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Jesuit educators offer no guarantees for future

NCR Staff

Officials, faculty and staff of Jesuit colleges and universities from around the country gathered at St. Joseph’s University here for five days of soul-searching on the status and future of the Jesuit schools.

The June 25-29 meeting, the first of its kind in a decade, reflected a significant shift, participants said, from a sense of crisis to a sense of hope.

“Secularization has lost its leading edge” -- an edge it had as recently as a decade ago, said Kathleen Orange of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. Orange, who teaches political science and directs a community service program, asserted in an interview that a “buoyant mood” at the conference reflected a turning point in Catholic higher education -- a willingness to renew the religious mission of the schools.

Nevertheless, if there is a will, there is hardly any clear sense of an effective way, a point made emphatically by keynote speaker Peter Steinfels and several Jesuit leaders. “We shouldn’t let this end with the conference,” Steinfels said, outlining a series of problems ahead.

Jesuit Fr. Martin Tripole, associate professor of theology at St. Joseph’s and organizer of the conference, said he hopes the combined effect of the conference talks -- more than 90 in all -- will contribute to a deeper understanding of Jesuit education. “I hope this will have some effect on how Jesuit institutions develop in the future,” he said.

Tripole said videotapes of conference sessions will be available this fall, individually or as a package, through the university’s office of academic affairs, as will a one-hour video production showing highlights of conference talks. The full proceedings will be published next year by St. Joseph University Press.

Identity crisis

Concern for the future, combined with prodding from Pope John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his 1990 document on Catholic identity in higher education, has galvanized intense discussion and frenzied, if fragmented, action aimed at preventing Catholic institutions of going the way of, say, Harvard and Yale -- schools whose original religious missions have long since disappeared.

Still, few if any among the Jesuit educators at this meeting, “Jesuit Education 21,” were delivering guarantees. According to Steinfels, religion and ethics columnist for The New York Times, while survival odds “have probably improved” in recent years, “anything even remotely approaching a guarantee remains out of the question.” Citing a persistent gap separating discussion, insights and action, he said, “In too many cases the analyses of 10 years ago could have been the analyses of one year ago.”

Despite many efforts over the past decade to shore up Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities, “one cannot escape the feeling that these efforts remain like beachheads, still isolated conquests that threaten to remain just that and never coalesce into a breakout that would establish secure territory” -- establish, that is, a place where both academic excellence and religious mission could flourish, Steinfels said.

Speakers noted repeatedly that Jesuit universities have been subject to some of the same forces that have combined nationwide to create a crisis of Catholic identity on Catholic campuses:

  • A dramatic decline in numbers of U.S. Jesuits that has reduced their presence on many campuses to a handful;
  • a quest for academic excellence in recent years at the expense of religious mission;
  • increasingly diverse student bodies;
  • a focus on social justice in Jesuit documents that has attracted Jesuits to other ministries and threatened to diminish the society’s educational mission;
  • a culture that requires Jesuits to compete with laypeople for faculty and administrative positions.

Jesuit Fr. Joseph A. O’Hare, president of Fordham University in New York, noted that only 22 scholastics are in training in his New York province. “Over the next 10 to 15 years, one or two Jesuits will become available each year to support the work of our four institutions of higher education, our nine high schools and all other ministries of the province. I do not believe that a decline in the number of Jesuits is inevitable in the long run. For the next 10 to 15 years, however, we know now how many Jesuits will be available for assignment to higher education. Very few.”

The number of Jesuits in the United States has dropped from 8,000 at the society’s membership peak in 1965 to less than 4,000.

Educators were soothed by warm praise from a Vatican education official. But some were dismayed when a fellow Jesuit, a canon lawyer, expressed support for giving bishops more control over theological education.

The Vatican official, Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, intervened in a heated debate that broke out shortly after his talk. He said he finds Catholic educators in the United States to be unmatched anywhere in the world -- “such a well-formed group of laypeople” who are “especially well-versed in theology. After several hours in discussion I find them very loyal to the church, but very open to the problems of today,” he said.

Pittau, a Jesuit, serves as secretary for the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican.

The heated debate was prompted by remarks by Jesuit Fr. James J. Conn, canon law professor and theology school dean at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. Conn said he favored “the report of Cardinal Bevilacqua’s subcommittee” as the standard for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States. The subcommittee, headed by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, called for, among other things, theologians to obtain a mandate from a bishop as required by Canon 812 in the church’s Code of Canon Law. Most U.S. college and university officials strongly oppose such a requirement as unworkable in the American context of academic freedom.

“I cannot imagine anything more harmful to the task of theology in the United States than to demand a mandate,” said Jesuit Fr. David Hollenbach, theology professor at Boston College. “To say you have to obtain approval of a local bishop is to put a nail in the coffin. It will kill theology to do that.”

Education and justice

For many Jesuits, the relationship between the Jesuit justice mission and the order’s education apostolate has been rocky in recent times. The society’s declared focus on social justice for some was at odds with a market-driven educational mission that, to some, often serves to shore up the economic status quo.

In an essay in his book, Promise Renewed: Jesuit Higher Education for a New Millennium (Loyola Press), Tripole traced the source of confusion and division among Jesuits, which he said flourished after the society’s General Congregation 32 in 1975 and threatened to undermine its educational mission.

Documents from that international meeting stated, “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.”

The decree was ambiguous on the definition of justice, and most Jesuits took it to mean social justice and political action, said Tripole, the conference organizer. “Those Jesuits whose work was in that area took heart from the statement,” while those in education “felt threatened,” he wrote. “Some Jesuits felt this was appropriate, because Jesuits in education had failed to turn the minds and hearts of their often well-heeled students to a concern for the poor and oppressed.”

Twenty years later, the documents of General Congregation 34 in 1995 broadened the mission statement to “the service of faith and the promotion of justice,” now interpreted to mean any ministry “that promotes the coming of God’s Kingdom,” Tripole wrote. It is a definition of which education is clearly a part, he said.

Meanwhile, the potential promise and problem of lay faculty surfaced often in formal and informal conference sessions. Lay faculty, increasingly looked to as a resource for strengthening Catholic identity, are paradoxically often the biggest obstacle to achieving it, even where it is an institutional priority.

“If faculty don’t own this [the need for strengthening Catholic identity], if it doesn’t get into the classroom on a regular basis, I don’t think it matters what we do structurally,” said John C. Hollwitz, dean of arts and sciences at Loyola College in Maryland.

A quest for academic excellence at many Catholic schools through the 1970s and 1980s led to hiring faculty who were, though notable in their fields, often indifferent to the religious mission of the schools. Steinfels said a “fair number” of non-Catholics have been appointed to faculties of Catholic schools -- people who are “not hostile to the Catholic nature of the schools but who entered when little was made of it.” In some cases, those people “feel as if the ground is shifting” under their feet and regard the renewed focus on Catholic identity as unfair, he said.

‘Hiring for mission’

Today the term “hiring for mission” has become one of the most controversial planks in any proposed platform for Catholic identity. It is an elusive concept representing for most educators not some wistful return to the past, as some loyal alumni would like, as O’Hare put it, but a yet-to-be-worked-out negotiation between the culture, the rigors of academia and a post-Vatican II church.

“How often do we meet alumni who boast that the Jesuits taught them how to think and cite in support of this claim the large number of philosophy courses required in an earlier generation?” O’Hare said. “The more one knows about the content of those courses and the qualifications of those Jesuits teaching them, the more difficult it is to take these claims seriously.”

“The process of ‘hiring for mission’ makes people very nervous, especially if they were hired before the term was used,” said Jesuit Fr. Frank Haig, physics professor at Loyola College in Maryland and former president of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y.

The task at hand is finding ways to draw people in, said Jesuit Fr. Joseph Appleyard, newly appointed vice president for mission and ministry at Boston College. “Faculty often do not have much religious upbringing” and others raised as Catholics may have “a lot of baggage,” he said. Sympathy for strengthening Catholic identity “is limited,” Appleyard said, “even among the Jesuit faculty.” He hopes to get Boston College faculty involved in retreats based on Ignatian spirituality and in service programs for students.

O’Hare said, “The fact that academic loyalties are so often to a particular discipline rather than the central mission of the institution can pose a serious obstacle to the renewal of the Catholic identity of our institutions.”

The challenge is not overcome, though, simply by hiring “faithful Catholics,” he said, “even if one could find a reliable way to identify this particular species of Catholic. ... In fact,” he said, “alienated, anticlerical Catholics can often be particularly antagonistic” to the institution’s mission, while men and women of other religious traditions or of no religious tradition “can often be the most effective supporters of our distinctive mission,” he said. “Some are attracted to a tradition that poses questions of ultimate meaning; others have a personal commitment to education for justice and the need for a countercultural critique.”

“Strategic planning should begin with the question ‘What sets us apart?’ ” said Jesuit Fr. William J. Byron, distinguished professor of management at Georgetown University’s School of Business and former president of The Catholic University of America. “An ambiguous answer sounds an uncertain trumpet in the campaign for Catholic students, faculty and money,” Byron said. Such a strategy “does not mean we don’t welcome a pluralism of faith communities” and a variety of “points of view,” he said.

Universities and colleges  28
Students 200,000
Faculty  19,000
Alumni  1.4 million
Combined endowment $5.5 billion
Institutional financial aid $538 million
Federal and state financial aid  $812 million

Many speakers said it is a grounding in Ignatian spirituality -- the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuits -- that sets Jesuit schools apart. Members of the order, formally known as the Society of Jesus, were to strive always for “the greater glory of God” through action rooted in contemplation. But Kevin Duffy, vice president of student affairs at Boston College, one of 300 conference participants, said university faculty are often left confused. “You hear the terms Jesuit and Ignatian used like pepper and salt,” he told NCR. “It’s tough to get people on board with a mission if they have no idea what it is.”

Ronald Modras, theology professor at St. Louis University, is planning to tell the story of Jesuit humanism in a book he is writing by illustrating its incarnation in notable Jesuits through history. He undertook the project, he said, because he found the Jesuits he worked with had a hard time articulating their distinctiveness.

For others who serve the schools, a distinction between “Jesuit identity” and a less acceptable “Catholic identity” is alluring. O’Hare, Fordham president, was among several speakers who warned that the distinction is invalid and potentially dangerous.

“At the risk of stating the obvious, let me say that it is more important that Catholic higher education survive in the United States than that the special subset of Catholic colleges and universities that are Jesuit in inspiration and direction survive.” That said, the Jesuit tradition possesses tremendous resources to aid in that survival, he added.

Pursuit of excellence

Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Clooney, theology professor at Boston College, warned, however, against shifting the focus from academic excellence to religious identity. “Do not be ashamed to say we are excellent,” just like other institutions. “But once we have that, we should say excellence is not enough,” he said. Clooney, an expert in Hinduism, also warned against marginalizing voices from other religions and cultures. Plato and Aristotle, along with a host of others who have made significant contributions to Catholic thought, “not only were non-Catholics, they didn’t go to Jesuit schools,” he said.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, theology professor at Boston College, said, “The fact that we at Boston College have an ongoing Christian-Muslim-Jewish ‘trialogue’ headed up on our campus by a young woman rabbi is not a compromise of our Catholic identity but a fulfillment of its truly ecumenical, incarnational and global potential.”

Further, she said, religious traditions can be well-served by exposure to postmodern and liberal critiques. “Religious traditions can in fact be ‘undemocratic,’ often unjustifiably so, as is so sadly revealed by official ecclesial investigations of many moral theologians past and present, several of whom were subsequently vindicated by theological consensus and church teaching alike,” she said.

As another example, she cited the march of European Christianity in the “New World” in a “very unChristian mood of conquest and exploitation, creating the social conditions that half a millennium later necessitate conscience re-education through solidarity with the poor.”

The gap within

Denise Carmody, religious studies professor at Santa Clara University, cited a gap inside Jesuit institutions between the society’s commitment to promote justice -- the “convocation rhetoric” -- and reality. The institutions “are playing catch-up” when it comes to hiring women and “hiring for diversity,” she said. Another measure of institutional justice would be to ask whether salaries at the low end of an institution’s pay scale could be “published without embarrassment,” she said.

Student life on campus is another sensitive area, according to Jesuit Fr. Thomas P. Rausch. “Now that the model is no longer” in loco parentis, the culture is not much different from that of secular schools. Rausch is professor and chair of theological studies at Loyola Marymount, Los Angeles.

“Alcohol abuse remains a problem,” he said, as does “poor class attendance, no restrictions on coed visiting. Many students are sexually active. It’s difficult to see anything Catholic or Christian about the atmosphere,” Rausch said.

“It won’t do to say Christianity is humanistic, so we can be like all the other universities around us,” said Hollenbach. The question “ ‘Why are we doing this anyway?’ needs to be at the center of our focus.”

For Orange, that question is easier to answer after the high school massacre this spring at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. “Faith is coming to be more important to people as we see young people falling apart,” she said. “The need young people have for formation in values is now everywhere apparent.”

For one of a few speakers from outside the United States, the question “Why are we doing this?” hardly needs to be asked.

Jesuit Fr. Charles J. Beirne, academic vice president at Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala, described the stark context of Jesuit higher education there.

“I live in a country where just a little over a year ago, and less than 48 hours after he presented a devastating report on decades of barbarism, a bishop was stoned to death in his rectory, just five miles away from my residence in Guatemala City,” Beirne said.

“Our Jesuit universities have to help integrate ethical considerations into a world at times comfortable with corruption,” he said. “My martyred predecessor as academic vice president at the [Central American University] in El Salvador, Nacho Martin-Baro, a University of Chicago graduate in psychology, used to say, ‘For us it’s a question of publishing and perishing.’ ”

But the war is over in Guatemala now, “bullets have stopped flying” and education can get on with the task of trying to make a difference with scant resources “in a land that feels more like Good Friday than Easter Sunday. ... ”

“Is there a future for Jesuit higher education in the Third World? Is there ever!” he said. “Even though we are painfully conscious of our limitations, yet we are spurred on by day-to-day contact with desperate needs.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999