March 1, 2010 (CNSNews) – A new study concludes that women at Catholic colleges are more promiscuous than their peers at secular colleges, raising new alarms about the state of Catholic higher education.

Another study finds that colleges with strong “moral communities” have a positive influence on students’ religious practice — but Catholic colleges generally lack clarity about the Catholic faith and have the same impact on Catholic students as do public universities.

“The evidence is clear: there is a serious crisis in much of Catholic higher education, and the consequences are real for Catholic families,” said Patrick J. Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society, a watchdog organization for Catholic education.  “We need to pay more attention to those Catholic colleges that are consistently faithful as models for the renewal of Catholic education.”

Researchers from Mississippi State University looked at a survey of 1,000 college students nationwide and were surprised to find that “women attending colleges and universities affiliated with the Catholic Church are almost four times as likely to have participated in ‘hooking up’ compared to women at secular schools.  A “hook up” is defined as a casual physical encounter with a male student, without the expectation of an ongoing relationship.

The researchers consider whether the data challenges the “moral communities” argument, which holds that campus communities with shared moral convictions tend to have a strong moral influence on students.

“At first blush, these results might appear to challenge the ‘moral communities’ thesis,” the researchers write, because students are behaving contrary to Catholic teaching while attending Catholic institutions.  “On closer inspection, however, our findings might instead suggest that not all religiously affiliated colleges and universities constitute ‘moral communities.’”

Overall, the study found clear differences in the sexual activity of Catholic students who attend weekly Mass.  Whereas 24 percent of Catholic women who attend Mass weekly have “hooked up” (compared to 38 percent of nonreligious students), the rate more than doubles to 50 percent of Catholic women who attend Mass infrequently — far more than their nonreligious peers.

The study was published in the September 2009 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, but went unnoticed prior to a Religion News Service article on Thursday.

In the same journal issue, Calvin College professor Jonathan Hill reports on his study comparing the experiences of students at Catholic colleges, mainline Protestant colleges, and generally more fervent evangelical colleges.  Hill examines student attendance at religious services and finds a marked difference at the more conservative Protestant colleges, where religious convictions are shared and embraced by strong “moral communities.”

At Catholic colleges, however, “annual declines in religious service attendance [are] approximately 2.5 times the rate of students enrolled in public higher education.”  The declines are primarily found among non-Catholic Christians, but Catholic students are no more religious than their peers at public universities — a finding that is confirmed by the Georgetown study.  Hill attributes the lax religiosity at Catholic colleges to the lack of a “clear, robust, religious tradition on many of these campuses.”

In a report last month, Catholic researchers at Georgetown University found significant declines in Catholic practice and fidelity among students at 34 Catholic colleges in the United States.

Likewise, a 2008 study published by The Cardinal Newman Society found that 46 percent of current and recent students at Catholic colleges nationwide — and 50 percent of female students — said they had engaged in sex outside of marriage. Three out of five agreed strongly or somewhat that premarital sex is not a sin, and 78 percent disagreed strongly or somewhat that using a condom to prevent pregnancy was a serious sin.