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Keeping your faith in college

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The best way to avoid losing your faith in college is to avoid those well-intentioned columns and books about how to avoid losing your faith in college.

All of this advice is based on misguided presuppositions which, if granted, already spell the doom of the enterprise of "not losing the faith."

One obviously wrong presupposition is that keeping the faith is a matter of reading some good advice and putting it into practice. If that were true, then every reader of a diet book would be thin, and every subscriber to a golf magazine would shoot par. The basic problem is that when the advice would come in most handy, the person who needs it is not likely to consult it, or care enough about it if he did.

Long ago Aristotle quoted Theognis as saying, "if arguments were in themselves enough to make men good, they would justly have won very great rewards."

The second misguided presupposition is that a Catholic student should be going to a college which is a danger to his faith. Those would be nearly all colleges and universities today. The burden of proof should be on a parent or advisor to establish otherwise.

I am aware that statement will be greeted with howls of disbelief. "You mean Catholic kids should retreat again to a ghetto? Are you saying that only a handful of institutions should be open to them, most of which are second-rate?"

In reply I would say consider how odd the very problem sounds: "how to avoid losing your faith in college." No one writes books on how to avoid losing your faith on the golf course, or working in the insurance agency, or spending time with your family. College after all is education. Education is supposed to build up, not attack. The Catholic faith is a fundamental human good. So what is wrong with this "education" which has the tendency to tear down the most important human goods?

Furthermore, faith and reason are in harmony, so that if an institution has the tendency to attack or undermine faith, it simply cannot be doing right by reason. Its graduates might turn out clever, trained, or skilled in a narrow technical sense, but not reasonable in a broad human sense. There is more than enough evidence for this conclusion.

As for those colleges being "second rate," I deny that they are inferior in education to the vast majority of institutions which are regarded as more prestigious. Also, obviously, what makes an institution "first rate" is competitiveness, and those truly Catholic institutions would become the most competitive in the country if Catholic parents generally made them their first choice. We Catholics foolishly fulfill our own prophecy.

So a student finds himself placed by his parents in an institution thought to be "prestigious" but which everyone knows (but is afraid to say) will work to undermine his faith, and he is not supposed to draw the conclusion that success means gaining prestige there, regardless of what happens to his faith?

Yet another misguided presupposition of these columns and books of advice is that it makes sense to send a student off alone into an environment that is hostile to his faith. Our Lord set an example for us in this regard, by sending his disciples off two-by-two, in the company of at least one close friend in the faith.

To go from home environment to hostile environment skips a developmental step. The first stage in growing in the faith is to practice it under someone's tutelage (one's parents) in a friendly environment. The last step is to practice it on one's own (though not without friends) in a hostile environment. But in between is the step of practicing it on one's own in a friendly environment -- which is what a Catholic college is supposed to realize.

The final misguided presupposition is that a tenable goal for any Christian is not losing one's faith. Actually, if at any point in your life your goal is merely not to lose your faith, you most likely will lose it. Those who are not progressing, are regressing. Christ says "seek first the Kingdom of God."

Obviously the goal of college education for a Catholic is to grow in the faith, to become, by the end of those four years, a mature Catholic man or woman. One can describe the same reality in a variety of ways. The Church needs "well educated laity," as Newman said, who have a broad and well-grounded grasp of their faith. The New Evangelization requires professionals whose education in Catholic philosophy and theology is commensurate to their technical education.

The Catholic Moment came and went because there were no Catholic citizens to be found.

Also, the primary task of a Catholic layperson today is to live the vocation of marriage well. But the same institutions which undermine the faith also turn out students who do not understand marriage, and are hobbled for living it.

The odd person who converts at a hostile secular campus (such as myself) or finds it invigorating to be defending the faith against attacks does nothing to disprove my claims. All sound advice must be based on what is true for the most part, not exceptional cases.

So my final advice is to put aside that misguided advice and begin to think clearly about these most important matters.

Michael Pakaluk is professor of philosophy and chairman of the department at Ave Maria University.

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