Except for a handful of schools, the 230 colleges and universities do not provide condoms or other contraceptives on campus, drawing renewed criticism that their students face a higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
Yet the schools are far from monolithic on sex-related issues. Many offer up-to-date information on sexual health; some provide referrals for students seeking birth control or considering abortions.
``Our doctors understand they're working on the campus of a Catholic college - we don't fill prescriptions for birth control,'' said Linda Timm, vice president of student affairs at the all-women's St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind.
``But if a student inquires, we'll sit down and discuss the choices involved in being sexually active. Ultimately it's going to be a student's choice what she decides to do off campus regarding birth control.''
Catholics For a Free Choice, which supports abortion rights and access to birth control, says in a new report that most Catholic colleges have ``dangerously inadequate'' health services.
``Catholic universities are at a difficult moment ... caught between the desire to be part of the educational mainstream and the Vatican's attempts to tighten its grip,'' the report says.
It contends many female students ``feel they have been abandoned by their schools on the issue of reproductive health care.''
Of 133 Catholic colleges responding to a survey about health services, only 16 reported making contraceptives available to students, the group said. When contacted by The Associated Press, three of the 16 denied providing contraceptives.
Officials at others among the 16 didn't dispute the survey listing but said there was no formal policy for providing contraceptives. Instead, campus medical professionals had the option of helping students obtain birth control, they said.
``We protect the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship,'' said Brad Winkler, dean of student development at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich. ``In the context of that relationship, a physician can prescribe contraception if requested, through the medical plan.''
Winkler said the Catholic school believes unmarried students should be chaste, but noted 40 percent of Aquinas' 2,100 students are not Catholic.
``We want to make sure students are aware of the position of the college and church,'' he said. ``We also want students to have accurate information, and let them make their own decisions.''
``If there are schools that do provide contraceptives, there would be a problem if it became public knowledge,'' said the Rev. Robert Friday, a religion professor and former vice president of student life at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
Rosanne Zudekoff, communications director at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., agreed: ``No school is going to want to see headlines saying, 'Catholic college gives out condoms.'''
Frances Kissling, president of Catholics For a Free Choice, said she was impressed by the attitude of many campus medical workers.
``They are first and foremost health care professionals, with a genuine concern for the students,'' Kissling said. ``These professionals shouldn't be faced with conflicts because some services are not available.''
Kissling expressed concern Catholic bishops might crack down on colleges that acknowledged veering from church policy on sex-related issues. However, she suggested a respect for academic freedom - coupled with the ongoing priest sex abuse scandal - might enable more colleges to liberalize their policies.
``In the current climate, where the church needs to be pretty careful what it says about sexual morality, maybe the campuses can fly under the radar and not be attacked,'' she said.
Michael James, assistant director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, suggested any variance with Vatican doctrine was being initiated discreetly by health professionals.
``I'm not aware of any school taking this on with some kind of bravado,'' he said.
Most students at Catholic colleges expect policies that conform with Catholic teaching, he added. ``I don't think any student comes to a Catholic campus thinking this is their forum to change the church.''
However, Catholic and non-Catholic students at Georgetown University have formed Hoyas for Choice, which is pressing the school to distribute condoms and be more open about sexual issues.
``The biggest problem is that sex isn't talked about,'' said Marlo Huang, 21, of Los Angeles, who will be a senior this fall. ``It's ridiculous to pretend that college students don't have sex.''