The University of Dallas prides itself on being “the Catholic university for independent thinkers,” and when I enrolled at UD as a freshman, I was so excited about what this meant: I was going to a predominantly Catholic community in which I expected the students to be open-minded, willing to listen and eager to learn.
But for the past three years, I have been shown how wrong I was. I have seen our so-called “Catholic identity” consume our prized “open-mindedness,” creating an atmosphere in which those who are different – and by “different” I specifically mean non-Catholic, especially Protestant – are avoided, mocked, misrepresented, proselytized and generally misunderstood.
Before I continue, let me tell you a little bit about my own background. My mother has been a Catholic all of her life, and until recently, my father was a Presbyterian. I myself have been raised as a Catholic. In fifth grade, however, my parents enrolled me in a non-denominational private school, which I attended through my senior year of high school. At this school, I was one of three Catholics and the only Catholic in my grade. There was, moreover, a great misunderstanding of Catholic belief at this school, resulting in many tensions. For example, I was approached on multiple occasions and asked why I worshipped Mary rather than Jesus, and several individuals took it upon themselves to point out that I was a vampire and a cannibal.
I must emphasize that, to their credit, those people who approached me with such questions did so in a genuine attempt to understand my beliefs – they did not seek to convert me to their own. Even those who engaged in name-calling did so not out of spite, but rather in jest, even though I myself felt those jests to be of poor taste.
So when I came to UD, I looked forward to being among a more open-minded group of people – yes, I would be predominantly among Catholics, but having seen how rich different Protestant traditions are, I was also excited to be at a school that celebrated its acceptance of other faiths.
But I have found instead an atmosphere very much akin to that which I faced in high school, if not in some respects worse.
In one of my first classes this semester, I sat through an hour of “Protestant bashing,” in which the professor – the professor, mind you – implied that Protestant denominations lacked doctrine and founded their beliefs entirely upon emotion. This generalized and sweeping assertion is wrong and would never be promulgated by an institution that is truly open-minded.
Moreover, many UD students, upon meeting a Protestant peer, respond in one of two ways. The first is to attempt to “convert” and “save” the poor deluded soul, and the second is to call the person a “heretic” – generally, it seems, in jest. However, this jesting is similar to the name-calling that I received in high school and does more to build a wall than put the individual at ease, for the individual feels foreign and unaccepted for who he or she is.
Having made the above remarks, I do want to emphasize that there are many Catholics at UD who are more open and more understanding of different beliefs. However, their voices are drowned by those over-zealous Catholics who feel that it is their duty to convert the world – despite the fact that they do not understand the world.
Moreover, please understand that I do not mean that students should not be witnesses; rather, I wish to point out that witnessing should come through actions, not necessarily through vocal chords. Reach out by seeking to understand, by starting a dialogue that does not involve proving the other person wrong. For this, I believe, is what it means to be an “independent thinker”: to consider others’ viewpoints apart from one’s own belief system. One should maintain one’s beliefs, certainly, but one should not allow those beliefs to prevent one from learning about others.
I seek, therefore, to make UD students more aware of their actions and of the implications of their words, which, when said in ignorance or in thoughtless jest, often communicate close-mindedness and an unwillingness to understand others’ beliefs. Therefore, I urge you, UD community, when speaking to others – be they Christian, Muslim or Buddhist – seek not, in the words of St. Francis, to be understood, but rather to understand.