LOS ANGELES—Catholic colleges are touting their religious identity with an exuberance that has been absent for decades.

Even though religious identity isn't a leading criterion for high school students when shopping for a college, sufficient numbers consider it enough of a factor that the colleges are trying to make a religious connection with prospective students.

Examples abound. The Internet Web site for LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., proclaims the school a “Catholic college founded in the Jesuit tradition.” In advertisements in journals secular and religious, the University of Portland describes itself as “Oregon's Catholic University” and features drawings of the campus chapel.

Beginning in the 1980s, “Catholic colleges started to wake up and notice that their precious identity was slipping away,” said Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities

The slip in Catholic identity was due to many factors. Traditional religious emphases were downplayed on most Catholic campuses following the landmark Land O'Lakes conference in Minnesota. Some 26 Catholic college leaders effect ively declared their independence from the Church by concluding that the Catholic university “must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

In several important ways, Pope John Paul's 1990 apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, was a response to Land O'Lakes. He stated that “[a Catholic university] is linked with the Church,” and that this is achieved “either by a formal, constitutive and statutory bond or by reason of an institutional commitment.” This is to be guarded through a number of concrete steps such as having a Catholic serve as president of a Catholic college and keeping a substantial portion of the faculty Catholic.

Regardless of how Ex Corde Ecclesiae is finally implemented – the U.S. bishops are now working on the matter – Catholic colleges have already decided that the perception of Catholic identity is a plus in attracting students and parents.

“In general education circles, it began to be more apparent that there was an appeal for Catholic education,” said Linus Ormsby, a 14-year veteran of public relations at Niagara University in New York. “It is seen as attractive and safe.”

Without its Catholic identity, “there would be no need for Iona College,” said Irish Christian Brother James A. Liguori after accepting a second term last month as president of the New Rochelle, N.Y., college. Religious identity is one of the “points of differentiation that are important to our current constituents and our future students,” said Brother Liguori.

“Catholic values are part of the lore and Zeitgeist of the ‘90s,” said Michael McKeon, dean of admissions at the Jesuits’ Seattle University. “They are also being perceived as marketable.”

Money Talks

Religious identity also has fund-raising implications for Catholic colleges. “These schools have a deep stake in being identified as Catholic institutions, for alumni support and student recruitment,” said Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of the monthly religious and social journal First Things. “Hopefully, though, they are also calling themselves Catholic more and more for nobler reasons.”

Father Charles Currie, director of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said that parents have come to favor Catholic colleges more and more because they are seen as places where “there are values, where there is ethical concern and a more holistic kind of education.”

Thomas Plough, president of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., explained that parents are keen on the “caring atmosphere” implicit in a Catholic school. “Plus, if we departed too far from the Catholic mission, our friends and alumni would be all over us,” Plough said.

Alumni, major donors to schools, want the colleges to abide by Catholic mission and identity. Polls at schools like Assumption and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles show that alumni place the Catholic connection on top of their list of reasons for giving support.

Soft Sell

The Catholic tag does not work in every instance, especially for graduate-level courses or when students are coming from a limited geographic area.

“When you are advertising so many graduate programs and a law school, you have to appeal widely to the public,” said Father Stephen V. Sundborg, president of Seattle University. “We are not going to deny that we are Catholic and Jesuit, but we aren't going to put that first.”

Quincy University in Illinois is working on new recruitment publications that will increase the emphasis on Franciscan heritage. It is part of finding a workable niche in the college marketplace.

“We are trying to narrow down our markets and find students who are really interested in a small, Catholic liberal arts school,” said Tracy Zuspann, the school's public relations chief.

Leaders at St. Benedict College and St. John's University in Minnesota, two partner schools, are pondering a clearer Catholic identity in their literature and Web site. Even though religious affiliation does not rank high in student-preference surveys, school officials realize that identity could set them apart from other Midwest liberal arts colleges.

“I think we have a real subtle approach now,” said Mary Milbert, an admissions official at the schools. “We simply call it an environment where a student can continue to grow spiritually. I'm gathering the other vice presidents for help in how to best describe the Catholic nature of the schools.”

Commuter Schools

In a survey of students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, school researchers found that Jesuit and Catholic identity ranked only eighth in a list of 20 reasons for attending. Only 5% of students picked faith as the most important reason for attending.

Like a lot of “day hop” colleges, the majority of Loyola Marymount students are from the area and do not reside on campus. On commuter campuses, faith life falls behind academics and even location in importance

“It was a very sobering experience,” said Joe Merante, associate vice president for academics. As a result, Loyola Marymount markets the Catholic identity, but cautiously. The school's Web site features a photo of the chapel, but the cross is not visible.

The introductory paragraph mentions proximity to Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean; then comes the description, “a comprehensive Catholic, independent institution … in the educational traditions of the Society of Jesus and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.”

A Customer Speaks

Neuhaus, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, is bouyed by these marketing trends. “I think we should be encouraged that schools are interested in having a good Catholic identity,” he said.

More skeptical is Travis Lawmaster, who recently attended Loyola Marymount. Asked about brochures that stress a Catholic identity at colleges, he told the Register, “I would be suspicious of it. It could be a marketing strategy geared at more conservative parents.”

A Catholic from his infancy, he said he was searching for a deeper faith when he attended undergraduate courses. “I wasn't actively practicing my Catholic faith. … I was part of an evangelical Christian group.”

He said his professors, “didn't give me any kind of clear direction, or clear guidance back to the magisterium of the Church. It was sort of a ‘believe what you want’ kind of attitude. With that, I drifted farther away from the Church.”

It was only later that he returned, by encountering the apologetics movement. Now, he gives talks at apologetics conferences titled “How to Keep Your Kids Catholic.”

His advice for parents who confront the marketing brochures at Catholic colleges? “Yes, Catholic young people should go to these colleges. But they should go equipped.

It's the parents who are the primary teachers of the faith.

“For myself, I would look into a college more, and verify if its claim is the case. Visit the campus. Talk with professors, even. And see if students are really being taught their faith.”

Ed Langlois writes from Portland, Oregon.