QUAERITUR: How to go to a Catholic college without losing your faith and your mind?

From a reader:

I will be attending a catholic university in the fall, and I have recently learned that it teaches heresy. While I am not shocked by this, I am concerned about myself and my faith. I am still a relatively recent revert, and it was the heresy I was taught in my grade 12 Christian Ethics class that made me decide to leave the Church in the first place. I attend the TLM frequently and am actively involved, so I get a heavy dose of orthodoxy, but I don’t know all the heresies, or how to identify them.

I have to take some Theology and Philosophy classes, and I am worried I will unintentionally learn errors and not know I am wrong.

How can I identify and protect myself from heresies?

Studying the history of the Churches doctrines would be a good start.  People should do that anyway.

More specifically, a good book for those going to a Catholic school is Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind.

Within are essays on various “-isms”, on the looney-tunes ideas you might face in a Catholic school.  The essays are by the likes of Peter Kreeft, Donna Steichen, Fr. George Rutler, Eric Metaxas, John Keck, Elizabeth Scalia, Jimmy Akin, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (mine is on Modernism), Robert Spencer, Mark Shea….

All in all, a good place to start.  There is some bibliography after each essay.

In the meantime, making a good regular confession and saying your prayers will help you keep your mind clear and allow the Holy Spirit to guide you through the shoals.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. fvhale says:

    Fear God. Respect your professors. Be responsible for your own formation (and education).

    Do not fear your professors, and, by all means, do not blindly entrust your formation and education to them. Professors are mere human beings like you (although sometimes in the exhiliration of professing they might forget…). If you are well-studied and polite, even a heretical professor might enjoy a quiet dialogue with you. But do not engage in protests and arguments with a professor in their classroom, unless you are really, clearly invited to do so. Perhaps you should treat a professor that you feel is heretical in the same way you would treat a priest that you feel is heretical. Be polite. Respect the office. Do what you need to do, and get on with your life.

    Your education, especially at the college level, is much, much bigger than your professors. I had a few that were, I am certain, completely insane and incompetent (to the point of repeatedly losing and finding a final exam, and holding my grade in suspense), many who hated God and the Church and Christianity, some who were deeply, deeply immoral. There would be very few professors that I actually received grades from that I would entrust with the care of my bird. But your education is more than your professors. Much more.

    Focus on the Blessed Sacrament, go to mass every day, go to confession frequently, learn to pray the Liturgy of the Hours through the school day to enjoy a spiritual refreshment, love the library, lean on your fellow students who also want to be “salt of the earth” in that educational environment. See the good and beautiful. Fill your soul with what is good. Bear the cross of obedience to a few heretics who you must listen to as part of the educational journey. Who knows if something in you, someday, might not bring about their conversion and salvation. Be salt and light. Do not fear the darkness. Study hard. Be responsible for your own learning and growth in the faith.

  2. Reason #1 why I go to Christendom College – every professor takes the Oath of the Magesterium.

    I cannot imagine having to deal with heresy from the very professors who are teaching at a Catholic college and ought to be at the forefront of educating their students in the Faith.

    As a fellow Catholic college student – I second the advice on daily Mass. I especially like going to early morning Mass, as it helps me start the day well. Studying in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is also a good practice. Find fellow students who share the same strength of faith you do, and encourage each other. Hold each other accountable – healthy peer pressure can sometime help overcome lukewarmness.

    Prepare yourself intellectually – read the Catechism! You can never stop learning the Faith!

  3. Tina in Ashburn says:

    This a good question and a well-founded fear. I don’t what to advise. I do not know one person today with a modern theology degree who isn’t infected by modernism, no matter what good school they attend or how devout and faithful they are. Not one.

  4. JohnE says:

    Sounds like a good book whether going to a Catholic school, secular school, or filtering the media.

  5. acricketchirps says:

    My advice: take math.

  6. PatriciusOenus says:

    Consider an orthodox college where students rarely lose their faith. Check-out Wyoming Catholic College. (http://www.wyomingcatholiccollege.com/)

  7. TradCathPhilProf says:

    As a professor at an imperfectly Catholic university, I think I would say that it’s actually not that terribly hard to figure out which professors are more or less trustworthy, though it may take some time. Your best bet is to talk to other seriously Catholic students (especially ones that have been there for a while). See which professors are involved in things like Catholic Studies departments (as opposed to Theology). See which professors are outspoken about specifically Catholic issues. Actually, if you specify which university it is, we might be able to offer more specific suggestions.

  8. Angie Mcs says:

    My dear niece is finishing her second year at a very well known Catholic college. She and her brother also attended Catholic high schools, so I believe this was an important factor to her parents in helping choose a school For her. She is a very outgoing sweet and friendly girl, but I see the crumbling in her faith, certainly confusion. As someone who recently converted myself, I wanted to talk with her about Catholicism. Her answer to the question of whether she was comforted and felt certain that Catholicism was the one true faith was ” well, I don’t know, there are so many choices.” She attended the recent Gay Pride parade and posted photos on her Facebook wall, saying “Go Pride,”! Much of this comes from her new friends, and its hard not to want to be popular and liked. The company one keeps is crucial.

    As far as the faculty, that is not so easy and obvious. Certainly there are excellent suggestions here on this blog. It’s a challenge: I recently saw on this university’s newsletter that the Head of the Theology Department was attending a seminar about Gays/Lesbian issues. As a parent, this would have been a red flag and I would have been making some phone calls for clarification.

    Finally, if you decide against this college, I would let them know why. You have the right to speak out against or at least question any possible heretical issues you encounter. And if enough potential students did this, depriving the university of dollars because they don’t practice what they preach, so to say, then it might give them pause. Every voice matters, and money talks.

  9. acardnal says:

    Okay, you asked how to identify and protect yourself from heresy. Here are some book suggestions:

    – books by Diane Moczar
    – “The Great Heresies” by Hilaire Belloc
    – “How to Stay Christian in College (Th1nk Edition)” by J. Budziszewski
    – “Ask Me Anything: Provocative Answers for College Students” by J. Budziszewski
    – “Ask Me Anything 2: More Provocative Answers for College Students” by J. Budziszewski
    – “Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law” by J. Budziszewski
    – “Old Errors and New Labels” by Fulton J. Sheen
    – “Dissent from the Creed: Heresies Past and Present” by Richard M. Hogan
    – “Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church: A 2,000-Year History” by H. W. Crocker

  10. Johnno says:

    If it really comes down to it, you might also be well off attending a Protestant College who at least acknowledges Biblical Inerrancy and Biblical morality. Study your Catholic faith on the side.

    More advice: Study good science, particularly in the areas of origins science that are critical of evolution. Look up stuff on Intelligent Design and Biblical Creationism. There is no need to confront your professors about these things or your orthodoxy either unless you are confronted. You can innocently bring up good counter arguments in class. Some professors are great and welcome discussion. Others might have it in for you. Be humble and never act too proud. If you’re going to bring anything up, spend time beforehand to make sure you know what you’re talking about and any counter arguments.

    Most of your trouble however will not be academic, it will revolve around your social life. I can’t give you advice there. I was quiet and introverted and kept to myself and just went straight home avoiding most of the frivolities and general debauchery. It’s not all bad of course, but there are plenty of occasions that lead to sin when you are in a college atmosphere. For example: Friends wanting to go to strip clubs and share marijuana etc. and feel upset if you decline. Some can take no for an answer and get along. Others might hate you if you show any moral backbone. Pick your friends wisely and hope for the best.

    But don’t let your time be filled with worry. It’s not all gloomy and there will be plenty of good people to get along with. Have fun.

  11. MKR says:

    I lost my faith in college. Through the grace of God, I got it back shortly after I graduated. So I speak from experience. Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth, for avoiding what happened to me.

    1. Go to mass frequently, pray frequently, go to confession frequently, etc. These are no-brainers. Thank God constantly that you *have* mass, confession, and the like available to you. Not all college students do. Where I went, we had weekly mass at 5:45 p.m. in the silly Episcopal church on campus, and that was it. Music was laughably modernist (weird string instruments, woodwinds, etc), performed by students in jeans and flip-flops. There were, perhaps, a dozen students at mass on a typical Saturday night. A state of total spiritual starvation. I don’t mean to laugh at your predicament–it’s perfectly serious–but you should count your blessings, which are many.

    2. Know your limits. Some people can keep the faith despite fraternizing with people who seek to destroy it. Some are so articulate and charming that they’re even capable of converting, or at least softening the ire of, their opponents. Others cannot. I’m in the “cannot” group. I spent much of freshman year hanging out with a hateful atheist who devoted all his time in my presence to attacking the Church and belief in God. If I’d been better at arguing, I probably could have made exposed his errors and put a stop to his blather. Pride convinced me that I could hold my own in a quarrel with him, perhaps even make him see the light. But that just wasn’t the case. He always made me look, and feel, ridiculous; and he did a number on my faith. I should have just avoided him like the plague. It’s very important that you make the same sorts of calculations about yourself. I suspect your situation will be substantially different from my own–your pernicious interlocutors won’t be angry atheists, but insidious modernist Catholics. Evil is evil, though, and if you can’t beat it, you should walk away from it.

    3. Take lots and lots of difficult classes in legitimate disciplines and get A’s in all of them. There are a number of benefits to this. First and most importantly, excellent work pleases God and mediocre work doesn’t. Don’t give God fruits; give him firstlings. Second, Satan is very good at winning over poorly-trained minds. Spiritual combat is largely mental combat. If you expose yourself to the hell of the metaphysicians without training your mind, then you’ll very likely go there. Third, you’ll be so immersed in schoolwork that you just won’t have much time to let soft modernist drivel pollute your mind. Fourth, you’ll likely find yourself associating with other diligent students, who for the most part will be of better moral character, and thus less likely to rob you of your faith, than the delinquents who constitute 80 percent of the student body at every college and university in the U.S. Lastly, it really is delightful to get absorbed in great ideas. Colleges and universities are mired in relativism and stupidity, but you can still find treasures there, and they are joys to behold. Most people who attend college never do so, and spend the rest of their lives under the sad illusion that their undergraduate years were tons of fun, things to be envied. In truth, the people who have the greatest distinctively collegiate pleasures are invariably the kids cooped up in the library.

    4. Always remember that your heretic professors, insofar as they are heretics, are insubstantial products of their times, trafficking in trendy theories that no one will take seriously in ten years. The Church, on the other hand, professes nothing but indestructible and staggeringly beautiful truths, which you can and should hang your entire life on. Remember also that whatever university you’ll be attending, it cannot be more than a tenth the age of the Church. These facts should help to get you through blotches of doubt, if any should assail you. I pray they won’t.

  12. BaedaBenedictus says:

    I was blessed to find faith in college, thanks to a history department that was full of Christian professors (Methodist, Baptist, Orthodox, Catholic) who would gather with Christian student at an institute/coffee shop right off campus for marvelous fellowship and intellectual engagement.

    I went to a major state university. Go figure.

    By the way, I have to second Father Z’s book recommendation. Last year I went to an event at MIT featuring three of the book’s contributors (John Keck, Peter Kreeft, and John Zmirak) giving lecture versions of their chapters. I went out and bought the book right away. Buy several to give to friends and family members! It’s a great, succinct atlas of sorts for modernity’s most popular heresies.

    And, incidentally, John Zmirak is probably one of the funniest men on the face of the earth.

  13. mamajen says:

    I don’t worry about anybody who reads here regularly (okay, maybe that’s a bit broad, but in general…). Father Z’s Ask Father Question Box got me through two secular universities in two different countries at a time when I was kind of out at sea with not a lot of guidance. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but my “question everything” attitude and my good instincts got me far. If something is unfamiliar to you, research it to make sure you are getting the right message.

  14. mysticalrose says:

    Recently, federal law has insisted that professors make their textbook adoptions well in advance of registration. Granted, I don’t know why the government is even involved in this, but there is a benefit. You can choose a course with the most orthodox textbook selections. Usually, there is at least one person in the theology and philosophy departments who is orthodox. Keep in mind that the university is super hostile to dissent from modernism, so even the orthodox prof will have to make concessions. Still if you see texts from B16 or from Ignatius Press, for e.g., you know the course will be more orthodox then the course whose texts are from continuum and orbis press. Hth.

  15. kford says:

    In every Catholic college (no matter how much the influx of heresy) there are patient, orthodox, solidly grounded professors who are educated about and loyal to the teachings of the Church. Seek them out. They may be in completely different departments, but they are there. Ask other students–they know who all the players are. These professors may not be publicly vocal (especially if they are on a tenure track), but they will be happy to let you bounce ideas off them, and refer you to resources for your education and spiritual well-being. And, these professors may be quietly strengthened by your conversations with them as well. If you think it’s tough being an orthodox student in a heterodox college, imagine the frustration of some faculty. You are never alone.

  16. disco says:

    I’d say a good idea would be to find the pro life group(s) on campus and try and make friends there. Even if those kids aren’t the most well formed Catholics or even Catholic at all, their hearts are probably in the right place.

  17. Navy Jeff says:

    1. Surround yourself with like minded Catholics.
    2. Receive the Sacraments regularly.
    3. Find out your besetting sins and avoid near occasions of sin! Sin will make you stupid, and cloud your mind. Once you’re regularly offending God, your brain won’t be happy, so it will make up all kinds of excuses that what you are doing is OK.

  18. cjcanniff says:

    I’m a college student at BC, and although it’s a Catholic school, there are plenty of professors teaching all sorts of crazy things. I have read “Disorientation” myself, and it is a wonderful book. I bought it and had it signed by John Zmirak (the editor) at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts’ annual symposium in Boston in 2010. Since then, I have not only had the pleasure of reading the great essays in the book, but I have had personal encounters with two of the contributors. First is Fr. George Rutler, whom I heard speak at the TMC symposium in 2011. Second is Peter Kreeft, whom I have had the pleasure of taking two courses (Philosophy of World Religions; C.S. Lewis) with since he is a philosophy professor at BC. Would that I could have the opportunity to meet Fr. Z!

  19. DoS.SemT says:

    If I may add to the many excellent comments above: Since it’s a Catholic school it might have a seminary on the same campus or one very close by. Most of the young seminarians these days, at least from my perspective of my peers, are far more obedient to Rome and interested in the TLM (and Tradition in general) than their…er, more “biologically solvable ” counterparts. So if you get the opportunity during your philosophy classes, befriend seminarians (major or minor, doesn’t matter) that might be taking the same sort of courses and interact with them. Any questionable things you might learn can then be cleared up in your friendship, with, of course, a good measure of friendship-based gentleness and humility.

    Food for thought.

  20. AnnAsher says:

    Great post!
    For those still looking for college the National Catholic Register publishes an annual guide to real Catholic Colleges; which have signed the Mandatum

  21. AnnAsher says:

    Great post!
    For those still looking for college the National Catholic Register publishes an annual guide to real Catholic Colleges; which have signed the Mandatum.

  22. pewpew says:

    I’m studying at a regular (secularised calvinist) dutch university, and I don’t have to take any theology classes, but I live at a student dorm/college/whatever you call it in the US run spiritually by the Opus Dei. It’s an excellent environment to keep and deepen your faith while you’re studying, and also to develop human virtues/discipline. Apparently they (opus dei) are also controversial among catholics, but I haven’t had any bad experiences with them (they haven’t pressured me to join for example), but I have only been living at the dorm for one year. There’s almost always a priest around, and you get to meet different serious catholics who are also studying. My house even has a chapel with the blessed sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, with mass celebrated regularly.

  23. fvhale says:

    One Catholic university you might want to avoid:

    “The Holy See, by a decree of the Secretary of State, has decided to remove the right of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru to use the words “Pontifical” and “Catholic” in its title….”



  24. pfreddys says:

    I went to 17 years of “Catholic” school (including kindergaten). At best the religion was pop-psychology. During my high school years I became at least an agnotic, if not an atheist.
    During my first year at a “Catholic” university I found an old Rosary in a drawer. Something goaded me into saying it after 4 days of saying it, I was cured of the belief system known as atheism (to this day I just say Wow Blessed Mother, just WOW), I then read the Epistles of St. Paul (my namesake) and the whole time I read the Epistle to the Romans my jaw was on the ground because I felt he was writing it for me. My father converted from being a Lutheran in the 50’s not just to marry my mother but because he was INTO IT! So I also had the advantage of reading all the books he used when he converted, I was amazed at how Profound Our Faith was!!!
    So my basic suggestion is, of course, the Rosary. Besides that before you start college read the modern Cathecism of the Catholic Church- I find this very useful, in many ways including some ‘modern’ sins I have to include in confession. Keep close to the sacraments, especially Confession. In each summer of your years pick at least 3 or 4 classic Catholic books to read and then between the time of you final finals and your graduation read The Cathecism of The Council of Trent.

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