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Across US, Catholic colleges are searching for their identity

Professor Kerry M. Cronin (center) spoke to students Dawn Overstreet and Tim Muldoon during a discussion on Catholicism at Boston College.
Professor Kerry M. Cronin (center) spoke to students Dawn Overstreet and Tim Muldoon during a discussion on Catholicism at Boston College. (John Bohn/ Globe Staff)

It's 8:30 on a rainy Tuesday night on the Boston College campus, and the big news of the evening is that Massachusetts has elected its first African-American governor and a major Democratic sweep of Congress is underway.

But in the campus's new Hillside Cafe, with Starbucks coffee and track lighting and Pink Martini playing through a laptop, 150 students have gathered to discuss an unlikely subject: the Catholic Mass.

In a new effort at the Jesuit university to engage students in conversations about faith, the college has launched a monthly series of discussions about Catholicism.

The program, intentionally scheduled late at night, over food, and outside of a church, is also deliberately irreverent: organizers wear espresso-colored T-shirts reading "What Would Jesus Brew?"; promotional posters feature a philosophy professor with a latte foam mustache; and the first topic of discussion was "Who needs religion?"

In last week's discussion, "Mass Appeal: Why do we go?", the speaker, adjunct philosophy professor Kerry M. Cronin, lists the best Masses she has attended, acknowledges that in some cases she attended Mass to look for boys, and then oversees a discussion on issues such as the merits of contemporary music at Mass and how to find a decent liturgy away from a college campus.

The program is the latest manifestation of an increasing emphasis on Catholic identity at Catholic colleges around the nation.

The University of Notre Dame is launching a major effort to increase the percentage of Catholic professors on its faculty. In North Andover, Merrimack College, founded by Augustinian friars, has taken 40 percent of its faculty to Italy to retrace the steps of St. Augustine and think about his mission. In Worcester, the College of the Holy Cross, founded by Jesuits, has for three summers sent faculty to Spain and Italy to follow in the steps of St. Ignatius. In Boston, Emmanuel College is preparing this winter to launch a new center for mission and spirituality, charged with reinforcing the college's Catholic tradition. And in Easton, Stonehill College has hired a vice president for mission, and appointed a committee on Catholic identity.

"The colleges are seeking to be more explicit in how they discuss, and how they implement, their Catholicity," said the Rev. Mark T. Cregan, president of Stonehill. And Richard A. Yanikoski, president and chief executive of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said, "I'm seeing initiatives everywhere, on almost every campus that I'm in touch with."

The push is being driven by a confluence of factors. At most Catholic colleges, the number of faculty and administrators who belong to the founding religious orders is dropping precipitously. The percentage of undergraduates who attended Catholic high schools is also dropping, meaning that matriculating students have an increasingly weak formal understanding of their own faith.

"Through the '70s and '80s, a lot of the faculty would have been Catholic, there were more Jesuits, more religious [priests and nuns] on campus, and the students were coming out of pretty devout families," said the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, president of Holy Cross, which is now trying to hire more Catholic faculty. The college has established a center on Religion, Ethics, and Culture, has doubled student attendance at retreat programs, and has added prayer to its existing service programs.

Some scholars said the moves also reflect an increasing emphasis in American culture to examine the relationship between religion and public life and to talk more openly about the role of faith in society.

The most explicit response to the declining numbers of Catholic faculty is at Notre Dame, which has opened a new recruitment office. The university's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, said that the percentage of Catholic faculty at the school has dropped from 80 percent to 52 percent over the last half-century, and that "if we do nothing about this, inevitably we're going to sink to the national average of 25 to 30 percent, and if that's the case, it's hard to claim you're Catholic in any distinctive sense."

"We are trying to be a Catholic university, and wouldn't it be silly if we said we're trying to do that and our teachers aren't Catholic to any degree greater than the national average," Jenkins said.

The Rev. William P. Leahy, president of BC, rejects the notion of numerical goals, but is trying to improve Catholic identity in other ways. The college, in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, launched the Church in the 21st Century, a massive examination of the state of Catholicism that has attracted tens of thousands of people to lectures, is leading to the publication of four books, and now has become a permanent office, with a staff.

BC has also launched an MBA program for church administrators, and is helping to manage a struggling parochial school for the Archdiocese of Boston. It is in the final stages of talks to absorb a Cambridge seminary, the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and is doubling the number of its own senior administrators who will be sent to workshops on the Catholic and Jesuit mission.

BC, Regis, Emmanuel, Merrimack, and Stonehill meet regularly with Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley -- who declined to comment for this story -- to discuss ways they can help the Boston Archdiocese, particularly with Catholic education at parish schools.

"I don't want to have Boston College become another school that once had a religious tradition," Leahy said. "And the long-term trend has clearly been to secularize. It's all around us."

At the coffee shop, students said they welcomed a chance to talk about Catholicism, even at a college where 70 percent of undergraduates are Catholic.

"We're the generation that needs the church the most, but especially now with the scandals and the debates about abortion, the church offers views that are misunderstood," said Donnie Meurer, 21, a senior from Milwaukee. "This offers a chance for students to talk about their faith in an environment that's more social than academic -- it's in a coffee shop, not a church, so it's more open to people."

In recent years there has been pressure from the Vatican and US bishops for Catholic colleges to demonstrate their faithfulness.

Leahy, who says a debate in the US bishops' conference over Catholic identity in the 1990s suggested to him that many American bishops did not fully understand what was going on at Catholic colleges, has been inviting bishops and cardinals to visit BC, including, earlier this fall, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.

Miller said that he would like colleges to come up with some way of measuring the impact of the emphasis on Catholicism at Catholic colleges, and that he would like to see large, wealthy Catholic universities such as BC helping smaller Catholic universities that have fewer resources.

"There's a certain general concern at the Vatican, which is longstanding . . . about the Catholic identity of institutions," Miller said.

The identity and mission emphases are often accompanied by controversy over the tension between Catholic identity and academic freedom. That controversy has played out repeatedly at BC and other elite universities as administrators have grappled with whether to allow performances of "The Vagina Monologues," meetings of gay student groups, panels on abortion rights, and honors to speakers who disagree with Catholic teachings in some way.

Most recently, at BC, the debate is over the university's declaration that the administration reserves the right to balance, or even reject, presentations organized by students.

The debates have caused concern among some faculty, and have triggered a new effort to discuss the Catholic intellectual tradition. At the first luncheon discussion last month, 175 faculty members, most of whom do not teach religion, showed up.

"On a number of occasions in the past year and a half, faculty, students, and administrators have cited the Catholic and/or Jesuit identity of BC as a reason to oppose a speaker, a social event or student organization," said Kenneth Himes, chairman of the BC theology department. "Many wanted to get beyond seeing the Catholic and Jesuit traditions as simply censorious. It is a far richer and more complex reality than that."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo caption with a Page One story on Sunday about Catholic colleges misidentified Boston College staff members Dawn Overstreet and Tim Muldoon as students.)

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