Letters to a Young Catholic Student

The following is a series of open memos that I wish I could have sent to various Catholic students whom I have taught at a secular university. I hope they might help any Catholic student intending to evangelize similar campuses. Names have been faux-classicized.

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Dear Pedadogus Antagonistes,

The first few weeks at college are always a sensitive time, full of making first impressions, deliberating pivotal choices, and finding a niche in a new social environment. Added to the stress of compulsory orientations and adjusting your work ethic to dorm life, you must learn how to deal with people of diverse ideologies. In particular, you come face to face with people who not only disagree with you on critical issues — such as religion — but who are openly hostile to your faith.

You’ve most likely sat through several lectures where teachers disparaged your religious and political beliefs. You’ve probably listened to them make unflattering remarks about Catholics, the pope, priest scandals, celibacy, and abstinence. No doubt, you are angry that your family has invested so much money in an institution that seems to have so little respect for your way of life (while it celebrates lifestyles the Church deems immoral). At orientation, you probably had to walk past several LGBT awareness tables and a few dozen bowls of condoms before you could find a pamphlet telling you where Catholic Mass was held. I don’t envy what you go through.

As a Catholic professor at your secular institution, I can empathize. I went through the same thing as a student (at an ostensibly Catholic university), and I go through the same thing now at faculty gatherings. I try not to let the frustration show, though, because I keep personal business out of the classroom.

It’s not that we check our faith at the door when we meet for discussion — far from it. But your response to our campus climate can make you appear combative and hostile — spoiling for a fight where perhaps none exists.

Using your faith as a basis for retort in class, for instance, might not be the best reaction. It’s fair game to draw from your personal background (isn’t that the whole point of diversity on campus?), but private faith doesn’t necessarily provide sufficient evidence for, say, literary interpretation. Such a line of argument can make you appear more interested in telling the room what you think the Catholic Church teaches than in hearing what our authors (or your peers) have to say.

In my class, I do my best to establish a level playing field of common discourse for students of widely differing backgrounds. Even so, there are other students who share your beliefs but who feel alienated by the way you present them. There are also students who don’t share your views but would be willing to hear your opinion, yet these students are made less receptive because they feel you have condemned ideas about which they are curious.

By depicting yourself as speaking for the Church and by appearing combative in class, you feed classmates’ stereotypes of the angry, humorless, narrow-minded Catholic. I know this is not what you intend to do, and it doesn’t describe the real you. Your hope is that, by professing what you believe, you might open some people’s eyes to the Truth. But your direct approach to evangelization often has the opposite of its intended effect in the context of our classroom.

With a more subtle approach — with a common language grounded in a shared history of Western literature rather than your private beliefs — you might find that your liberal classmates are not as distant as they seem. I wish you had been in attendance on the day when your openly atheist colleague said that the reading from Augustine was a lot more reasonable than she had expected given his religion. Even I wasn’t expecting her to say that.

I could really use some more Augustines in the classroom. Are you up for it?

Peter Freeman

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Dear Provitae Adnauseum,

You might recall the concept of decorum from my lecture on Restoration comedy. Decorum suggests that one maintains an appropriate tone or style of behavior given a particular context. For example, when in the context of having tea with people hosting us as guests, it breaks decorum to bring up controversial topics.

I mention this because things were a little uncomfortable for your faculty moderator at the elderly outreach program last week, mostly because you were wearing an anti-abortion shirt. Or rather, the anti-abortion t-shirt. (You know the one I’m talking about.)

I call it an “anti-abortion” shirt without bias: A “pro-life” message encourages people to embrace God’s gifts and see their value. But there are also messages that are merely against abortion.

Now, despite liberal attempts to use “anti-abortion” as a pejorative term, I have no problems with being called anti-abortion as such. I believe abortion is the mortally sinful taking of a human life and the most serious evil of our age. If there is anything for which it is noble to be “anti,” it is abortion.

But as noble as that belief might be, this shirt does not seem an effective means of persuading the hearts and minds of those around you, and it might even distance people who agree with you. More to my point, it might have been a breach of decorum.

If you were on the March for Life March in Washington, D.C., it would have been a reasonable shirt to wear. However, elderly residents who are expecting a pleasant chat over tea and cookies are not expecting to confront the brutal slaughter of innocents.

Certainly, you are passionate about the issue, and the world needs more people to feel so strongly about it. Don’t give up that passion. But at times you come across not simply as concerned but as fixated: In all of the conversations I’ve had with you, the talk inevitably turns to abortion — regardless of the original topic. It might help to wait until another person brings up the subject before discussing it; you might discover that God sends other people your way, such as someone you are visiting in a retirement home, because they have things that they feel equally passionate about . . . but have no one else with whom to share their feelings.

Instead of considering how every moment could be used to thwart such a large and complex problem as abortion, perhaps consider in what ways God might be using you to solve the more immediate, smaller, personal trials faced by those around you. It would be a shame if your eagerness to promote one form of charitable love (the protection of the unborn) became an obstacle to another form of charity (care for the elderly).

Peter Freeman

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Dear Papistes Exclusivo,

In our class discussion of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, we talked about how the title character had to choose between careers as a military general and a political leader, between martial strength and social influence. Strength meant living in the exclusive, male-dominated club of aristocratic Roman warriors. Influence meant letting down his guard and opening up to a general audience of Roman plebeians. You can’t well engage plebeians as if they are warriors, and vice versa. One reason why Coriolanus is a tragedy is that he never quite finds a way to work with the commoners on their own terms, and therefore never gains real influence with them.

Coriolanus’s dilemma can be a model for evangelization on campus. If you really want to engage in evangelization (as seems to be the case from the Newman Center tables that you work at the cafeteria), you need to consider how others think differently about their religious life, particularly Catholics who are less active at the Newman Center than you.

For example, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation about your “Dress-up-as-a-Saint” costume party. It sounded like you and your friends had a good time, and I’m sure there are other students on campus who would dig this. Part of the fun was probably due to the fact that it’s unusual and not commonly done: It’s cool because it’s not cool. But is it really that much different from how other campus groups strengthen their bonds?

When you dress up like your favorite saint in the same way that students in the Anime Club dress up like their favorite manga character — when your faith becomes an inspiration for cosplay — might some people see Catholicism as being some kind of Jesus Fan Club? When you strengthen your bonds of friendship by dressing up in religious costumes, might some see it as converting your Newman Center into a Catholic frat that replaces its togas with albs and cinctures?

Like Coriolanus, advertising your group identity in a public setting might be strengthening your immediate friendships at the expense of your broader influence. Your group, like any fraternity or sorority, can be recognizable as a clique. Cliques are, by nature, exclusive. They don’t appear welcoming to outsiders. Even students who attend Mass at the Newman Center might not attend other events, because religious cliques make them feel “not Catholic enough.” This obviously is not your intention, but it might be an accidental consequence.

It would be unfortunate if students mistook your honest and sincere attempts to show pride in your religious heritage for exclusivity. You run the risk of turning the external symbols of Catholicism into a kind of status symbol. You may have seen some of this already: Are there some students who compete to say grace the most ostentatiously in the cafeteria? Who attempt to quote the most obscure saints the greatest number of times in a given conversation? Who want to be seen praying in the pew the longest after daily Mass? Such displays can create a kind of class hierarchy among the Catholic students, where faith becomes a mask for the same kind of social stratification present in any other student organization.

Like Coriolanus, the Catholic clique’s members are in danger of falling to pride — not only by being in an exclusive club, but by striving to have the most status within that club. If Catholics seem just as petty as every other secular organization on campus, students might look to non-Catholic groups to satisfy a need for spiritual community.

Peter Freeman


  • Peter Freeman

    Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.

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