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Question 157: May students use former students’ notes and say in tests what they believe false?

Having begun graduate work in religious studies at a Catholic university, I have a couple of moral problems.

One of my courses is an excellent seminar on the Church’s social teaching. Every week we read one of the main magisterial documents, and each student writes a short paper answering one of a set of assigned questions on the reading. During the session, each of us summarizes his or her paper and everyone discusses it; then the professor calls attention to important points we have overlooked and sketches out more adequate answers to the whole set of questions.

The problem is that this seminar is offered annually, and the assigned questions do not vary greatly from year to year. Several students who did well in previous years made their notes available. The professor probably knows about it, and he did not tell us not to use them. Up to now, I haven’t, feeling that would be cheating. But students who use the notes in preparing their papers seem more knowledgeable, and I am naturally concerned how their competition will affect my grade. May I use the notes?

Another course is a survey of contemporary Catholic theology. The professor is a good lecturer, but she maintains that there are many inconsistencies in the Church’s teachings. She supports dissenting views, ridicules theologians who are not in the “mainstream,” and claims that “development of dogma” is a dishonest way of camouflaging the abandonment of outdated dogmas. Class discussion is minimal. The grade will be based on a final exam and a term paper summarizing some aspect of the thought of a contemporary theologian of one’s choice and evaluating criticisms of that aspect of the theologian’s work.

Older students tell me anybody whose final or term paper reveals any disagreement with this professor’s views will get a C (for practical purposes a failing grade). I never have written anything in a test or term paper that I did not believe to be true. But since I deeply disagree with this professor on many things, I do not see how I can satisfy her without lying and virtually denying my faith.

Both questions are troubling me, but especially the second one.


This question calls for application of norms regarding the work of students, cheating, lying, and bearing witness. If using previous students’ notes has not been forbidden, students who use them do not cheat. However, a sound commitment to the goods served by study requires that students use any such aid as a supplementary means of learning rather than as a substitute for doing the assigned work as well as possible. Unless students writing examinations are asked to assert their personal beliefs, they tell no lies in answering questions in ways they consider likely to meet examiners’ standards. Similarly, a term paper or dissertation almost always can be written in a way that will manifest the writer’s competence while concealing his or her beliefs. However, if a professor directly challenges a student’s convictions, the student should bear courageous witness.

The reply could be along the following lines:

First, let me offer you some general advice to help you deal with these and other problems you will encounter as you carry on your graduate work. Since religious studies should not be separated from a devout life, you should pray and receive the sacraments regularly, and you would do well to try to find a faithful and wise priest to be your spiritual director and confessor. In your personal life and relationships, maintain your moral standards and avoid self-indulgence. Be friendly with all your fellow students, but cultivate close friendships among those who are faithful. A friend who is faithful and has succeeded in the program for a year or more will be your best source of advice. One of the older students who has warned you of possible trouble might turn out to be a good mentor. But be careful, since some students exaggerate problems to rationalize their own deficiencies, and most professors, I believe, grade by standards that are independent of whether students agree with them.

Sometimes the practice of using previous students’ notes is entirely open and even encouraged, and occasionally a professor’s syllabus or a graduate program’s specific norms clarify students’ responsibilities in this matter. So, if there is no relevant norm and the professor has said nothing about it, students reasonably assume that what is not forbidden in this regard is permitted. Therefore, provided you have not overlooked a prohibition, using the notes, as others do, would not be cheating.

Of course, as with other sources, so with other students’ notes, one should not adopt passages from them without acknowledging the source. However, that requirement will not impede appropriate use of the notes, which should serve only as an additional aid for your study, not as a substitute for it.

Concern about grades is reasonable, since they do have important practical consequences. Still, unless good grades indicate solid accomplishment, they are nothing but deceptive signs, and, creating expectations that those who receive them are unable to fulfill, they are likely to be self-defeating. In doing your graduate work, your primary concern should not be grades but increasing your knowledge and developing your abilities. Regard each course as an opportunity to learn more—to become more able to find truth and communicate it effectively. Bearing in mind that students never get more out of a course than they put into it, do not try to minimize your work but to make it as fruitful as possible.

Consequently, I suggest you do the assigned reading and write a draft of your weekly paper as carefully as you can before looking at previous students’ notes. Then use the notes for limited purposes: to find points in the reading that you have overlooked, to check your interpretation of obscure passages, and to identify any mistakes you may have made. Even in doing these things, use the notes only to raise questions; rely on the document itself and your own reflection on it to provide the answers. Finally, revise your paper in the light of what you have learned by using the notes.

Having done this, you not only will appear more knowledgeable, but really will have learned more than you otherwise would. You will provide the professor with evidence of your real progress and not evade the work he has assigned. Then too, if asked whether you had used previous students’ notes, you could answer honestly—as you would be obliged to do—without discrediting yourself, for you could explain your reasonable way of using them.

Examinations are an academic exercise meant to determine the extent to which students have achieved the goals, set by professors, of courses or other elements of a program. In this context, unless the contrary is clearly indicated, questions should not be understood as asking students to manifest their beliefs. Rather, the questions call for specific performances to show that a student is familiar with a certain body of supposed facts, opinions, arguments, analyses, and so on; and that he or she can articulate this material and intellectually deal with it in certain approved ways. An academically experienced person reading or hearing examinations does not assume those being examined assert the statements they make. Every response is understood as if in quotation marks, introduced by: Here is some evidence of what I can do with this question. Therefore, provided questions do not plainly call for a statement of personal opinion and those taking examinations avoid expressions that indicate personal adherence to any proposition they do not believe true, they tell no lies by giving answers they think will be acceptable, even if some or all of the statements in the answers are contrary to what they believe true.

In examinations, potential problems often can be forestalled by employing certain formulations that enable one to articulate views to which the teacher is committed without sharing that commitment. For example, “The accepted view among many theologians is that . . .”; “It often is argued that . . .”; and “So-and-so [the teacher’s favorite theologian] explains the matter in this way.” Such expressions indicate that one is not asserting positions one considers false but do not manifest disagreement with them.

Term papers sometimes are assigned as exercises very similar to examinations; a precise topic is designated, and specific instructions make it clear that students are not expected to develop and express original views. Even though the assignment you describe leaves some scope for personal initiative, you should be able to do the assignment to the professor’s satisfaction without misrepresenting your real beliefs. You can show your competence while concealing the convictions likely to provoke biased grading by choosing a suitable theologian and treating his or her work honestly but within strict limits.

For example, you might choose a leading American moral theologian who accepts proportionalism and dissents from the exceptionlessness of certain norms taught by the Church. If you take care to understand fully that person’s version of proportionalism, and to present it accurately and dispassionately, you will seem sympathetic to the view. In the literature, you will find many criticisms of proportionalism, some flawed in ways pointed out either by some of the more careful critics of the view or by proportionalists themselves. In your paper, you can deal exclusively with such flawed criticisms, and point out their fallacies—of course, taking care to give due credit for ideas you adopt from other authors.

By doing a paper along these lines, you will learn part of what you need to know about an important topic and adequately show your scholarly ability and objectivity. You also will satisfy your professor’s requirement without saying anything you think false, while, by leaving unsaid much that you think, you will avoid provoking a biased evaluation.

In general, in writing term papers and dissertations, capable students usually can satisfy a professor with whom they profoundly disagree by explicitly labeling as presuppositions the set of propositions that the professor insists upon and they consider false. For example, a student can take up a view acceptable to his or her professor, explain its bases without criticizing them, and state that the propositions comprising this view will be used as “working hypotheses.” Having clearly stated this limiting condition, the student can employ that group of propositions as if they were true, without asserting them and so without dishonesty. Of course, this strategy should not be used if the finished work will be published without revision or is likely to become available in some other way to readers it might seriously injure—for example, by leading them into error on some matter of faith or morals.

Following these suggestions may seem cowardly. But the primary responsibility of students is to develop their abilities and complete the program they have undertaken, not to carry on probably fruitless controversies with their professors. Following one’s apprenticeship as a scholar, one will have plenty of time for controversy. Meanwhile, a student will have many opportunities to articulate and defend his or her convictions in discussions with other students, who often will be more receptive than professors to unfamiliar and even unwelcome truths.

Because a professor dogmatically committed to an ideology usually wishes to seem fair and open-minded, he or she is unlikely directly to challenge students’ faith or other convictions. So, I doubt that your professor will question you straightforwardly about your faith or otherwise press you to deny it. If that should happen, however, you would be obliged to bear witness to what you believe.

In that event, it would be wrong to try to soften the truth by asserting it as if it were a mere personal opinion. Tactically, moreover, it might be more effective both to define and to depersonalize the issue, insofar as possible, by referring to the relevant Church teaching and affirming your belief in its truth. For example, if your professor pressed you to agree with her views about development of dogma, you might say: “I believe what Vatican I teaches on that matter in chapter four of Dei Filius and what Vatican II teaches on it in chapter two of Dei Verbum.” You also could promise to consider her views carefully, something you must do both to learn how to expose the errors they contain and to disengage any truth that may be in them.

Professors who grade ideologically, not on the basis of students’ knowledge and performance, but on the basis of their sharing the professors’ opinions, do a grave injustice. As in other cases of injustice, those who suffer or observe this injustice should try to resist and rectify it. Familiarize yourself with any appeals process available to students, and consider using it. Being affirmative, however, the obligation to resist and try to rectify injustices is not absolute (see CMP, 256–59). Sometimes even great personal sacrifice is likely to produce little benefit, and an individual rightly suffers in silence or tolerates the injustice done to others. That is particularly so when ideologues have gained so much power over a field of study that they are able to maintain social structures that systematically, though subtly, discriminate against those who do not share their so-called mainstream consensus.

In sum, you and other faithful students should try to follow Jesus’ advice: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10.16). Still, even that might not enable you to survive in the program. So, be prepared to give up what you hoped to attain by undertaking it. If that sacrifice becomes necessary, make it without regret. You may be able to continue graduate studies elsewhere. If not, you can be sure your vocation does not require an advanced degree.