Theresa Decaen has been one of the lucky ones.

The graduating senior at St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco speaks glowingly of the institute's emphasis on Scripture, Church history, Catholic philosophy and the early Church Fathers has grounded her well in her faith.

Knowledge of Catholic truths, the Ventura, Calif., student said, “helps you when you're trying to conquer difficulties, whether in your personal or academic life.”

Decaen's experience at a Catholic college, while laudable, hasn't been the norm for many students in the 1990s. The decline of religious identity of America's Catholic colleges and universities is, in fact, more in the news now than at any other time since a wave of secularization swept Catholic higher education in the 1960s and '70s.

These days the accent is on strengthening Catholic identity, and having the colleges reflect a tradition “born from the heart of the Church,” the opening lines of Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Often overlooked in the debates between and among bishops, scholars and college presidents, are the feelings of Catholic students, especially those who want to see their faith celebrated at any institution that calls itself Catholic.

A hearty group of just that kind of student attends the St. Ignatius Institute.

The institute, founded in 1976, is a modified Great Books program. It is based on the Ratio Studiorum, the old Jesuit plan of studies, according to director John Galten. Emphasizing philosophy and theology within the context of Church teachings, it is a consciously Catholic program. The institute has 134 of the university's 4,700 undergraduate students.

Decean, of Ventura, Calif., said that in her years at St. Ignatius she found it refreshing to be in a community where students examine topics critically but don't dismiss Church teachings out of hand.

“To me, you have a seed when you're younger, and here it develops and matures and grow from that seed,” she said.

That outlook would be in line with the John Paul II's vision for Catholic colleges. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae he describes what should be the student's personal,lifelong experience of Catholic higher education: "They are challenged to continue the search for truth and for meaning throughout their lives, since the human spirit must be cultivated in such a way that there results a growth in its ability to wonder, to understand, to contemplate,to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral and social sense" (No. 23).

The Challenge

Administrators at many Catholic universities are concerned that this is not always the case on their campuses. Jesuit Father John Schlegel, president of the University of San Francisco, for instance, said in a 1997 speech, “It is a topic I often pray about.”

Several factors, he noted, undermine Catholicism on campus: Many students come to college from broken homes and have hardly any understanding of doctrine; many faculty members don't identify with the Church; and the prevailing secular culture holds anti-Catholic values.

Restoring or maintaining Catholicity is the point of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, whose implementation by the U.S. bishops will be discussed at their November meeting.

Many college administrators and professors oppose the guidelines, arguing they would restrict academic freedom and impede the pursuit of excellence. But even many of the document's opponents worry about losing the Catholic essence of their institutions. Formal speeches and ad hoc committees have addressed the topic in recent years at Catholic colleges all over the country.

Long gone are the days when practically all the students were Catholic and faculty members were mostly religious from the order that administered the college. So, too, are the days when most Catholic colleges accepted either men or women, but not both.

At today's typical Catholic university is no stranger to student drinking, par-tying and promiscuity.

Student Life

“In terms of dorm life, there really isn't anything that distinguishes it as Catholic,” said Kory Kramer, a graduating senior in philosophy at Boston College.

At Georgetown University, graduating senior Brian Sayers had, during his undergraduate years, organized a campaign against a mandatory program for freshmen offering condoms and demonstrating their use; goaded the administration into returning crucifixes to classrooms; and protested the university chaplain's decision not to rehire four chaplains. “I like this place,” Sayers said. “I really do. And I have no idea where it's going.”

At Boston College, the message from the top emphasizes the importance of being Catholic, Kramer said, but he wonders about the implementation. Putting the Jesuit ideal into practice seems to amount to volunteer projects and retreats where Christ is seldom mentioned, hesaid.

Importance of the Faculty

Kramer, who plans to study in the school's philosophy graduate program next year, is more worried about the long-term effects of hiring decisions. He noted that a large proportion of faculty at Boston College is not Catholic. “There are faculty members that harbor anti-Catholic animosity,” he said.

Mary Daly, for instance, a feminist theology professor and witchcraft advocate, decries the Church as a sexist, oppressive institution. (Daly and the school are involved in a legal battle over her refusal to admit men into a seminar she teaches. The college, which has forcibly retired Daly, won a court decision recently.)

“When you don't hire Catholic faculty — good Catholic faculty members — you're really losing the potential to be a good Catholic university,” Kramer said.

Jack Dunn, director of public affairs at Boston College, said the school expects to succeed in getting rid of Daly, whom he described as an “embarrassment.”

But he said he was astounded by Kramer's comments, adding that the school “prides itself on being a Jesuit Catholic university.” Dunn noted that Mass is offered at least five times a day on campus during the school year. Retreats, he said, start and end with Mass, and are well- attended. He added that Boston this year introduced priests into many dorms.

“It's so overtly Catholic,” Dunn said of the college.

Meanwhile, some administrators said that restoring a Catholic identity to a faculty is not as simple as hiring teachers who have been baptized and confirmed.

San Francisco's Father Schlegel noted in his 1997 speech that it can be tough to discern how committed to the university's goals a prospective teaching candidate is. “Some of our most dedicated faculty are not Catholics,” Father Schlegel said, “while some of our least dedicated are alienated, embittered Catholics.”

Alfred Freddoso, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame for the last two decades, said university administrators have little concept of what an integrated university — let alone an integrated Catholic university — should look like.

“Some orthodox Catholics seem to think that the best sort of Catholic university would in effect combine a basically secular university with a theology faculty that is both orthodox and distinguished,” said Freddoso. But it is not enough, he contends, to relegate the search for truth to “the far margins of the university's intellectual life.”

Dunn, at Boston College, suggested that mere religious affiliation is not revelant. “Father [William] Leahy, the president, is fond of saying, ‘I've had Jewsand Muslims who identify with the mission of Boston College better than some Catholics.’”

A Model

Jeanne Horan, who just graduated from the University of Dallas with a degree in literature, sees her own school as something of a model for Catholic identity. “The University of Dallas … isn't [just] nominally Catholic like some other schools,” she said.

Not only is most of the faculty Catholic, she said, but even non-Catholic faculty members tend to subscribe to the university's mission. “There's a search for truth here,” she said.

The curriculum requires four courses in philosophy and two in theology, all taught from a Catholic point of view. Even literature and history courses emphasize Catholic themes. “Everything we do is seen through the Catholic lens,” said Horan, her class's valedictorian.

Socially, the university is not a monastery — as a resident assistant Horan was aware of heavy drinking and partying. But debauchery and materialism are not the prevailing ethic, she said. There are lines at confession three days a week, for instance, and Masses are packed, drawing 150 or more.

“All of my friends go to daily Mass,” she added. “It's definitely the thing to do.”

In her four years at the school, Horan said she knew of three professors who have entered the Church.

Though students at some other campuses express frustration about the Catholic character of their colleges, many note a sort of spirituality which often manifests itself in works of charity.

Kramer, despite some misgivings, emphasized that he has enjoyed his time at Boston College, and feels he has had a good Catholic experience. He learned of and sought out certain philosophy professors, for instance, who were excellent teachers of the intellectual systems that support the Catholic faith.

“All the resources are here for you,” Kramer said. “It's just that the student needs to do it.”

Matt McDonald writes from Mashpee, Massachusetts.