Where are all the Catholics at the nation’s largest Catholic school


Photo courtesy of Anna Wolfe

When Selena Miller, a practicing Catholic, applied to DePaul, she had no idea it was a Catholic university.

Damita Menezes, another practicing Catholic, said she has met only one other Catholic student in her first year at DePaul.

DePaul is the largest Catholic University in the country. But the inauguration of President A. Gabriel Esteban marks the first time in history that DePaul has had a president that is not a Catholic priest. With many Catholic events on campus drawing modest-sized crowds, it begs the question, where are all the Catholics?

According to enrollment statistics provided by DePaul, the number of Catholic students is declining. In 2007, 57 percent of incoming DePaul freshmen who chose to report a religious affiliation identified as Catholic. In 2017 that number has dwindled to 38 percent.

By comparison, the University of Notre Dame has 81 percent of its incoming freshmen identifying as Catholic. Boston College reports 70 percent, and Loyola University reports 59 percent.

At a school of nearly 23,000 students where at least a third are reporting as Catholic, it would stand to reason that thousands of Catholic students should be roaming the halls. Yet most weekly events put on by Catholic Campus Ministry (CCM) draw between 10 to 25 students.

Katelyn Polich is one of the many students to stray away from her Catholic faith while at DePaul. She was raised Catholic, baptized as a baby and attended Catholic school for eight years.

“I was really into (being Catholic) in high school,” she said.

Polich said that having a gay brother was one of the biggest reasons that she no longer identifies as Catholic.

“Once you call yourself a Catholic, then you associate yourself with all the things that the Vatican and Catholic Church believes,” she said.

Although she may not be Catholic anymore, Polich acknowledged that Catholicism at DePaul looks different from other Catholic universities.

“DePaul doesn’t feel like a Catholic school at all,” she said.

Head over to CCM and you will find some of the nicest people on campus. They will likely offer you food or invite you to attend one of their many weekly events.

With signs welcoming LGBTQ+ youth, it doesn’t feel like the Catholic faith of yesterday. People don’t seem pushy; they just seem happy to see you.

Amanda Thompson, the director of CCM, said that being Catholic at DePaul isn’t quite the same as being Catholic elsewhere.

“DePaul has more of a progressive, liberal Catholicism,” she said.

Thompson said that you don’t have to be “staunchly Catholic” to fit in at DePaul.

She said that just because afternoon mass isn’t overflowing doesn’t mean that there isn’t a significant number of Catholics. There are larger events that bring in hundreds of students, like Sunday Mass and Ash Wednesday.

“A lot of our Catholics are commuter students,” she said.

Thompson said that a large majority of the Catholic population in Chicago is Latinx. For them, it can often be important to stay close to their home parish.

Thompson agreed that in today’s world it can be a challenge to make Catholicism attractive to college students. Thompson said that students are increasingly feeling that they don’t need organized faith.

But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Thompson. When asked to respond to DePaul’s dwindling number of Catholics, Thompson said, “This is a place of dialogue.”

Although Thompson’s answers may not seem on par with traditional Catholicism, Stan Ilo, professor in the Department of Catholic Studies, agreed with Thompson.

“People shouldn’t mourn,” Ilo said in response to the decline in reporting Catholics. “Being a Catholic University doesn’t mean being a Catholic silo.”

Rev. Jeremy Dixon is a pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, located on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. He said that the decline in Catholics at DePaul may have something to do with a larger trend.

“The Catholic Church has seen a decline in the Chicago area by about 25 percent,” he said.

Many Catholics believe that for the Catholic Church to stay relevant, it will need to redefine some of its values, especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ and women’s reproductive rights. DePaul may be liberal, but the university still won’t sanction condom distribution on campus.

Without hesitation, Dixon said that anybody can be gay and still be Catholic.

Dixon acknowledged that the Catholic Church may potentially need to reexamine some of its stances that have alienated many from the church.

“It’s not something that can just change overnight,” he said. “(The Catholic Church) doesn’t take a popularity poll.”

DePaul has come under fire for its liberal approach to Catholicism. In 2011, First Things Magazine named DePaul “The Least Catholic Catholic School in America.”

The Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic outlet, has attacked DePaul several times over the years. It blasted DePaul for allowing Planned Parenthood on campus and a quick search of DePaul on its website brings up numerous articles attacking DePaul for not aligning with traditional Catholic values.

Dixon said it is important that DePaul doesn’t forget its Catholic identity, but that doesn’t mean it can’t minister to non-Catholics.

“Just because you aren’t Catholic doesn’t mean you can’t work in the soup kitchen,” he said. “It’s about practicing Catholic values.”

In his inaugural address, President Esteban said that DePaul will continue its commitment to serve the marginalized.

“We choose to serve these communities because we simply believe it must be done,” he said. “This is what it means to be a Catholic university.”