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.