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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2003, Vol. 30 No. 1

Understanding Women's Spirituality in the Context of a Progressive Campus-Based Catholic Community

Alyssa N. Bryant

The college experience provides students with an opportunity to explore and adopt new ways of perceiving themselves and the world around them. During these years, the spiritual commitments that students bring with them to college may be challenged by diverse curricular and peer influences,1 but nurtured by religious communities on campus.2 For college women in particular, spiritual meaning-making is complicated by biases that undermine female perspectives across numerous religious traditions. In developing a spiritual identity, women from orthodox religions face potential conflicts in terms of incorporating the beliefs instilled in them during childhood with ideologies (such as feminism) that they encounter after leaving home.3

The intent of this study was to present an in-depth perspective on the spiritual identities of Catholic women pursuing postsecondary education. Using qualitative data with an emphasis on personal narrative, my study explored how the many facets of the college experience, particularly involvement in a socially-progressive Catholic organization on campus, interacted with childhood religious beliefs and experiences to impact women’s faith trajectories and spiritual wholeness.

Faith Development Theory

Fowler’s4 work on faith stages has dominated the literature on spiritual development for the last two decades. Like many developmental theories, however, these stages may be inadequate conceptualizations of women’s spirituality, sometimes resulting in evidence that places women "lower" on the developmental ladder than men.5 Some have criticized the work of Fowler for these very reasons6 and others sought to clarify religious experiences among women without the use of stages.7 Further, Cook8 suggested that theorists have misconstrued faith development such that it emphasizes male norms, cognitive functioning, and hierarchal structures but lacks the emotion and relationality that are at the core of faith.

Cripe9 addressed another aspect of faith development by exploring women’s transitions to biblical feminism. She examined feminist consciousness in the context of spirituality and demonstrated that the integration of feminism with religion was a key component of faith development and spiritual identity for some women. According to Anderson,10 the same was true for college women seeking to reconcile traditional Christianity with feminism. Other authors have pointed out that women from orthodox religious backgrounds may find that feminism clashes with the norms embedded in their religious communities, creating conflict for those who adopt a feminist identity.11

Spiritual Identity Development During College

Notably, when discussing identity development among college students, most scholars do not often speak to religious and spiritual identity. Pascarella and Terenzini distinguished between identity development and attitudes and values (a part of which are religious attitudes and values) and claimed that "attitudes and values [are] less central to the character of the individual, more specific in their content, and more changeable over time."12 While it may be true that students’ attitudes on certain issues are content-specific and subject to change, I argue that religious and/or spiritual identity extends to the core of the self for some students, playing a central role in their identity and self-concept. A student’s faith goes beyond political leanings, attitudes on social issues, and religious practices; for some individuals, faith may indeed be self-defining. Religion and spirituality, then, may be more important to identity development than most student development theorists have acknowledged.

That said, theories about college student development, similar to Fowler’s, tend to suggest that growth occurs in stages. Many of these developmental theories emphasize the common theme of moving from authority-bound ways of perceiving the world, toward relativism, and finally toward commitment to a worldview.13 Josselson14 defined development in terms of commitment with the added dimension, "exploration." Identity formation, according to Josselson, depends on sufficient exploration of the alternatives followed by eventual commitment. Chickering and Reisser argued that development could be encouraged by creating "encounters with diverse perspectives that challenge pre-existing information, assumptions and values."15 College plays a role in the disruptive process, sometimes throwing students into "disequilibrium," which, though uncomfortable or even painful, will lead them to "more complex levels of understanding and action."16

In light of these developmental theories, what can be said about how students’ religious commitments fare while in college? Does the college experience create a spiritual "disequilibrium" for students? Indeed, it appears that there is an empirical basis for increased secularization among students as they progress through their college years,17 although some recent data suggest evidence to the contrary.18 Lee19 provided insight on the influence of academic and social communities in college on religious apostasy (i.e., disaffiliating from one’s religion) and pointed out that the diversity of the college student body, in conjunction with classroom experiences, prompted students in her sample to question their beliefs. However, while conventional religiosity among participants declined, each gained a sense of personal agency and developed an individualized spirituality that was unique, but not completely disconnected from the traditions with which they had been raised.

Beyond these general effects of the college experience, specific curricular environments may serve to challenge students spiritually. Several authors have documented the tendencies for women’s studies coursework to develop consciousness and to increase commitment to feminism among female students.20 Komarovsky connected this feminist awareness to women’s religious identity in her assertion that, "an increased interest in women’s rights created a clash with what they [female students] began to perceive as the restrictive norms embedded in religion."21 As discussed earlier, feminism may be an integral part of the spiritual experience for some women. Thus, exposure to women’s studies coursework may produce conflict for female students simultaneously holding to conservative faith traditions, especially given the strong ties, for some women, between themselves, their families, and their family’s religious practices.22 In addition to feminist consciousness, other forms of consciousness (i.e., appreciation of cultural diversity, commitment to social justice, and so on) developed during college through community service opportunities may similarly relate to faith.23

Aside from academic, social, and community service experiences, involvement in campus religious communities is also spiritually impacting for students.24 Anderson25 illustrated the significance of religious organizations that encourage questioning and support feminist principles. The women in her study were eager to integrate social justice and feminism with their religious faith. Unlike the individuals described in Lee’s26 study, these women maintained their religious commitments and found them strengthened as a result of belonging to a progressive religious community. Generally speaking, while college may not totally derail students’ faith, the student development literature and past research points out that college promotes thoughtful questioning, producing religious change for some.

In summary, current faith development theory has tended to overlook women’s spiritual depth and has not considered the significance of feminism and other social justice issues for women’s spiritual identity. At the same time, though the literature on college student development provides insight into how college can prompt students to confront their conflicting ideas about themselves, their relationships, and society, it only sparsely accounts for religious and spiritual issues despite their evident importance. Given the gaps in the present literature, this study sought to illuminate the key facets of spiritual identity for women in college. Particularly, I wanted to understand how faith commitments emerge and are experienced among women, and the role that higher education plays in this process. This research centered on the faith stories of college seniors, recent college graduates, and graduate students who belonged to a progressive Catholic organization on a college campus. The study addressed the following questions:

· How do the religious/spiritual traditions of a woman’s childhood and adolescence influence her religious and spiritual identity while in college?

· How does the college environment (i.e., campus religious organization, peer interactions, academic and curricular experiences, and pluralism) affect women’s faith commitments? What role does the on-campus religious community play in fostering internal conflict resolution and/or in strengthening women’s faith commitments?

· How do Catholic women in college integrate their religious, spiritual, and ideological commitments into a cohesive worldview, especially in light of the potential conflicts that may persist internally (i.e., such as the conflict between feminism and traditional Catholic teachings)?

Following in the tradition of qualitative research, I did not seek to test a particular theory or hypothesis, but instead allowed theory to emerge from the data. Because past research identified college as a disruptive force in many students’ religious convictions, I suspected that some of the participants would have encountered challenges to their belief systems and perhaps struggled with incorporating their discordant religious and ideological commitments. I also thought I might find others who had never experienced conflict. Given that the women in my sample belonged to a progressive Catholic community, I expected that they would demonstrate an awareness of the conflicts that tend to arise between religious conservatism and more liberal worldviews.

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