Spinning the Data

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities is manipulating a
survey of students that shows a decline in belief and religious practice.

In the middle of the debate over abortion funding within the proposed health care reform bills, Cardinal Justin Rigali told a National Press Club audience that Catholic members of Congress needed to vote with “a well-informed conscience that reminded them that abortion is absolutely wrong.” Unfortunately, many of these lawmakers spent their formative years on Catholic college campuses where they were shaped by faculty members and administrators intent on corrupting consciences.

If that sounds too strong, look closely at the most recent Georgetown study tracking changes in the behavior and attitudes of college students during their years on Catholic campuses. Look at the longitudinal data that assesses changes in beliefs about abortion and gay marriage. Look at the changes in participation rates in religious activities such as Mass attendance and prayer.

The Georgetown study shows that 31 percent of Catholic students enrolled in Catholic colleges and universities self-report that they have “moved away” from the pro-life teachings of the Catholic Church during their college years. Released at the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in February 2010, the Georgetown data must have been distressing for at least a few of those Catholic college presidents and senior administrators in attendance.

Yet, as so often happens with bad statistical news, the data was spun. The Association’s President, Richard Yanikoski, pointed to increased Catholic college student support for vaguely defined “social justice” issues as an indicator that Catholic colleges continue to do a good job in helping students keep their faith.

Claiming that “the typical Catholic undergraduate student attending a Catholic college or university emerges more spiritually intact than if she or he had attended a public or secular private institution,” Yanikoski cited among other issues increased support for “cutting military spending” by Catholic college students as evidence that these colleges are fulfilling their Catholic mission.

Ignoring the data on increasing support among students for abortion and gay marriage, Yanikoski told an interviewer for Inside Higher Ed that “Catholic students remain profoundly connected to their faith” as they progress through college.

Drawing from national survey data collected by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, Georgetown researchers compared Catholic students enrolled at Catholic institutions with Catholic students enrolled in private and public colleges and universities and found that Catholic students enrolled in Catholic schools were less likely to move toward Catholic Church teachings on abortion than those enrolled in non- Catholic institutions.

While 16 percent of those Catholics enrolled in Catholic schools claim that their support for abortion moved more toward the Church’s pro-life position during their years at a Catholic college, 17 percent of Catholic students enrolled in public colleges and 18 percent of Catholic students enrolled in private non-sectarian colleges moved in the pro-life direction.

Although the reduced movement toward Catholic teachings on abortion by Catholic students at Catholic schools (as compared with Catholics on non Catholic college campuses) could simply reflect that more of them already supported Church teachings when they entered college, Yanikoski himself told the interviewer for Inside Higher Ed that “most Catholic students who select Catholic colleges do so for reasons other than the religious nature of the institution…in this context, the self-selection factor is minimal.” The reality remains that nearly one-third of Catholic students enrolled on Catholic campuses report that they moved further away from the Church’s pro-life position during their time on campus.

In addition to moving toward increased support for abortion, Catholic college students enrolled on Catholic campuses showed movement away from Church teachings on other key moral issues. Support for same-sex marriage also increased dramatically for Catholic students on Catholic campuses. Thirty nine percent of Catholic students enrolled in Catholic colleges and universities claim that they have moved further away from their Church’s definition of marriage as a union of one woman and one man. On this issue, more Catholic students on Catholic campuses moved toward supporting gay marriage than those enrolled in private religious (non-Catholic) colleges, and showed just slightly less increased support for gay marriage than those Catholics enrolled in public colleges and private non-sectarian colleges.

While Yanikoski is correct that Catholic students enrolled in Catholic colleges and universities are more likely to be involved in “reading sacred texts” than those on public or private campuses, 32 percent of Catholic students on Catholic campuses claim that they are “less active” in their Mass attendance than when they first arrived on campus, and similar numbers claim to be less active in their prayer lives. While this decline in religious activity for Catholics on Catholic campuses is slightly less dramatic than that of Catholics enrolled in public and private institutions, there is little to celebrate in these numbers for those who had hoped that Catholic colleges and universities were beginning to address the decline of the Catholic identity on these campuses.

Catholic college leaders point to their commitment to Catholic social teachings and provide examples of strong community service programs designed to help the poor and empower the oppressed. But the reality is that on many Catholic campuses a commitment to social justice has been defined so incoherently that it now includes student involvement in increasing women’s access to “full reproductive rights”— including abortion—and lobbying for gay men and lesbian women’s right to same-sex marriage. Many Catholic colleges, like Georgetown, encourage student internships or work experiences at Planned Parenthood, and some on the faculty have worked or currently work at Planned Parenthood.

Roberta Lynn Geidner Antoniotti, the former CEO and president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, has taught at Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies since 2005. Antoniotti has also won the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Excellence Award for Clinical Services Expansion. In addition to Antoniotti, Dr. Gary Lewis Filerman, who chaired the Department of Health Systems Administration at Georgetown, is a former Planned Parenthood vice president.

Georgetown University’s Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program has placed two fellowship winners with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America since 2007. In 2007, fellowship winner Marya Torrez was placed with Planned Parenthood after helping to found Law Students for Choice at Georgetown University and completing an internship at the National Abortion Federation. In 2008, Meredith Asay spent a fellowship year at Planned Parenthood, where she helped to prepare a legal response to prevent a “restrictive ban on reproductive health services via a state level referendum.”

Beyond Georgetown, St. Mary’s College of California recently named a $2,500 poetry scholarship in honor of a former Planned Parenthood director and another woman who served as a volunteer for Planned Parenthood. The Vanessa Bedient and Molly Reidelberger Scholarship for Excellence in Poetry was named after Bedient, former director of Planned Parenthood of Santa Barbara, California, and Reidelberger, who worked as a volunteer there for 15 years. Lauding Bedient as “the soul of goodness,” St. Mary’s College currently offers course credit for student internships at Planned Parenthood. In 2008, the St. Mary’s student newspaper was one of three college papers on Catholic campuses in California—and 42 nationwide—that ran print advertisements for Trojan brand condoms.

The website California Catholic Daily recently reported that University of San Francisco Professor Maya Manian was involved with “civil rights legislation” at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York prior to her appointment as associate professor at USF. Manian has continued her commitment to expanding abortion rights to women, and published papers in defense of it. She publicly opposed Proposition 4, the November 2008 initiative that would have required family notification before a minor could undergo an abortion.

In the debate over health care reform, several Catholic college faculty members became involved in supporting federal funding for abortion in health care reform. Brietta Clark and Karl Manheim, professors at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, recently published an essay in the San Francisco Chronicle advocating the rejection of the Stupak Amendment because it would provide “an unconstitutional intrusion into the right to abortion.” Clark and Manheim argue that the Stupak Amendment, which would block federal funding of most abortions, is unconstitutional because it would create a substantial obstacle to the right to abortion by effectively requiring women to purchase health insurance that excludes abortion coverage.

Disregarding the bishops’ published statements on the inadvisability of offering speaking platforms or honors to those who promote abortion or samesex marriage, many Catholic colleges continue to do so. For example, Sacred Heart University last year welcomed pro-abortion Kerry Kennedy, despite the protests of Bishop William Lori of the Bridgeport diocese.

Some faculty members on Catholic campuses have also become activists in favor of same-sex marriage. A few years ago, Boston College graduate Kara Suffredini, a legislative attorney for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told an alumni gathering of the Lambda Law Students, “I want to begin by saying that everything I know about queer activism, I learned at Boston College…. Put that in your admissions brochure.”

The Jesuit University of San Francisco recently announced that their Public Interest Law Foundation is honoring California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno for his dissent in the Proposition 8 decision. Moreno’s award follows a similar award in 2008, when USF honored Therese Stewart and Shannon Minter for their “courageous” work in gaining rights to samesex marriage for gay men and lesbian women. USF Professor Julie Nice was recently interviewed on KCBS radio, where she denigrated the “whim of the voters” who voted against samesex marriage and claimed confidence that the voters’ will would be overturned by the California courts.

The Georgetown data provide concrete proof of the impact of all these incidents and stances on the views and attitudes of students at Catholic colleges. Unfortunately, the leadership of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities has no intention of taking this data seriously, preferring to placate dissenting professors rather than address the harm they are doing students.


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About Anne Hendershott 104 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH