I recently spoke with a good friend who graduated from Marquette University. He wanted to share some personal reflections about his time as an undergraduate there. After all, Marquette is seen by many as the gold standard Catholic institution in Milwaukee, so does it measure up in terms of its fidelity to Church teaching? “John” is currently a doctor serving in the Navy. An extremely bright fellow, he offers some perceptive insights about the striking lack of a serious Catholic identity at the university.
What were your classes in theology/philosophy like?
My Theology 101 teacher was a Jesuit who actually was on EWTN several times. He was big on the interior life. He was a well-formed priest, but he was definitely fighting against the tide, since the majority of his students were like me. I liked him, he was sincere in his convictions. Although I think at times he seemed disappointed in the culture in which he was teaching. In one class he once said something along the lines of, “There are times I have dark thoughts as a teacher here.” I forget what happened that day that made him say that—I think because none of us were paying attention or something like that.
Was relativism a major component in the curriculum?
There was a sense of bending doctrine in order to seem more politically correct. For example, the campus endorsed GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance). Also, one of my friends, Becky, was in the theatre department. She and her classmates were taking turns performing solo monologues. I want along to watch her. I stayed for the whole program. Some of the monologues were out of place for a Catholic school—several of which were from the movie “Dogma,” which was popular at the time. Before the show, Becky warned me that I should go in prepared, because with the theatre department “all that Catholic stuff goes out the window.”
Did you recall any direct hostility towards traditional Church teaching at MU?
I don’t recall any direct hostility. It was more of a watering down of the faith. The Masses there were pretty poorly run under the supervision of the Jesuits. Homilies tended to be more about soft topics. “God loves you, don’t get stressed out by midterms, the community is important.” The 10:00 PM Mass in particular was fairly soft (but I went frequently due to my morning laziness). I dreaded the sign of peace! Everyone walked around hugging each other. At one Mass in the St. Joan of Arc Chapel one Thursday night, the priest invited the students to sit around the actual altar…the priest would literally have students within feet of him during the Consecration. Controversial topics were rarely addressed during Mass, like sexuality, abortion and the gay “rights” movement.
Overall, strong Catholic culture is not something I associate with Marquette. But again, I wasn’t actively looking for it. I had poor friendships, and I was a member of the crew team—a club that was known for its annual “hook-up or throw-up party.” At this party, the upperclassmen had a policy that you couldn’t leave the party without hooking up or throwing up, whichever came first. It made the school newspaper after a female student on the team came forward and claimed she was date-raped at the party. The drinking culture and the basketball fanfare really took center stage over any Catholic presence. I think this was the fault of the Jesuits and the student body as a whole.
Was there any serious Catholic ethos and culture on campus?
If it was, it was mostly in the form on service missions, or in local missions for the homeless of the Milwaukee area. They gave an award to Archbishop Desmond Tutu—who, as I recall, is pro-choice.
If it [the Catholic ethos] was present, it was because a student group did something. Like when the Students for Life organization erected a small cross for every thousand abortions on the lawn of the student union during the Roe vs. Wade anniversary. There were small, foot-tall crosses everywhere. But again, it was the students driving this.
Did you have Jesuit professors who taught heterodox theology?
Actions of certain Jesuits failed to challenge the students and served as a source of confusion as to what the Church’s stance was. The then-president, Fr. Wilde, had no objections to the GSA on campus. One Jesuit was known for visiting dorms, playing his guitar, and making animals out of balloons. He played his guitar in the chapel after Masses, too. It just seemed like they were more interested in “getting along” than undertaking serious formation of the students. I speculate they would have thought of that as being un-accepting or alienating.
Were there any professors you could trust when it came to Church teaching?
Many students were like me, just going to a college that happened to be Catholic in order to get a degree. I think the priests at more traditional Catholic colleges have the luxury of a student body that is overall interested in serious faith formation. Jesuits, for the most part, don’t have that luxury, which makes their job much more difficult. But the fact is I don’t think the average Jesuit University (like Marquette) is interested or even aware of this problem. Worse, I think some of them are in favor of the university’s liberal approach. I am pretty confident that if I went to Marquette and replaced the Jesuits with a bunch of Dominicans, huge changes would take place. The press would have a field day and the university might lose a cartload of students and probably the success of the basketball team, but I don’t think there would be as much confusion as to what the University’s true values were!
If you could tell the administrators or president of Marquette a couple of things about your time there, and what they need to do to improve the Catholic life on campus, what would they be?
- Unify: The Jesuits of every institution should be of one mind and one mission. Now, you have some Jesuits that do their own thing and take liberties with the liturgy, while others strive to remain loyal to the pope. An order cannot last if each member has their own personal agenda. The Jesuits need to do some soul searching as to what their mission is. If an individual Jesuit does not agree with the mission, he should not “do his own thing” and still remain a Jesuit. The individual ideologies that these priests seem to have are confusing and destructive to the order and those they are serving. I’m not sure how the Jesuit order is organized, or if they have superiors, but in my opinion these superiors have done a poor job of forming their Jesuits and performing “quality control” on the priests in their Society. This order allows for way too much individualism, at the expense of service, the church, and therefore society as a whole.
- Define their priorities: I think Marquette may have made concessions with regard to political correctness in order to increase their likeability to the general public. Although public opinion is important in order to keep the student body numbers up and alumni funding intact, it should not come at the cost of Catholic teaching. So what is their priority? If it’s public opinion and openness, fine. Just don’t define your school as Catholic, because the priority is something else. If they do define their school as Catholic, then they should be strong enough to make the policy changes, sacrifices, and statements necessary to earn that label—even at the cost of public opinion.
- Modernize and be courageous: The Jesuits are not unlike many areas of the Church. The Church is at its worst when it publicly hides from addressing important current issues. The Church’s teaching and the Gospel’s message regarding sexuality, abortion, contraception and embryonic stem-cell research are rarely even uttered from the pulpit due to their inherent public unpopularity. When they are, sometimes only the “no” is mentioned, but not the greater “yes” behind the “no.” The greater “yes” being that living the Gospel prepares a person for greater closeness to Christ, a reward far more fulfilling than living a life of satisfying base desires that need to be crucified. The Jesuits are sitting on a potential goldmine. Their students tend to be less spiritually formed, more sexually active, abuse substances, and value good times more than serious formation. If the Jesuits approached this population with clear teaching, conviction, and love, the potential payoff could be astronomical. But, from my experience, many Jesuits lack the drive, training, conviction of heart, interior life, and charisma to accomplish this. They, in my opinion, are not the order for the job they have before them. I believe this is due to decades of laxity, compromise, failure of formation, and in some cases outright dissent from the Church’s teaching on their part. I know this is harsh, maybe too harsh, but I think the order is failing young people. If the first Jesuits walked around Marquette, I believe they would be deeply saddened.