Who Do We Say That We Are?: Changing the Institutional Culture Around Issues of Sex and Sexuality on Catholic Campuses

University_of_Notre_Dame_Golden_DomeA year ago I attended a conference on “The Idea of the Catholic College.” It had everything one hopes to encounter at an academic conference: vibrant participants, nuanced presentations, and fruitful conversations on a variety of topics including the philosophy of Catholic higher education, faculty development and hiring for mission policies, and, of course, curriculum considerations. But there was one moment during a plenary session that someone in the audience asked about the issue of partying, sexual behavior, and sexual assault on Catholic college and university campuses. The tone of the room changed instantly. Heads nodded vigorously and quiet murmurings of “Yes, yes. This is a problem,” flitted across the various tables. Clearly most participants agreed that there was, in fact, a problem that needed to be addressed. Yet few substantive comments were made by anyone present. To be fair to the panelists and to all of us participating, the question was rather off topic and aggressively posed. It caught everyone off guard. But the question remained, nevertheless. How can we talk openly and honestly about sex and sexuality, students’ sexual behavior, and the devastating problems of sexual assault in light of our identity as Catholic institutions—committed to embodying Christ’s love and mercy? The moment served as a good reminder and a challenge for all of us present.

In yesterday’s Gospel passage from Mark, Jesus poses that ultimate, critical question to the disciples and to us: “Who do you say that I am?” Our response to that question says as much about who we are as it says about Jesus. As Christ’s followers, the question is turned back on us: who do we say that we are? Catholic colleges and universities answer this question directly in their mission and vision statements, with the hope that what these statements put into words will be practiced on campus. Therefore, by virtue of their fidelity to the Gospel and their mission to promote the flourishing of all people for the sake of the Reign of God, Catholic colleges and universities should not only be leading the fight against sexual violence and assaults on campuses—they should also be leading the way in creating cultures that promote integrative and healthy attitudes and behaviors towards human sex and sexuality. In other words, those of us who work with and for Catholic colleges and universities do not deal with the issues of sexual violence and unhealthy sexual behavior in spite of our Catholic identity—we do so because our Catholic identity and mission compels us to compassionately attend to all aspects of human experience—including human sexuality. Our mission as Catholic institutions compels us to ask: how do the pillars of social justice, service, human dignity, and holistic education inform campus culture when it comes to these critical issues of hook-up culture and sexual violence? How does our Christian understanding and commitment to the dignity of every human person shape our compassionate responses to victims of sexual violence on campus? How do we promote healthy sexual development across all aspects of student and campus life?

This post is not an attempt to answer these questions. That must be done at the institutional level. What I want to do here is point to two key aspects of institutional identity that Catholic colleges and universities share. The commitment to holistic education and human dignity must be starting point if any meaningful cultural change is going to occur.

Catholic Education: Educating and Caring for the Whole Person

The majority of Catholic college and university mission statements claim a strong commitment to educate the whole person. This holistic education requires attending to the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical development and well being of each person. This includes sexual development. We must make a commitment to help students learn to integrate compassionate, holistic, and healthy attitudes and behaviors towards sex and sexuality when they first get to campus and we must see and present this in light of our fidelity to our Catholic identity.

Human sexuality is as sacred as it is powerful. In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser refers to it as the “divine fire.” It is the deep human ache for the yearning for connectedness and creativity. Most importantly, it is a critical part of the human experience. Yet, human sexuality is one of the most misunderstood and mis-channeled aspects of human experience.  So often it is ignored or degraded, usually out of fear and shame. Let’s face it: the Catholic Church is not perceived as very proactive when it comes to promoting healthy attitudes about human sexuality. For many, the Catholic Church’s view on sex remains shrouded in fear, shame, and silence. It is no wonder, then, that students on Catholic campuses may struggle to proactively seek out adult support as they try to navigate this rather elusive aspect of human experience at a time in their development when they need it the most.

We—faculty, staff, and administrators–participate in the culture of violence whenever we perpetuate a culture of silence, fear, and shame. Topics around sexuality, sex, intimacy, and healthy relationships cannot be relegated to the silos of campus ministry, residential life, and health and counseling centers. Faculty, administration, academic support staff, and coaches must be able and willing to provide and/or suggest appropriate avenues for students to learn about and discuss human sexuality in positive, life-giving ways without fear of judgment and shame. I am not suggesting that every professor should be talking to students about sex. But I do think professors and others need to be aware of the physical and emotional toll that young adults undergo in this critical time of development. Holistic educators must be attentive and aware of the various aspects of human experience. To ignore the role sexuality plays in human development is at the least a disservice and, at worst, can be a dangerous act of negligence.

Commitment to Human Dignity

Catholic Christian theological anthropology is fundamentally rooted in the faith that every human person—regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, creed, class, or intellectual or physical abilities—is made in the image and likeness of God. The dignity of a human being is violated whenever that person is objectified. The pervasive sexist, racist, homophobic, and classist attitudes that continue to fester in our society and on college campuses stand as obvious examples of the ways in which the Christian tenet of universal human dignity continues to be violated. Catholic colleges must be institutions that teach and promote that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore deserve love, compassion, and care.

I know, I know. This seems so obvious. But declaring this tenet of faith and actually living it out are two different things. Violations of human dignity can be systemic and subtle. Creating a culture that authentically lives out this commitment to human dignity requires leaders of Catholic colleges and universities to be aware and sensitive to the ways in which campuses continue to promote patriarchal systems. Patriarchy remains wherever men’s bodies, words, and ideas are valued more than women’s. We see this in the classroom, in board meetings, at campus masses, and on the playing fields and courts. How certain bodies are viewed and valued—or devalued and ignored–on all levels of campus life is noticed and it has educative value. What it teaches is the question. When an institution seemingly values men’s bodies more than women’s, that institution effectively reinscribes the very sexism our mission statements decry. The call to human dignity must not just a nicety or an appealing sound bite. It is at the heart of the Gospel message and embracing this commitment to human dignity is often radically countercultural. If we ask of it from our students, it must first permeate all facets of the institution. The loudest outcries against sexual violence and any form of dehumanization must come directly from those in the highest leadership positions.

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Over recent months, critical steps have been taken to raise awareness regarding sexual assault on college campuses, thanks in large part to new laws and Title IX regulations. Hopefully they will help curb this horrifying epidemic and make sure that victims get the help and support they need. But following the legal directives and implementing proper response protocol—as critical and central as these steps are—do not go far enough in promoting the Gospel values Catholic colleges espouse. It is akin to pulling a weed and leaving the roots behind. Attending to the sexual assault crisis on college campuses requires radical shifts in institutional cultures and it requires taking a good hard look at what it means to be a Catholic institution. Creating cultures that support healthy and integrated human sexuality takes commitment, humility, honesty, and not a little risk on the part of everyone who contributes to the institution’s mission. This commitment must be observable in all aspects of institutional life, from residential halls and campus ministry to faculty and curricular decisions to administration and policies and procedures. This is more than saying no to cultures that promote sexual violence. It is a matter of vocally demanding that our institutions be the communities they claim to be: communities that promote the flourishing of all human beings. Continued silence will only wound. The time to speak up for these values is now.

This post is part the Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education at Daily Theology.

5 responses to “Who Do We Say That We Are?: Changing the Institutional Culture Around Issues of Sex and Sexuality on Catholic Campuses

  1. Pingback: Sexual Assault and Higher Education: An Octave of Theological Reflection. An Introduction. | Daily Theology·

  2. Pingback: What We’re Reading Today: sex and sexuality, language, and why we exalt the cross | Oblation: Liturgy and Life·

  3. Pingback: Catholic Campuses and Sexual Assault | Catholic Moral Theology·

  4. Pingback: Accompanying Survivors: Holding Trauma and Doing It Well | Daily Theology·

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