Crises, Tidings & Revelations: Dissent and the Catholic Student

Today’s students want something solid to chew on, not the mush of theological ambiguity with which we have been hailed by the age of dissent. A few years ago a freshman girl at Boston College told me she wanted to be a theology major but that she was afraid — she didn’t want to lose her faith. She went on to ask me which professors in the theology department were “okay,” by which she meant: those who could be trusted — non-dissenters. Someone may argue, “Her faith must not be very strong or mature if she’s so worried about losing it!” Fair enough, but how strong or mature is it supposed to be at this stage? Did not the Catholic university develop out of the Church’s wisdom that a Catholic’s faith is going to be challenged all of her life and that there ought to be a place for learning and deepening that faith in an environment that nurtures and strengthens it? There is a big difference between a strong intellectual challenge to one’s faith which forces it to deepen and grow through questioning, and having one’s beliefs attacked as though they were something to be embarrassed about.

It is experiences such as this, as well as those of theological faculty I have known who have been effectively ostracized or beaten down as a result of their orthodoxy, that have led me to the conclusion — that I long resisted — that dissent is no longer simply a matter of nice folks who have a problem with this or that doctrine. There is a palpable unspoken atmosphere that is very difficult to articulate which conveys the message that if you should happen to agree with the Magisterium, then you simply must be uneducated, unsophisticated, unnuanced — in plain language — an idiot. Then, of course, there are the cliched ideological labels: “fundamentalist,” “narrow,” and, of course, “absolutist.”

The unformed student may easily be impressed by the appearance of “sophistication” and follow along in a natural urge for acceptance. The student of firm orthodox faith feels a vague pain that can only be described as a kind of spiritual grief — wanting to be taught but knowing something is seriously wrong. It evokes this spiritual grief to see your classmates act in accord with dissenting teaching in their personal lives thinking either that it is the mind of the Church, or that the mind of the Church is up for grabs because the theologians can’t agree among themselves. Or, seeing your classmates going on the given impression that the Magisterium is a repressive force, or just another voice among equals.

The orthodox students see the damage done by dissent in the lives of their peers and yet no one will listen to them when they try to sound the alarm. I personally have had the experience of going to leftward theologians and chaplains and telling them in the clearest possible language how students are interpreting fuzzy moral teachings. I have stood before them and said, “Students are being harmed, students are being harmed,” only to be met by wordless blank stares. They thought I was oppressing them. It was gratifying for me to see the word “harm” repeated in the CDF instruction. That is what dissent does. It misleads trusting students, often with tragic results.

Apparently fearing rejection, leftward-leaning chaplains and theologians are inexplicably terrified of presenting the Church’s teachings on sexual morality in a straightforward matter-of-fact way, which is what the students are waiting for and have a right to expect. They can make up their own minds. But the dissenters are afraid of inflicting “guilt-trips,” “turning the students off,” or being “preachy.” The student’s often unspoken response is, “Why don’t they just teach us this stuff? We won’t hear it anywhere else.” Some professors take the tack of placing it all in a pseudo-metaphysical babble which may impress the students, but the students still walk out of class scratching their heads, unsure if “it’s okay” or not. In fact, that is about all the average undergraduate student is listening for — whether it is right or wrong for them to engage in sexual activity, and why.

What these professors don’t understand is that their students don’t give a damn about nuances — not with the pressures they are under. A surprising number of students are hoping to hear that “it is not okay,” for a clear affirmation of what their conscience tells them anyway. Often though, they are given the opposite, confusing impression, and feel as though they may be missing out on something “beautiful” by trying to live chastely. Yet the professors are unmoved by criticism because they remain under the rather grotesque impression that they are “relevant” to the young. However, it is they who have not moved with the times; they who have not perceived the turnover in the generations since the 70s; and, tragically, they who do not see that the present generation is not seeking the false liberation of left-wing thought, but rather moral, emotional, spiritual, and even physical survival in a world gone mad with permissiveness.

The atmosphere in which dissent is the reigning ideology to which one must conform has been known to break some very strong and good people. Imagine the effects on an undergraduate in the department who realizes that growth in faith and holiness is not the agenda, except perhaps by enduring as a cross to bear the benign intimidation and academic politics, and offering up as a penance the sniggers, rolled eyes, or cold glances, brought on by an attempted defense of the Church. It is not simply a matter of overt persecution of orthodox individuals — it is far more subtle. Dissent is a kind of ooze, an atmosphere, that permeates the air of theology departments and lets it be known that if you side with the Church you won’t be very welcome or very well liked. If one trespasses the smug moral highground which dissent has arrogated to itself, the slope becomes very slippery.

One sad effect on students who accept dissent is that it can take their goodhearted tolerance and turn it into tolerance for evil and contempt for what is good. Matters are decided on a flawed earthbound and often ideological concept of justice that is really more of a shallow kind of vague “niceness.” Since dissenters largely dismiss authentic Catholic teachings on the supernatural, natural longings for the supernatural are often misdirected towards the occult and other false spiritualities. Permissiveness is mistaken for compassion. Freedom of expression is misinterpreted to mean “anything goes.”

The large, well-endowed theology departments of the major Catholic universities are now reaping what they’ve sown. The 25-year climate of dissent in Catholic institutions has come back to haunt them. A major problem that they whisperingly acknowledge is that they are having difficulty finding new faculty trained at Catholic universities who are well grounded in the Catholic tradition. They have to turn to Catholics trained at Protestant divinity schools and theological seminaries where at least the Catholic tradition was presented objectively, untainted by the agendas and passions of in-house Catholic strife.

Another problem they face is a stunning lack of undergraduate theology majors. For a long time, the common notion has been that the more liberal the program is in terms of doctrine the more attractive it will be. But, the most common complaint heard from theology students about these programs is that they are “too liberal.” In 1989, 90, and 92, according to The Boston College Fact Book, Boston College bestowed four bachelor’s degrees in theology, not counting Evening College students. In 1991 there were none. The numbers of undergraduate theology majors graduating at the big name Catholic schools have been in the single numbers for years. These are the schools where the faculty considers any suggestion of taking the Oath of Fidelity “offensive.” However, the story is different at the newer, smaller Catholic schools that have committed themselves to orthodoxy, the Church, Magisterium, and have embraced the Oath of Fidelity.

In 1993, Franciscan University of Steubenville, the largest of these explicitly orthodox schools, had 215 undergraduate theology majors and double majors out of a total population of 1,850. Between 1986 and 1992 they granted an average of 35 bachelor’s degrees in theology each year. Meanwhile, the more liberal Catholic colleges which criticize more orthodox colleges such as Franciscan, wonder where all their theology students are.

In the words of Jesus: “Recall the saying, ‘you will find your temple deserted,’ I tell you you will not see me from this time on until you declare, `Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'” (Mt. 23:38-39) All of this seems to suggest something about where God is calling those with a theological vocation for their training. What else can explain it? C.S. Lewis once said he liked his Christianity the way he liked his whiskey: straight and undiluted. It appears that today’s Catholic students feel the same.


John Mallon is the director of public relations for Human Life International and a contributing editor for Inside the Vatican magazine. Visit his Web site at

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