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

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"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.

Part 1 | Part 2


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