Gabby Speach, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
After graduation last May, my classmates and I dispersed across the globe—some to teach, some to study, some to work. I fell into the last group when I moved to Princeton, New Jersey to start a job in September.
Though Princeton is home to the largest and most organized Catholic chaplaincy among the Ivies, its campus atmosphere starkly contrasts with Notre Dame’s. As one might expect, its student body is religiously diverse, with students professing Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, various forms of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Many students are atheists.
What both campuses share, though, is common to all colleges and universities: a large population of young adults seeking the truth about God, the world and human nature. This thirst makes the work of evangelization essential to campus life.
How deeply that thirst can be quenched with the Truth that is Christ depends much on a school’s religious status, or lack of one. Here in Princeton, I’ve seen anew how this status directly shapes the effort of Catholic students to spread the gospel—and as I’ll argue, differences between Princeton and Notre Dame show us that Notre Dame’s leaders, professors and students have a special evangelical responsibility.
Princeton doesn’t fund Christian sects or the Catholic chaplaincy. So, while entering Catholic and Protestant students may be able to join organized religious networks, they arrive at Princeton without institutional support for Christianity to make them feel at home.
In the classroom, too, Princeton Catholics often feel reluctant to discuss their faith openly. Their minority status at a secular school where professors and peers are often hostile to their beliefs makes citing them, or trying to explain them, a daunting and uncomfortable effort.
When it comes to conversions, Evangelicals draw more students than Catholics. Catholics not well-formed in their faith or struggling with doubts about the Church are often attracted to the Evangelical network—a fun, socially active group that offers students Bible studies and praise and worship opportunities. Some Catholic students remain Catholic but choose to receive their spiritual formation from the Evangelical community.
This may be true in part because of how practicing Catholics are perceived at Princeton—a group somewhat alienated from the rest of campus because of its orthodoxy, often displayed in fealty to the Church’s teachings on controversial issues. The most frequent converts to Catholicism are students already close to the Church intellectually (e.g., Episcopalians) or students drastically far from it (e.g., atheists).
Without institutional support, personal interaction is the most promising approach to evangelization at Princeton. Leading by example and being a good friend—living out the love of Christ—are the most effective ways of bringing peers to Christ and His Church.
Still, Princeton’s diversity challenges this effort. Across campus, Catholics meet with basic misperceptions of their faith that they must try to correct—for example, the myth that everything the pope says is infallible. And since many students know nothing about Catholicism, the preliminary task of basic instruction confronts any Catholic Princetonian.
Notre Dame offers a completely different playing field. Non-Christian and Protestant students have at least some knowledge of things Catholic, owing to the school’s religious homogeneity and Catholic affiliation. The latter’s fixed structures across campus—Masses in every chapel, meatless Fridays in the dining halls during Lent, the safe haven of the Grotto, and so on—make the practice of Catholicism and other religious activity natural.
Yet despite this aura of religiosity, many students enter Notre Dame as baptized Catholics without a firm understanding of the Church’s teachings (myself included). While raising matters of faith in the classroom is welcome, or at least understandable, unless these students seek catechesis, they often develop serious questions or doubts about Catholicism during their four years.
The most important task of evangelization at Notre Dame, then, is to minister to these students. Catholic students more sure of their faith are called to help those less so. To this end, loyal friendship and witness by example are just as critical at Notre Dame as they are at Princeton.
This is not to say that questioning should be stifled or disdained. Nor is it to say that believing, practicing Catholics should friend doubting or non-practicing Catholics simply to convert or “revert” them. It is merely to point out that Notre Dame’s community is closer than many to the communion of saints on earth—where all of us, no matter how far we feel from Him, are on the path to Christ who loves us more than we love ourselves, and it is right to lend each other a hand when we trip or lose our way.
Individual efforts to evangelize should be accompanied by institutional ones. At Princeton, this is impossible. At Notre Dame, it is essential. To ensure that students graduate with a clear understanding of Catholicism, I would suggest that the theology requirement be predetermined: Students should take not only Foundations of Theology, but also a course on the development of doctrine since early Christianity—particularly on issues of human sexuality, social justice, war, bioethics and marriage.
Additionally, Notre Dame’s president should use his public capacity to articulate the Church’s teachings clearly—thereby giving students one more anchor point in their search for the truth.
Father Jenkins has recently defended “persuasion” as “the cure for incivility” and “demonizing our opponents” in the Wall Street Journal, and last year spoke of “epistemic humility” to an audience at Emory University, but these arguments are neither timely nor addressed to the right crowd. America’s young adults are not at risk of absolutism or fanaticism, but of lukewarmly accepting, or doubting, the existence of moral absolutes. The podium at Emory and the pages of the WSJ could have been better used to proclaim that truth exists and in one Being.
Archbishop Chaput drove home the importance of evangelization in a recent address to campus ministers. “No matter how black the darkness is,” he said, “no matter how deep the cultural confusion, no matter how ignorant persons are of the Creator who made them, young adults at their core long to give themselves to Someone higher than themselves.” Rather than let questioning students stray farther from the God they yearn for, those who consider themselves faithful Catholics at Notre Dame should help these young men and women see the truth and beauty of their faith.
Gabby Speach, a 2012 graduate, is Managing Editor of Public Discourse. Console her about Manti at firstname.lastname@example.org.