Response to common prayer in the classroom

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Photo by Hannah Green

A previous article for The University News advocated praying The Lord’s Prayer before every class at the University of Dallas, encouraging further unity among students  in a time of division and highlighting the Catholic intellectual tradition that UD offers. 

However, I believe that universal school prayer would undermine the unity of the student body.

Though this is a staunchly Catholic university, there are students who come here who are not Catholic. There are professors who teach here who are not Catholic. Some of the professors that I’ve loved and admired most have not been Catholics.

If professors wish to lead their class in prayer before they teach, they should be able to do so, but professors who do not wish to do so should be able to abstain from having prayer in the classroom. 

It is disrespectful to require others who do not share in our religion to participate in our religious practices, and it is isolating to ask them to stand by silently as the majority of their classmates engage in prayer. It does not foster unity in the student body, but rather homogeneity.

UD offers an education grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition. However, the draw of UD’s education offers something even greater: Truth. Truth is something that is true in all times, in all places and for all people. As a university, we do not believe that Truth is relative or subjective. 

Therefore, though the fullness of Truth is found in Catholicism, the very nature of Truth means it is accessible to everyone. 

If one truly believes that UD gives its students an encounter with the Truth, then one must agree that this education can be grasped and appreciated by everyone, as long as they approach it with an open mind. 

In fact, not having the same uniformity of thought is often what prompts good discussion both inside and outside of the classroom. We want to be unified in our mission, but when we become the same, we lose part of what makes UD a place for independent thinkers. 

Showcasing ideological differences in mandatory prayer before class undermines the most unitive aspect of what we do at UD, namely our common classes. 

No matter the major, religion, political beliefs or any other differing aspects of UD’s student body, we all have one thing in common: our academic pursuit in the core curriculum. This is what gives us our sense of unity: the drive for truth in the same subjects and great texts. 

This is why many people at UD who are not Catholic come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of the Catholic tradition, and some even convert. It is the intellectual search for truth and the witness of the Catholics around them that leads them to Catholicism, not mandatory participation in its religious practices. 

In fact, if we adopt mandatory school prayer, some students may become more resentful of Catholicism. 

In “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Pope Saint John Paul II wrote on the character of a Catholic university. He did not state that the university exists to convert others, but “to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” 

The ultimate goal of a Catholic university is to bear witness to the faith through the pursuit of truth and in fostering an environment in which people can live out their faith, while at the same time not requiring them to do so. 

The previous article asked an important question, “How can we best live out our Catholic identity as a school community?” 

This is an extremely relevant question, especially considering our present circumstances as a university and a nation. In these times of adversity, when many have been without the sacraments for months, we may find it especially difficult to cling to our faith and the hope we hold from it. 

The authors I am responding to answered this question with prayer before every class. 

However, living out one’s Catholic faith, or faith at all, goes far beyond mandatory public prayer. It is when we allow prayer and the sacraments to transform our everyday actions that we truly live out our faith. 

In these times, it is more important to cling to the Christian virtues of hope, love and courage. A prayer every day is not all it takes to make a person Catholic. Living in accordance with virtue is what it means to be Catholic, not praying the Our Father before every class. 

We are Catholic when we live out the teachings and virtues of our faith in daily life. In this moment, we need to be assured that we are acting in a Catholic way, not because they are mandated by the University, but because they are genuine acts of each person’s faith. 

To give a Christian witness, we need to be Catholics who choose to live out what that means, and not Catholics who simply go through the motions.

Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God. If our prayers become perfunctory, and not words voluntarily said with devotion and love, we have lost much of the merit in praying.

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