University preserves Catholic tradition

Kelsey Ruane

The University continues to actively present itself as a Catholic institution and works to attract Catholic students amidst a slight decrease of about six percent in the number of Catholic undergraduate students over the past eight years, according to Dean of Enrollment Stephen Merritt.

One of the questions in a poll sent out by the Office of the Registrar several times to the freshman class concerns religious preference, which is how the University knows the religious makeup of its student body. About 90 percent of freshmen respond to the survey, according to Merritt.

As of fall 2009, 75 percent of Villanova undergraduates are Catholic, down from 81 percent in 2002, according to Merritt.

There has been a slight increase in the number of students who choose not to list their religious preference on the Registrar’s survey.

Six percent of respondents did not provide the information in fall 2009 compared to 1 percent in 2002.

With 12 percent, Protestant groups make up the second largest religious presence on campus.

Merritt noted a slight increase in Baptist and Hindi students since 2002.

Factors other than changes in the religious denominations of the student body have contributed to the University’s changing religious landscape, including a lack of religious knowledge.

“Many of our students today have not had parochial school, so they know little about their faith,” said Barbara Wall, special assistant to the president for mission and director of the Office for Mission Effectiveness. “They might have had CCD, but they enter the University with a more elementary understanding. Our hope, consistent with the theology department, is that students will be able to expand their knowledge of their faith at Villanova.”

The religious makeup of the student body does not always provide an accurate picture of the extent of its religious participation.

“I would hazard a guess that that 75 percent [of students] are not necessarily churchgoing people, but that’s what their background is, that’s what they’ve stated as their faith experience,” said University President Rev. Peter Donohue, O.S.A. “I don’t think we have 75 percent of people involved in Campus Ministry, but it’s there if people want to take advantage of it.”

In addition, there has been a marked loss of founding members of the University, such as priests and Augustinians.

“In the past, we relied mostly on the large numbers of members who founded the University, but those numbers have been depleted over the years,” Wall said. “We’re in a healthier place because we no longer rely on a few of the religious order. Now, we have this great opportunity for everyone to better understand and claim ownership of the mission.”

Although the University is autonomous, it maintains a responsibility to the Church to educate young people in a mature understanding of their faith and encourage them to become productive citizens for the common good, according to Wall.

The development of the Augustine and Culture Seminar, the dramatic increase in service opportunities and the addition of the humanities program over the last 15 years have all changed the religious face of Villanova in positive ways, according to Wall.

The growth of Villanova as a national university – and the recognition of its top-ranked business school – have attracted students for reasons outside of the religious realm.

“I chose to come to Villanova because of its top-ranked business school, which will open doors for me that other schools may not have,” said junior Irfan Khan, president of the Muslim Students Association. “Its Catholic affiliation did not deter me from coming here.”

Junior Jeremy Cooper is president of Hillel, the Jewish organization on campus, which is a resource for Jewish students and a group that strives to make the student body aware of Jewish events on campus.

“I didn’t realize it was Catholic until I got here during Orientation,” Cooper said. “I just chose Villanova because it was outside of Philadelphia and had a great reputation. Its Catholic identity had nothing to do with it.”

The University’s undergraduate Jewish population is about one percent annually, according to Merritt.

Hillel currently has 15 active members.

The increase in the University’s appeal due to non-religious reasons need not be seen as problematic, according to Theology Department Chair Bernard Prusak.

“The growth of the University is not an obstacle but an opportunity that requires reflective attention,” he said. “It calls for an awareness and a care for how to preserve our identity and carry it forward in a creative way. We need a community that is open to and seeks to understand our identity.”

“We want to have a very strong Catholic population here, but we want an understanding that religious diversity is welcome,” Merritt said. “We have the blend that a lot of Catholic universities have.”

However, religious preference is not a question on the admissions application and admissions must adhere to the University’s nondiscrimination policy.

“Our ideal is for Villanova to be a place where people who are congruent with Catholic identity will be a part of the dialogue on how faith impacts culture,” Wall said. “We respect and appreciate people of other faiths in that dialogue.”

The University provides that ethos by way of events, activities and work with faculty to reach that goal, according to Wall.

Mission-centered faculty hiring is a proposal that opens up the discussion of the relationship between faith and culture and seeks to hire faculty not solely on the basis of technical competence in a field.

The mission values an understanding of the Catholic tradition, though it does not advocate hiring only Catholics.

The concept of mission-centered hiring began in 2000 and is still being formulated, and a formal document will be published in the near future, according to Wall.

“According to our vice president of Academic Affairs, 45 percent of our faculty will have retired or resigned within the next five years,” Wall said. “The people we hire will very much determine what we become, so it is important for us to hire faculty congruent – not just tolerant – with mission. We must hire faculty who know the Catholic intellectual tradition, can teach it and make scholarly contributions to it.”

Currently, approximately 35 to 37 percent of faculty is Catholic, according to Wall.

In addition to the importance of mission-centered faculty hiring in fostering the faith tradition within academics, the University has offered a curriculum development workshop on Catholic Social Teaching each summer for the past nine years.

The week-long intensive course provides an opportunity for Catholic and non-Catholic professors to understand the social teachings of the Church and how it struggles with concerns about social justice, human rights and poverty, according to Wall.

Merritt highlighted two aspects of the University’s effort to attract Catholic applicants.

Representatives visit several hundred Catholic high schools to promote the University, and various University publications display Catholic values through pictures and content.

“The University cares very much about having a good portion of its students Catholic,” Merritt said. “We make sure to represent the University as clearly a Catholic university, but in a way that doesn’t make people uncomfortable.”

In another survey taken of accepted students about the reasons they applied to Villanova, 82 percent marked the option “religious” in a question about the primary image they felt represented the University, according to Merritt.

“I’ve never felt uncomfortable,” Cooper said. “Professors always bring up Catholic logic in courses, but I don’t feel that it puts me at a disadvantage. It never hurts to learn about other people’s faiths.”

David Cassilo contributed reporting to this article.