Why the Cardinal Newman Society Should Listen to Pope Francis

The Harvard Crimson recently had a profile of the freshman class called Sex, Drugs, and MacBook Pros, with the implication being that Apple products are Harvard’s version of rock ’n roll.  What is the equivalent for Catholic colleges?  If you ask the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that has taken it upon itself to “to promote and defend faithful Catholic education,” it seems to be sex, gays, and abortion.

I’ve been both a fan and a critic of the Society, but I’m increasingly worried that they have lost their way.  I still believe that an organization like theirs is needed to focus on Catholic identity on college campuses, but also think they are exactly to whom Pope Francis was referring when he said that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”  If we don’t “find a new balance,” he continued, then “the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

About this time last year I noted that the Society was “near-fixated on the issue of the Health and Human Services contraception mandate.”  Even with the new pope’s call for us to focus on the essentials, they still seem to be focused on a few issues only tangentially related to Catholic higher education in the United States.

A review of 50 of the most recent headlines on the Society’s blog shows that 60% of them were related to abortion (9), homosexuality (10), or sexuality in general (10).  That leaves only 40% for all other issues relating to Catholic education.  In some, they hit more than one hot button issue in the same headline: Homosexual Employees of Loyola Marymount Univ. Seek Abortion CoverageGasp!  Two for one!  Score!

If it advances their agenda, they will even write about non-Catholic schools as well.  Note their recent post on the University of Toledo, a public college.  They leave no gay stone unturned on college campuses, it seems, even if it’s paid for by the taxpayers of Ohio and not the parishioner in the pew next to you.

I was fortunate enough to attend a Catholic university (actually, the Catholic University) that strove to make me a better person in every facet, not just someone who read a couple heavy books and then walked across stage with a funny looking hat.  It’s even recommended by the Cardinal Newman Society.  I know firsthand what Catholic colleges have to offer the world (does the Gospel get any more fresh or fragrant than when it is proclaimed and lived by those in their salad days?) and how desperately it is needed.  You will find few who are bigger proponents of Catholic higher education than I.

However, does anyone really think that the 244 presidents of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States spend 60% of their time worrying about abortion, sex, and gays?  Does anyone really think they should?  If they don’t, and shouldn’t, then neither should an organization whose mission it is to promote them.

This is not to say that the Cardinal Newman Society should not be concerned with making sure that institutions that call themselves Catholic live up to and are worthy of the title.  They should, and if this was their focus I would be glad.  However, if they really believe that the biggest issue facing a particular college is that it has a couple of pro-choice or gay employees, then I wonder if they really understand what Blessed John Paul the Great meant when he said that Catholic colleges were Ex Corde Ecclesiae, or born from the heart of the Church.

Pope Francis has told us that “proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.”

Any college can win the minds of its students.  It’s winning their hearts that is the challenge.  Like the distraught disciples leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus, many Catholics leave the Church during their college years – 80% of those who leave are gone by age 24, in fact.  Catholic colleges not only have a special ability to win those hearts, to make them burn, they also have a vocation to do so.  If the Cardinal Newman Society really wants to promote Catholic higher education, they should spend more time encouraging converts, and less time rooting out heretics.