On "Losing" One's Faith at University | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 16, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com On "Losing" One's Faith at University | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 16, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com


"Dear university students from Calcutta, Hong Kong, Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Manchester, and Manila, may you bear witness to the fact that Jesus Christ takes nothing away from us but brings to fulfillment our deepest longings for life and truth." -- Benedict XVI, European University Students' Day, March 10, 2007. [1]

"All thought is free thought. I remember a Catholic priest of my acquaintance who said the very same thing to me in the very same words. To come to the conclusion that a divine revelation has been made to man, and treat it as such, is thought; and it is not valid unless it is voluntary; that is, unless it is free." -- G. K. Chesterton, London Illustrated News, December 8, 1923. [2]


On October 6, 2006, Ignatius Insight published an essay of mine entitled "On Intellectual Charity: Benedict XVI and the Canadian Bishops." This theme of "intellectual charity" was taken up recently in Rome at the European University Students' Day. Students from Roman universities gathered for a day of reflection and consideration at the Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican. The proceedings of the day were broadcast via television to groups of university students in other cities of Europe and Asia. (Just why no North or South Americans, Africans, or Australians, I am not sure. Logistics, probably.) The cities involved were Prague, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bologna, Krakow, Turin, Manchester, Manila, Coimbra, Tirana, and Islamabad-Rawalpindi. The Holy Father gave a brief comment at the occasion.

What does "intellectual charity" exactly mean? One thinks of Aquinas' Summa Theologiae, which was originally written for beginning students. It was designed to make it easier and more clear to them how, in an orderly fashion, to go about understanding the truths of reason and faith, together with the arguments against truth that have been brought forth in intellectual history. The great Dominican A. D. Sertillanges' The Intellectual Life (CUAPress) also fits into this broad topic of how to alert someone on how to go about the task and delights of thinking.

It is paradoxical that things of the mind are the objects of precisely "charity," a thing primarily of the will. Intellect is in its own realm. But of course the object of the will is the true good. Truth and goodness are not in opposition to each other. The "good" of the intellect is precisely truth. In a real sense one has to love what is good to know what is true. Better put, we seek what is good through knowing what is true. The good we long for is a good that is, not a good that we imagine or make up by ourselves.

Charity obviously means to love the other person for his own good, for the actual good that is there in what is other. Thus in this sense, we might say, without exaggeration, that Aquinas' Summa was one of the greatest acts of "intellectual charity" ever given to us. For it enables us even yet at our initial efforts to think correctly, to find an orderly way to approach the truth of things. In an age of relativism, when truth, it is said with some obvious irony, to be "relative," we need something that stands outside the relativist culture. We need to know where to begin when we are rather sure that what we are about is truth, not relativism, which latter is, at bottom, the denial of a possibility of truth.

Catholicism's understanding of "faith" includes mind and is directed to mind. Insofar as faith is present in intellectual and theological affairs, it is there by right of a witness who knows and articulates the truth. Faith is not dependence on itself ad infinitum. Someone ultimately must see, must know, must testify to a mind that can actively know. And what is testified to concerns truth. Faith is intended to incite the mind to be more mind--more what it is, even though it be a finite mind.

Catholicism, when spelled out, has recorded within its tradition first class minds in every century since its inception. When we are in what the Pope called the "culture" of Catholicism, we are within a heritage that knows that those who have gone before us have pondered the ultimate questions of truth, good, and order. A Catholic unaware of his own intellectual background, something he often has to find out for himself by himself, is almost by definition in a precarious position. He will not realize the careful and profound thought found in every central dogma of the faith. Rejecting the faith because of ignorance is not unheard of, but it is always unnecessary and usually inexcusable.

In this sense, intellectual "charity" has to do with the love of one's neighbor that is particularly concerned with his mind, with his understanding of truth, with that origin in him that is most central to the real cause of his being as a human person. Aristotle rightly tells us that friendship in the final sense includes conversation about the highest things, that is, about truth for its own sake. True friends not only want to exist in the same world, but in the world that is true. Friendship in this sense seeks reality--truth--as its binding force.

We should not forget that universities originally came, as John Paul II said, "from the heart of the Church." To know this origin is to know what a university is intended to be, a place where all the claims to truth, including that of revelation, could be at home. Error is not excluded from the university. Indeed, its comprehension is part of what it is. What is excluded is the calling of what is not true to be true. As Aquinas taught us, the arguments for the untruth of some proposition are themselves part of the purpose of the intellect. Chesterton wrote Heretics as an exercise in the pursuit of truth. Indeed, as he tells us, it was the "heretics" that first taught him the truth. He wondered why they contradicted each other.

The medieval university was largely founded in a perplexity about philosophy, about what to do with Greek thought, which was obviously itself a pursuit of truth and not to be avoided. But Scripture and the revelation that it articulates are also intelligible things. We can draw, be we believers or not, from Scripture certain intelligible propositions about God, man, and the cosmos. We wonder if they are true and how we would go about dealing with them. Both reason and revelation cannot just be left to sit side by side without ever facing the question that there is one truth and that these two sources of truth need to be, and indeed can be, intelligibly related to each other in a non-contradictory manner.


Recently, a student from an earlier semester e-mailed me. She was in a journalism class. Her assignment, evidently, was to write a column, after having investigated the available raw material among students and faculty, on "why students tend to lose their faith in college." This is "investigatory" journalism, college level. We may no longer be burning heretics and sinners, but we are still wondering, even on college campuses, how they got that way. The young lady thus wanted to know whether Schall had any "thoughts" on this elusive topic. We are probably not shocked to learn that he does. Here are a few of them, for what they are worth.

First of all, it is not true that all students lose their faith in college. Quite the opposite occurs in many cases, depending on the school and the student, and more frequently than we might suspect. As a general rule, students who find or recover their faith in college are more interesting than those who lose it, though I do not intend to downplay the drama of the lost collegiate soul. Granted that most university cultures are either inimical or indifferent to faith, particularly to Catholicism, the fact is that there is a certain adventure or exhilaration in the pursuit of the knowledge component of the faith and its philosophical groundings. College students still get glimpses of this sanity. Some are brave enough to see where the glimpse might lead. In fact, there is, in spite of the often obvious bigotry students find in college classes about Catholicism, a suspicion that it has to be reckoned with intellectually. Indeed, the inability or unwillingness to do so is often a cause of the bigotry. Most students run into it sooner or later.

Fides et Ratio, John Paul II's encyclical on intelligence, is by far the most sensible and intriguing document to come out of any source, religious or secular, in the last fifty years on this subject. It is no accident that it came from a philosopher pope who had lived under both the Nazis and the Communists. Pope Wojtyla in fact bluntly stated, in his Memory and Identity, the origins of modern totalitarianism were to be found in modern European philosophy.

The fact is that no world public figure in recent decades has been more learned or intellectually accomplished than the reigning pope. This fact must be disconcerting to those who think that neither they nor Catholicism has to reckon with mind. Catholicism's self-understanding affirms it must account for everything including what belongs to reason. It also affirms, as Benedict frequently states, that reason belongs to revelation, a process already begun in the Old Testament and carried on in the New Testament. Metaphysics and Catholicism are not alien to each other.

For a long time, I have been aware that "out there," so to speak, there are always college students who wonder about the truth of things. Plato says that is what they should be doing. I meet them all the time, in fact. With surprising regularity, I receive letters or e-mails from students in every sort of academic setting, undergraduates and graduates, from Mormon to Ivy League to state universities, to Protestant and Catholic schools, inquiring about something to read or some response to a query. A student may have a biased professor and wonder what to do. He may be concerned about evil, or divine foreknowledge, or how to reconcile freedom and truth, or with almost anything.

Web sites almost make the whole world one place. Knowledge, as such, is free. It is the common good we all seek. Whatever we think about it, there are students in universities who want to know the whole of things. They suspect that they are not getting everything they should or want to know. The classic book on this topic is E. F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed. Schumacher makes us graphically aware that even when the best or most famous universities do not deal with the highest things, some students still want to know about them and go their own way to find out.

Some Harvard students interested in Christian things have published a student journal entitled The Harvard Ichthus. Last year, the editor kindly asked me to do an interview about these weighty things, which I found quite interesting to do. Such instances always remind me of the passage in Waugh, I believe, taken from fishing, about the slight "twitch" on the line that shows us that someone is curious, is seeking answers. This "twitch" in turn obviously relates back to "I will make you fishers of men."

I always like to say, moreover, that though philosophy is about "questions," it is, like revelation, really about answers. We should follow Socrates in not claiming to know what we do not know, but we should also follow Aquinas who tells us that there are many things we can know. Many of these things we can know are the most fundamental things of our souls, the things we most need to know to live. How to live every day, as Socrates said, is still what we most need to know.

But isn't it true that college is a place to lose one's faith, if not one's soul, or both? Well, it's never over till it's over, this losing one's soul business. I am a Catholic and understand that our sins and doubts, however real, need not be the end. But I do not think we save ourselves by ourselves, though we must join the enterprise. The consequences of our moral and intellectual choices, I have frequently noticed, mean that we have to live out what we choose. One can insist on his freedom to do whatever he wants; what he cannot prevent are the consequences of what he chooses.

Thus, it is all well and good to "lose" one's faith as a statement of our freedom, but once this loss happens, unpleasant things usually follow. Such consequences, if they are honestly faced, usually, and often rather soon, show the connection between ideas and living in terms of personal anguish and crisis. Though I have often made the case for hell, most sins, I have found, do not need any theory of hell to postulate inevitable punishment. The hell happens to the doer. It rather reminds me of Chesterton's remark about not being able to recall what a world without revelation is like. We reinvent pagan and Christian heresies every day and suffer the same consequences when we practice them.


But why, even granting that some find it, do many students "lose" their faith in college? Basically, I think, there are two reasons. The first is a moral reason. In the third chapter of the First Letter of Peter, we read, "You are not to spend what remains of our earthly life on human desires but on the will of God. Already you have devoted enough time to what the pagans enjoy, living lives of debauchery, evil desires, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and wanton idolatry." Following news from the underground, one wonders whether that Petrine passage does not rather accurately describe many frat houses or dorms at our intellectual centers at certain times of the week. One is almost amused by the accuracy of Peter's ancient description when one compares it to complaints of neighbors to university housing, the town and gown revisited. "Boys will be boys," no doubt, but college is where adults begin to appear. How we live makes a difference, even in college, perhaps especially in college.

Most universities seem not to be much concerned with preventing these actions themselves. That would involve a "judgment." But schools have to be concerned with the legal and medical consequences of extracurricular activities. Today, freshmen college students are usually given a list of "do's" and "don'ts" that would make the old moral casuists positively envious. Probably the best book that makes this point in the most graphic and incisive manner is Jennifer Roback Morse's catchy-titled Smart Sex: How to Stay Married in a Hooked-up World (Spence, 2006). Even St. Peter could have learned a thing or two from this remarkable book to add to his insightful list.

My subject here is not so much what does go on in colleges. University life is not the only locus of soul disorder in our society. What concerns me is the relation of personal moral life to a loss of faith and its effect on intelligence. These actions and similar ones often have some "cultural" embodiment. Not a few are modern "rights." They are things that go on and are expected to go on in this "culture." One does not have to read Tom Wolfe to find out the whole scene. Basically, we are back with the classic question of virtue and vice and its relation to mind.

Aristotle is always quite perceptive here. He remarks that if we are brought up with good habits, we do not need explicitly to know the first principles of morals and theory right away. We will easily recognize them when we are old enough to understand their import. What he meant was that there is a relation between our moral and our intellectual life. Even though "practical" intellect, how we rule ourselves, is less exalted than theoretical intellect, still the latter indirectly depended on the former. How we live, even if we chose to live an un-virtuous life, usually makes a difference on how we think. Why is this so?

This relationship of mind and morals includes the status of one's faith, for an obvious component of faith includes the question of "how ought I to live?" on the basis of what I believe. Faith too has an action component. If we are already living a life that would more or less correspond to that above described by the great Apostle, be it in the dorms or elsewhere, we will have to explain to ourselves or to our friends just what it is that we are doing. We will have to "justify" our habits, define our actions. We will boast or be chagrined or confused. We cannot live too long without explanation.

This initial understanding of what vices are is why it is something of an advantage to be a Catholic, even a "Catholic sinner." After all, repentance and forgiveness were prime purposes of the Incarnation, which seemed to expect their necessity. Sinning may well be an argument that enhances intelligence if it is spelled out properly. We do not sin to become smart or clever. But, as we learn from reading the first pages of Genesis, there is a certain wisdom to be learned from partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Nietzsche might have wanted to get beyond "good and evil," but all he did was tell us that what the superman did was "good," whatever it was. We still have to ask: did he really get "beyond?" Some pretty terrible things happen "beyond good and evil." We cannot just let it lie. The ultimate intellectual disorder, as C. S. Lewis once remarked, is to say of what is evil, that it is good. The ultimate moral evil is to act as if it were.


My first point is that, for the most part, if faith is "lost" in college, its loss is most often a function of how we live. My second point is that there is still the question of the intelligence of faith itself. People likewise lose their faith when they have a disproportionately sophisticated knowledge of some subject, be it physics, biology, literature, history, philosophy, or business, over against a rather primitive knowledge of the intellectual component of the faith. In practice, this means that for most students, even in Catholic schools, they will need to take some initiative to upgrade their intellectual knowledge of the faith. It is probably counter-cultural to do this, but it is a rather interesting enterprise. I have noticed that when a student begins to be concerned with the intelligence of faith, he usually finds allies.

One sometimes hears that it is better for a good Catholic student to go to say Yale rather than Notre Dame. At Yale, he will find few supports for discovering the intellectual structure of Catholicism. Thus he will have to claw his way to a valid knowledge. He will be battle-hardened. But at Notre Dame all he has to do to find intelligence is to go talk to Ralph McInerny, whose autobiography, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, is about the best read that I have seen in ages on this whole topic. But as a loyal reader of the Irish Rover it is not always easy to deal with Catholic intelligence even midst the Fighting Irish. The point is that the faith needs to have people who are alert to the challenges posed against it. Live controversy is always demanding.

Moreover, most people are helped if they can find one or two professors or individuals who can give them some particular guidance at a given university or college. Almost always there will be one or two professors who know the score, who are good scholars themselves, who know what to read, where the dangers are, how to deal with dishonesty and prejudice concerning the faith. But one must be alert to find them. They are not usually where one suspects. Usually a kind of informal campus underground exists at most schools that will be of some help. There will often be other students or friends in the same boat. But a student has to look, take the initiative, wake up.

I often cite the passage from Yves Simon in which he said that "there is nothing that can prevent the young scholar from giving his soul to an unworthy professor." We should not be surprised, following Plato, to learn that the most dangerous sophists are often rather entertaining and charming. Orthodoxy, except in the case of Chesterton, has the reputation of being dull, though that is a bad rap. The point here is that a student has also to read good minds, good Catholic minds as well as whatever else he needs to read. John Paul II was not wrong to point out that a university, to understand properly the impact of faith on reason, needs in its faculty those who believe and know--who believe and know in the same soul.

This consideration brings me to my final piece of advice, namely, read good books. I think that a student almost anywhere can find ten or twelve books that will serve him good stead if his problem is primarily intellectual. As I have listed the ones that I consider most useful (it is a changing list) elsewhere--in Another Sort of Learning, The Life of the Mind, Students' Guide to Liberal Learning, and the Sum Total of Human Happiness--I will not list any here. However, I do point out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a must on any student's shelf. Some basic answer to the question "what exactly does the Church hold on this or that point and why?" ought always to be available. This Catechism is itself a major intellectual opus. There will, of course, and this is healthy, be more specific books to find and read. The project of a personal library is a useful one here.

In conclusion, let me recall the initially cited words of Chesterton, who along with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, should be fundamental to any intelligent student's wonderment. "All thought is free thought. To come to the conclusion that a divine revelation has been made to man and treat it as such, is thought, and it is not valid unless it is voluntary; that is, unless it is free." This is another way of saying what Benedict XVI said to the university students in the Paul VI Auditorium: "Jesus Christ takes nothing away from us, but fulfills out deepest longings for life and truth."

This "taking nothing away" is true but we have to learn enough, live enough, study enough, to know why it is so. This affirmation is also addressed to our understanding. The "deepest longings for life and truth" we have in ourselves. They can, however, be seriously deflected or deadened by how we live. Still, even if we live the noblest life we can, we will still realize that the pursuit of mind and truth is an essential aspect of our being.

Universities should be places where such a goal can harmoniously be pursued. If the one we are at is not so open, we are not to be defeated. The life of faith itself leads us to wonder about the truth of things and how what is addresses us, addresses our "deepest longings for life and truth." Anyone can "freely" lose his faith in college. But he can also find it there, together with the intelligence that both leads to and flows from it. How we live, to repeat, affects how we think. But thinking is what we are, rational animals, not content with just any explanation but only the explanation that is also true.

We are not the first who have wondered about these things. But unless we ourselves have also pondered them, we ought not to be in the university in the first place. As Augustine said in a famous passage in the City of God, "For man, there is no other cause for philosophizing but to be happy." Universities should not be the last places to discover the truth of this remark. They remain, I suspect, to be the primary laboratories of its validity, of what happens when we live or do not live the virtues, do or do not pursue the "deepest longings" for both life and truth.


[1] Benedict XVI, "To University Students," L'Osservatore Romano, English, March 14, 2007, 4.

[2] G. K. Chesterton, "Mr. Archer's Defence of Darwinism," Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), XXXIII, 229.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:

Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Benedict on Aquinas: "Faith Implies Reason" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Pope Benedict XVI On Natural Law | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
"A Requirement of Intellectual Honesty": On Benedict and the German Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Intellectual Charity: On Benedict XVI and the Canadian Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Ivory Comedy Clubs: The Tragedy of Modern Education | Dr. Jose Yulo
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Learning and Education | An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Inequalities of Equality, or All Things Being Equal, Not Everything Can Be Equal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On School and Things That Are Not Fair | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Life of the Mind | An Interview with Roger Kimball

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!