The Service of the Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education

Address of Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, at Santa Clara University about faith and justice in Jesuit higher education, October 6, 2000

Within the complex time and place we are in, and in the light of the recent General Congregations, I want to spell out several ideal characteristics as manifest in three complementary dimensions of Jesuit higher education: in who our students become, in what our faculty do, and in how our universities proceed. When I speak of ideals, some are easy to meet, others remain persistently challenging, but together they serve to orient our schools and, in the long run, to identify them. At the same time, the U.S. provincials have recently established an important Higher Education Committee to propose criteria on the staffing, leadership, and Jesuit sponsorship of our colleges and universities. May these criteria help to implement the ideal characteristics we now meditate on together.

Today’s predominant ideology reduces the human world to a global jungle whose primordial law is the survival of the fittest. Students who subscribe to this view want to be equipped with well-honed professional and technical skills in order to compete in the market and secure one of the relatively scarce fulfilling and lucrative jobs available. This is the success that many students (and parents!) expect.

All American universities, ours included, are under tremendous pressure to opt entirely for success in this sense. But what our students want — and deserve — includes but transcends this “worldly success” based on marketable skills. The real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.

For 450 years, Jesuit education has sought to educate “the whole person” intellectually and professionally, psychologically, morally, and spiritually. But in the emerging global reality, with its great possibilities and deep contradictions, the whole person is different from the whole person of the Counter-Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, or the 20th Century. Tomorrow’s “whole person” cannot be whole without an educated awareness of society and culture with which to contribute socially, generously, in the real world. Tomorrow’s whole person must have, in brief, a well-educated solidarity.

We must therefore raise our Jesuit educational standard to “educate the whole person of solidarity for the real world.” Solidarity is learned through “contact” rather than through “concepts,” as the Holy Father said recently. When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.

Students must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and engage it constructively. They should learn to perceive, think, judge, choose, and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed. Campus ministry does much to foment such intelligent, responsible, and active compassion, compassion that deserves the name solidarity.

Our universities also boast a splendid variety of in-service programs, outreach programs, insertion programs, off-campus contacts, and hands-on courses. These should be at the core of every Jesuit university’s program of studies.

Our students are involved in every sort of social action — tutoring drop-outs, demonstrating in Seattle, serving in soup kitchens, promoting pro-life, protesting against the School of the Americas — and we are proud of them for it. But the measure of Jesuit universities is not what our students do but who they become and the adult Christian responsibility they will exercise in the future. For now, the activities they engage in, even with much good effect, are for their formation. The students need close involvement with the poor and the marginal now, in order to learn about reality and become adults of solidarity in the future.

If the measure and purpose of our universities lies in what the students become, then the faculty are at the heart of our universities. Their mission is tirelessly to seek the truth and to form each student into a whole person of solidarity who will take responsibility for the real world. What do they need in order to fulfill this essential vocation?

The faculty’s research not only obeys the canons of each discipline but ultimately embraces human reality in order to help make the world a more fitting place for six billion of us to inhabit. I want to affirm that university knowledge is valuable for its own sake and at the same time is knowledge that must ask itself, “For whom? For what?”

In some disciplines such as the life sciences, the social sciences, law, business, or medicine, the connections with our time and place may seem more obvious. But every field or branch of knowledge has values to defend, with repercussions on the ethical level. Every discipline, beyond its necessary specialization, must engage with human society, human life, and the environment, cultivating moral concern about how people ought to live together.

All professors, in spite of the cliche of the ivory tower, are in contact with the world. But no point of view is ever neutral or value-free. By preference, by option, our Jesuit point of view is that of the poor. So our professors’ commitment to faith and justice entails a most significant shift in viewpoint and choice of values. A legitimate question, even if it does not sound academic, is for each professor to ask, “When researching and teaching, where and with whom is my heart?” To expect our professors to make such an explicit option and speak about it is obviously not easy; it entails risks. But I do believe that this is what Jesuit educators have publicly stated, in Church and in society, to be our defining commitment.

To make sure that the real concerns of the poor find their place in research, faculty members need an organic collaboration with those who work among and for the poor and actively seek justice. They should be involved together in all aspects: presence among the poor, designing research, gathering data, thinking through problems, planning and action, doing evaluation and theological reflection. In each Jesuit Province where our universities are found, the faculty’s privileged working relationships should be with projects of the Jesuit social apostolate — on issues such as poverty and exclusion, housing, AIDS, ecology, and Third World debt — and with the Jesuit Refugee Service helping refugees and forcibly displaced people.

Just as the students need the poor in order to learn, so the professors need partnerships with the social apostolate in order to research and teach and form. Such partnerships do not turn Jesuit universities into branch plants of social ministries or agencies of social change, but are a verifiable pledge of the faculty’s option and really help, as the expression goes, “to keep your feet to the fire!”

If the professors choose viewpoints incompatible with the justice of the Gospel and consider researching, teaching, and learning to be separable from moral responsibility for their social repercussions, they are sending a message to their students that they can pursue their careers and self-interest without reference to anyone “other” than themselves.

By contrast, when faculty do take up interdisciplinary dialogue and socially engaged research in partnership with social ministries, they are exemplifying and modeling knowledge that is service, and the students learn by imitating them.

If the measure of our universities is who the students become, and if the faculty are the heart of it all, then what is there left to say? It is perhaps the third topic, the character of our universities — how they proceed internally and how they impact on society — which is the most difficult.

What, then, constitutes this ideal character? And what contributes to the public’s perception of it? In the case of a Jesuit university, this character must surely be the mission: the diakonia fidei (the service of faith) and the promotion of justice, as the Jesuit university way of proceeding and of serving socially.

In the words of the 34th general congregation, a Jesuit university must be faithful to both the noun “university” and to the adjective “Jesuit.” To be a university requires dedication “to research, teaching and the various forms of service that correspond to its cultural mission.” To be Jesuit “requires that the university act in harmony with the demands of the service of faith and promotion of justice.”

The first way that our universities began living out their faith-justice commitment was through their admissions policies, affirmative action for minorities, and scholarships for disadvantaged students; and these continue to be effective means. An even more telling expression of the Jesuit university’s nature is found in policies concerning hiring and tenure. As a university it is necessary to respect the established academic, professional, and labor norms, but as Jesuit it is essential to go beyond them and find ways of attracting, hiring, and promoting those who actively share the mission.

I believe that we have made considerable and laudable Jesuit efforts to go deeper and further: we have brought our Ignatian spirituality, our reflective capacities, some of our international resources, to bear. Good results are evident.

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