August 26, 2005


College students and faith

It will soon be time for some of our young people to start, or return to, college. This is a worrisome time for parents. They are happy to see their children assert some degree of independence as they begin a new adventure in their lives, but they also know about some of the hazards the children will face on campus.

The college years can be a time for deepening one’s Catholic faith or a time for losing it. Many young men and women graduate from college with a deep commitment to the Church and a desire to be lay leaders, while others succumb to the relativistic teachings of some of their professors and drop out of the Church.

The college years are, and should be, a time when young people question some of the teachings of the Church. A non-inquisitive college student is a poor student. This is the time for intellectual curiosity in all matters that affect one’s life, and that includes religion. Students need wise role models who can help guide them toward the acceptance of Catholic doctrines with which they might have difficulty.

Naturally, a good Catholic college or university has advantages in this respect. But we all know that not all colleges or universities that call themselves Catholic are always faithful to Catholic teachings. The evils of relativism have invaded some Catholic colleges and universities just as they have secular institutes of higher learning.

Often, some Catholic colleges and universities excuse the teaching of deviations from the authentic faith under the demands of academic freedom. There should indeed be freedom in Catholic universities for theologians to delve more deeply into the truths of Catholicism, while remembering that theology itself is sometimes called “faith seeking understanding.” Faith must come first.

The late Pope John Paul II defended academic freedom in his 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. But he placed limits. He upheld academic freedom “so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good” (#2.5). Furthermore, he reminded his readers, the pursuit of truth has an “essential connection with the supreme Truth who is God” (#4).

Theologians will frequently legitimately disagree with one another about some aspects of the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict XVI taught theology in German universities from 1958 until his appointment as archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. As dean of a couple theology departments, he understood the demands and limitations of academic freedom. He often disagreed with some of his peers—notably Karl Rahner.

In his book Milestones, memoirs of his life from 1927 to 1977, Pope Benedict tells of his preference for the theology of St. Augustine, and his follower St. Bonaventure, while having “difficulties in penetrating the thought of Thomas Aquinas.” There are indeed differences in the theology of these men, but they would agree in condemning the relativism found so often in modern colleges.

We applaud those Catholic colleges and universities whose administrators and faculty constantly consider what being Catholic means and how well they are preparing students to be Catholic leaders. This must be accomplished in the classrooms, through authentic liturgies and by inculcating a longing to engage in social justice activities. We feel confident that the two Catholic colleges in the archdiocese, Marian College in Indianapolis and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute, are both fulfilling those responsibilities.

Most Catholic college students today, though, do not attend Catholic colleges. We encourage their parents to convince their children to become involved in the churches near their schools. St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington, for example, caters to the Catholic students at Indiana University—including a convenient 9 p.m. Sunday Mass during the school year. Each of the other eight secular colleges and universities within the archdiocese also has a parish nearby, and a priest specifically assigned to care for the spiritual needs of the Catholic students and faculty members of those colleges.

Catholic college students are an important segment of the Church in central and southern Indiana. They are the leaders of tomorrow’s Church here. It’s vital that their college experiences will deepen, rather than weaken, their faith.

— John F. Fink


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