Does sending a student to a Catholic college actually make him less Catholic? The Cardinal Newman Society, a campus organization dedicated to promoting Catholic identity on American college campus, often seems to think so. According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, the Newman Society got the idea:

In part from a 2003 analysis called: “Are Catholic Colleges Leading Students Astray?” The society — a self-appointed watchdog group on Catholic colleges’ fealty to church teachings — reported findings that generated nationwide news coverage: “[G]raduating seniors are predominantly pro-abortion, approve of homosexual ‘marriage,’ and only occasionally pray or attend religious services. Nine percent of Catholic students abandon their faith before graduation.”

Really? While I question whether opposition to legal abortion and same-sex marriage can really be counted as central tenets of Catholic faith (transubstantiation anyone?), these issues were apparently serious enough to worry the Newmans.

But, as is so often true when one looks closely at academic studies, the truth turns out to be more complicated. It depends on the question one asks.

A new study conducted by scholars at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate asked participants if they moved closer to or further away from church teachings while in college. The results indicate that Catholic schools are promoting Catholicism pretty well at their campuses.

The study, presented at the meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), indicated that while students at Catholic colleges might support abortion and same-sex marriage, most Catholic students move closer to, and deeper in, their faith as they are educated in Catholic schools.

They are, for instance, more likely to read sacred texts. Most importantly, while students at Catholic schools go to church less than they did when they were younger, this is true of all people of the same age group. In fact, students in Catholic schools are still more likely to attend mass than Catholic students who do not attend Catholic schools.

Newman Society President Patrick Reilly was unimpressed: “If the ACCU thinks it appropriate to celebrate the fact that Catholics lose their faith somewhat slower at Catholic colleges than elsewhere then they can hardly represent the concerns of faithful Catholic families,” Reilly said.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer