If there’s one thing Catholics hate more than sex, it’s talking about it. And yet every year, the Catholic University of America (CUA) assumes the immodest task of informing 3,000 undergraduate students of all the sexual activities banned from its holy land.
The “Sexual Misconduct” clause of the university’s Code of Student Conduct prohibits students from engaging in “[p]hysical contact of a sexual nature that is unwanted by either party and/or that is disruptive to the university community.” Weighing in as “disruptive”: “any sexual expression that is inconsistent with the teaching and moral values of the Catholic Church.”
As the official U.S. university of the Catholic Church, it’s no surprise that CUA’s Code of Student Conduct is synced with the Catechism. But applying church doctrine to campus life can cause even a university spokesperson to stumble.
“We are the national university of the Catholic Church, so we follow all the teachings of the Catholic Church, and that is made very, very clear,” says university spokesperson Victor Nakas. When asked which specific behaviors are insufficiently Catholic, Nakas defers to doctrine. “I’m a Catholic, and I’m not exactly sure there’s any debate about what’s permitted,” Nakas says. “Have you read the Catechism? Because the different teachings of the church are spelled out in great detail and in great nuance in the Catholic Catechism.”
For undergraduate students less schooled in church doctrine than the spokesperson for the Catholic University of America, Nakas agreed to get more specific:
Premarital sex: “I can tell you right now that that is not allowed.”
Condoms: “Condoms are not allowed on the Catholic campus.”
Masturbation: “I don’t think that that’s a debatable issue. That’s something that would be clearly proscribed by Catholic teaching.”
Kissing: “I know of no restrictions on that.”
Men kissing: “That—I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve never seen anything about two men kissing. I’ll have to get back to you on that one. Of course, in different cultures, in other cultures, it is acceptable for men to kiss each other, as a greeting or what have you,” says Nakas. “It’s seen as something that’s very much within the cultural milieu.”
Nakas never followed up with the official Catholic word on men kissing. In an e-mail, he clarified that “CUA supports the teachings and moral values of the Catholic Church without reservation and in their entirety, including the teaching that sexual intercourse is reserved for marriage,” and that “[i]ncidents are reviewed on a case by case basis.” He made one other thing clear: “no followups, please.”
Deference to the catechism spares Catholic administrators from the awkward enterprise of referring to masturbation, condoms, or any other specific of a typical undergraduate’s sex life. What the “great nuance” of the catechism fails to address is how sins of the flesh will be policed in a community of 18-to-21-year-olds newly emerged from beneath their parents’ roofs. After all, violations to the student code can’t be absolved in typically Catholic fashion, with forgiveness administered privately after confession to a priest. At the Catholic University of America, your sins are subject to judicial review.
How can a university that can barely even acknowledge sex enforce a sex policy?
By policing everything but.
Fornication is a carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.
The Catholic University of America’s punishment for student premarital sex fits the crime: “It was laid out in no uncertain terms,” says one 2007 graduate. “If you do it, you’re screwed.”
How many Catholic students are getting screwed? In the 2006–2007 school year, CUA recorded 282 alcohol violations, 42 disorderly conduct violations, 14 drug violations, seven harassment violations, and zero violations of the sexual misconduct policy. (Catholic hasn’t released sexual misconduct tallies for any other year.)
Catholic University’s failure to nab even a single coed with his pants down can be attributed to an oddity of campus culture. Under Catholic doctrine, sinners are encouraged to tell on themselves, but not on others, meaning the university has a big problem cultivating snitches.
CUA’s anti-sex indoctrination begins at freshman orientation, where administrators inform incoming students that campus sex is punishable with penalties ranging from probation to expulsion. But the real education begins in the residence halls, where chastity protection is delegated to the most pious. “We had a name for them: the God squad,” says Peter, a recent alum who practiced premarital sex in the dorms for four semesters. “You know, the ones who came to Catholic because they want to go to church seven days a week and go to confession all the time and drink the blood of Christ on Sundays.”
Throughout the year, the God squad actively promotes the religious element in the residence halls. Each upperclassman dorm is outfitted with a student minister. Prayer groups meet weekly. Dorm confessionals are held once each semester, during Advent and Lent. Every year, priests circulate the halls, offering to bless each room. Last spring, CUA’s Chastity Outreach group, which sends wait-until-marriage advocates to local middle and high schools, began reaching out to students on its own campus as well. Participation in on-campus Catholicism is strictly voluntary—and not exactly popular. “There’s a very big social chasm between those God-squad kids, who are very religious, and those that are a lot more liberal in their beliefs,” says Peter. “I’m sure there was a handful of students from each dorm who would do that stuff. But it wasn’t exactly the thing to do on a Thursday night—oh shit, guys, the priest is coming, we have to go down to confess our sins!”
With students blowing off confession en masse, it’s no wonder that more public sins—like premarital sex—don’t get aired via official channels. “That stuff, obviously, happens behind closed doors,” says Liz Henaghan, a 20-year-old junior who works as a Resident Assistant (RA) in a freshman dorm. “The times when I have had to address the sexual misconduct policy, it has been because I noticed something, not because anyone explicitly told me that a violation had occurred.”The one program CUA hasn’t implemented in the dorms is an incentive for reporting less-than-chaste neighbors. “I’ve never had anyone from the campus ministry come up to me and say, ‘Bobby and Suzie are hooking up in the lounge, can you make them stop?’” says Henaghan. “I actually haven’t had any experience with tattletales, beyond ‘They’re playing the music too loud, can you ask them to turn it down?’”
Officially, the Catholic University of America mandates snitching. The Code of Student Conduct states that “[s]tudents who anticipate or observe a violation are expected to remove themselves from participation and are encouraged to report the violation.” But the campus contingent most interested in maintaining chastity is actually discouraged from tattling. Student ministers are advised not to reveal personal information about the coeds they counsel. “They counsel that person confidentially, unless they hear of any danger,” says Henaghan—and consensual sins of the flesh don’t cut it. The most devout squad members, at least, are easy to identify: “There was a kid who used to walk around campus barefoot, no shoes on, because that’s how Jesus walked. Four years of that,” says Peter.
Even those most committed to the chastity cause admit that on-campus sexual transgressions are inevitable. Since implementing a sex education program in the dorms, CUA’s Chastity Outreach group has softened its strict anti-sex message for the college set. “Chastity isn’t about a list of do’s and don’ts,” member Karen Mahowald told campus online newsletter “InsideCUA” when asked whether sex and love can be compatible outside of marriage. Senior Jonathon Meyer was more direct: “None of us perfectly lives out our call to chastity,” he told the outlet.
RAs, too, are known to practice forgiveness for sins committed on their territory. Consistent with Catholic tradition, sex isn’t sex at the Catholic University of America if nobody knows about it. “Most RAs were actually fine with students breaking the [misconduct] policy as long as you didn’t do anything that would bring attention to them,” says Tom McIntyre, a 2003 graduate. Adds Peter: “[Most RAs] wouldn’t bust your balls about the rule. They would just look the other way. Their policy was: If they don’t see it or hear it, they don’t say anything.”
RAs who do happen to observe infractions can still sidestep the policy by policing closely related but less-serious rules. The zero “sexual misconduct” violations recorded in the 2006–2007 school year were complemented by 252 recorded violations of “University Regulations,” which include rules governing the residence halls. Obvious sex violations are routinely coded instead as “visitation policy” violations. According to the school’s residential policies, students must vacate classmates’ rooms by midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends, and a “CUA student may not be an overnight visitor in a room in which he/she does not live, at any point in time.”
“I’ve never heard of anyone getting kicked out of school or even getting written up for having sex,” says Peter. “Usually, the infraction is called ‘being on the wrong floor.’”
The punishment-with-a-wink allows RAs to regulate egregious behavior without unduly impacting students’ lives. “They understand that this is somebody’s college career riding on the fact that sleeping with your girlfriend is prohibited in the student handbook,” says Peter. “So you get the noise violation instead of the girl-in-your-room violation, or the visiting violation instead of the girl-in-you-room violation, or the open container violation instead of the girl-in-your-room violation.”
The campus silent treatment helps to accommodate even the most flagrant violations of policy. One male student says he successfully camped out in the female wing of his girlfriend’s on-campus dorm for an entire week, fornicating the entire time. “I was basically living there—I used the showers and stuff, too,” he says. “Once we’re in the room, it was easy—we could lock the door and close the curtains…but her hallway was all female, so it was kind of funny when I’d walk into her room and pass her hall mates. They never would say anything, but it was obvious. We all knew that I wasn’t allowed to be there.”
For some, the anti-sex policy can actually add a welcome challenge to routine campus conquests. “The fact that you’re not allowed to do it on campus makes it a little bit more fun,” says the student. “We’ve done it in places that are inappropriate in general,” he says. “We’ve done it in the Pryz [student center]. We’ve done it in the dorm shower. The rules can be annoying, but you can also get into that danger of being caught.”