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On "Losing" One's Faith at University | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | April 16, 2007 | Part 1 | Part 2


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.

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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!


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