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Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. Thank you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season.

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Apologetics in a Digitized Age

Kyle Washut, president of Wyoming Catholic College, joins us to discuss the difficulties of evangelization and apologetics in the plugged-in era. He explains why, if you want to come to WCC, you won’t need to bring your phone.


Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. It’s hard to defend your Catholic faith if there’s nobody listening when you’re defending it. And we’re not listening to one another. We are absorbed in our devices. And I’m not saying that in a mean way because you might be absorbed in your device at this very moment where you’re listening. But there’s something to be said for the humanizing effect of not being absorbed in your devices. And so with us today is the president of Wyoming Catholic College, Kyle Washut. Thank you very much for being here with us.

Kyle Washut:

Thanks for having me, Cy.

Cy Kellett:

And one of the reasons we want to talk about this with you is that you have a shocking and horrifying policy, terrifying to me, around the students and cell phones.

Kyle Washut:

Right. Since the very beginning of the college, in 2007, all of the students who come to Wyoming Catholic College turn in their cell phones when they enroll as students and they get them back when they leave at the end of the semester.

Cy Kellett:

And have there been any deaths related to this? Withdrawal or anything? They’re okay?

Kyle Washut:

No one has died that we know of.

Initially, there is going to be a little bit of a transition, but we send all the students out for three weeks into the wilderness on a backpacking trip when they first get there so there’s an initial cold turkey break with the cell phone right away. And while there are some initial complaints, the feedback we get within a few months from the students is, “Oh my goodness. The kind of community we have, the kind of ability to be present to each other and pay attention to each other is so incredible. I wouldn’t change this policy.”

Cy Kellett:

And isn’t that wonderful? But even that thing that you just described, I mean, first of all, you’re in Wyoming, so you have accessible to you some of the most magnificent natural features in the whole world. And then you’re sending them out into the wilderness for three weeks. So this seems to me like there must be something in the university’s ethos that says contact with each other in the natural world is important for the human being.

Kyle Washut:

Yes, though I think it’s not even so much just the ethos of Wyoming Catholic College, though it’s certainly there. We see it as something that’s rooted in the Catholic tradition of education. So that the link between the eventual founding of the Christian universities in medieval Europe, and the high days of ancient Greek philosophy and the studies in the ancient Greek world, the middle ground between those was the Desert Fathers, was the Benedictine movement, where Christians going out into the wilderness, forming communities, being present to each other and to God and to the natural realities around them.

Cy Kellett:

Yes.

Kyle Washut:

And that being the place where Christian culture really takes root. And at Wyoming Catholic College, we’re trying to reclaim that tradition.

Cy Kellett:

So it’s really a vision of how to educate the human person in a full way.

Kyle Washut:

Absolutely. What I’ll argue is it’s the Christian pedagogy that’s inscribed in the gospel message and we’re trying to reclaim it.

Cy Kellett:

And what is it that you want the student to get from that?

Kyle Washut:

So one of the things we want to remember about what Catholic education is, is it’s fundamentally a spiritual work of mercy. It’s an extension of the redemption of Christ into some aspect of the human person.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, okay.

Kyle Washut:

And so when we think of, “Okay, if education’s a work of mercy, what are we doing?” Well, at some point there, education then is the gradual reclaiming of the human person, to conform them to the image of Christ. And the beginning of that happens in the wilderness, happens with personal presence, happens in a kind of experience of fasting from the busyness of the world. It’s what God did with the Israelites. It’s what John the Baptist called the people to at the beginning of Christ’s ministry. It’s what the Desert Fathers have done. It’s what happens in every period of their renewal, this call into the wilderness, this call to fast.

And so asking the students to fast from communicative technology, which is ubiquitous now. It’s everywhere.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. Right.

Kyle Washut:

In a way that even 30 years ago we probably couldn’t have imagined how present it is. Say, “Okay, turn it off. Turn off the noise. Turn off the distraction. And just learn to be present to each other again. Learn to really listen to each other again. Learn to really notice things.” And then you can have a real conversation. Then you can have a real meaning of the minds. Then you can have a real thoughtful reflection on the realities that you’re dealing with. And that’s what we’re finding at Wyoming Catholic.

Cy Kellett:

It seems to me that people who don’t understand Catholic education are sometimes quick to make the assumption that it’s a kind of indoctrination. And what you’re describing is the opposite of indoctrination. We’re not just trying to indoctrinate people into a particular worldview, but just like the purpose of the sacramental life, the purpose of the spiritual life, the purpose of the educational endeavor, is reality. It’s to get us more in touch with the real world.

Kyle Washut:

Absolutely. In fact, if you think about it, the internet, and other really engaging, consuming forms of media are actually the best tools for indoctrination we have. I’m not saying that it’s the only thing they’re good for. I don’t want to say that.

Cy Kellett:

No, see what you’re saying though.

Kyle Washut:

But if you’re looking for a effective way to communicate lots of information and just dump it into a receiver’s mind, the internet and the smartphone are great for that.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Kyle Washut:

If you don’t want just indoctrination.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Kyle Washut:

If you want real conversation and reflection, turning off the internet is actually a real important step.

Cy Kellett:

It also seems to me that this constant and pervasive connection, it’s wounding. It does harm. I don’t think we even really understand all the whys and wherefores of why it’s damaging. But do you see when they let it go, in addition to this opening up to one another and being present to one another and to the natural world, a healing?

Kyle Washut:

Absolutely. Again, in some ways, if we’re thinking of education as a spiritual work of mercy, there’s a healing element that’s bound up with that. When we look at the reports about this generation, what we call Generation Z, people in this era, probably ages 17 to 22, in 2023, they reported spending on average more than seven hours a day of recreational screen time, principally TikTok, Instagram, and messaging.

And I think not coincidentally do we also see studies saying that Gen Z is the most anxious and depressed generation on record. They’re more prone to self-centeredness, neuroticism, a lack of resilience than any generation on record before it. I think all of those things are bound up with each other.

Now, I don’t want to say it’s only because of technology that this happens, only because of the consumption on the smartphone. There’s a lot of societal and cultural factors that lead to young people trying to take shelter or distract themselves on the smartphone. But when they turn to that smartphone, it actually is going to exacerbate those things. It’s going to increase their anxiety, it’s going to increase their concern and their fragility and their tendency to self-centeredness. Let’s be honest, social media, by and large, fundamentally fuels avarice, lust, vanity, take your pick of the seven sins.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Kyle Washut:

Again, not saying that’s the only thing you can do with social media, but we have to admit it fuels it.

Cy Kellett:

Because we know that from our own experience.

Kyle Washut:

Yes.

Cy Kellett:

My experience of social media is that it does those things to me. So I mean, I think that’s evidence.

Kyle Washut:

Right, right.

Cy Kellett:

You consider that as evidence.

Kyle Washut:

Yeah, in fact, as we find out about the mining for data and the tracking that happens on social media, we’re finding it’s intended as a tool for avarice. They want to make us commodities to sell things and then if we’re getting angry or lustful or jealous, those things make us better consumers. And so it makes sense that that inflames us. All right, so all of that being said, people who come addicted to smartphones and social media are coming, as you said, wounded.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Kyle Washut:

Wounded by the passions that the smartphones inflame, wounded by the burden of having to sort of be marketable all the time, be on display.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, yes. That one terrifies me, yeah, that young men and women, really boys and girls is when it starts, not young men, they’re so concerned about what they appear to be online. That’s their primary source of fear and hope is, “What do I appear to be to others online?”

Kyle Washut:

You think in the ’80s and ’90s we really saw the peak moment where the average American youth was inundated with commercials. They just began to think of themselves as a target for commercials from the television all the time. Now, the American youth is himself a commercial, in his experience of social media, is himself an advertisement about, “Hey, this is who I am. This is what I need to be,” both for the sake of relationships and for the sake of various organizations selling him things. So you’re being constantly advertised to and yourself being advertised, being commodified, all the time. And that’s exhausting.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Kyle Washut:

We don’t think about it, but it’s exhausting if you step back and think, “Wow, that’s an experience that 30 years ago youth didn’t have.”

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Kyle Washut:

And so they come, I think, really tired and really wounded by the exchanges on social media and the pressures there. And that fast in the desert, that the Desert Fathers were called to, what the Israelites were called to, is both purgative but also healing, also restorative. Our Lord says in Hosea, “I’ll bring you out into the wilderness and seduce you or romance you.”

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Kyle Washut:

That there’s this kind of, “I’m going to heal your wounds and awaken a new joy that you didn’t know you had when you’re just able to break from the busyness of the world.” And you see it in the students, when people come and visit campus, they walk into our cafeteria and they talk about the joyfulness the students have, the lightheartedness, their sort of naive, not in a negative way, but in a sense of a non-self-conscious being of who they are.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah,.

Kyle Washut:

And a freedom to do that.

Cy Kellett:

What a gift.

Kyle Washut:

And profoundly healing, profoundly good.

Cy Kellett:

If we had to take some of this and bring it to the parent, to the school teacher, folks who listen to Focus generally listen because we talk apologetics and they want to know how to explain and defend the faith. What kind of lessons do we draw from this in sharing the faith with the kids in our life, with the adults in our life, people at work? How might we apply some of this to the apologetic and evangelizing effort in the world?

Kyle Washut:

Cardinal Newman has this incredible essay where he talks about the three stages of education in the church, and he says the first stage is the Benedictine. It’s this poetic wilderness experience characterized by fasting, by immersion in relationships, by immersion in the natural world. The next stage of Christian education he says is what he’ll call the Dominican. That’s the careful, reflective, philosophical theological reflection that we see. And then the third stage he calls the Ignatian, which is the more properly evangelical, the taking out and the sharing of that.

I think very often, especially in America, we want to jump to that third stage right away. We want to say, “What can I do in terms of preaching the good news, winning the arguments, answering objections?” But that practical engagement needs to arise first out of the careful reflection, the study of the St. Thomas Aquinas’ of the world. But the study of the St. Thomas Aquinas’ of the world arose from the quiet Benedictine wilderness experience.

And so as we’re thinking about the question of apologetics, I think we want to realize, by all means, it’s very important that we be preaching the truth, responding to the falsehoods said about the faith. But you need to do that based on careful reflection, but that careful reflection needs to arise from an experience of relationship with other persons, with the natural world, with God. And that experience, we’re told, happens in the wilderness. It happens when we’re turn off our smartphones, when we’re really present to each other. And so if we just jump into the evangelical talk mode and there’s not, as you said at the beginning, someone listening, someone who’s engaged with us in a shared experience, it doesn’t matter how great our apologetics arguments are. It’s not rooted on that deeper foundation. And so whatever we do in the church today, I think we just need to remember renewal begins in the wilderness and somehow some kind of a technological fast should in some way or another accompany our evangelical and apologetic efforts.

Cy Kellett:

That’s so interesting because, first of all, I hadn’t heard that from Newman and it’s a magnificent way of thinking about it. But I’ve had apologists on here, people who do it for a profession and they say, “Look, the primary formation for doing apologetics is not intellectual. It’s spiritual.” And that seems to me that that’s what you’re getting at, that the intellect is very, very important, but the intellect in a certain sense, it floats in a sea, and which sea is it floating in order to do what it does?

Kyle Washut:

Exactly. The environment or the place of the mind. We’re not angels. We’re not disembodied intellects.

Cy Kellett:

Right.

Kyle Washut:

We’re intellects rooted in a place with experiences and relationships and concrete smells and tastes and various things. That the more we’re able to realize that and make our spiritual life, our apologetics, all of that flow out of that, the more we’re in fact reclaiming the way Adam initially experienced the world before the Fall. We think that Adam was in this profound communion with God, and from that interior communion with God, he then reflected on what the animals were and named them and then acted in the world to till and keep it.

Cy Kellett:

Yes.

Kyle Washut:

So what we need to do is, again, try to reclaim that internal harmony with each other, with our Lord, with ourselves, with the world around us. And then enter into that careful reflection and then enter into that tilling and keeping.

Cy Kellett:

I honestly think many people listening who might have kids who will be heading off to college in the next decade or so are now thinking about Wyoming Catholic College. And do you consider the college kind of a part of the kind of movement we’ve got going on in Catholic higher education? Or do you think of it more as a particular island doing its own thing? How do you fit it all in? How would you talk about Wyoming Catholic College?

Kyle Washut:

So I think it is certainly the case that throughout the American church right now, there is this renewal happening in Catholic higher ed. And there are great schools, Franciscan University, University of Dallas, Thomas Aquinas, University of Mary, Benedict, name a number of them, each one responding in a particular way in a particular charism. I think Wyoming Catholic College sees itself as part of that broader movement. But I also think we are distinctly bringing something that the other ones aren’t able to bring, which the other ones could say in their own right.

Cy Kellett:

Cattle?

Kyle Washut:

Exactly, cattle. Cowboy hats. It’s precisely this. I think it’s remembering that education for the Christian is a kind of wilderness activity.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, that’s a wonderful image that you have of that. And Wyoming, I mean it is cattle country, but it’s also you got wolves, you got bears, you got geysers.

Kyle Washut:

I tell people there’s only half a million people in the state of Wyoming, and there’s more cows than people, so you have a much better chance of eating a hamburger from Wyoming than you do of meeting someone from Wyoming.

Cy Kellett:

I’m sure that’s true.

Kyle Washut:

But that remoteness, in some ways people are like, “Why would you start a college in such a remote area?” But that for us is a feature, not a bug. Precisely going out into the wilderness, being at the base of the mountains, at the top of the Wind River Mountains is where they take the pure air reading that they then use as the standard for other air purity readings around America. That’s in the mountains in the backyard of Wyoming. We are in the pristine wilderness there.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Kyle Washut:

With the wildlife and the mountains and all of that entails. And it’s a really remarkable, beautiful thing to be able to do, to be able to go there on a kind of wilderness retreat. And to watch the students be transformed by that, not because they’re going to stay on that wilderness retreat forever, but because they’re going to then be able to go back out and engage the world as the apologists and evangelists that we so desperately need.

Cy Kellett:

I was thinking as you were talking about that, about Pope John Paul II, when he was a priest in Poland, especially under Communists. His idea was to take people away, to go out into the wilderness like you do with your students. And I remember George Weigel describing it once as, “creating the space to have a community that you couldn’t have in the Communist context.” But okay, we could say Communist, evil and all that, yes. But our society too makes it very difficult to have the space to have real community.

Kyle Washut:

Just think about your average experience with your family, how hard it is to have a family dinner amidst the busyness of the work demands and the schedules and the phones going off and the rest. It’s not because there’s something evil fundamentally at root necessarily. But the world is just constantly busy with the activities of getting and spending and going here and going there. And that kind of frantic activity is opposed to the experience of real communion and real relationship.

You mentioned John Paul II, I just need to tell this one of my favorite stories about the founding of the college. So the college was founded by three men, Bishop David Ricken, Father Bob Cook, and Dr. Bob Carlson. Bishop Ricken was personally ordained as one of 12 bishops that were personally ordained by John Paul II in the year 2000.

Cy Kellett:

Oh.

Kyle Washut:

And so John Paul II ordains Bishop Ricken, and he gives him his episcopal ring and he says, “I entrust you with the new evangelization.” And then he sends him to Wyoming. Now, there seems to be an utter incongruence with me. Personally appointed by the Pope in the Jubilee Year 2000 to go share the new evangelization and then get sent to this remote very sparsely populated state. But I think John Paul II, either consciously or just the subtle inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was aware of the going out into the wilderness as the beginning of the new evangelization. And so Bishop Ricken, entrusted with that call from John Paul II, founded Wyoming Catholic College.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, isn’t that great. What a beautiful connection. And how big are you now and how big do you want to get?

Kyle Washut:

So we’re at 185 right now. Our goal is never to be much larger than 400.

Cy Kellett:

Okay.

Kyle Washut:

And the reason for that is on the one hand, you have to have the number of students proportionate to the number of horses so you can have enough horses for all the students to ride for their semester of horsemanship.

Cy Kellett:

Do you really have horses?

Kyle Washut:

We do.

Cy Kellett:

Man, I wish I had known about this when my kids were applying to colleges.

Kyle Washut:

But the other more fundamental reason is this kind of deep spiritual formation in the wilderness is the kind of thing that happens on the small scale. It happens one at a time, in small intimate conversations, in small intimate communities. If you have 20,000 people packed into a room, it may be the case that they’re not on their cell phones, but they’re also not all having personal interaction. Having small groups, with the cell phones given up, in the slower pace of the wild country of Wyoming, you’re able to take time, slow down, have real conversations, have real reflection, have real prayer. So we’re going to always be intentionally small.

On the flip side, we also want to be able to open this to a larger group. So we have what we call CORE, our Catholic Outdoor Renewal outreach, whereby we lead other groups of young people, seminarians, high school students, college students, out into the wilderness or the desert or whitewater rafting for a week so they can at least take a week, give up their cell phones, have the wilderness experience. And that we’re hoping to be able to share with as many people as we possibly can.

Cy Kellett:

Do you ever get young people who come and actually in their family they never got the cell phone, so for them it’s nothing?

Kyle Washut:

Yes. For some of these kids, that’s true. But the other thing that’s even there, they grew up and they were maybe their family, maybe a couple of other families in the homeschooling group that was the case, but they were still immersed in a culture that fundamentally presupposed the possession of the cell phone.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. Right, right.

Kyle Washut:

So to be in a culture where that’s just it’s assumed that no one is on the phone, that there’s not Wi-Fi access in the dorms, that you just have to communicate verbally or in the old-fashioned ways from those far distant times of the 1990s or whatever the case may be.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah.

Kyle Washut:

There’s a kind of cultural transformation that happens when it’s not just you as the weird one standing out, but you’re part of a community that’s doing this fast for the sake of renewing personal relationship.

Cy Kellett:

Well, if I could then, before we have to part, a lot of people listening will go, “I know that I’m that person. I’m on the phone too much. The Instagram or the TikTok.” And these, I’ll tell you, I got Instagram once and I put it on my phone because two of my kids, adult kids, were on Instagram and they said, “Well, you can follow me there.”

I feel like I’m a pretty well catechized and mature person. I was no competition for Instagram. It overwhelmed me. Because it was like, I told Darren this, I watched a goofy, somebody had a goofy animal video on there, and then when you watch it, then another goofy animal video comes. I’m not talking about some horrible thing. I’m not becoming a terrorist or anything. But I would look up in an hour had passed and I’ve watched, I don’t know, a bunch of car crashes, animals, I’ve watched TV anchors making mistakes. And I realized, “I can’t have this on my phone. I can’t have it.” And I’m not a child. You see me. I’m gray haired. And I am not strong enough for. So I know that there would be a lot of people listening who would say, “Yeah, I can’t get rid of my cell phone. Help me out with this idea of getting back in touch with reality.”

Kyle Washut:

So I think we want to go to the model that again we see at the early Desert Fathers. There were any number of lay Christians in the fourth century and after who looked at these great heroic fasters like Anthony of the Desert and the rest and said, “Great. But I’ve got to live in the world. I’ve got to do these things. I can’t run away into the wilderness and do this all the time.”

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, right.

Kyle Washut:

“How do I live in communion with this witness of the incredible desert fast, the wilderness experience manifest by these monks?” And the church from early on said, “Okay, look, there’s ways we can develop this. There’s seasons of the year where you can live your life in more austerity and more penance and fasting of prayer, like Lenten seasons.”

Cy Kellett:

Yes.

Kyle Washut:

And there’s rhythms of the week even. That getting ready for the Eucharist, the Eucharist can be thought of as a kind of wilderness meal. That’s how it was instituted as a memory of the meal that the Israelites ate in the wilderness. And so getting ready for the Eucharist can be a kind of wilderness fast. And so that’s where we get the traditions of praying on vespers or some kind of vigil on the Saturday night before and the fasting from midnight until the Eucharist or various other traditions and customs that came as a way of keeping a kind of wilderness spirituality to get ready for the Sunday Eucharist.

I think that’s a really easy way for us as Christians living in the technological age that we are in to start introducing something of that, a technological fast from say Saturday night or at least Sunday morning through the end of Sunday, is I’m going to give up my phone on Sunday and have a kind of wilderness spirituality around the Eucharistic day of Sunday. Maybe I’ll go for a walk or go stargazing. Maybe I’ll take it a point to read stories out loud. Maybe there’ll be other things that fill in. But just this way, Sunday gets consecrated as a day for personal connection, intentional community, and Eucharistic renewal on the model of the layman adopting the desert fast one day a week.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, beautiful. Thank you so much for coming in and talking with us. I have to say, quite sincerely, I really enjoyed this conversation. It seems to me that the students and the college at Wyoming Catholic College is in really good hands. I’m excited to see what’ll happen for you and the college in the coming years.

Kyle Washut:

Well, thanks. I am fresh and new at the helm at Wyoming Catholic College, but love being able to share the story, and have loved visiting Catholic Answers here in California.

Cy Kellett:

I would guess at this very moment there are people checking their phone to find out about Wyoming Catholic College.

Kyle Washut:

The ironies.

Cy Kellett:

The ironies. Kyle Washut, president of Wyoming Catholic College. Thank you very, very much.

Kyle Washut:

Thank you so much Cy.

Cy Kellett:

And thank you to our listeners. We love it when you spend this time with us and maybe you can encourage others to spend this time with us. One way to do that is to give us the five stars or a few nice words in the comments wherever you listen to this podcast. If you’d like us to support us financially, it takes a few dollars to do this. You can do that by going to givecatholic.com. And if you have an idea, maybe a question about this broadcast or an idea for a future interview we could do, we love to get those emails. Just send them to focus@catholic.com, focus@catholic.com. That’s our email address. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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