Chaplains at campuses across the country report a renewed interest in religion among students, which suggests that the secular monopoly of the sixties may finally have ended.
New Church groups are springing up at colleges, and existing organizations are swelling in membership and prestige. Says the Rev. Peter Gomes, minister of Harvard’s non-denominational chapel, “No longer is religion a bad word on campus.”
But the new religious bent is not a “revolt into orthodoxy,” to use Camus’ term. Rather students are turning from cynicism and agnosticism to a loose and eclectic religiosity. They are embracing a theology which understands God in strictly human terms and which is strongly political.
This new set of beliefs is best epitomized by the Rev. George MacRae, S.J., professor of New Testament at the Harvard Divinity School, who spoke recently at Dartmouth College.
Fr. MacRae said the bible, an antiquated document, is best understood through the lens of modern scholarship in psychology, sociology, and literary criticism. He criticized the Church for clinging to “unsophisticated but enthusiastic” readings of Scripture, arguing that the gospels are best read as “perspectives” on truth.
The ideal Christian community, according to Fr. MacRae, is a set of believers who agree to call themselves Christian. Disagreements over Church teaching are natural, and should not inhibit the unity of the community, Fr. MacRae said.
After Fr. MacRae’s speech a Dartmouth student said she found his views refreshing, because she was “having a difficult time” with traditional interpretations of the bible. The student praised Fr. MacRae’s call for an eclectic reading of Scripture, so that it addresses itself to our changing problems.
College students today are clearly tired of secular solutions to moral issues — the ethics of Feelgood humanism — but they are not ready yet for orthodoxy. Their flirtation with Fr. MacRae’s brand of Catholicism is hopefully a brief one, en route to a fuller appreciation of traditional Catholicism.
It is refreshing to see religion make a campus comeback, especially at the Ivy League. After all many of those Northeastern schools were founded for the express purpose of evangelization.
Dartmouth was founded in 1769 by a Yale-educated ecclesiastic, Eleazor Wheelock, to convert the native Indians. Harvard and Yale sprang up to build a learned ministry for Reformed Christians. Columbia had firm Anglican roots. Brown was founded by Baptists with a revivalist fervor. The University of Pennsylvania seeped out of a low-key Quaker ministry. Only Cornell grew out of founder Andrew White’s vocal anti-clericalism, a flavor it retains today.
Msgr. William Nolan, who founded “Aquinas House,” Dartmouth’s Catholic Student Center, more than 25 years ago, says Catholics have overcome the prejudices of Ivy League schools, which retained anti-Catholic sentiment much longer than they did the missionary purpose for which they were started.
And there is no doubt that Catholic centers at colleges have seen numerical growth. At Aquinas House, for example, 700 of Dartmouth’s 1000 Catholics attend Mass or participate in other “AQ” activities. Harvard and Princeton report high rates of activities too.
But the question for Catholics is: what direction is the new interest in religion going to take? All the Catholic clergy I have heard lecture at American colleges have come to foment student unrest on issues like nuclear war and Third World “liberation,” which American bishops have recently elevated from the political to the moral sphere.
I have yet to hear a campus lecture by a Catholic priest on abortion. Or the Shroud of Turin. Or Scriptural authority. The Church certainly has stands on these. But it is not taking the trouble to reaffirm them. Apparently other issues like nuclear weapons dominate.
Yet the very energy and authority with which Catholic priests and altar boys proclaim their views on such ephemeral concerns undermine the general credibility of the Church, because students who feel the Church is over-stepping its jurisdiction must reconsider their allegiance to the moral stands of our bishops.
Also, as a result of Church politics, students see religion less in transcendent than in practical terms. They are confused by the incredible moral status which priests are assigning to first drafts of pastorals on armaments. Many of them see such efforts as political gimmicry, not Church teaching.
In recent months campuses across America have been subjected to a tremendous propaganda assault — bolstered by the Catholic Church — which is directed at igniting them on the issue of nuclear war. Apparently some bishops feel that it is impossible to distinguish between the possession and use of nuclear weapons, so the very possession of atomic weapons is immoral. (Being celibate, a wag has said, the bishops should have no problem with such distinctions.)
How students will ultimately react to the political activism of their Church remains to be seen. But even now there are signs of aching of conscience, of rifts developing between Church loyalty and patriotism, of a sense of betrayal by an overweening Church.
There are also whoops of joy, from those who agree with the Church’s nuclear perspective, who feel the Church has stodgily withheld itself from volatile issues. There are signs on the American campus, as elsewhere, of a radical polarization of these two groups.