Can You Be a Harvard Catholic? A Student Response

Can You Be a Harvard Catholic? A Student Response  by Theresa Shortell 

On September 22nd, New York Times columnist and Harvard graduate Ross Douthat presented a lecture on the benefits and challenges of living as a religious person in an educational context that is at times, decidedly non-religious. Douthat posits that not only it is possible to live out an authentic Catholic identity on campus, but that many of the secular assumptions which make living out this identity seem difficult or impossible are weaker than they appear. L to R: David Mulroney, Ross Douthat, Randy Boyagoda and Fr. Peter Turrone.

Human nature itself, he says, is and always has been religious. The lifestyles of the modern developed world, however, are off course from a whole set of ideas, traditions, and experiences that have, throughout history, enabled people to understand the fullness of human experience. While it is true that modern secular life in the west offers immense advantages such as increased wealth, health, and technology, Douthat argues that to divorce modern life from religion is to divorce it from deep parts of the human experience which have shaped the lives of our ancestors in the most meaningful ways.

If Douthat is correct in suggesting that separating modern life from religion leaves students lacking something vital, then we need to reassess our role as Catholics on campus and beyond. Why? Because by describing the space of students caught deliberating between religious and non-religious life, Douthat has highlighted the exact place where student evangelization comes into play. 

Having intentionally embraced the Catholic faith, I must admit the term “evangelization” used to intimidate me. Images of Bible-thumpers and loud street protests came to mind. If this was the image of the kind of “Harvard Catholic” Douthat was promoting, I’d be seen running in the other direction. The kind of on-campus Catholicism Douthat defends, though, is not this at all, but quite the opposite. Evangelization in its most simple terms means being a witness of the true joy that comes from the knowledge of who Christ is. Douthat suggests that being this kind of witness is entirely possible for Catholics in a non-Catholic educational setting. 

Sharing this joy with others entails extending the hand of love and mercy to those who are caught in deliberation about how they might live. Douthat describes how people in this grey area between religious and non-religious life are essentially faced with two choices: living a life which embraces the Christian religion or rejects it; a life divorced from religion or a life which comes to accept the love that God so freely offers them. Our task as Catholic students, then, is to simply show them what a Christian life looks like: a life where deep anxieties about existence and meaning are put to rest in the secure knowledge of self and of knowledge of existence that comes with knowing God’s love.

Douthat addresses the complaint of some students who note that embracing religion is unfashionable, strange, and doesn’t seem to fit with the patterns of thought and the assumptions most people have today. To this he poses the question: why should you want to necessarily have the same patterns of thought or hold the same assumptions held by most people today, especially in university? If the university experience, he argues, is supposed to encourage intellectual experimentation and a broadening of one’s horizons, than there is no better way of doing so than to get in touch with the beliefs, ideas, and thoughts people have considered extremely important for centuries. 

In summary, Douthat posits that it is true there are difficulties that come with embracing one’s religious faith in university. However, these difficulties are worth facing because in the end, embracing one’s faith provides a grounding in something bigger, deeper, older, and more meaningful than what the majority of the western world deems important. Our task is to show students that they are not wrong to question, to be curious, to search for truth. This religious “questing” as Douthat calls it, is natural and a vital element of what it means to seek a meaningful existence. Let us live out this kind of existence fully, then, so that others may experience what we have come to grasp, and what so many others are earnestly searching for. 

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