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Question 159: How should a professor of comparative religion bear witness to his faith?

My Ph.D. was in modern languages, but I have been in the foreign service, and only began teaching a year ago when I retired. I now teach a course in comparative religions—a subject in which I always have been interested—in the religious studies department of a community college. The course is an elective, and many of the students it attracts are less interested in the subject matter than in thinking through their own religious problems. I have good rapport with them—they’ve benignly nicknamed me “Granddad”—and spend considerable time after class and in the office talking with groups or individuals about their personal religious concerns. Since these discussions may make a great difference in their lives, I consider them important and am anxious to do the right thing. But I am not always clear about what that is, since the problems posed by dealing with the students are different from those I was accustomed to handling in my previous career.

Some of my students, for instance, are Jews or Muslims from nonobservant families. They are interested in Judaism or Islam as a cultural tradition but antagonistic toward the beliefs and practices of conservative and orthodox Jews or Muslims. I have tended to try to arouse their religious interest in their own tradition, and in some cases that has led to their making contact with a rabbi or imam and becoming more or less observant. This seems a realistic approach, since I doubt that I could lead these students into the Catholic faith, and I question whether attempting it would be in keeping with my responsibilities as a teacher.

Students brought up as evangelical Protestants present a somewhat different problem. They are struggling to work out their own position regarding the faith in which they have been raised. Their problem is complicated by the real defects in this form of Christianity, but many of their difficulties arise from the conflict between our secularized culture and the requirements of Christian faith as such. Trying to help them sort things out, I often find myself explaining to them what they should believe and do to be faithful Protestants, even when that is inconsistent with what I as a Catholic think.

You taught philosophy for some years to students from a variety of backgrounds, and you may have encountered and thought through problems similar to those that concern me. In any case, I’ll be teaching this course every semester, and I would appreciate any thoughts you might have to clarify these matters.


This question calls for the derivation of norms for the questioner’s work of teaching this course. The purpose of the course should include both students’ appropriation of the truth about the subject matter and their use of that truth for personal development. So, the same norms should be observed in all intellectual exchange with them. Though the questioner should bear clear witness to his faith in legitimate ways, he should not try to evangelize his students. In class, he should present accurate information about the various religions as sympathetically as possible; he should not hide his own faith, but should deal with Catholicism only in due course. Outside class, he should not try to guide students toward specific religious convictions but should help them deal with the obstacles they immediately confront in pursuing religious truth.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In undertaking the responsibility of teaching the course in comparative religions, you enter into cooperation with those who take it. This cooperation must be shaped by the purpose you and the students share and by a mutual understanding about how to pursue it. The shared purpose is knowledge of truth, specified by the course’s subject matter: comparative religions. Knowledge of truth, however, does not refer only to the sort of thing on which students can be tested at the end of the semester —what you call “the subject matter.” It refers as well to something far more important but inaccessible to any test: their appropriation of what they learn and their use of it for their own authentic development, part of which is what you call “thinking through their own religious problems.” Therefore, my first suggestion is that you think of this second aspect of knowing the truth about comparative religions as an integral part of the purpose of the course, rather than something incidental. Looking at the matter this way should help you with the problems you raise by bringing all of your intellectual exchange with your students under a single set of norms governing your responsibilities, so that different norms will not come into play when you discuss their personal religious concerns with them.

As a teacher, you are not an apologist or minister of the gospel; students do not come to your class to be evangelized or catechized, and it would be wrong for you to attempt these things. Moreover, while you should be friendly with all of your students and some of them will become your friends, as a teacher you are not their friend. Students do not come to you to be asked the personal questions and given the unsolicited advice friends freely and rightly ask and give, and it would be wrong for you to try to direct your students’ spiritual lives or urge them to become Catholics. You should, of course, bear witness to your Catholic faith, but as a teacher you will do that by fulfilling, not only faithfully but generously, all the responsibilities you have undertaken toward your students, never in the slightest way misusing your power as a teacher, and then, when occasion offers, explaining in terms of your faith why you act as you do.

Your first lecture setting up the course at the beginning of the semester is extremely important. Prepare it with care, making sure you not only say what needs to be said but say it with the greatest possible precision and clarity. I suggest you cover at least the following four points.

First, the purpose of the course is to study various religions, so as to understand their similarities and differences, partly to grasp the elements of truth and value characteristic of each, and partly to contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of religion as such. Since this is a college course, it also aims to help students as they study its particular subject matter to improve their intellectual abilities—reading comprehension, clear thought and sound reasoning, skillful oral and written expression.

Second, the study of comparative religions is interesting to you and probably to most of the students because it can help an individual think through the religious questions that personally concern him or her. When such questions touch on matters of interest to most students, they can be discussed in class. But inasmuch as each student’s personal religious quest is unique, not much class time can be devoted to questions of great concern only to particular students. And inasmuch as students have the right to maintain their privacy about their intimate spiritual life, no student will need to discuss such matters to fulfill any requirement of the course. Nevertheless, you consider it part of your responsibility as a teacher to discuss such questions with students who wish to do so, and you will be available for that purpose after class and in the office. Your intent in such discussions will be to help students clarify their own questions, not tell them about questions that concern you, and then to help them find accurate information and think soundly about their questions, not tell them what you have come to believe through trying to answer your own questions.

Third, many people today say one religion is as good as another, or any person’s religion is fine as long as he or she finds it satisfying. Such views are forms of religious relativism or subjectivism, and some people embrace them partly because they suppose that the only alternative is unthinking commitment to one’s own religion and intolerance toward every other. But relativism and subjectivism are mistaken. Different religions take incompatible positions on many important issues, and incompatible positions cannot both (or all) be true, although it may be that both are false yet embody important elements of truth. Insofar as a religion takes false positions on important issues, it is not good for its adherents, since it fails to put them in touch with reality and does not help them respond to reality appropriately. For example, the different views held by different religions about what happens to people after they die cannot all be right, and only those who believe what is true about the matter will be in a position to shape their lives realistically.

Furthermore, if relativism and subjectivism were right, those who hold these positions would nevertheless have to assent to their falsity. For though some religions are more or less syncretistic, and so seemingly compatible with relativism and subjectivism, others firmly reject such views—and the relativist or subjectivist cannot consistently claim that only syncretistic religions are acceptable. Therefore, in religious matters, no less, say, than in matters dealing with the natural world, relativism and subjectivism are to be rejected.

Nor are unthinking commitments and intolerance the only alternative. Just as in dealing with the world of nature, so in dealing with the spiritual world, one can and should try to discover the truth—find out how things really are—and, when one thinks one has found it, accept it and live in accord with it. Of course, one does not discover all religious truth at once any more than one immediately uncovers all truth about the world in exploring nature, and one sometimes makes mistakes that must be corrected by further inquiry. So, there is no room for intolerance, but there is a need for people with different religious beliefs to try to help one another find the truth.

Fourth, you are a Roman Catholic, not in virtue of an unthinking commitment, but because your own effort to find and accept religious truth has led you to conclude that one ought to be a Catholic. As you said before, you recognize elements of truth and value in other religions, but you believe Catholicism entirely avoids mistakes on important issues while no other religion does. Believing as you do, you naturally also believe that if all other people had the means and the will to carry their own religious quest through to the end, they would eventually become Catholics. However, students need not be afraid that you will try to force or trick them into agreeing with your Catholic beliefs. Convinced that truth is at stake, you also are convinced that force and trickery are counterproductive, and only an individual’s serious effort to pursue the quest for himself or herself can be fruitful. Thus, you meant what you said earlier: You will do your best to deal with the subject matter accurately and fairly, and will be available to students who want your help in thinking out the religious questions that actually concern them.

In line with this opening lecture, in setting up the course, you might give students an option of doing a modest research paper, to be graded by the usual standards, or maintaining a journal during the semester, to be graded solely on the quality of the thought and writing, where they would record their reflections on the significance to them of the material they studied class by class.

Make every effort in the course to present the subject matter accurately. Do not hesitate to present as sympathetically as possible everything true and good in each religion. Whenever possible, in describing and explaining the various religions, use materials that are approved by or would be acceptable to their adherents. It probably would be wise to use as a text a book by a non-Catholic that you judge sound in scholarship and fair-minded—qualities you will discern, at least partly, by the way it deals with Catholicism. When students ask what you personally think, do not be evasive, but answer briefly and refer to the segment of the course in which Catholicism will be treated. Your main effort should focus on helping them sort out information, grasp facts, clarify their ideas, reason soundly, recognize and deal with inconsistencies, and so on.

Talking with students outside class about religious questions that personally concern them, you should try to help them deal with the obstacles they immediately confront so that they can take the next step on the way to religious truth. Very often, this will mean helping students of a certain religious background to perfect their understanding of it and take it more seriously. If you think a nonobservant Jew or Muslim would be helped to find sound answers to questions he or she has by attending a rabbi’s or imam’s instruction sessions, suggest that he or she do so. But your intention should not be that the student become an observant Jew or Muslim, but rather that he or she make progress in the quest for the truth.

Bear in mind at all times that you do not have the power to bring any of your students to the Catholic faith. Only God’s grace and an individual’s own free choices can accomplish that. If you were a priest, you would do your part by preaching the gospel. As a teacher, you do your part by teaching your course and helping your students overcome some obstacles to finding the truth. And, of course, you bear witness to your faith by the way you fulfill your responsibilities and conduct yourself around the college, and you pray for your students and colleagues.

If you proceed with the restraint I have suggested, I do not believe you will be compromising your Catholic faith in any way or falling short in professing it. Indeed, by demonstrating that professional competence and evenhandedness in dealing with students are entirely compatible with firm and unembarrassed Catholic faith, you will bear powerful witness to it, refuting without ever mentioning the widespread suspicion—and occasional calumny—that only nonbelievers can be genuine scholars and fair-minded teachers. Nevertheless, the recommended approach could involve a risk of scandal, by giving the false impression that, after all, what is characteristic of Catholicism is not very important, and religious indifferentism is somehow acceptable. To offset that risk, profess your faith very openly, making it clear to everyone at the college that you believe everything the Catholic Church believes and teaches, not least those teachings some Catholics have denied or questioned in recent years. Practice your faith publicly when there is a suitable opportunity—for instance, by declining meat on Fridays (a form of penance still recommended though no longer obligatory) and having in your office a religious statue or picture chosen to foster and manifest your own devotion but with esthetic quality that will make it appealing to reasonable nonbelievers.

Finally, sometimes a current or former student will say or do something that makes it clear he or she wishes to relate to you in a legitimate way transcending the student-professor relationship. Some will seek your friendship, and a few probably will want you to help them receive or grow in the gift of Catholic faith. If you judge it appropriate to respond, make sure both the student and you are entirely clear about what the two of you are undertaking, so that there will be no misunderstanding. Even then, you must take care not to compromise the student-professor relationship if it still exists. But you will no longer be inhibited by it, and will be free to proceed according to the norms proper to the newly developing relationship. In many cases, that will mean introducing your student or former student to one or more other Catholics, who will carry on the good work you have begun.