Students at Catholic colleges graduate with more negative opinions of the LGBTQ community than students at any other type of university, a recent study has found. However, individual college students who are personally affiliated with Catholicism have higher opinions of the LGBTQ community than their peers from any other Christian denomination, across every type of institution.
The study, conducted by Ohio State University, North Carolina State University, and Interfaith Youth Core, surveyed thousands of students from 122 institutions of various religious affiliations. The students were asked their personal religious affiliation, as well as questions to determine whether the students had a positive view of LGBTQ people.
The study, which surveyed the students at three points during their college careers, indicates that the majority of students at Christian schools developed more positive views of the LGBTQ community over the course of their college experience. However, students at Catholic schools made the least gains, surging in their positive attitudes towards LGBTQ people during their first year in college and then showing a steady decline in positive opinion over the next three years. Students at Catholic colleges graduated with the least positive attitudes toward the LGTBQ community of any type of institution.
When it comes to an individual’s religious affiliation, the picture for Catholics is much more positive. Among Christian denominations and across institution types, individual Catholic students began and graduated college with the highest opinions of the LGBTQ community.
If peer group socialization was the only variable that affected college students’ opinions of the LGBTQ community, it would seem that students at Catholic colleges would develop more positive opinions of the LGBTQ community. After all, there is commonly a high percentage of Catholic students at Catholic colleges.
Therefore, it is likely that institutional culture, messaging, or policies cause students at Catholic colleges to graduate with more negative opinions of LGBTQ people, the conductors of the study note. It is not yet known exactly how or why this occurs, however.
As a recent graduate of one prominent Catholic college, the University of Notre Dame, I feel that some of my own experiences at Notre Dame can shed light on institutional problems that may be common at Catholic colleges, though of course Notre Dame is not necessarily representative of all Catholic colleges. While attending Notre Dame, I was active in the LGBTQ community and served on Notre Dame’s Advisory Committee for Student Climate Related to LGBTQ Students, giving me the opportunity to hear both my LGBTQ peers’ concerns and the administrations’ responses.
Despite protests beginning in the 1990s, Notre Dame has failed to include “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” in their non-discrimination policy, an issue which commonly reminds students and faculty that the university is not explicitly committed to welcoming the LGBTQ community on an institutional level.
Other institutional issues include the fact that student clubs at Notre Dame are required to adhere to magisterial Catholic teaching in their mission statement and activities. This requirement hampered the adoption of an official LGBTQ student group until 2013, and until now has prevented the Gay and Lesbian Alumni network from being officially recognized and allowed to meet on campus. Prism ND, the undergraduate LGBTQ and ally group, is therefore still forbidden from publicly supporting same-sex marriage but finds themselves having to occasionally defend the LGBTQ community from homophobic threats, outings, harmful speakers from hate groups, and vitriolic newspaper articles.
What distinguishes a Catholic university from an evangelical or Protestant university, especially those denominations which, like Roman Catholicism, also do not support same-sex marriage, cannot be pinned down to simple doctrinal differences. For instance, one notable difference is that the Roman Catholic Church has a strong top-down bureaucratic structure, which may slow progress at Catholic universities. The administrations of Catholic colleges face many dilemmas about their institutional commitment to magisterial church teaching, as well as questions of whether bishops will continue supporting Catholic colleges which choose to openly welcome the LGBTQ community.
One unexpected but hopeful road towards progress may be that at Catholic colleges, new policies and culture shifts have to be negotiated around Catholic teachings, values, and principles. This may not seem promising at first, because some students at Catholic colleges argue that the preservation of so-called “traditional marriage” is a Catholic value. However, Notre Dame students, many of them my friends, have recently entered into this lively renegotiation of what it means to be a Catholic university. Many students have expressed positive, explicitly Catholic views of the LGBTQ community, including the experiences of many LGBTQ Catholic students. Notre Dame students commonly argue, as we do at New Ways Ministry, that it is a true Catholic value to include and welcome the LGBTQ community.
The news about the negative effects of attending Catholic colleges is not the end of the story, nor can it be, if we are to continue advocating for LGBTQ inclusion within the Catholic Church. Since Catholic students tend to have high opinions of the LGBTQ community, we must have hope that Catholic students who attend Catholic universities will continue advocating for the Catholic value of inclusion. The shifting the culture of Catholic colleges is a project worth fighting for, especially if the church is to support and bolster young Catholics’ welcoming attitudes towards the LGBTQ community.
—Madeline Foley, New Ways Ministry, June 24, 2021