teachings is our central concern, since both that fact and its relationship to the school’s Catholic identity are clear. We pass by disciplinary practices, since neither we nor anyone else outside the administration can get at the facts. And as to the policies in the residence halls, we cannot speak with confidence in any detail, and so we will say only what we are sure no one would dispute, namely, that there is a good deal of winking and averting of eyes, that women’s halls are better than men’s on the whole, and that some men’s halls (Morrisey Manor as a prime example) are better than others.
There are positives, to be sure. Most significantly, the administration deserves credit for sticking with single sex dormitories and parietals as other schools scrap them.
Still, these are external deterrents good for a limited time and in a limited place only. They are irrelevant to off-campus students and activities, they disappear upon graduation, and they bear only remotely on Notre Dame’s role in instructing students in the Church’s teachings so as to carry them through life.
The most heartening development has come from some of the students. While Hendershott and Dunn cited an especially notable police raid on a large Notre Dame party to illustrate the student drinking scene, they also highlighted the annual Edith Stein conference at Notre Dame as an example of students striking back at the culture of sexual license celebrated in The Vagina Monologues, another student-initiated production playing at Notre Dame when the Edith Stein conference was launched. As readers of our bulletins know, Sycamore is a strong supporter of the Edith Stein conference. We will say more about it later.
But, as Henderson and Dunn observe, “Such small groups of students…cannot change the culture alone….They need help creating moral communities in which Church teachings on sexual morality are understood and cherished.”
As to that, we yield the last word to Father Mark Poorman, C.S.C., former long-time Notre Dame Vice President for Student Affairs, who summarized the situation in a moment of praiseworthy candor several years ago during an Alumni Weekend panel discussion:
We really need to do a whole lot more with regard to moral formation and ethical training and reasoning.