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Finding God on a Catholic Campus

Father C. John McCloskey III
Father McCloskey is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei and a research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. He served
13 years as chaplain at Princeton University and five years as director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington.

The late futurist Herman Kahn once said lies, serve God, Church, society and country
there are only two times in life when one’s and to value their roles as father or mother,
ideas, attitudes and convictions are radically husband or wife above wealth, pleasure or
altered: before you are six and when you go personal realization. These Catholic colleges
to college. were staffed by tens of thousands of dedi-
In my own pastoral work with college cated men and women, clerical, religious and
students, especially where it pertains to reli- lay, to whom great glory and credit are due.
gious belief and behavior, I have found Kahn’s Over the last 40 years, in large part due
observation to be true. Given what is at stake, to an eagerness to assimilate, most Catholic
the choice of a college for one’s child should colleges and universities have thrown away
be an overriding concern of any Catholic par- their heritage, traditions and truth claims, re-
ent. The university is usually the last place to sulting in a loss of an understanding of their
form the pre-adult Catholic. The important mission. Pope Benedict XVI, in a June 2007
transition between the teen years and young address in Rome, described our present “edu-
adulthood should be one from dependence to cational emergency” as “inevitable”
responsible independence in all areas of one’s in a culture which too often makes relativism
life, most especially the moral and the spiri- its creed. In such a society the light of truth is
tual. missing; indeed, it is considered dangerous…
Character formation, built upon the to speak of truth, and the end result is doubt
natural law and perfected with grace, will about the goodness of life and the validity
determine the question of happiness or un- of the relationships and commitments that
happiness both in this life and the next. There constitute it. Hence, education tends to be re-
also is the financial question. The large sum— duced to the transmission of specific abilities
sometimes exceeding $150,000—shelled out or capacities for doing, while people endeavor
for college expenses could easily be invested to satisfy the new generation’s desire for hap-
elsewhere for the real benefit of the Church, piness by showering them with consumer
society or one’s family. Prudence calls for se- goods and transitory gratification. Thus, both
rious deliberation. parents and teachers are easily tempted to ab-
Through the years many parents have dicate their educational duties and no longer
asked my advice on selecting a Catholic col- even understand what their role, or rather the
lege for their child. Their concern about mak- mission entrusted to them, is.
ing a wise choice is well-justified. The United
That mission, as Pope John Paul II told
States once had the largest and best network
American bishops in 1998, is “the integral for-
of Catholic colleges in the world. Millions of
mation of students, so that they may be true
Catholic men and women for much of our his-
to their condition as Christ’s disciples and as
tory received a coherent, faithful education
such work effectively for the evangelization
and formation, preparing them to form fami-
of culture and for the common good of soci-

The Newman Guide 27
Finding God on a Catholic Campus

ety.” The key word is “integral”: the formation some reflection, of understanding that they
of the whole human person. Formation, of are living in a polluted atmosphere, and that
course, covers lots of ground. It is clear, how- holiness, commitment, marriage and family,
ever, that university education cannot simply truth, character and virtue should be the ends
be a matter of transmitting knowledge, but of of an integral education.
transforming the whole personality through Under these circumstances, how does
a lived assent to the truths of Revelation. one find a Catholic college that offers a coher-
The primary way for the Catholic uni- ent, faithful education and formation?
versity to help undergraduates is by means
of a liberal arts education in the Western tra-
dition. Through this education, students can
Check with the Church
learn to think, reason and communicate as
A good first place to look for basic criteria is
adults in such a way that they can fulfill their
the Church herself. Pope John Paul II laid out
vocations as parents of Catholic families who
what the Church expects of institutions that
will make Christ and his Church present in
label themselves
the wider secular
Catholic in Ex corde
world of work, so-
cial activity and Today, however, with notable excep- Ecclesiae. You will
find this document
Today, how-
tions, “college” has largely become reprinted in the
pages of this Guide;
ever, with notable at best a place for excellent pre-pro- read it, and then
exceptions, “col-
apply it to the col-
lege” has largely fessional training and at worst an leges you research.
become at best a
In Ex corde Ecclesi-
place for excellent extended and expensive four-year ae, the Church ap-
plies her perennial
training and at vacation from reality.
wisdom to the con-
worst an extend-
temporary scene
ed and expensive
and provides a
four-year vaca-
sure guide for distinguishing private whim-
tion from reality. The great majority of college
sy from authentic teaching regarding the uni-
students today cannot articulate why they
versity. After all, it was the Church that gave
are studying, other than vague references to
birth to the university.
career or “service to humanity.” Their uncer-
At the heart of a truly Catholic universi-
tainty and confusion reflect the lack of clear
ty will be a sound theology department, since
vision on the part of educational institutions
the Catholic Church recognizes theology as
themselves, which mirrors the prevailing
the “Queen” of sciences. Apart from consid-
culture marked by secularism, utilitarianism
erations of academic competence, parents
and relativism.
and prospective students need to determine
What remains is an atmosphere where
the all-important question of the theology
power, physical attractiveness, sexual con-
department’s loyalty to the teaching author-
quests, leisure time, economic security and
ity of the Church. The majority of Catholic
the amassing of wealth are the underlying, if
colleges have a two- or three-course require-
unarticulated, goals of life. A relatively few
ment in theology for its undergraduates, who
young men and women are capable, after
presumably will consider the teaching of

28 The Newman Guide
Father C. John McCloskey III

their professors as authoritative. Sometimes it tribution that authentically Catholic education
is difficult to ascertain what type of theology can make to American culture, is to restore to
is taught at any given school. that culture the conviction that human beings
Ask the authorities if the criteria of can grasp the truth of things, and in grasp-
the “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of ing the truth can know their duties to God,
the Theologian” of the Congregation for the to themselves, and their neighbors.…The con-
Doctrine of the Faith have been applied to its temporary world urgently needs the service
theology faculty, and if they have taken the of educational institutions that uphold and
oath required of them. A list of the on-cam- teach that truth is “that fundamental value
pus speakers during the last academic year without which freedom, justice, and human
who dealt with themes concerning Catholic dignity are extinguished.”
doctrine and morals would also be revealing.
A Catholic university should teach Cath-
Another investigative technique is to probe
olic philosophy, building on the Thomistic
the knowledge of any recent graduate. A few
foundation of moderate realism. How can
pointed questions will quickly reveal what he
a student, or a professor for that matter, en-
knows and where he stands with regard to
gage our neo-pa-
the Church and
gan, post-modern
her teaching. Fi-
culture without a
nally, if the uni- An important concern for the
firm grounding in
versity harbors
Catholic student and family will be metaphysics, episte-
any well-known
mology and nature?
“dissenter,” the
case is closed.
the emphasis on religious Philosophy alone is
not enough, but it is
A Catholic
practice and formation in a indispensable as a
university should
preparation for the-
have a philoso- particular school’s campus life. ology.
phy of education
P h i l o s o p h y,
that emphasizes
theology and the
a well-rounded
liberal arts are all
liberal arts education centered on a core cur-
essential parts of a Catholic college education.
riculum. Legitimate debate over the exact
If the university views itself merely as a place
contents of a core curriculum is to be expect-
that prepares students for a career rather than
ed, but certainly a well-rounded program of
a place that prepares them for life and gives
study of the Western intellectual and cultural
them a deep appreciation of knowledge as
tradition includes literature, philosophy and
an end in itself in the natural sphere, then it
the arts. The university also must recognize
disqualifies itself as anything other than an
the existence of objective Truth and our duty
academic supermarket.
to submit to it. Without this affirmation and
Spend some serious time with the college
the belief that our Faith has a truth-claim that
catalogs of the schools you investigate. Exam-
is universal in its ambit, there simply cannot
ine their educational philosophy along with
be any mission to carry that truth to others.
their curriculum and requirements. Be sure
Pope John Paul II made this point in a 1998 ad
to read the colleges’ mission statements. The
limina address:
more you encounter words like belief, matu-
The greatest challenge to Catholic education
rity, conviction, commitment, marriage, fam-
in the United States today, and the great con-
ily, evangelization, culture, character, truth

The Newman Guide 29
Finding God on a Catholic Campus

and knowledge, the closer you may wish to the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the
continue looking. availability of sound experienced spiritual
An important concern for the Catholic directors should be part of any truly Catho-
student and family will be the emphasis on re- lic university experience. My experience
ligious practice and formation in a particular with the work of a Catholic chaplaincy has
school’s campus life. I am not referring here convinced me that an energetic faith-driven
simply to religious statuary or saints’ names campus ministry is a necessity to create a
on buildings, which may simply be relics of Catholic culture on campus that is capable of
a bygone age. What percentage of the faculty forming modern day apostles. Try to deter-
is Catholic? What percentage practices their mine whether a Catholic college you are con-
faith in the traditional sense? Does anyone on sidering emphasizes catechesis, formation,
campus know or care? Do not underestimate practice and evangelization.
the impact that fully formed and commit- Take a look as well at the group activi-
ted Catholic faculty can have upon students. ties sponsored by campus ministry. Are there
Their influence may easily dwarf that of the courses or talks covering Catholic teachings
chaplain. and Catholic Bible study, to educate students
Naturally, a college will be as Catho- in their faith? Is volunteer work with the
lic as the people poor, elderly or ill
who direct it. If it seen in the context
is directed at least Are the dormitories places of the Gospel and
nominally by a as a logical conse-
religious congre-
where character can be built and quence of the stu-
gation, what is its dent’s adherence
where virtue can grow and,
condition? Are to the practices of
there vocations? if need be, protected? the faith? In our
What percentage affluent society, it
of the faculty is is very important
made up of mem- that the Catholic
bers of the institute? Are they noted for their be exposed to the misery that lies around us
loyalty to the Church? Is there an openness to and is very often hidden. The joy of unselfish
the variety of spirituality in the present-day giving for the sake of Christ can help affect
Church, particularly to the lay movements a serious change in students who heretofore
and institutions that are providing so much have been gravely affected by selfish consum-
life in this historical moment? Or does there erism.
exist a “turf” mentality or downright hostil- The most important group activity that
ity to other spiritualities and institutions ap- campus ministry can offer is retreats. A silent
proved by the Church? There should be no retreat with plenty of room for prayer and di-
monopoly on providing spiritual help to the rection can help a student progress more in
students and a great respect for the freedom his Christian life than a year of other types
of the student to find his way. of activities. It may well be the first time that
The state of the college chaplaincy can be the student has been left alone in reflective
a strong indicator. Piety, reverence for Catho- conversation with Christ. There, the meaning
lic liturgy, the encouragement of personal and purpose of his life become clearer.
prayer, frequent confession and communion,

30 The Newman Guide
Father C. John McCloskey III

The Sense of Home portray the goal of life as basically hedonistic
self-fulfillment. On too many but fortunately
Take a look at the quality of the social and not all Catholic campuses, there are pressures
moral environment of campus life. For non- to conform to the secular zeitgeist, which plac-
commuters, living arrangements are of the es a premium on “growth” in which the abuse
highest importance. Do the college dormito- of alcohol, drugs and sexuality is at least con-
ries have basically the same rules and regula- doned if not promoted.
tions, moral tone and adult supervision that Take a cross-section of recent graduates
you would wish for your college-age child if of a college you are considering. Are they
he were living at home? Are the dormitories well-educated by your standards, with an
places where character can be built and where appreciation for the finer things of mind and
virtue can grow and, if need be, protected? spirit? Are they the type of young adults (and
This is not a question of turning a college resi- not arrested adolescents) that you would like
dence into a cloister, but rather of assuring an your children to emulate? Does the practice of
environment where young men and women the faith give central meaning to their lives, or
can live as Christians without being subject is it simply accidental and to be sloughed off
to unnecessary temptations and provoca- when convenient? In short, are they Catholic
tions. Are the dormitories single-sex? Or is first and American second or vice-versa?
that at least an option? Some of the above criteria should help
Throwing hundreds of young men and in identifying authentic Catholic colleges and
women together in close quarters produces universities. You may have additional crite-
inevitable and natural results, most of which ria of your own. In a society as caught up in
at best do not prepare them well for Chris- secular goals and ambitions as our own, it is
tian marriage and at worst cause irreparable easy even for good Catholic parents to feel the
damage. If you dare, spend the night or even tug of considerations such as selectivity, earn-
a day or two living in a dormitory. In my ex- ing potential and bragging rights. However,
perience, most parents do not want to believe your children, who are negotiating the years
the atmosphere of hedonistic immaturity and between youth and adulthood in the Perfect
boorishness that reigns in these places. High Storm of a permissive and materialistic cul-
spirits are one thing; animal behavior raised ture, need more and better guidance than
to an art is another. Remember, it is your child that. If they spend their college years exposed
that you may be placing at moral and physical to good influences, set on fire by inspiring ex-
risk. amples and informed by confident and clear-
Are abortion referrals and contracep- ly orthodox teaching, they will be fortified
tives dispensed on campus? Is the college un- to form healthy Catholic families and func-
equivocally pro-life, or is there waffling and tion as humane Christian leaders of a society
double-talk on the most important question starving to be fed bread and not stones.
of our time, the sanctity of life from concep- The schools profiled in this Guide deserve
tion to natural death? your consideration as Catholic institutions
How is leisure time used on campus? Are where students can receive an integral educa-
there healthy and uplifting social, recreation- tion to prepare them for their God-given vo-
al and cultural opportunities? Leisure time cations. And since this springtime of the New
in today’s culture is too often spent watching Evangelization is infiltrating Catholic higher
television or films and reading magazines and education too, we can expect the future years
novels that make a mockery of the faith and to add more to their number.

The Newman Guide 31
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