It’s About Navigating Life: The Importance of Philosophy & Theology

Here is one of the clearest criteria for choosing or judging a college: you can be almost certain that any college that has dropped philosophy and theology from its core curriculum is not serious about a liberal arts education. And in my experience I find that this is true of many of the colleges in America.

This raises two questions: (1) What are philosophy and theology, and why are they crucial to a young person’s education today? (2) Aren’t they outdated, impractical, abstract, irrelevant, elitist, superfluous and even dangerous to faith and sanity?

Some Definitions

“Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” Wisdom is the knowledge of ultimate causes, explanations and principles. It includes knowledge of values, not just facts. It gives you a “big picture,” a “world-view” and a “life-view.” It explores such questions as these: What is the essence of a human being? What is the meaning (value, goal, purpose) of human life? What is a good life? What is a good society? Are there higher laws than man’s laws? Are we here by chance or design? Are we fated or free? How do we know what is good or evil? How do we know anything? Is anything certain? Can reason prove (or disprove) the existence of God? Why do we suffer? Why do we die? Is there life after death?

Anyone who is simply not interested in these questions is less than fully human, less than fully reasonable. Reasonable persons, even if skeptical about the possibility of answering them, will not dismiss them as unanswerable without looking (that is not reason but prejudice) but will examine the claims of philosophers to have given reasonable answers to these questions before settling into a comfortable, fashionable skepticism.

Theology comes in two forms, philosophical and religious. Philosophical theology (“natural theology”) is a subdivision of philosophy. It uses natural human reason to explore the greatest of all questions, the questions about God. Religious theology (or “revealed theology”) is a rational exploration of the meaning and consequences of faith in a revealed religion—in our case, the “deposit of faith” or “Sacred Tradition” of the Catholic Church which comes from Christ and His apostles, and the scriptures they wrote.

In most Catholic universities today, Sacred Tradition is no longer sacred. It is treated as something to be “dissented” from (“diss” is the first part of “dissent”), as an enemy to enlightenment, progress, maturity and liberation, or at least as an embarrassment to be “tweaked,” “nuanced” or “massaged” rather than as a gift to be gratefully, faithfully and lovingly explored.

Most Catholic universities today have philosophy departments that are excellent spiritually as well as academically, but have deeply compromised theology departments. Their effect on students is much more often to weaken their faith than to strengthen it, not only in controversial moral issues such as abortion, contraception, cloning, euthanasia and sexual morality, but even in fundamental doctrines such as Christ’s divinity and resurrection and the historical truth of the Gospels.

We badly need good philosophy and theology. But why? To answer this question, look at where they are taught. They are taught in colleges and universities. So to find the “why” of philosophy and theology, we must find the “why” of colleges and universities.

The Goal of Education

Considering the trillions of dollars spent on universities by parents, governments and foundations, it is amazing that most of the people who go there (the students) and most of the people who pay for them (the parents and the government) never even ask, much less answer, this question: What is the purpose of the university? It is the most influential institution in Western civilization, and most of us don’t really know exactly why we entrust our children to them.

The commonest answer is probably to train them for a career. A B.A. looks good on your resume to prospective employers. That is not only a crass, materialistic answer, but also an illogical one. Consider what it means. It means that the reason students should study in universities is so that they can get high grade-point averages and thus get better jobs when they graduate.

What does “better jobs” mean? It means first of all, to most of them, better-paying jobs. But why do they need better paying jobs? For the money, of course. Silly question. But why do they need money? That is an even sillier question. Life has expenses. What life? Most of them hope to marry and raise families, and it takes a lot of money to do that. Why does a family need a lot of money? The two most expensive things a family needs money for are a house and a college education for the kids.

Ah, so a student should study to get high grades to get an impressive resume to get a good job, to finance his family when it sends his kids to college to study, to get high grades, et cetera, et cetera.

This is arguing in a circle. It is like a tiger pacing round and round his cage in a zoo. Is there a better answer? There is if you know some philosophy. Let’s look.

Probably the most commonsensical and influential philosopher of all time was Aristotle. Aristotle says that there are three “whys,” three purposes, ends or reasons for anyone ever to study and learn anything, in school or out of it. Thus there are three kinds of “sciences,” which he called “productive,” “practical” and “theoretical.” (Aristotle used “science” in a much broader way than we do, meaning any ordered body of knowledge through causes and reasons.)

The purpose of the “productive sciences” (which we today call technology) is to produce things, to make, improve or repair material things in the world, and thus to improve our world. Farming, surgery, shipbuilding, carpentry, writing and tailoring were examples in Aristotle’s era as well as ours, while ours also includes many new ones like cybernetics, aviation and electrical engineering.

The purpose of the “practical sciences” (which meant learning how to do or practice anything, how to act) is to improve your own behavior in some area of your own life. The two most important of these areas, Aristotle said, were ethics and politics. (Aristotle saw politics not as a pragmatic, bureaucratic business of running a state’s economy, but as social ethics, the science of the good life for a community.) Other examples of “practical sciences” include economics, athletics, rhetoric and military science.

The third kind of sciences is the “theoretical” or “speculative” (contemplative), i.e., those that seek the truth for its own sake, that seek to know just for the sake of knowing rather than for the sake of action or production (though, of course, they will have important practical application). These sciences include theology, philosophy, physics, astronomy, biology, psychology and math.

Theoretical sciences are more important than practical sciences for the very same reason practical sciences are more important than productive sciences: because their end and goal is more intimate to us. Productive sciences perfect some external thing in the material world that we use; practical sciences perfect our own action, our own lives; and theoretical sciences perfect our very selves, our souls, our minds. They make us bigger persons.

And that is the reason for going to college in the first place: not to make money, or things, or even to live better, but to be better, to be more, to grow your mind as you grow your body.

The Big Picture

What we have been doing for the last several paragraphs is philosophy. We need philosophy because we need to explore such reasons, reasons for studying, reasons for universities’ existence, even (especially) reasons for your own existence. For one of the primary questions all great philosophers ask is: What is the meaning of life, the reason for being, the point and purpose and end of human existence in this world?  If you don’t know that, you don’t know anything because you don’t know the point of everything. If you don’t know that, you may get all A’s in all your subjects, but you flunk Life.

The answer to that question for any intelligent, honest and serious Christian, Jew or Muslim is God. Supreme wisdom is about knowing God. And philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. So philosophy is ultimately the pursuit of God, using the tools of natural human reason and theology by faith in supernatural divine revelation.

The “wisdom” philosophy pursues is not a factual knowledge like physics or history; but a knowledge, and understanding, and appreciation, of values, of what ought to be rather than merely what is. For instance, we need to know whether career (work) or family is more important, because most of us will invest enormous emotional and physical energy in both, and they will always compete and conflict to some extent.

We want to know the meaning of falling in love and romance and sex. What is its meaning, its purpose? For two generations now we have been asking every conceivable question (and many inconceivable questions, too), but not this one, not the very first and most basic one.

You see? Philosophy and theology raise the mind’s eyes to The Big Picture. If we can’t see that, we miss the forest and see only the trees; we count the syllables in the book of life but don’t know what kind of a story we are in.

Good Philosophy, Good Theology

One philosopher tells this story. (I paraphrase.) I was raised in a New York City slum. There were no books in my house. No one in my high school cared about education. I found an escape in the great 42nd Street library, where I devoured books indiscriminately. One day, I happened to read the famous “allegory of the cave” from Plato’s Republic. It changed my life. I found my identity. My life was that cave, and philosophy was the way out into another, bigger world. My mind was born that day. For the rest of my life I have explored the world outside the cave, the world of ideas, and taught others to do so. The biggest thrill in my life is finding among my students someone like me whom I can show that there is a way out of the cave, and that there is a bigger world outside.

That is why we all need to study philosophy (and, even more obviously, theology): because it is the discovery of another world, another kind of world, another kind of reality than the material world: the discovery that ideas are real, and that (in the words of a great book title) “ideas have consequences.”

The only alternative to good philosophy is bad philosophy. “I hate philosophy” is bad philosophy, but it is a philosophy: egotism. “Philosophy isn’t practical” is a philosophy: pragmatism. “Philosophy doesn’t turn me on” is a philosophy: hedonism.

Everyone has a philosophy, just as everyone has an emotional temperament and a moral character. Your only choice is between “knowing yourself” and thinking about your philosophy, or hiding from it and from yourself. But what you do not think about will still be there, and will still motivate you, and have consequences, and those consequences will affect all the people in your life up to the day of your death and far beyond it.

Your philosophy can quite likely and quite literally make the difference between heaven and hell. Saint Francis of Assisi and Adolf Hitler were not professional philosophers, but both had philosophies, and lived them, and went to heaven or hell according to their philosophies. That is how much of a difference thought can make: “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Buddha said, “All that we are is determined by our thoughts: it begins where our thoughts begin, it moves where our thoughts move, and it rests where our thoughts rest.”

Philosophy can lead you to God, and theology can lead you further into God (or away from Him). And God is the source of all truth, all goodness and all beauty; that is, of everything we value. (If that is not true, then God is not God.) All truth is God’s truth; when an atheist discovers some scientific truth, he is reading the mind of God, the Logos. All goodness is God’s goodness; when an agnostic secularist loves his neighbor, he is responding to divine grace. All beauty is God’s beauty; when a dissipated, confused and immoral artist creates a thing of beauty, he is using the image of God in his soul, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, however anonymously, and participating in God’s creative power.

Philosophy is a necessity if you want to understand our world. Bad philosophy is the source of most of the great errors in our world today. Errors in philosophy are devastating because they affect everything, as an error of an inch in surveying the angle of a property line will become an error of ten yards a mile down the line.

Most of the controversies in our world today can be understood and solved only by good philosophy and theology; for instance, the relation between world religions, especially Islam and Christianity; human life issues such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning; the justice of wars; the meaning of human sexuality and of the “sexual revolution”; the relation between mind and brain, and between human intelligence and “artificial intelligence”; the relation between creation and evolution; how far we are free and responsible and how far we are determined by biological heredity and social environment; the relation between morality and religion, and between religion and politics; and whether morality is socially relative or universal, unchanging and absolute.

Revealed theology claims to have the answers, or at least the principles that should govern the answers, to many of these questions. So theology is even more important than philosophy, if answers are more important than questions. And of course they are, for the whole point of asking a question, if you are honest, is the hope of finding an answer. It is nonsense to believe that “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive,” and good philosophy refutes that self-contradiction. If it’s not better to arrive at your goal of truth than to strain after it, then truth is not really your goal at all, and the straining after it is a sham.

That is not, of course, to say that it is easy to arrive at the goal of truth, or that all we need is a set of answers we believe on the Church’s authority but do not understand. The truly respectful attitude toward the authority of the Church—which is an extension of the authority of Christ—is to let revealed truth permeate our minds and our lives like light, not simply to preserve that light by hiding it under a bushel basket. All “ideas have consequences,” especially divinely revealed ideas; and it is our job to lovingly draw out those consequences, like philosophers, and not to fear them, like heresy hunters, or to claim them as our own in a spirit of superiority to our divine teacher, like heretics.

Answering Objections

But there are objections to philosophy and theology out there. If this were not so, the teaching of these subjects would not have declined so precipitously. Let us briefly consider and answer some of them.

What can you do with philosophy and theology anyway? We have already answered that question by noting that it is the wrong question. The right question is what they can do with you.

But they’re so abstract! Yes, and that is their glory. To be incapable of abstraction is to be less than human, or a less than fully developed human. Animals and small children, for instance, are incapable of abstraction. They do not talk about Fate and Freedom, or Good and Evil, or Divinity and Humanity, or Life and Death (all abstractions). They talk only about hamburgers and French fries, boo boos and bandages, malls and cartoons. These things are not “the real world.” They are the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. Philosophy and theology are not fantasy. They are the escape from fantasy.

But philosophy is a dinosaur—it isn’t up to date, modern, popular, etc. No. Neither is wisdom, virtue, happiness, piety, fidelity, courage, peace or contentment.

What does philosophy have to do with real life? Everything. It is more important to know the philosophy of a prospective employee or employer, landlord or renter, friend or enemy, husband or wife, than their income, social class or politics.

Philosophy is elitist. It speaks of “Great Books” and “Great Ideas” and “Great Minds.” Yes, it does. At least good philosophy does. If you prefer crummy books, stupid ideas and tiny minds, you should not waste your money on college. If you believe that all ideas are equal, rather than all persons, you are confused and need a philosophy course. (Is the idea that all ideas are equal equal to the idea that they are not?)

“Philosophy bakes no bread.” It does not make you rich.  It is contemplative, like monasticism.  True. But why do we make money and bread? Is money our means (of exchange) to our end? Money is for bread, and bread is for man, and man is for truth. The ultimate end of human life is contemplative: knowing and appreciating the truth. We will not be baking bread or making money in Heaven, but we will be philosophizing.

Religion makes philosophy superfluous. If you have faith, you don’t need reason.  Yes, you do: you need reason to understand your faith. And you need reason to know whether your faith is the true faith. There are many fakes. And how do you know that unless you think about it? And if you don’t want to think about your faith, then either you aren’t really very interested in it, or you are afraid it is so weak that it will not endure the light. In that case you need a faith-lift.

But philosophy can be a danger to faith. Many have lost their faith through philosophy. Yes, and many have gained it, too. Of course, philosophy is dangerous. So is love, and trust, technology and money. Bad things are always misuses of good things. Wherever great harm is done, great help could have been done.

Final Things

This is especially true in theology. I know a chaplain who was ministering at the bedside of an old, dying man who had “lost his faith” and left the Church decades ago. The chaplain asked him what he believed about life after death, and the man replied that he had no idea where he was going and he didn’t think anyone else did either, because no one had any idea where they came from in the first place or why they are here.

The chaplain disagreed. He said, “You know the answers to those questions. You learned them as a little boy. You forgot them. But you can remember them now. It’s not too late. You learned the Baltimore Catechism, didn’t you? Yes, you did. Do you remember how it begins?”

The man wrinkled his brow, retrieving an old memory. “Yeah. It went like this: ‘Who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” The man paused, lifted his eyes, and said, “You’re right. That’s true!” And a smile appeared on his face. And then he died.

You need philosophy and theology now because you will need it on your deathbed later.


piggy bank

Big Money, Hard Choices

I’m not an education expert.  My expertise is in financial counseling, following an accounting career that put me at a Fortune 300 company overseeing the finances of a $250 million division.

Although the primary concerns of every Catholic family with college-bound men and women should be their exposure to truth and their continuing formation in the likeness of Christ, there are obvious financial considerations with every college decision.  These include career planning, paying tuition and related expenses, and choosing colleges that reasonably match your ability to pay.

My advice below is accumulated from years of advising Catholic families through my nonprofit service, Veritas Financial Ministries (, and adapted from several of my articles and books published by Our Sunday Visitor including Seven Steps to Becoming Financially Free: A Catholic Guide to Managing Your Money.  

Planning for a Career Yes, But Also for Life

Today most Americans view a college education as a ticket to a particular profession or at least a higher-paying job.  Period.

There’s no disputing the fact that what one chooses to study in college can have a significant impact on future career decisions, especially in the decade or so immediately following graduation.  This is an important consideration, especially given the rising costs of tuition and other expenses and competition for jobs.

Nevertheless, anyone interested in choosing a Catholic college or university clearly is thinking beyond career choices.  There are many important benefits—ultimately more important than career—to attending a faithfully Catholic college or university.  They include an education that helps students better understand their faith, the world and the roots of our society; a healthy campus environment that allows students to mature spiritually and socially in the image of Christ; and access to mentors who can help students discern their vocations to the priesthood or religious life, family life or the single state.  The college years frequently lead to the choice of a spouse; I can’t overstate the importance of selecting a college environment that draws other students who love and practice their Catholic faith.

So it is a mistake to view a Catholic college education as nothing more than preparation for a lucrative job, but to be realistic, it is also impossible for most students to separate college decisions from the implications for future employment and wellbeing.  As long as it is put in the proper context, a college or university’s impact on a student’s future employment and income deserves serious consideration.

It’s wise for a family to discuss and plan ahead for a graduate’s financial welfare, especially if the student seems likely to get married.  The fact that most young men and women develop and sometimes radically change their career interests while attending college does not mean that families shouldn’t plan for a student’s likely path after graduation—allowing sufficient flexibility in the plan for changing career goals and increasing awareness of God’s calling.

This gets to the question, “What am I going to do with the education I receive?”  The possibilities are many, including teaching, ministry, nursing, accounting, law, business, engineering, medicine, computer science and so on. With each of these, you have at least a reasonable sense of the earnings capacity associated with the degree, and you can plan your financial commitments accordingly.

Having some idea about a young adult’s particular career calling can help avoid costly mistakes in choosing the wrong college.  At the most basic level, it’s important to remember that a college education may not be the right choice at all.  Not everyone is of the “bent” to complete a four-year (or more) academic program.  Much time and money can be wasted trying to force a square peg into a round hole!  We all have different gifts and abilities, and some of us would do better to learn a trade or craft through an apprenticeship or vocational trade school.

For those who attend college, it’s important to remember that the dizzying pace of change in technology that has led to a global marketplace requires that workers in most fields be well-equipped to play their part in that economy.  That could mean obtaining an education beyond a core “Catholic liberal arts” formation—that is, one that’s focused on particular vocational training, such as medicine, law, business, nursing, teaching and so on. I’m a strong advocate of coupling a solid Catholic liberal arts program of study with the best vocational education the young adult can obtain, whether as an undergraduate student or in subsequent graduate studies and career training.

I do recommend the liberal arts, though, as the core of a college education.  The early college years, when students are typically between 18 and 22 years old, continue to be a time of searching about who they are and how they fit into this great big world.  This is a time for them to consider the more important questions about life, to solidify what they believe and why, and to do so in an environment that will foster a closer relationship with the Lord.  A solid Catholic liberal arts education helps the young adult find answers to these important life questions.  It also helps the young person place their vocation in the context of this bigger picture.

This is often accomplished at the best Catholic colleges and universities by immersing the student in theology, philosophy and the classics of Western civilization—at least for the general education component of their college experience.  Some students choose to make such a liberal arts program the focus of their four-year program.  This is a beautiful education, yet one that is hard to pin down from an “economic value” standpoint.  It can be an excellent spring board to graduate programs in law, theology or a number of other disciplines.

Paying for College

When it comes to a genuine Catholic education for our children, finances play a key role in two ways.  First, as parents, we have responsibility for providing the resources which allow our children to obtain a solid Catholic education, or helping students find ways to pay for college when we cannot.  Second, we are called to be a living example when it comes to applying Godly principles in the area of money management.

You need to decide for yourself whether and when it makes sense to go into debt, and how much debt is reasonable.  I strongly believe in minimizing one’s debt, but it can make sense to use debt prudently when you’re purchasing an appreciating asset.  Most often, this relates to the purchase of a home and possibly investment real estate, but it also holds true for obtaining a higher education. Many studies have shown that a college degree adds to one’s earning potential over the years—although this is only true in the aggregate, and there are many particular instances where a college degree does not significantly increase earning potential for an individual. So taking on some debt to obtain a college degree can make sense in some circumstances if done prudently.

But doing so also comes with risks.  In my counseling, one of the traps I see families falling into is the use of credit to pay bills without the resources to pay the balance off at the end of the month.  This results in ever-growing levels of debt with very high interest charges and takes precious resources away from your children.  Your financial blunders may very well force you to narrow the choices you make regarding the education of your children, and they may not necessarily be the choices you want to make.

I am concerned that today’s parents and students are too easily accepting more debt than they should as part of the financing package, especially when it comes to a degree that, on its own, doesn’t point to an adequate income to pay the debts off in a reasonable time frame.  Handling $50,000 in student loans is very different for an attorney than it is for a teacher at a Catholic school.  While there are certainly no guarantees that the lawyer’s career path will work out, one can make reasonable assumptions.  It is pretty clear that a teacher at a Catholic school will have a limited income, and heavy debts will be an incredible burden.

When the income is expected to be limited, I would look for a plan that can repay the debt in a period of three to five years after graduation.  That may mean some pretty radical lifestyle decisions immediately after college to keep expenses incredibly low so that the debts can be repaid quickly.  My sense is that student debt in the range of $15,000 is reasonable in such a situation.  With an educational plan where a higher income can at least be anticipated, additional debt is highly likely and is probably reasonable.

Debt is not the only option for paying for college expenses.  The federal government has enacted various legislation designed to ease the financial burden of higher education, including the Hope Scholarship Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit, Educational IRAs and 529 Savings Plans.  Several states have additional savings and financing plans worth looking at.

And don’t forget the possibility of scholarships and grants.  Depending on your child’s scholastic abilities and extracurricular activities, as well as your financial situation, these may provide a substantial portion of the overall college cost.  The Knights of Columbus offers a generous scholarship program for members’ children attending Catholic colleges and universities.  Ask your prospective college about special grant opportunities—often they are not well-promoted—and check around in your local community and with your employer.  Often students must apply for scholarships well in advance of the academic year.

The College Board’s website,, can be a very helpful tool for better understanding how you can pay for a college education.

Your son or daughter can help too.  I’m a big believer in the student playing a substantive role in paying for their education.  They may have a greater appreciation for their education if they pay for a portion of it. That means work-study programs when possible, summer work, keeping living expenses low during the college years and having a plan immediately after the college years to aggressively tackle the debt incurred.  You’ll want to ensure that work doesn’t become an end in itself, causing the student’s grades to suffer with negative consequences for the future.

I remember the story of one young man who had a strong desire for an authentically Catholic liberal arts education.  He worked as a shepherd for three years beforehand to obtain the funding he needed.  He saw the value of the education and was willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

One final note.  Students may have the best of intentions to work hard when they finish school to pay their debts down.  But it’s a common occurrence during the college years that young men and women meet, grow in love, and marry shortly after they graduate.  This is a beautiful thing, but it may throw a wrench into plans to pay off debt.  While they both may have planned on working for a number of years, an early pregnancy may change all of those plans.  Make sure that you take this possibility into account as you consider education and funding alternatives.

Choosing a College Wisely

One of the calls I received on a radio program came from a woman whose daughter had been admitted to one of the top music schools in the country.  Unfortunately, the school wasn’t going to offer any scholarship money, and the total cost of the education was expected to be nearly $200,000.

The family had no savings that could be allocated for this purpose, so the woman wanted to know what I thought about borrowing the money so her daughter could attend the school.

My advice?  I let her know that it was great that her daughter had the talent to be admitted to a top school, but given the family’s financial situation and the fact that the school wasn’t offering any scholarship money, I didn’t see how it was practical for either the parents or the daughter to end up with that level of debt.  I suggested approaching a second-tier school where she might receive a substantial scholarship.

The listener wasn’t pleased.  She asked how I could limit her daughter’s possibilities.

As a parent, I want certain outcomes from higher education for my children.  I want a Catholic college or university to help my son or daughter develop into a Godly young adult with a deep love for Our Lord and the Catholic Church, and to be prepared to contribute to society as a responsible adult using his or her talents in an appropriate way.  I can do that within my financial means, even if it requires giving up some of the prestige and trappings of expensive private universities, or perhaps delaying college to avoid costly debt.

If you are committed to a Catholic education but simply don’t have the resources, consider enrolling for the first two years to get a solid Catholic, liberal arts foundation and a healthy campus environment, then transfer to a state university to finish a major.  Or consider a community college for the first two years, during which the student can continue to live at home and save money.  Both options are not ideal, but they can be ways to dramatically reduce the overall cost of college.

It’s not easy for any parent to limit a son’s or daughter’s options, but fortunately there is a great variety of Catholic institutions available to Catholic families, including those that are profiled in this guide because of their outstanding Catholic identity.

And I have great news: many of the colleges and universities that are recommended in The Newman Guide are less expensive than comparable institutions, and Catholic educators are typically committed to helping families with generous financial aid packages.

If you can find what you need in one of these institutions, and you have planned carefully how to pay for it, then you will have invested wisely in the final preparation of a young man or woman to know, love and serve God.

Phil Lenahan, treasurer at Catholic Answers and president of Veritas Financial Ministries, has counseled many families on financial issues. His extensive background in accounting included overseeing the finances of a $250 million division of a Fortune 300 company. He is the author of Seven Steps to Becoming Financially Free: A Catholic Guide to Managing Your Money which is available through Our Sunday Visitor.

Why Choose a Catholic College?

Archbishop Lori

Most Rev. William E. Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore

Some days are unforgettable, like your first day as a college freshman is likely to be.

One of my unforgettable days occurred in the spring of 2008 when I gathered with many of my fellow bishops and Catholic educators to welcome our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, to Washington, D.C.  He inspired us with the Church’s vision of a Catholic school or college as, first and foremost, a place to “encounter” God.

Now, that may not be what you had in mind for college.  Most students go to college eager to learn—especially to prepare for a career—and to make some good friends along the way.  Surely these are good things, but a Catholic education offers that and so much more.  A Catholic education is not only preparation for a career, but preparation for the rest of your life.

And that is why your choice of a college is so important!

Think for a moment about what you really want out of life, and how the next four years might help you get there.  We all desire to truly know who we are, why we are, where we came from, and where we are going. We yearn for what is true, beautiful, and good—something better than what our culture offers us today.

Whereas many American colleges have abandoned a strong core curriculum, a good Catholic education will help you consider the big questions of life by providing a foundation in Western thought and the Catholic intellectual tradition.  Then—in a faithful, high-quality Catholic college—you will consider the ethical implications of our Faith and the intersection of faith and reason in all of your courses, whether in the liberal arts or business or the sciences.

This is important because you cannot be a truly excellent and virtuous businessman, scientist, lawyer, or other professional without an awareness of how your work contributes to society and serves God.

A good Catholic college will take you beyond the limits of a typical college education and prepare you to experience life in a meaningful way.  During your four years in college, you are likely to discern not only a career but a vocation—married, single, religious life, priesthood—and may meet and fall in love with your future husband or wife.  You will most likely be living on campus in common with dozens or hundreds of your peers, and you will be developing habits for the rest of your life.  A good Catholic college will help you improve yourself physically, mentally, and socially in activities outside the classroom. It will help you strengthen your prayer life and to become a truly virtuous young man or woman.

For Catholics, life is certainly about career, but also so much more: marriage and family, serving the Church and our communities, and ultimately Heaven.  Together these are the most important things in life, and so ought to be seriously considered when choosing a college.

First, consider the dangers of a typical college education.  A lot of colleges are known for providing a good education.  But what is “good”?  If large numbers of students lose their faith in college—as the data tells us they do—then are students really getting a “good” education?  And at what cost?  One need only consider the high rates of substance abuse, abortions and social diseases, depression, and other maladies associated with college life to realize that certain situations may not be “good” for you at all.  Caution is also necessary in the classroom; what may seem to be “neutral” is often opposed to a Catholic worldview, and there may be significant biases in today’s studies of history, philosophy, medicine, psychology, and so on.

Unfortunately at too many colleges today, the typical campus culture does not help students grow, rather it arrests their growth and may set them on a path that they otherwise would not want to choose for themselves.  So it is important that you carefully consider the campus culture, the types of activities offered, and with what sort of fellow travelers you would be preparing for the rest of your life.

Now consider the possibilities of a faithful, Catholic education: studying the great works of mankind and coming to a fuller understanding of God, creation, philosophy, history, and science.  Knowing not only the facts but the reasons.  Learning not only skills but how to think clearly and rationally in any situation.  Having a great time, yes, but also cultivating virtue so that you become the man or woman you and your parents hope you will be.  Instead of enduring four years of the temptations of modern campus life, enjoying four years of a genuine Christian culture that cultivates love, respect, and fidelity.

What a wonderful opportunity you would have for four years!  Access to the Sacraments, spiritual direction, Bible studies, courses in authentic Catholic theology, community prayer, and much more is available to you at a strong Catholic college.

I pray that you choose this type of wonderful education for yourself, because I truly believe that it will benefit you personally—but also because our Church and our nation need well-formed and educated Catholics.  Our culture so greatly needs the contributions of intelligent, faithful Catholics in all walks of life.  As a college graduate, you will have opportunities to influence others in your family, of course, but also in your workplace, your community, and your parish.  And we need faithful, well-educated Catholics to serve in public office, to become your generation’s leaders on issues of religious freedom, moral concerns, and care for the poor.

As a bishop, I am so grateful for the work of Catholic educators and for what they provide young men and women like you.  We need dedicated lay men and women, living unified lives of faith, hope, and love, to sanctify the world through their work and their families. We need prayerful, zealous, and intelligent men and women to answer Christ’s call to the consecrated life.  We need a new generation of priests and missionaries to boldly and faithfully carry out the challenge of the New Evangelization.

For these reasons and more, it is so encouraging to me and my brother bishops that you have an opportunity to choose a college that provides an excellent academic education and that is deeply rooted in and faithful to the Catholic tradition.  This publication will help provide you the tools you need to make such a choice.

Most importantly, I pray that your college education helps you become the saint you are called to be.  To be a saint means to become, in the words of Catholic evangelist Mathew Kelly, “the best version of yourself.”  It will mean succeeding at every level while learning “to be in the world and not of the world.”  It will mean passing this on to others (evangelizing).  Thus, you will need the tools and opportunities necessary to allow you, by the grace of God, to think and act like Christ.

Read on and then discuss your college options with others who care for your future—including, I hope, your parish priest or other spiritual advisor.  Pray for guidance; and with your parents, I trust that you will come to a decision which will enhance your education and bring you closer to Christ, our Hope.

May God bless your college experience and the exciting life that lies before you!  This I pray in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Patrick Reilly’s Speech to the Catholic Citizens of Illinois

Address to the Catholic Citizens of Illinois

Patrick J. Reilly

President, The Cardinal Newman Society

Given May 9, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois

Thank you, Mary Anne, members of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, and good friends of The Cardinal Newman Society.

I am thrilled to be back in Chicago and to be with all of you, especially in what is shaping up to be an extraordinary year for American Catholics and for Catholic educators.

We started the year anticipating Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States, and the exciting news that he had summoned every Catholic college president in the U.S. to a meeting at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The Holy Father did not disappoint. Three weeks ago on April 17, Pope Benedict delivered a challenge to the college presidents and to diocesan educators that I am certain will have a significant impact on Catholic education in this country.

The Masses, the Holy Father’s address to seminarians and young people, the meeting with the bishops, the United Nations address, the visit to Ground Zero – all of these, I am sure, were opportunities for grace and important steps toward the evangelization of the West that Pope Benedict so eagerly seeks.

But, in terms of long-term impact on the Church in the United States, I submit to you that the Holy Father accomplished two important things:

First, he brought us a long way toward what resolution is possible regarding sexual abuse by some of our Catholic priests. He set an example of genuine compassion for the victims that will, I hope, characterize the American bishops’ response as we go forward.

Second, he restored the renewal of Catholic education to the top of the agenda for the Church in America, where it was briefly prior to the sex abuse scandals.

But more on this in a moment.

There is another reason this year is so exciting for the Church and for Catholic education – and that is the likelihood that the great English convert and author of The Idea of a University, John Henry Cardinal Newman, will be beatified before the year ends.

It is Newman’s thought that underlies much of Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990, which lays out minimal standards for Catholic colleges.

It is also Newman’s thought which nicely coincides with the vision for Catholic education presented by our new professor-pope, Benedict XVI, in his address on April 17.

The Holy Father makes the argument that today there is a great “crisis of truth,” and it is rooted in a “crisis of faith.” As the West continues to secularize, faith is increasingly viewed as contrary to reason and truth. But Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Faith in Christ, Pope Benedict reminds us, is the only sure way to essential truths about God and His creation which cannot be attained only by observation, no matter how rigorous the method and the reasoning.

Even before April, Pope Benedict over the past year has repeatedly referred to an “educational emergency” in the West,lamenting the loss of hope among many young people because they do not know the truth about God and man as His creation.

This is more than the theme of one or more papal addresses. It appears to be the central theme of this papacy, and of Pope Benedict’s priesthood.

When Joseph Ratzinger was named Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, he chose as his episcopal motto “Cooperators of the Truth”. He explained: “On the one hand I saw it as the relation between my previous task as professor and my new mission. In spite of different approaches, what was involved, and continued to be so, was following the truth and being at its service. On the other hand I chose that motto because in today’s world the theme of truth is omitted almost entirely, as something too great for man, and yet everything collapses if truth is missing.”

Compare that to Cardinal Newman’s dispute with what he called “physical philosophers” in 19th-century England. These secularists trusted only those truths that are discovered by observation and the scientific method, and they rejected truths that are revealed by God, and therefore the understanding of those truths that human reasoning yields through the practice of theology. They scoffed at Newman’s argument that theology is central to any legitimate university’s search for truth in all areas of knowledge.

Newman writes in The Idea of a University:

“[N]o wonder, then, that [these “physical philosophers”] should be irritated and indignant to find that a subject-matter remains still, in which their favorite instrument [observation and inductive reasoning] has no office; no wonder that they rise up against this memorial of an antiquated system, as an eyesore and an insult; and no wonder that the very force and dazzling success of their own method in its own departments [of science] should sway or bias unduly the religious sentiments of any persons who come under its influence. They assert that no new truth can be gained by deduction; Catholics assent, but add, that, as regards religious truth, they have not to seek at all, for they have it already.” (Newman,The Idea of a University, p. 223-224)

In Newman’s time 150 years ago, as Pope Benedict observes in our own day, the “crisis of truth” was rooted in a “crisis of faith.” Newman writes:

“The Rationalist makes himself his own center, not his Maker; he does not go to God, but he implies that God must come to him. And this, it is to be feared, is the spirit in which multitudes of us act at the present day. Instead of looking out of ourselves, and trying to catch glimpses of God’s workings, from any quarter—throwing ourselves forward upon Him and waiting on Him, we sit at home bringing everything to ourselves, enthroning ourselves in our own views, and refusing to believe anything that does not force itself upon us as true.” (Newman, Essays Critical and Historical, Vol. 1, p. 33-34)

Doesn’t this remind us of contemporary academia? As teaching and knowledge become increasingly fragmented… as genuine academic discourse on our college campuses gives way to advocacy and power politics and the tyranny of political correctness… as both students and professors feed on opinions and advocacy rather than exploring truth in an objective manner… the intelligentsia of America increasingly is, as Newman describes it, enthroned in their own views and refusing to believe anything that does not force itself upon them as true.

It is a “crisis of truth” rooted in a “crisis of faith.” And by confronting this fundamental problem in Western academia, Pope Benedict on April 17 moved one step beyond the Church’s minimal expectations—which are still very much disputed in the United States—and toward an agenda for the complete renewal of Catholic education.

I have heard very good people express disappointment in the Holy Father’s April 17 address. They hoped for a scolding of the presidents of wayward Catholic colleges—a scolding that all of us here know is well-deserved, but which is not the style of Pope Benedict XVI. The complaints also note that not once, in Pope Benedict’s entire address, does he mention Ex corde Ecclesiae, although he certainly echoes and endorses its key themes.

I wondered at this myself, but upon reflection I see the genius in it. After weeks of media speculation that Pope Benedict might “bring down the hammer” on the college presidents, many of them arrived at The Catholic University of America braced for it, and probably ready to once again dispute the mandatum or the appropriate number of Catholic faculty or the virtues of dissent in Catholic theology courses.

For the Vatican, though, Ex corde Ecclesiae was the final word on those issues. It is still very much the law of the Church and ought to be implemented. But rather than engage impetuous American educators on minimal standards 18 years after Ex corde Ecclesiae was issued, Pope Benedict struck at the heart of secularization, and his words must have pierced the hearts of many of the college presidents whose own personal crises of truth and faith are too often reflected in their policies and public statements.

The “crisis of truth” is rooted in a “crisis of faith”—from this key insight, Pope Benedict develops a vision for Catholic education that I can only summarize briefly today. I encourage all of you to read the complete address, which is posted at the Cardinal Newman Society’s website at If you prefer, you can write or call and we’ll be happy to send a hard copy.

To put it simply, Pope Benedict argues that it is the special privilege and obligation of Catholic education to unite faith and reason, and to teach both observed truth and that which is revealed by God. But faith is not just understood, it is lived. Therefore the Holy Father insists that in addition to orthodoxy—and not instead of it, as some college presidents have tried to distort the Pope’s meaning—Catholic identity of schools and colleges “demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom.”

Catholic academic institutions, therefore, are not focused only on the intellect, but bear responsibility for the spiritual development of their students, even and perhaps especially at the college level.

Again, Pope Benedict says:

“A particular responsibility therefore for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief. It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith which is given to us in the Church.”

Faith, then, is both at the root of Catholic education and its product. A Catholic education that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason opens the student’s mind and heart to God. It invites an entirely different way of observing reality, full of hope in the promises of Christ.

Contrast this to the typical approach of many Catholic colleges today. They assert Catholic identity because they have historical ties to religious orders, they offer Catholic-oriented courses not often available elsewhere, they have a dedicated Catholic campus ministry, perhaps some Catholic artwork.

But what Pope Benedict requires is so much more: An intellectual journey into the life of faith. He says that “first and foremost” educators should provide students “a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”

So how does this get translated into practical change for Catholic colleges by leaders who share the Holy Father’s vision and courage? A few thoughts:

Moral relativism: Pope Benedict perceives that the “crisis of truth” is rooted in a “crisis of faith.” The solution to moral relativism in Catholic colleges begins with the conviction of faith, most importantly among Catholic theology professors.

For many colleges and universities, this calls for replacing many officials, faculty and staff with others who share Pope Benedict’s vision—starting from the top, and replacing tenured professors over the long term. It requires trustees who will support “hiring for mission” even when challenged by disgruntled professors and interfering secularists like the American Association of University Professors.

Publicly disclosing which faculty members have the mandatum—a formal recognition from the local bishop that a theologian intends to teach authentic Catholic doctrine—would help students choose genuine Catholic theology courses.

Disintegrated curriculum: Restoring rigorous core requirements that were once the hallmark of Catholic higher education would teach what Pope Benedict calls the “unity of truth.” In particular, Pope Benedict says that Catholic colleges “have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice”—which to my reading calls for Catholic theology courses for every student. The best Catholic colleges graduate students with an understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition including theology, ethics and philosophy—and a healthy dose of the liberal arts.

Intellectual anarchy: Perhaps most important to the reform of American colleges, Pope Benedict calls on educators to reject limitless academic freedom—now sacrosanct within most of American academia—explaining that “any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

This means insisting that professors limit their teaching and public advocacy to areas of their own expertise, without wading in to moral issues that are properly reserved to the theological disciplines. It also means that academic freedom does not justify a Catholic college or university endorsing or simply providing resources and facilities to advance views contrary to Catholic teaching—with clear implications for The Vagina Monologues and political rallies for pro-abortion politicians on Catholic campuses.

Moral decline on campus: Pope Benedict calls for fidelity to Catholic teaching “both inside and outside the classroom.” He also laments the common approach to sexuality that emphasizes “management of ‘risk,’ bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.” Catholic college officials can build a Christian campus culture by reclaiming responsibility for helping students’ spiritual and personal development and consistently encouraging chastity.

I have gone too long, and yet I have only begun to consider the implications of this important vision which Pope Benedict has presented to our Catholic college presidents and diocesan officials, with an implicit challenge to restore a commitment to faith and truth in Catholic education. As you read the full address, which I hope you will do, I welcome your correspondence and your own insights.

The renewal of Catholic education is an enormous challenge, but we can hope in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the many signs of renewal that is already underway. For me, Pope Benedict’s address at The Catholic University of America was akin to raising Moses’ staff on the mountain while the battle rages below. We have a real struggle before us, but with the assurance of our Holy Father’s leadership and God’s grace.

And more than ever, we should pray for Cardinal Newman’s intercession. I will end with a final quote from Newman relevant to the project that Newman began 150 years ago and continues today:

“…[T]his is our hour, whatever be its duration, the hour for great hopes, great schemes, great efforts, great beginnings… to recommence the age of Universities.”