Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Professor Glendon on "Today's University Students"

Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon prepared this address on "Today's University Students" for an International Youth Forum, held near Rome this week. The entire speech is excellent, if you have reading time. Otherwise, consider the excerpt below. Professor Glendon was speaking to Catholic students, but I think you'll agree that the wisdom of her comments transcends denominations:


But if those are your hopes, you are apt to be disappointed in many of today's universities. For universities themselves seem to be losing their sense of purpose and meaning. As a young woman from the United States put it in her answer to my questionnaire: "If I could sum up what has been drilled into my generation's minds in one word, that word would be 'tolerance.' While this has resulted in us being pretty nice people, it has also produced in my opinion a generation that has little concept of objective morality or truth. We are equipped with few guidelines for judging right and wrong."

A young woman who teaches in Kenya wrote that university students there "need role models and something to believe in and they search for these desperately. There is a constant clash between how their parents brought them up and what society is offering them." Sad to say, the postmodern university seems even to be losing its vaunted regard for tolerance of diverse opinions -- at least where religiously grounded moral viewpoints are concerned, and especially if those viewpoints are Christian.

Thus we find ourselves in a curious situation where all too many of the most highly educated men and women in history have a religious formation that remains at a rather primitive level. Have you noticed how many well-educated Catholics seem to be going through life with a kindergarten level apprehension of their own faith? How many of us, for example, have spent as much time deepening our knowledge of the faith as we have on learning to use computers!

I must admit that when I read in the Holy Father's letters to the laity that we are supposed to fearlessly "put out into the deep," I can't help thinking there should be a footnote to the effect that: "Be not afraid" doesn't mean "Be not prepared." When Our Lord told the apostles to put out into the deep, he surely didn't expect them to set out in leaky boats. When he told them to put down their nets, he didn't expect those nets to be full of holes!

This brings me to the most important point I wish to make today: I want to suggest to you that poor formation represents a special danger in a society like ours where education in other areas is so advanced. In contemporary society, if religious formation does not come up to the general level of secular education, we are going to run into trouble defending our beliefs -- even to ourselves. We are going to feel helpless when we come up against the secularism and relativism that are so pervasive in our culture and in the university. We are going to be tongue-tied when our faith comes under unjust attack.

When that happens, many young Catholics drift away from the faith. Countless young men and women today have had an experience in the university comparable to that which caused the great social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville to lose his faith 200 years ago at the height of the Enlightenment. All through his childhood, Tocqueville had been tutored by a pious old priest who had been trained in a simpler era. Then, at the age of 16, he came upon the works of Descartes, Rousseau and Voltaire. Here is how he described that encounter in a letter to a friend many years later:

"I don't know if I've ever told you about an incident in my youth that marked me deeply for the rest of my life; how I was prey to an insatiable curiosity whose only available satisfaction was a large library of books. ... Until that time my life had passed enveloped in a faith that hadn't even allowed doubt to enter. ... Then doubt ... hurt led in with an incredible violence. ... All of a sudden I experienced the sensation people talk about who have been through an earthquake when the ground shakes under their feet, as do the walls around them, the ceilings over their heads, the furniture beneath their hand, all of nature before their eyes. I was seized by the blackest melancholy and then by an extreme disgust with life, though I knew nothing of life. And I was almost prostrated by agitation and terror at the sight of the road that remained for me to travel in this world."

What drew him out of that state, he told his friend, were worldly pleasures to which he abandoned himself for a time. But his letters testify to a lifelong sadness at his incapacity for belief. How many young Catholics have fallen into those same pitfalls when they had to make the difficult transition from their childhood faith to a mature Christianity. Tocqueville at least was confounded by some of the greatest minds in the Western tradition. But many of our contemporaries are not even equipped to deal with simplistic versions of relativism and skepticism!

Some young men and women, like Tocqueville, may spend their whole lives in a kind of melancholy yearning. Others may start to keep their spiritual lives completely private, in a separate compartment sealed off from the rest of their lives. Still others imitate the chameleon, that little lizard who changes his color to blend in with his surroundings. When parts of their Christian heritage don't fit with the spirit of the age, the chameleon just erases them.

How many of these lost searchers, I wonder, might have held their heads high as unapologetic Catholics if somewhere along the way they had become acquainted with our Church's great intellectual tradition and her rich treasure house of social teachings?

Today, in the age of John Paul II, there are really no good excuses for ignoring the intellectual heritage that provides us with resources to meet the challenges of modernity. No Catholic who takes the trouble to tap into that heritage has to stand tongue-tied in the face of alleged conflicts between faith and reason or religion and science.

In "Novo Millennio Ineunte," the Holy Father has a message that is highly relevant to the topic of this conference on "Witnessing to Christ in the University."

"For Christian witness to be effective," he writes, "it is important that special efforts be made to explain properly the reasons for the Church's position, stressing that it is not a case of imposing on non-believers a vision based on faith, but of interpreting and defending the values rooted in the very nature of the human person" (51).

Three implications of those wise words need to be spelled out:

First, those of us who live in pluralistic societies have to be able to give our reasons in terms that are intelligible to all men and women of good will, just as St. Paul had to be "a Jew to the Jews, and a Greek to the [pagan] Greeks." Fortunately, we have great models of how to do that in Catholic social teaching, and in the writings of John Paul II.

Second, we who labor in the intellectual apostolate need to keep our intellectual tradition abreast of the best human and natural science of our times, just as St. Thomas Aquinas did in his day.

And third, because we live in a time when our Church is under relentless attack, we need to be equipped to defend her. That does not mean we have to react to every insult no matter how slight. But we do need to learn to have and to show a decent amount of pride in who we are.

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in our Church's intellectual tradition -- a tradition that predates and outshines the impoverished secularism that is stifling thought in many leading universities. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in our Church's record as the world's foremost institutional voice opposing aggressive population control, abortion, euthanasia, and draconian measures against migrants and the poor.

At a time, and in a culture, where Christianity is under assault from many directions, Catholics do a great disservice when they do not contest the myth that the history of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular is a history of patriarchy, worldliness, persecution, or exclusion of people or ideas.


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