Not Worth the Paper It’s Printed On

A lot of ink has been spilled, at least metaphorically, about the new Georgetown University/CARA Working Paper “Catholicism on Campus: Stability and Change in Catholic Student Faith by College Type,” released earlier this month. Even a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by papal biographer David Gibson weighed in (something like this: “Think your Catholic college kids should go to mass? Dream on, you conservative morons.”).

But on the whole, it was wasted metaphorical ink. The CARA study is bad data, dubiously interpreted. Even its remarkably modest conclusion (something like this: “Kids who go to Catholic colleges come out slightly more Catholic than those who don’t. Probably.”) can’t seriously be supported by the research.

CARA’s researchers began with data gathered several years ago by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA for an entirely different study. It’s the same research, although from a different class of students, that the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) analyzed for its infamous study concluding that Catholic students who go to Catholic colleges come out less Catholic.

The CNS study looked at student response to questions on a few Catholic issues — particularly abortion and same-sex marriage — and mass attendance. CARA researchers decided to broaden the issues, and to look at whether students stayed the same in their beliefs, moved closer to Church teaching, or moved away from Church teaching.

Sounds good. But unfortunately, most of the questions posed by the HERI data gatherers did not have anything to do with Church teachings. So the CARA researchers picked issues that they thought best  reflected Catholic teaching, and then looked for questions on the HERI list that corresponded to them. And there’s the rub — their selection of supposedly Catholic teaching is biased at worst, and silly at best.

Some of the attitudes they identify as Catholic, for instance, are being “pro-arms reduction,” “pro-Affirmative Action,” “pro-gun control,” and “pro-progressive taxation.” While they provide quotes from the Catechism and from the bishops’ non-magisterial letter, “Toward More Faithful Citizenship” to back up their case, these are not mandatory positions for Catholics. They are particular solutions that many liberal Catholics, and non-Catholics, who teach at universities favor for addressing injustice and sin. There are others. It is perfectly possible to be a faithful Catholic dedicated to fighting injustice, helping the poor, and working for peace without holding any of the above positions.

But surprise! When these positions, the common opinions among university graduates of every creed, are considered “Catholic,” the picture that emerges of Catholic college graduates is very different from the one CNS found. They turn out to emerge from Catholic college (slightly) more Catholic than when they went in, and (slightly) more Catholic than Catholic students who didn’t go to a Catholic college.

But that conclusion means nothing when it’s possible to be a faithful Catholic and not hold any of these positions, and it’s equally possible to be an athiest and hold them all.

So the question of how Catholic students are after they graduate Catholic colleges remains unanswered, and will remain so until someone polls students on real Catholic issues and real Catholic practices.

Perhaps in response to essays like this, Mark Gray at CARA says that the organization has plenty of other evidence to support its conclusion. But the evidence looks like more of the same. So again, until someone conducts a real study, all the CARA paper shows is that Catholic students are good learners. What they’re learning at Catholic college seems to be liberal politics. And on the whole they graduate, as the study admits, looking “not all that different from adult self-identified Catholics in the United States in general.”

People who find that alarming are likely to agree with the Cardinal Newman Society. And people who don’t are not likely to see anything wrong at Georgetown.

Gail Finke

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Gail D. Finke is an author and mother living in Cincinnati, where she writes for The Catholic Beat at Sacred Heart Radio.

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