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Conference Focuses on Church’s Ministry to American Laity


David Campbell, Ph.D., John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C., Associate Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, talks about the changing demographics of the Catholic Church.
Photo by Patrick Verel

American Catholicism is good at integrating its parishioners, but fails at teaching young people about matters of the heart, according to experts who spoke at Fordham on Feb. 6.

“Ministry to American Catholics,” a daylong conference on how the church can best reach out to the laity, was held at the McGinley Center on the Rose Hill campus.

The growth of the church will depend on engaging Latino immigrants, said David Campbell, Ph.D., who is the John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C., Associate Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame. In his presentation, he pointed out that American Catholicism is the most integrated of any religion in the country, which bodes well for its chances to retain members of newly arrived ethnic groups.

“We all know the famous line that’s typically attributed to Martin Luther King … that the most segregated hour in America is 11 a.m. on Sunday,” Campbell said. “It’s true that if they attend a church or synagogue, most Americans attend a religious congregation that is largely composed of their race or ethnicity.”

Jews, Mormons and mainline Protestants are the least diverse, he noted. Within evangelical Christian congregations, which are second to American Catholics in terms of diversity, larger and younger congregations have higher diversity than smaller and older ones.

No such division exists in the Catholic Church, he said.

“In an America that is riven by racial and ethnic segregation in so many different domains, here is an example of an institution that actually has a fair amount of integration,” Campbell said. “For most Catholics, I suspect that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is not their most segregated hour, but their most integrated.”

While the church resonates with different ethnicities, it fails to meet the needs of young believers looking for guidance on romantic relationships, said another speaker.

Too often the Catholic clergy, and even Catholic scholars, have nothing to say about the region between friendship and sex, said Donna Freitas, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of religion at Boston University.

Donna Freitas, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of religion at Boston University, challenges participants to consider a “theology of dating.”
Photo by Patrick Verel

Freitas, the author of Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses(Oxford University Press, 2008), challenged attendees to consider what she called a “theology of dating.”

“We need a theology of in between-ness,” she said, “in between friendship and marriage; in between no physical contact and full-on sex; in between hello and abortion.”

To illustrate her point, Freitas told the audience about her experience co-presenting a paper on the topic to a conference of Catholic scholars.

“The first question from the audience—and the ensuing questions as well—was: ‘So, can you each explain your stance on abortion?’” she said.

This fixation on premarital sex and abortion has disastrous consequences for young people who live in a culture of casual hookups, she added.

What would a theology of dating look like? Freitas suggested linking conversations about dating with those about human dignity, a topic that is popular with students.

“I often ask them the question, ‘Where is the human dignity at the parties you go to on Friday and Saturday nights?’” she said.

She also encourages teens to think about romantic relationships as they would think about a calling—by using a sense of discernment.

“If you practice discernment, when you go to a party on a Friday night maybe you won’t drink alcohol, because if you’re going to discern something, you have to have some level of awareness,” she said.

“If discernment also means thinking, ‘What do I want in a partner?’ then you have to spend more time with someone to figure out whether you want to be making out with them.”


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