The Catholic Church and the College Campus: A Study in Culture
Jan 16, 2020

The Catholic Church and the College Campus: A Study in Culture

 What is Christian culture? It is essentially the Mass.

—John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture


As college students return to campus this month, it is timely to consider the application of the Church’s 1994 document on inculturation, Varietates Legitimae, on the college campus. But first we must recognize the difficulty of applying the idea of inculturation to the university. Whatever connections the university has in its history to either the Academy or its equivalents in Alexandria, Pergamum, and during Antiquity, the modern university system was born out of Christian culture. And thus we find ourselves discussing the restoration of Christian culture to the modern university as a product of that same Christian culture. The crisis of inculturation on the modern campus is not so much Paul on the Areopagus, preaching to the uninitiated, but the Prodigal Son in the pigsty, who should—and knows that he can—know better.

Of course, this is not meant to impugn all American universities and colleges. Again, to return to the root image of culture, we cycle through the various stages of the story of the Prodigal at different times. The danger of writing anything about the culture of the 4,298 institutions of higher education in this country and the 17 million undergraduates they serve (to say nothing of the graduate students, faculty, staff, and administration) is that we lose any sense of a particular culture.[1] After all, how can we possibly consider Harvard, Thomas Aquinas College, Johnson County Community College, St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, U.C. Santa Barbara, and Loyola University Chicago as all sharing a single culture and therefore all subject to the same method of inculturation as envisioned by the Church?

Instead, each college exhibits a particular subculture that is ordered to the larger culture, i.e., the Church. Fortunately, what Varietates Legitimae did give us is a clear guide to discerning the criteria for inculturating a particular community to the universal Church. As the document notes, “every particular Church must be united with the universal Church not only in belief and sacramentals, but also in those practices received through the Church as part of the uninterrupted apostolic tradition. This includes, for example, daily prayer, sanctification of Sunday and the rhythm of the week, the celebration of Easter and the unfolding of the mystery of Christ throughout the liturgical year, the practice of penance and fasting, the sacraments of Christian initiation, the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and the relationship between the Liturgy of the Word and the eucharistic liturgy, the forgiveness of sins, the ordained ministry, marriage and the anointing of the sick” (VL 26).

We can reduce all this to seven points of contact between the Church particular with all its subcultures, including the college campus, and the Church Universal:

1. Belief
2. Sacramentals
3. Daily Prayer
4. Sunday and the Rhythm of the Week
5. Easter and the Liturgical Cycle
6. Penance and Fasting
7. Sacraments

Let us take these seven characteristics of the particular Church and compare them with the Universal Church as the testing points for the work of inculturation on campus.



Ancient pedagogy reveals the liturgy in ways rarely considered today: for example, the role of the priest reciting and explicating text, the response and repetition of key phrases, and yes, even the importance of music.

As a Classics professor, I have occasionally led college students on study trips to Rome. I love to walk students through the Christian basilicas and places of worship, as well as touring the forum with its secular basilicas, where the ancient Romans practiced law. I invite students to see that the pagan and Catholic basilica share more than a name, despite apparent dissimilarities of use. The first thing that strikes them is the structural likeness between these basilicas. We compare, for example, the central nave and side aisles of the secular with the Christian. At the Roman Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, we note where the large statue of the emperor sat enthroned in the apse signifying his jurisdiction over all the law cases heard in the basilica. A few blocks away at the Basilica of San Clemente, we see Christ, artistically rendered in a glorious mosaic, actually present in the tabernacle, replacing the emperor in the apse. And this insight, in turn, leads to a discussion of the legal drama of the liturgy and the eschatology of the sanctuary when we understand that Christ sits enthroned in the same spot where the Roman judge would preside.

But in late antiquity another building, besides the Christian basilica, took the floor plan of the Roman basilica as its model: the school and its classrooms. In a culture where rhetoric had pride of place among the liberal arts, the law court naturally would have been the model for the classroom. To the Christian worshipper in Late Antiquity, the pedagogic nature of the liturgy would have been apparent not only in the Liturgy of the Word but even in the very architecture which housed the liturgy. Ancient pedagogy reveals the liturgy in ways rarely considered today: for example, the role of the priest reciting and explicating text, the response and repetition of key phrases, and yes, even the importance of music.

I mention this as a way of understanding the cultural link between Christian culture and university culture. We must go deeper than rote recitation of theology as the uniting discipline that keeps the university from dissolving into the modern secular “multi-versity.” As great a treasure as St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University is, there’s more to the idea of a university than its academic and scholarly pursuits: we also have the liturgy. When we recover this sense of liturgical culture within the university, we see that perhaps more important than a theology faculty that has received the Mandatum is a priest who is an icon of Christ the Teacher.

The value of the Catholic liturgy as a solution to the malaise affecting nearly every university’s campus culture cannot be overstated, and the likelihood of its success as a solution is compounded by the fact that the liturgy can and does take place in every university chapel, church, parish, or Newman Center. When we consider that nearly 90 percent of Catholic college students in America attend non-Catholic colleges, we should also consider the problems of formal education in the faith. But I reserve this for our conclusion.



Unlike the sacraments, the sacramentals are not limited in number; traditionally, we have been able to categorize them under the following rubric: orans (prayer), tinctus (use of holy water and oils), edens (consuming blessed foods), confessus (the Confiteor), dans (alms), and benedicens (apostolic blessings and blessing of objects). Some are actions, such as the giving of alms or the recitation of the Confiteor. Others are oriented towards things, such as the eating of blessed foods or the blessing of candles, ashes, etc.

While we have largely retained the sacramentals used by particular persons in the context of the Church, such as the blessing of one’s self with holy water upon entering the college chapel, we see a neglect of the larger use of sacramentals outside the confines of the church or chapel among college students, a neglect that matches that occurring in the ordinary American parish. I recall, for example, how our parish priest, a native of the Kerala state of India, when he came to bless our house, was surprised at the presence of crucifixes, icons, and holy water in our prayer space since he did not ordinarily find these in American homes.

Sacramentals present a physical means of carrying God’s grace onto campus. Deep and meaningful inculturation cannot be confined only within the chapel walls. The Mass, as source and summit, in a real way is the very essence of Christian culture. But the use, wearing, and practice of sacramentals in the dorm, in the classroom, and on the quad serve as a way to orient and align the college culture to Christian culture. If the Mass is the heart of Christian culture, the sacramentals serve as capillaries relating all things back to its life-sustaining grace.


Daily Prayer

Etymologically, culture has its roots in the Proto-Indo-European word meaning “to turn.” A culture of prayer has a daily, weekly, and yearly rhythm. In the words of FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students), are we equipping students with a plan or rhythm of life?

My experience as a student at Catholic institutions of higher education and instructor at secular universities is that we often underestimate the willingness and ability of the average college student to begin the day in prayer. But on a campus with a team of FOCUS missionaries, I have often seen students follow the example of these young men and women by beginning their day with morning prayer and a holy hour. These campuses have already made great progress in inculturation when classes become integrated between morning prayer and afternoon Mass.

In addition, chaplains should consider the particulars of their campus. For example, at my current institution, a majority of students work their way through college to mitigate the size of their student loans. By 2 pm, the campus has half-cleared out as students leave for their afternoon jobs. Where a local parish might have an 8 am daily Mass, you will find our chaplain vesting at 8 pm for Mass as students finish work and prepare for a late night of studying.


Sunday and Rhythm of the Week

When we recover this sense of liturgical culture within the university, we see that perhaps more important than a theology faculty that has received the Mandatum is a priest who is an icon of Christ the Teacher.

As many universities become more vocational and less linked to the liberal arts, the formal pursuit of schooling in its etymology sense (σχολή—schola—“spare time, leisure”) becomes less and less justifiable, especially if that pursuit is spent in late Sunday nights writing papers and studying.[2] We can either help students reclaim a sense of their studies as schola or we can offer programming that can make students shift their priorities, for example, by offering social events such as Sunday Suppers or dances. The former honors the culture of the Church and the culture of the college; however, the latter accedes to an invasive culture and becomes a sort of dual parasite. That is, Sunday evening social events that mimic non-Catholic culture in order to draw in students can become detrimental both to the intellectual culture of campus and the spiritual culture of the local Church. The Church will never throw a better kegger than the fraternity, host a better rock concert than the student government, or put on a sporting event bigger than college football. However, the Church can offer authentic friendship in Christ, beautifully reverent liturgies, and the means of eternal Salvation.

Josef Pieper, in his best-known work, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, would agree that what is at stake in our approach to inculturation of Sunday leisure on the college campus is the integrity of Christian culture. To say that the Church’s culture, her liturgy, and her ministries are antithetical to a student’s studies is ahistorical at best. Such a simplistic and underwhelming understanding of religious belief is the kind of inculturation that Varietates Legitimae warns against. Instead we might look at Varietates Legitimae’s citation of the encounter between the Jewish world and Greek wisdom (VL 9) as a counter-example. There, the Greeks benefited from knowledge of the true God, and Scripture became enriched through the cultural achievement of the Greeks.


Easter and Liturgical Year

Since students do not attend university for all 365 days of the year, there are important gaps in the liturgical rhythm in the particular Church. Most obvious among these is Christmas and Easter, when most students traditionally return to their home parishes. For faculty and staff who remain, just when other churches are at their best, university chapels find themselves home to make-shift choirs and empty pews.

I do not know how to address the problem of inculturating a campus to the celebrations of the Christmas season—a season which virtually goes unacknowledged even by Catholic campuses, since the semester break usually falls around that time. On the other hand, Easter, while perhaps an easier case, comes with its own set of problems. Most troublesome, the secularization of Spring Break over the past decades has meant that many students find themselves without any extended time to travel home for Easter.

And yet, attendance on this feast of feasts on the average college campus often pales in comparison to Ash Wednesday, which often is the busiest day for any university chapel. In fact, so curious is the popularity of this kick-off day for Lent that, when it comes to implementing Varietates Legitimae, Ash Wednesday could easily be considered the high holy day of inculturation on the college campus. Yet, when the last of the ashes have been dispensed, every university chaplain must ask himself the reasons students do not come back for Easter.


Penance and Fasting

Of the seven points of inculturation between the particular community and the universal Church, I see none more neglected than the practice of humility—as embodied by penance and mortification—on the college campus. This seems paradoxical when we recall that Ash Wednesday, itself a solemn celebration of humility (from humus, “earth”), takes pride of place among the liturgies that fall during the academic calendar.

The only large, active organization for inculturation on this point that occurs to me is Exodus 90.[3] For those unfamiliar with Exodus 90, in 2013 Father Brian Doerr and a group of seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland piloted it as a program of prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices (e.g., cold showers) to overcome technological addictions and grow in fraternity. Exodus 90 has since grown to a program in which more than 15,000 men have participated. While implemented in some parishes, the fraternal focus has been especially popular on college campuses, both at Catholic colleges such as Steubenville and at secular schools via FOCUS.

One caveat that I would give to those looking to expand Exodus 90 or any similar programs of prayer and fasting is that these practices often fall into the traps we see among Lenten practices at most parishes. Participants take on the program as a one-time experience rather than a new norm. With portions of Advent and the whole of Lent falling during the academic year, penance and fasting should have a greater place in the inculturation of college campuses.



Finally, the consideration of the life of the sacraments on the university campus reveals the problems of any so-called culture built firmly around a population that never grows old—at least within the confines of the campus itself. Every spring, seniors graduate to pursue further studies, a vocation, or a career, and every following fall, freshman matriculate to rejuvenate—literally—the student body, once again restoring the balance between maturity and immaturity on campus.

Sacraments of service, Matrimony and Holy Orders, are prominent in their absence. Students active in campus churches will often be active in their discernment, but these sacraments are not a lived reality for the average college student. Also, unless there is a robust RCIA program, sacraments of initiation have little place in campus culture; but even on those campuses with such a program, baptism and confirmation often remain mainly an Easter-only event. And, except for the occasional tragedy, anointing of the sick and all liturgies for the dead are absent. Despite the recent resurgence of memento mori devotions, especially via Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble and the Pauline Sisters, the modern university, much like Calypso tempting Odysseus, promises a culture that is age-less and death-less.

This presents a challenge and an opportunity for the Catholic chaplain. The campus culture has constrained him into practicing a two-sacrament ministry: Penance and Eucharist. He must not allow this to warp his invitation to the full rhythm of the Christian life. And yet, these same two sacraments focus him on Varietates Legitimae’s exhortation to purify and sanctify the local culture (VL19).

There are signs of hope for inculturating the modern college and the Universal Church. Discipleship and Christian living have revitalized campuses through dynamic Newman Centers and FOCUS (whose participants are pictured above). The Thomistic Institute (a work of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC) and others have launched Catholic lecture series and intellectual retreats at secular universities. The Newman Idea and particular institutes associated with Newman Centers in Arizona, Nebraska, Kansas, New York, and beyond have begun partnering with Catholic colleges to offer accredited courses in Catholic theology and thought to students at state colleges.


Three Approaches

Such then is the challenge of inculturation and unity when considering the particular character of an American university and its relationship with the universal Church. If this analysis reads like a jeremiad at times, it is because we face much the same lamentable situation as Jeremiah. The university arose as the beautiful fruit of Christian culture. Already a large portion, since the Reformation, has been lost to us like the Northern Kingdom of Israel. More recently, when Catholic institutions of higher learning in the U.S sought to declare their “independence” from the Magisterium in the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement, this document led to some of the most prominent Catholic colleges being dragged into Babylonian exile—where many remain today.

While every university chaplaincy will have its own particular needs and its university’s own culture that it must seek to integrate with the universal Church, I see three campus environments where inculturation must flourish.

First, there is the faithful Catholic college. In my own small, liberal arts Catholic college, I dangerously presumed that inculturation was achieved. Yet, every year a new crop of students, coming from a pre-existing culture, brought with them much that is toxic and little that is edifying. Much the same is true of larger Catholic institutions, as well. Consequently, we must be ever vigilant in tending the culture of the Catholic university.

Next, because the quantity of a culture affects the quality of a culture, the large Catholic university should receive special notice. From my own experience in graduate studies at an expansive Catholic campus, there are deep and serious issues. For example, in an effort to address the prayer needs of non-Catholic students, I have seen Eucharistic chapels, with the Host still in the tabernacle, misused as Zen meditation rooms and Islamic prayer spaces. And yet such universities are large enough that one can almost always find a community that takes Christian culture as a serious matter. While daily Mass at my large Catholic university had a few priests who would invite the congregation around the altar to “concelebrate” with them, we also had large attendance at a weekly Chant Mass in the basement chapel.

Finally, I come to the most neglected intersection of Catholic culture and higher education: the secular university. As Robert Louis Wilkins wrote in 2008, 80 to 90 percent of Catholic college students attend non-Catholic colleges.[4] But there are signs of hope. Discipleship and Christian living have revitalized campuses through FOCUS and dynamic Newman Centers. The Thomistic Institute (a work of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC) and others have launched Catholic lecture series and intellectual retreats at secular universities. The Newman Idea and particular institutes associated with Newman Centers in Arizona, Nebraska, Kansas, New York, and beyond have begun partnering with Catholic colleges to offer accredited courses in Catholic theology and thought to students at state colleges. It may be 25 years since the Church issued Varietates Legitimae, but we are only now beginning the process of inculturation on these secular campuses.


[1] These reflect 2017 numbers given by the National Center for Education Statistics. For degree granting institutions, see For undergraduate enrollment, see

[2] By way of example in the demise of liberal studies: despite a rise in enrollment, one regional state university saw its English enrollment drop over the last decade from 600 majors to around 300 majors and minors combined.


[4] “Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools,” First Things (January 2008).

Patrick Callahan

Patrick Callahan writes from the Koch Center for Leadership and Ethics at Emporia State University, KS. Prior to this he has taught Philosophy at Wichita State University, KS, and directed a Catholic studies program for students at the University of Kansas. As a Classicist, he focuses on ancient scholarship and commentary traditions, textual criticism, and digital editions. He resides in rural Kansas with his wife and five children.