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The Catholic New World
Feeding a hunger for religious knowlege

By Michelle Martin

Catholic colleges and universities around the United States have become increasingly diverse in recent decades, but that doesn't mean they take their Catholic identity less seriously.

Making sure Catholic colleges and universities are truly Catholic was the point of "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" ("From the Heart of the Church"). Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution on Catholic Universities. Promulgated in 1990, the document was implemented in the United States in 1999.

The document calls on Catholic universities to be faithful to the Christian message while reflecting on human knowledge "in the light of the Catholic faith."

In Chicago, undergraduates at Catholic institutions of higher education are required to take at least one, and often two, religion classes. Those classes often-but not always-include aspects of Catholic theology, according to university officials.

"Two classes in religion is kind of the norm," said Avis Clendenen, chair of the religious studies department at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. "If anything, since Ex Corde, Catholic colleges and universities have kind of reexamined their curricula in terms of how they are conveying Catholic theology."

At the same time, local universities have seen a burgeoning interest among undergraduates in education for pastoral ministry.

At Loyola University Chicago, for example, students are required to take two classes centered on religious or theological thought, said Resurrectionist Father Gene Szarek, an assistant professor in the theology department and chair of the undergraduate programs committee.

As a practical matter, the only classes that meet that requirement are taught by theology faculty members, he said. And many students go further; Loyola has more than 100 people majoring in theology, he said.

Loyola does not require that those classes be about Catholicism specifically, although he noted that many non- Catholic and non-Christian students are eager to learn about Catholic beliefs.

"A lot of them are trying to learn about it because they want to fit in to the mainstream culture," he said. Similarly, Catholic students often find their faith enhanced by learning about other faith traditions, he said.

"We can build a bridge of common understanding between them," he said.

At Saint Xavier University, classes that meet the requirement might be comparative religion classes, or a class on "suffering and death"-a class that fills up each time it's offered, and includes the perspectives of several faith traditions.

"Why do students take these classes?" Clendenen asked. "The conviction is that a liberally educated individual needs to understand how religion functions in the world, in society, in personal life."

Learning about other faiths as well as their own helps students define their beliefs and come to a more mature understanding of their own religious life, she said.

Of course, some students see religion classes as just one more requirement on their way to a degree in something else, Clendenen said, but others are genuinely interested.

"They want to really think about God's presence in the world," she said. "There's a lot of fascination with religion."

DePaul University, billed as the largest Catholic university in the United States, also has a two-course religion requirement for students, said Karen Scott, director of the Catholic Studies program. But the university does not dictate what those two courses are, and they might have nothing to do with the Catholic faith, she said.

On the other hand, the university is planning to beef up its Catholic Studies program by hiring more senior-level faculty, Scott said, a move she believes will attract more students to Catholic Studies classes.

Dominican University in River Forest requires only one religious studies course, but it must cover some aspect of Catholic thought, said Hugh McElwain, chair of Dominican's religious studies department.

Other courses are offered as well, he said, and many students come in contact with theology faculty in interdisciplinary seminars, too.

Even with only one course required, McElwain said, many students far exceed the requirement, with an average of two courses per student.

The university also is the first to offer an undergraduate major in pastoral ministry, he said.

Saint Xavier University on the South Side offers a minor in pastoral ministry, and Loyola, whose Institute for Pastoral Studies offers graduate degrees, will begin offering an undergraduate minor next fall.

Part of the reason for increased interest in pastoral ministries, McElwain speculated, is that students now in college grew up with lay ecclesial ministers performing many of the duties their parents recall being filled by clergy or vowed religious-people who served as directors of religious education, for example, or youth ministers.

But many Catholic college students need to learn the basics of the faith, too, Clendenden said. "One of the issues we have to address is the religious illiteracy of undergraduates who are not as well-versed as they would have been 40 years ago."


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