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Finding God on a Catholic Campus

by Fr. C. John McCloskey, III

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  • Description:
    How does one find a Catholic college that offers a coherent, faithful education and formation? Fr. John McCloskey III gives some criteria in this article.
  • Larger Work:
    The Newman Guide
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Cardinal Newman Society, 2011

The late futurist Herman Kahn once said there are only two times in life when one's ideas, attitudes and convictions are radically altered: before you are six and when you go to college.

In my own pastoral work with college students, especially where it pertains to religious belief and behavior, I have found Kahn's observation to be true. Given what is at stake, the choice of a college for one's child should be an overriding concern of any Catholic parent. The university is usually the last place to form the pre-adult Catholic. The important transition between the teen years and young adulthood should be one from dependence to responsible independence in all areas of one's life, most especially the moral and the spiritual.

Character formation, built upon the natural law and perfected with grace, will determine the question of happiness or unhappiness both in this life and the next. There also is the financial question. The large sum—sometimes exceeding $150,000—shelled out for college expenses could easily be invested elsewhere for the real benefit of the Church, society or one's family. Prudence calls for serious deliberation.

Through the years many parents have asked my advice on selecting a Catholic college for their child. Their concern about making a wise choice is well-justified. The United States once had the largest and best network of Catholic colleges in the world. Millions of Catholic men and women for much of our history received a coherent, faithful education and formation, preparing them to form families, serve God, Church, society and country and to value their roles as father or mother, husband or wife above wealth, pleasure or personal realization. These Catholic colleges were staffed by tens of thousands of dedicated men and women, clerical, religious and lay, to whom great glory and credit are due.

Over the last 40 years, in large part due to an eagerness to assimilate, most Catholic colleges and universities have thrown away their heritage, traditions and truth claims, resulting in a loss of an understanding of their mission. Pope Benedict XVI, in a June 2007 address in Rome, described our present "educational emergency" as "inevitable"

...in a culture which too often makes relativism its creed. In such a society the light of truth is missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous…to speak of truth, and the end result is doubt about the goodness of life and the validity of the relationships and commitments that constitute it. Hence, education tends to be reduced to the transmission of specific abilities or capacities for doing, while people endeavor to satisfy the new generation's desire for happiness by showering them with consumer goods and transitory gratification. Thus, both parents and teachers are easily tempted to abdicate their educational duties and no longer even understand what their role, or rather the mission entrusted to them, is.

That mission, as Pope John Paul II told American bishops in 1998, is "the integral formation of students, so that they may be true to their condition as Christ's disciples and as such work effectively for the evangelization of culture and for the common good of society." The key word is "integral": the formation of the whole human person. Formation, of course, covers lots of ground. It is clear, however, that university education cannot simply be a matter of transmitting knowledge, but of transforming the whole personality through a lived assent to the truths of Revelation.

The primary way for the Catholic university to help undergraduates is by means of a liberal arts education in the Western tradition. Through this education, students can learn to think, reason and communicate as adults in such a way that they can fulfill their vocations as parents of Catholic families who will make Christ and his Church present in the wider secular world of work, social activity and friendship.

Today, however, with notable exceptions, "college" has largely become at best a place for excellent pre-professional training and at worst an extended and expensive four-year vacation from reality. The great majority of college students today cannot articulate why they are studying, other than vague references to career or "service to humanity." Their uncertainty and confusion reflect the lack of clear vision on the part of educational institutions themselves, which mirrors the prevailing culture marked by secularism, utilitarianism and relativism.

What remains is an atmosphere where power, physical attractiveness, sexual conquests, leisure time, economic security and the amassing of wealth are the underlying, if unarticulated, goals of life. A relatively few young men and women are capable, after some reflection, of understanding that they are living in a polluted atmosphere, and that holiness, commitment, marriage and family, truth, character and virtue should be the ends of an integral education.

Under these circumstances, how does one find a Catholic college that offers a coherent, faithful education and formation?

Check with the Church

A good first place to look for basic criteria is the Church herself. Pope John Paul II laid out what the Church expects of institutions that label themselves Catholic in Ex corde Ecclesiae. You will find this document reprinted in the pages of this Guide; read it, and then apply it to the colleges you research. In Ex corde Ecclesiae, the Church applies her perennial wisdom to the contemporary scene and provides a sure guide for distinguishing private whimsy from authentic teaching regarding the university. After all, it was the Church that gave birth to the university.

At the heart of a truly Catholic university will be a sound theology department, since the Catholic Church recognizes theology as the "Queen" of sciences. Apart from considerations of academic competence, parents and prospective students need to determine the all-important question of the theology department's loyalty to the teaching authority of the Church. The majority of Catholic colleges have a two- or three-course requirement in theology for its undergraduates, who presumably will consider the teaching of their professors as authoritative. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain what type of theology is taught at any given school.

Ask the authorities if the criteria of the "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian" of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have been applied to its theology faculty, and if they have taken the oath required of them. A list of the on-campus speakers during the last academic year who dealt with themes concerning Catholic doctrine and morals would also be revealing. Another investigative technique is to probe the knowledge of any recent graduate. A few pointed questions will quickly reveal what he knows and where he stands with regard to the Church and her teaching. Finally, if the university harbors any well-known "dissenter," the case is closed.

A Catholic university should have a philosophy of education that emphasizes a well-rounded liberal arts education centered on a core curriculum. Legitimate debate over the exact contents of a core curriculum is to be expected, but certainly a well-rounded program of study of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition includes literature, philosophy and the arts. The university also must recognize the existence of objective Truth and our duty to submit to it. Without this affirmation and the belief that our Faith has a truth-claim that is universal in its ambit, there simply cannot be any mission to carry that truth to others. Pope John Paul II made this point in a 1998 ad limina address:

The greatest challenge to Catholic education in the United States today, and the great contribution that authentically Catholic education can make to American culture, is to restore to that culture the conviction that human beings can grasp the truth of things, and in grasping the truth can know their duties to God, to themselves, and their neighbors.…The contemporary world urgently needs the service of educational institutions that uphold and teach that truth is "that fundamental value without which freedom, justice, and human dignity are extinguished."

A Catholic university should teach Catholic philosophy, building on the Thomistic foundation of moderate realism. How can a student, or a professor for that matter, engage our neo-pagan, post-modern culture without a firm grounding in metaphysics, epistemology and nature? Philosophy alone is not enough, but it is indispensable as a preparation for theology.

Philosophy, theology and the liberal arts are all essential parts of a Catholic college education. If the university views itself merely as a place that prepares students for a career rather than a place that prepares them for life and gives them a deep appreciation of knowledge as an end in itself in the natural sphere, then it disqualifies itself as anything other than an academic supermarket.

Spend some serious time with the college catalogs of the schools you investigate. Examine their educational philosophy along with their curriculum and requirements. Be sure to read the colleges' mission statements. The more you encounter words like belief, maturity, conviction, commitment, marriage, family, evangelization, culture, character, truth and knowledge, the closer you may wish to continue looking.

An important concern for the Catholic student and family will be the emphasis on religious practice and formation in a particular school's campus life. I am not referring here simply to religious statuary or saints' names on buildings, which may simply be relics of a bygone age. What percentage of the faculty is Catholic? What percentage practices their faith in the traditional sense? Does anyone on campus know or care? Do not underestimate the impact that fully formed and committed Catholic faculty can have upon students. Their influence may easily dwarf that of the chaplain.

Naturally, a college will be as Catholic as the people who direct it. If it is directed at least nominally by a religious congregation, what is its condition? Are there vocations? What percentage of the faculty is made up of members of the institute? Are they noted for their loyalty to the Church? Is there an openness to the variety of spirituality in the present-day Church, particularly to the lay movements and institutions that are providing so much life in this historical moment? Or does there exist a "turf" mentality or downright hostility to other spiritualities and institutions approved by the Church? There should be no monopoly on providing spiritual help to the students and a great respect for the freedom of the student to find his way.

The state of the college chaplaincy can be a strong indicator. Piety, reverence for Catholic liturgy, the encouragement of personal prayer, frequent confession and communion, the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the availability of sound experienced spiritual directors should be part of any truly Catholic university experience. My experience with the work of a Catholic chaplaincy has convinced me that an energetic faith-driven campus ministry is a necessity to create a Catholic culture on campus that is capable of forming modern day apostles. Try to determine whether a Catholic college you are considering emphasizes catechesis, formation, practice and evangelization.

Take a look as well at the group activities sponsored by campus ministry. Are there courses or talks covering Catholic teachings and Catholic Bible study, to educate students in their faith? Is volunteer work with the poor, elderly or ill seen in the context of the Gospel and as a logical consequence of the student's adherence to the practices of the faith? In our affluent society, it is very important that the Catholic be exposed to the misery that lies around us and is very often hidden. The joy of unselfish giving for the sake of Christ can help affect a serious change in students who heretofore have been gravely affected by selfish consumerism.

The most important group activity that campus ministry can offer is retreats. A silent retreat with plenty of room for prayer and direction can help a student progress more in his Christian life than a year of other types of activities. It may well be the first time that the student has been left alone in reflective conversation with Christ. There, the meaning and purpose of his life become clearer.

The Sense of Home

Take a look at the quality of the social and moral environment of campus life. For non-commuters, living arrangements are of the highest importance. Do the college dormitories have basically the same rules and regulations, moral tone and adult supervision that you would wish for your college-age child if he were living at home? Are the dormitories places where character can be built and where virtue can grow and, if need be, protected? This is not a question of turning a college residence into a cloister, but rather of assuring an environment where young men and women can live as Christians without being subject to unnecessary temptations and provocations. Are the dormitories single-sex? Or is that at least an option?

Throwing hundreds of young men and women together in close quarters produces inevitable and natural results, most of which at best do not prepare them well for Christian marriage and at worst cause irreparable damage. If you dare, spend the night or even a day or two living in a dormitory. In my experience, most parents do not want to believe the atmosphere of hedonistic immaturity and boorishness that reigns in these places. High spirits are one thing; animal behavior raised to an art is another. Remember, it is your child that you may be placing at moral and physical risk.

Are abortion referrals and contraceptives dispensed on campus? Is the college unequivocally pro-life, or is there waffling and double-talk on the most important question of our time, the sanctity of life from conception to natural death?

How is leisure time used on campus? Are there healthy and uplifting social, recreational and cultural opportunities? Leisure time in today's culture is too often spent watching television or films and reading magazines and novels that make a mockery of the faith and portray the goal of life as basically hedonistic self-fulfillment. On too many but fortunately not all Catholic campuses, there are pressures to conform to the secular zeitgeist, which places a premium on "growth" in which the abuse of alcohol, drugs and sexuality is at least condoned if not promoted.

Take a cross-section of recent graduates of a college you are considering. Are they well-educated by your standards, with an appreciation for the finer things of mind and spirit? Are they the type of young adults (and not arrested adolescents) that you would like your children to emulate? Does the practice of the faith give central meaning to their lives, or is it simply accidental and to be sloughed off when convenient? In short, are they Catholic first and American second or vice-versa?

Some of the above criteria should help in identifying authentic Catholic colleges and universities. You may have additional criteria of your own. In a society as caught up in secular goals and ambitions as our own, it is easy even for good Catholic parents to feel the tug of considerations such as selectivity, earning potential and bragging rights. However, your children, who are negotiating the years between youth and adulthood in the Perfect Storm of a permissive and materialistic culture, need more and better guidance than that. If they spend their college years exposed to good influences, set on fire by inspiring examples and informed by confident and clearly orthodox teaching, they will be fortified to form healthy Catholic families and function as humane Christian leaders of a society starving to be fed bread and not stones.

Father McCloskey is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei and a research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. He served 13 years as chaplain at Princeton University and \ue000ve years as director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington.

Copyright © 2011 by The Newman Guide

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