How to Go to College and NOT Lose Your Faith

When parents drop off the son or daughter at college they worry about several things. Will the son or daughter be fed, have the “right” roommate, study without parental supervision, drink too much and walk out in front of a car, fall in with the wrong crowd or fall in love with and marry the “wrong” person? Might he or she stumble on an “ultra-liberal” professor who likes to shake the class up, insinuate some radical ideas that go against some basic principles the family has taught?Will they sleep late on Sunday mornings and get out of the habit of going to Mass.

To give up one’s religion during college is — or used to be — a common phenomenon; and back in the 1950s some Jesuit prep schools would not forward transcripts to non-Catholic colleges and universities. The idea was to keep the young person in the protective ghetto as long as possible. But as Catholic families moved more and more into the American middle-class mainstream, the goal became the “best,” or most prestigious college rather than a Catholic “safe” one. They sought a “name” place that would prepare the young person for a competitive market place, surround the student with future secular movers and shakers as he climbs the social ladder.


In that context, religious faith might end up on the shelf or in the waste basket.

Meanwhile as Catholic universities became more competitive, put more emphasis on serious scholarship, and allowed more personal and intellectual freedom, their students became more willing to explore different ways of looking at the world. Their previous religious training didn’t hold up, the old answers didn’t work. They made the break.

A lot of breaking away had to do with sex. The hook-up culture provides sexual gratification without emotional commitment. Homosexuality is seen as an alternate life-style as valid as a heterosexual relationship. The church’s pre-occupation with abortion gives the impression that other issues of justice are neglected. The sexual abuse scandal and cover-up have alienated members of every generation, and the church’s refusal to ordain women has moved some women to stop going to Mass as long as they cannot imagine themselves or their daughters presiding some day at the altar. And since sexuality is at the heart of one’s identity, for spokespersons of the church to challenge one’s identity is, to put it mildly, a turn-off.

From my point of view, a student’s conscious decision, after a lot of soul searching, to step back from the practice of his/her religion is understandable. But it is also a regrettable — sometimes tragic — mistake. Especially since the university is the best place to learn that faith and reason — the heart and the mind — need not be enemies. In college we should learn, above all else, that there is nothing in human knowledge — astronomy, psychology, philosophy, literature, or history — which is true which threatens belief.

That’s why I suggest taking a theology course that deals with creation and evolution. Where we read the Book of Genesis with a commentary and see that the creation stories are myths, literary forms, that is, truths embedded in folklore, not scientific history. Then we should read — or, better, see — Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo and watch two world views slug it out.

The Catholic Church, to its discredit, stuck with the literal historicity of the Genesis account of creation until half-through the 20th century: that God made the world in seven days, in spite of the contradictions within the Biblical account itself. Now we know that Genesis was not written by Moses, as was once claimed, but by four groups of writers over several generations, each making its individual theological arguments from the way it told the story. To understand this is to have a completely liberating view of the universe, to look at the starry sky and realize that the lights we see blinking at us have taken light years to arrive, and to imagine the millions of years the Creator let pass to bring us to this point in history.

One of my students a few years ago told me that no matter what I had her read about the compatibility — indeed intimate relationship — between evolution and God’s role in creation, she would stick with what she learned in church: the idea that God made the world in seven days. I guess I had failed, and I felt very sorry for her. She dropped the course.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.


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Stephen SCHEWE
8 years 4 months ago
My wife and I attended a Mass at Seattle University last month when we were out visiting my son.  The place was packed, and for good reasons: the Chapel was designed in a modern mission style, austere and beautiful; Mass started at 9:00 pm; the music was diverse and enchanting; the homily, given by a visiting Jesuit, was one of the best I'd heard in the last few years; everyone in the sanctuary was invited to the Eucharist; and the announcements indicated a robust social justice ministry.  Given hospitality and connection with community, a convenient Mass time, and good preaching and music, the young crowds will still come.

By the way, regarding "marrying the wrong person," a friend reminds me we parents have to remember which committee we're on:  that would be welcome/hospitality.  Your son or daughter makes up the selection committee!
8 years 4 months ago
I think Father Schroth should study his history more.  Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo is anything but the truth.  In the so called Galileo affair, the good guy was Urban VIII who suggested the title and content of Galileo treatise.  It was Galileo who betrayed Urban his long time friend, by portraying him as a simpleton in his publication.  The controversy over Galileo had to do mainly with politics and not religion or science as is commonly portrayed.

A lot of Galileo's ideas were bunk and his original thesis was to emphasize the movement of the tides as evidence that the earth moves.  Which is nonsense.  Urban suggested he focus on astronomy.  Galileo's thesis were not validated for over two hundred years until the 1820's.

Also there is a vast uncertainty out there on life and evolution and I doubt that Fr. Schroth knows much about the controversy otherwise he would not have written what he did.  No one can tell you how life began or evolved.  The biggest mystery out there is how each happened and science hasn't a clue.
8 years 4 months ago
I understand the author's contention that truth does not need to threaten belief. 

What I'm not clear about is whether he is advocating a change in the church's teachings about matters of human sexuality to be better aligned with students' hook-up culture; or whether he believes that the church's current teaching in these matters would not be so off-putting to students if the students were taught about the biblical foundations for the church's views and the scientific truths that support those views, e.g., that homosexual sex is not procreative, that heterosexual sex is, that the life created at conception is ended by abortion, and that Jesus was a man.  The author's contention that sexuality is at the heart of one's identity (source please?) makes me think the former.

I suppose the church could entice many a college student to keep their "Catholic" faith by getting rid of the teachings on sin and confession, and by offering free margaritas at the 9:00pm mass. 
Marie Rehbein
8 years 4 months ago
I think that the tendency is for college students to become distracted from religion when they go to college, and that for most of them this has less to do with conflicting ideas convincing them that religion is silly or wrong than with the fact that religion has been a ubiquitous presence in their lives that was outside of their control until this point.  They come back after they have children, and so it goes generation after generation.  Like the Amish, perhaps, it would be best to recognize this time as a legitimate time of "running around" instead of agonizing that these people have lost their faith and discipline.  That is not to say that Newman Centers have no place, but that the lack of participation does not mean lost faith.
8 years 4 months ago
I thought this a fine piece and the point was to help young people grow in to adulthood in faith not by simplistic indoctrination but formation and  appreciating faith through its history and complexity.
I do think our young folks will come to faith in a different way then some of the older generation, but they will not be helped in that journey by simply sayinhg (as the song goes "What's wrong with these kids today?"
There is too much information that can bombard them and they need more than simple catechism to face it.
david power
8 years 4 months ago

I am glad that you feel that way as it brings some balance to my reading.My initial impressions were that Cosgrove and Brooks had shown the article to be filled with superficiliaties unbecoming of a Jesuit Magazine.To the Google I go !!!
8 years 4 months ago
I wasn't brought up in any religion and majored in phiilosophy (and art) in college.  I was somewhere between agnosticism and atheism but I loved the ideas I learned about in classes.  I thought religion was for dummies who didn't want to think for themselves.  It wasn't until much later that I realized one didn't need to check one's brain at the door to believe in God - thanks to what I learned from Jesuits.
8 years 4 months ago
There is a tendency for Catholics to lambast the Church whenever they can.  In Fr. Schroth's post he spends time on two subjects, Galileo and evolution.  Both of which I have read about considerably or listened to lectures on and he seems to get wrong.  Some have even pointed at evolution as the most prominent scientific area underlying belief in God.  So these are not trivial areas to be ill informed on.
The so called Galileo affair took place dead center in the middle of the 30 years War between the Hapsburgs and Protestant Germany.  The Protestants were being backed by Catholic France so this so called war of religion had Catholics on both sides and was really more about political power than religion.  Urban VIII was a close friend of Galileo, had written a poem about him in his honor and supported his scientific research.  He suggested the title for Galileo's treatise as well as its emphasis and it was to be published by the Vatican.  However, the cardinal in charge of the publishing died and then a plague broke out that prevented any travel between Florence and Rome.  Galileo was impatient and then went to the Duke of Tuscany in Florence and his treatise was published under his sponsorship.
The Duke was part of a plot to have Urban removed as pope.  The Hapsburgs wanted the Papal States to enter the war with Germany on their side but Urban refused.  So there was a move to replace Urban.  He was once the ambassador to the French Court and had sympathies for France and was trying to broker a peace to the war.  
Urban had asked Galileo to phrase his ideas as hypotheses and not as proven ideas.  In the treatise the pope's request was put into the mouth of a character called Simplicio and only mentioned briefly at the end.  And it appeared under the seal of a man who was trying to depose him.  Hence the famous reply by Urban that he had been betrayed.  So Galileo betrayed his close friend, his mentor and religious leader.  Galileo was a brilliant scientist and can rightfully be called the father of modern physics.  Newton stood on Galileo's shoulders.  But Galileo got many things wrong and there was better astronomy out there at the same time.  He could not explain the parallax problem or the wind problem at the equator.  It required a couple hundred years to validate the heliocentric hypothesis.
Despite all this (associated with the deposing of a pope) he was given house arrest and allowed to continue to write and his best works came out of this.  He was supposedly told not to write any more but no one enforced it.  Some cardinals, one related to Urban, did not sign the Inquisition order and this was indication that Urban had a had in what happened to him.  In most countries in Europe of that time, trying to depose a ruler would have led to a death sentence.
There is a lot more going on then I just wrote as the Church was being criticized harshly for not taking the bible seriously by many of the Protestant reformers.  So they were a little gun shy about straying too far from scripture.
No one would get the above by reading Bertolt Brecht.  I hope this is what Fr. Schroth is teaching his students.  There is more interesting stuff in the real Galileo story then all the distortions that have been in the popular domain in the last two hundred years.
Stephen SCHEWE
8 years 4 months ago
Free margaritas at the 9:00 pm Mass?  They'd have to be Episcopalian for that to happen, Michael!
Robert Killoren
8 years 4 months ago
Mr. Cosgrove,

Would you please provide your credentials that demonstrate your competence to speak authoritatively on nearly everything written in America Magazine. I think all serious readers would like to take your contributions into consideration but would like to be assured you are not merely copying material you just read on Wikipedia or the online Catholic Encyclopedia and posting it here. Perhaps you have provided this in the past but a refresher would be welcome.

Thank you,

Deacon Bob 
8 years 4 months ago
Deacon Bob asked

''Mr. Cosgrove,

Would you please provide your credentials that demonstrate your competence to speak authoritatively on nearly everything written in America Magazine.''

If you scan most of the posts on America Magazine, you will see that i rarely post on most subjects.  I said I usually do not post on religious topics except to say how it affected me personally.  For example, while I read all the posts on the recent synod, I did not post anything.  I tend to post on topics that have to do with current politics and try to add an alternative point of view where it seems appropriate.  I have varied backgrounds, military, academic (taught at Fordham), business (working for large organizations and currently own my own business.) I have an MBA and was once ABD in a Ph.D. program before starting my own business with others.

I am very interested in science and history and have read a lot but mostly watch or listen to lectures on these topics.  I am a frequent user of the Teaching Company Courses which I highly recommend and my information about Galileo comes primarily from those sources but has been augmented by other sources.  I can provide them if anyone is interested.  There are other sources on history and the Church which are available such as ''Now You Know Media'' and ''Modern Scholar'' audio  books.  The latter has several sets of lectures by Thomas Madden on various aspects of Church history. He is one source I highly recommend.  From Wikipedia

''Thomas F. Madden (born 1960) is an American historian, the Chair of the History Department at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, and Director of Saint Louis University's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He is considered one of the foremost historians of the Crusades in the United States, and was often called upon as a historical consultant after the events of September 11, to discuss the connections between the medieval Crusades and modern Islamic terrorism. He has frequently appeared in the media, as a consultant for various programs on the History Channel and National Public Radio. In 2007, he was awarded the Haskins Medal from the Medieval Academy of America, for his book Enrico Dandolo and the Rise of Venice, which was also a ''Book of the Month'' selection by the BBC Historymagazine.''

When I use Wikipedia, I usually cite the source as I just did.  I don't think I ever have used the Catholic Encyclopedia here since on a lot of topical subjects it is a little antiquated.  It does have an interesting perspective on evolution but was written in the early 1900's so provides an historical view of the thinking at that time.

If I make a mistake or have a wrong interpretation on something, I appreciate correction.   And I don't consider myself an expert on many things but do expose myself to many different points of view on topics that interest me.  Some of which I relate here.  For example, I am particularly well read on the history of science and evolution.
8 years 4 months ago
David -

I think your piece is Jesuit worthy (whether that's a good thing or not, I'm not sure).

I'm surprised that the commenters here have decided to overlook the part of your post about college students and sexuality.  That part seemed to me to be primary topic, at least as far as your post related to Catholicism. 

I saw the part regarding college courses about creationism and other Old Testament topics in light of new understandings about the universe, mere examples of how controversial topics in Catholicism could be addressed, and change induced within the Church, by impressionable youth.  Ironically - or is it intentionally - the very faith that you suggest you are encouraging through theology courses  might have the very opposite effect, encouraging doubt and criticism. 

And what becomes of our faith and Catholicism when archaelogists conclude that there was no Jesus Christ?  Or how about the fact that scientists have not been able to develop a theory of matter in which it is possible to change bread into flesh and wine into water?  What good effect could those revelations have on the  faithful, especially those whose faith is so great that they believe that God created the earth in six 24-hour periods?

we vnornm
8 years 4 months ago
Father Schroth,

As a college teacher and former college student, everything you have written on these blogs shouts at me with the ring of authenticity, truth, and courage of expression. AMERICA is lucky to have a first-rate scholar such as yourself on the staff. I look forward ro reading youe future blogs and articles.

Have you ever considered writing an blog, article or book about your father? Perhaps with Veteran's day coming up next week, this would be a great way to honor his memory?

amdg, bill
Marie Rehbein
8 years 4 months ago
I will not presume to respond to Michael Brooks when he addresses someone else.  However,  I would like to point out that it is not necessarily faith that makes it possible for someone to believe the earth was created in exactly six earth days.  It seems far more often people cling to this belief because their faith is not strong enough - first hand enough - to allow for the possibility that some of what is in the Bible is not literally true.  They want there to be an absolute authority and for themselves not to be at the mercy of others' interpretations.
7 years 9 months ago


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