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Catholic students keep the faith despite controversy

With the Roman Catholic Church's long history of sexual abuse allegations, the recent defrocking of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexually abusing young children, the church has faced increased public backlash and scrutiny.

According to the Pew Research Center, Catholicism has experienced a greater net loss due to religious switching than any other religious tradition in the U.S, and many U.S. Catholics say they want to see the church make significant changes.

Although there has been a national decline in support for the Catholic Church in light of these reports, the St. Mary's Catholic College Ministry (CCM) at Miami University has actually seen an increase in student participation in recent years, according to officials there.

Father Jeff Silver has been the head priest at St. Mary's for almost 12 years, and has spent almost 40 percent of his lifetime in Oxford.

"I think we're doing pretty well. It's always been, as an academic community and as a place that does campus ministry, a church with a rather young feeling," Silver said. "The strength [of St. Mary's] is that when students leave here, they want to be a part of a parish."

"There were about 1,500 registered student parishioners in 2007 when [Silver] arrived," said Anne Frazee, a senior early childhood education major who oversees all CCM departments as the college ministry's co-executive chair. "We now run 1,700-1,800 each registration period, generally at the beginning of each school year."

CCM was founded after World War II and is a Miami student organization that receives funding from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which oversees all Catholic churches in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas.

Silver believes that the church as a whole needs to focus on "walking the walk" instead of just "talking the talk" in order to decrease the number of Catholics who are leaving the church. He said he has repeatedly addressed the need for members of the church to "come together in prayer and penance" to help resolve and prevent further scandals.

"There's been a rise in clericalism that is dangerous, and I think what people want to see as an end to that clericalism is an increase in transparency," Silver said.

Clericalism refers to the the hierarchical structure of the Church's leaders.

The CCM board provides news links in their weekly emails to Catholic students that detail what is happening in the church and give CCM members a way to petition and send letters to the Vatican in light of these scandals.

"I think having frank discussions is what is best, rather than trying to shove things under the rug," Frazee said. "You need to be talking about this stuff to help people come to a true realization of why the church believes what it believes."

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To be sure, not every Miami student raised as a Catholic remains dedicated to the faith.

Kaitlynn Dirr, a junior arts management and strategic communications major, left the Catholic Church when she was 13 because of her disagreements with the church's stance on multiple social issues and her trepidation over the church's history of sexual abuse.

"To be fully honest, I reached a point where reading about it was so heartbreaking that it started to affect me personally, because I'm a very empathetic person," Dirr said.

Dirr now identifies as a nondenominational Christian and tries to remain open-minded to new ideas by surrounding herself with different types of people.

She believes that issues like social drinking and the debate on abortion divide religious and secular students, especially at Miami.

"If you don't agree with what's going on, you're joining an organization that is trying to combat those issues," Dirr said. "And if you don't see it as a problem, you're staying with or promoting the other side of it because you feel like you're being attacked."

Kathryn Brooks, a sophomore marketing major, reassessed her faith when she arrived at college, but now she regularly attends St. Mary's.

"I kind of experienced a lot of hypocrisy in the Catholic schools I went to," Brooks said. "I came to college and decided that I needed to take a break and discern if this was actually my faith or if it was put upon me."

After a semester away from the Catholic Church, Brooks realized that her life was "exponentially better" as a practicing Catholic and decided to return to her faith.

"I guess I am surrounded by a lot of people that are Catholic and Christian, but I know more people that have come to college and discovered faith than people that have come to college and lost their faith," Brooks said. "I think the biggest misconception and the reason people leave the church is because they don't realize that the church as an institution is run by people that are destined to sin."

Many young Catholics also find it hard to remain involved in the church due to the church's traditional views on social issues like gay marriage, divorce and birth control.

A study conducted by the University of Loyola Chicago concluded that "the majority of young Catholics are accepting of homosexuality and inclined to question Church teaching and Church authority."

Frazee and Julia Demagall, a junior English education major and the co-chair of the CCM's Faith Sharing Team, fully support the Catholic Church's stance on these controversial social issues.

"The dogma of the Church does not and cannot change," Demagall said. "The Church can come to a further understanding, which can maybe make the understanding more nuanced or advanced over time, but the fundamental dogma surrounding things like birth control and women becoming priests will not change."