Common Wisdom: The Love Boat on Campus

My daughter, who attends a prestigious Catholic university, recently lost her roommate. The girl moved across the hall to accommodate better sexual trysts with her boyfriend. Occupying the intended room is another “sexual­ly active” student, whose roommate moved in with my daughter to complete the switch. The game of musical beds was carried out with insouciance and not a hint of disap­probation. There was only relief that periodic co-ed shower­ing, an inconvenience, would cease.

My daughter has come a long way — altered is perhaps the word — from her embarrassment two years ago when caught, clad in her bathrobe, using a communal phone in a co-ed dorm. Calling to report the good news that she had secured on-campus housing, she halted abruptly in mid- sentence to whisper, “Oh no, here come two guys.” In the background could be heard male voices, some laughter, and her humiliated “Whew, I won’t make this mistake again.”

Thanks to an administration with stringent academic standards for entering its hallowed walls, but no moral standards about what transpires within them, there is a steady erosion among students of standards for appropriate male-female behavior. (The concept of sin has virtually disappeared from their vocabulary.) Most are Catholic, legatees of blitzed catechesis, and have, at best, a flimsy grasp of what it means to be Roman Catholic. But like my daughter, many are from Catholic homes where parents labored, in an adversarial society, to inculcate moral im­peratives which make clear that in matters of sexual conduct Rome does not regard Hugh Hefner as its lodestar. It is to buffer these values that parents select a Catholic college, confident that an institution flying the Catholic flag will reaf­firm them. In fact personal experience, and reports from others, reveals that our hefty tuitions buy an atmosphere of moral laxity which returns sons and daughters home with sexual mores seriously compromised, if not decimated.

In a mindless rush of Me Tooism, which apes secular universities’ co-ed dorms, Catholic administrators not only facilitated premarital sex but burdened those opposed to it with feelings of eccentricity. The awful truth is that the chaste collegian is the oddball. Sitting in the hall studying, unable to reenter his room because of a copulating couple, he begins to wonder who is wrong, who is getting the raw deal? That priests are occasionally billeted in these anchored love boats does not solve the problem. Indeed, it invites scandal. To offer mass in one’s room during one hour while ignoring moral chaos the rest of the day (not to mention fail­ing totally to address the issue) amounts to winking at recreational sex.

“Universities today are practically forcing boys and girls to go to bed together before they’re ready. I cannot understand our current coeducational system. What do they expect young people to do, when they’re sleeping in the same corridor?” Strong words, bold words, words of com­mon sense. Said by a Catholic bishop in whose diocese such a place exists? No. Said by non-Catholic Katherine Hepburn in McCall’s (November, 1984).

Miss Hepburn’s dismay pales beside the astonished betrayal experienced by Catholic parents. If any group needs support today, it is young adults who try to remain chaste. The very word “chastity” provokes guffaws and charges of prudery. Traditional teaching about self-discipline and self- denial have all but disappeared. To be sure, sexual latitude at secular universities implies no contradiction. Princeton and Stanford may hope for ethics among their students, but about sexual mores? Indifference. There is, after all, no shared vision. On the other hand, at a college calling itself Catholic, whose administrators and faculty in the main are, or should be, people of a common creed, symbolizing one thing but expediting its opposite is blatant hypocrisy. The lunatic notion of assigning young men and women in their biological prime to the same living quarters stumbles on the first step on the path to virtue, which is to “avoid the near occasion of sin.”

To understand the skewed picture one has merely to notice that only sex is exempt from normal precautions. Ad­ministrations like to think students will resist the temptation to steal. But they recognize human frailty. They provide an elaborate structure of individual door locks buttressed by security personnel posted at the entrance to each dorm and apartment. Morality should make such measures un­necessary, but common sense mandates safeguards. The ob­vious corollary in matters of sex is for Catholic ad­ministrators to organize living arrangements which minimize possibilities and relieve pressure for premarital encounters.

With students left to their own devices (and a sad pun lurks there), about the best a Catholic parent can hope for is “serial monogamy.” Patterns, of course, are being established. The student’s initial shock gives way to accom­modation, which eventually becomes acceptance, which in­evitably becomes justification. And if co-habitation is okay within the walls of Catholic academe, surely it is not out of order after graduation, in a Manhattan apartment.

Some sons and daughters hold the quaint belief that discipline arrives with a ring. Naturally, it is more agreeable to postpone the rigors of self-control to a future date. But challenges of the flesh come early and leave late — some say never. It is myopic to project discipline in marriage if there has been no discipline before it. The flip side of fornication is adultery.

Not long ago, there was a good deal of commotion about discovering and celebrating roots. Black was beautiful, and Alex Haley’s bestseller became a hit TV miniseries, conveying pride to people of color. Jews went out of their way in books and docudramas to remind their carefree young, unacquainted with the Holocaust, what it means to be Jewish. At the same time that many ethnic groups were emphasizing their distinctiveness, Catholicism was busy making its own obscure. Instead of opposing trends which conspired against human dignity, we rushed to jump aboard secular bandwagons. A major capitulation was the establishment of co-ed dorms, thrusting vulnerable young adults into situations which would try mature, com­mitted celibates. It was cruel, it was a cop-out, and it was contrary to right reason.

It will take courage for Catholic colleges to reverse course. Nothing draconian, merely a policy under which all colleges operated for decades, i.e.., single-sex dorms, single-sex apartments, and rules about visitation. Parenthetically, this precise arrangement does not dissuade numerous applicants to the resolutely Christian campus of Pepperdine University. It will constitute a rededication to what distinguishes rather than what homogenizes, a decision not to be embarrassed about what one believes, but to assure its practical implementation. It will do nothing less than help restore Catholic identity to institutions themselves and, more crucially, to a generation of adults, operating under tremen­dous secular pressure to live in ways antithetical to the teachings of their church.

Last October in a grocery check-out line, an acquain­tance told me about the plight of her freshman daughter, enrolled in one of this state’s prominent universities. To avoid the discomfort of sharing her bedroom with her room­mate’s boyfriend, the girl was sleeping in her car, in the parking lot. “I’m so upset,” said the distressed mother. “I should have sent her to a Catholic college.”

The compliment is undeserved.

  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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