Opinion: Our (Un-Christian) Jesuit University

In an increasingly secular world such as ours, religious institutions must constantly negotiate the tension between traditional values and changing cultural tides. A December 30th piece in The Atlantic (“The New Brand of Jesuit Universities”) examines what a Jesuit university looks like in modern America. Though Boston College is not specifically mentioned, we are familiar with this dilemma: How do we live our Jesuit identity in a secular world where even most BC students view religion with some degree of skepticism?

A deeper question rests within this question: What does it mean to be a Jesuit university in the first place? Does it simply mean that Jesuits live on campus and teach some classes? Does it mean we have a Theology department? And to take it even further, what does a Jesuit university do? Are we a Jesuit university simply because we say we are, or does our affiliation with the Catholic Church entail a deeper commitment to some set of ideals that cannot merely be declared, but must continually be lived out?

These are difficult questions, which deserve a rigorous examination. So let’s start at the very beginning: Ratio Studiorum (“Plan of Studies”), the 1599 document that articulated standards for worldwide Jesuit education, begins by stating that, “the aim of our educational program is to lead men [sic] to the knowledge and love of our Creator and Redeemer.” This statement is consistent with Chapter 16 of the Jesuit Constitutions, which says, “the teachers [of Jesuit universities] should make it their express purpose…to inspire the students to the love and service of God our Lord, and to a love of the virtues by which they please Him [sic].”

I’m not advocating a literalist reading of Ratio Studiorum, or even a return to most of its principles. But this foundational passage suggests two indispensable aspects of Jesuit education: First, Jesuit education wants us to do something. The aim of Jesuit education is to orient its students towards a certain way of being in the world, a way that is moral, political, spiritual, and active. Second, and crucially, this way is different from the way of the world. Thus, it is absolutely clear that a Jesuit university must take a critical stance towards the ways of the world that are incompatible with the ways of the Gospel. If we take Ratio Studiorum seriously, a Jesuit university cannot simply be a university where Jesuits live, but rather one with a distinct mission to inculcate particular modes of being, over and against society’s prevailing norms.

Photo Courtesy of Alex Krowiak/Gavel Media

Photo Courtesy of Alex Krowiak / Gavel Media

What this means is, to quote Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., the university “must be concerned with the social reality…it must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives.” The task of the university is not to reproduce the torn social fabric out of which it is woven, but precisely to repair it, in light of the Gospel message. Thus, Ellacuria suggests, “A Christian university must take into account the Gospel preference for the poor…to be a voice for those without voices.” This is, I argue, what it means to enact Ratio Studiorum’s exhortation to “inspire the students to the love and service of God our Lord”; to bring forth the subversive Word of the Gospel, and especially God’s preferential option for the poor, in a society that each day looks more and more like first-century imperial Palestine.

Proclaiming this Word in the face of modern America’s injustices will not make us popular. Indeed, we recall how few in the Judea of Jesus’s time were willing to follow his radical path of defiance that led not just to unpopularity, but to state-sanctioned death. To Ellacuria, this unpopularity, this cross, is a necessary consequence of authentic imitatio Christi. Quoting the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, Ellacuria argues that “something would be terribly wrong in our Church if no priest lay next to so many of his assassinated brothers and sisters…in a world where injustice reigns, the university must necessarily be persecuted.” This incisive challenge only becomes more poignant when we consider that seven years after delivering this address at Santa Clara University, Ellacuria himself would lay down next to his assassinated brothers and sisters, made into a martyr for unapologetically living the Gospel’s message.

The Gospel mission of Boston College must outweigh all other institutional imperatives. Too often, organizations that are founded with particular missions quickly devolve into self-reproducing bureaucracies, for which self-preservation takes precedence over any other objective. The German theologian Fr. Johann Baptist Metz reminds us of something he calls “the charismatic art of dying.” I understand him to mean that, though the Church as a whole must endure until the eagerly-anticipated parousia, groups within the Church have more specific missions, and when those missions have been exhausted, they must come to an end. If Boston College is not proclaiming and enacting the radical Gospel of Jesus, then there is no reason for it to exist as a Jesuit university.

This mission is not only important to the pursuit of social justice, but ultimately for the Church as well. Metz suggests that religious orders should act as “shock therapy instituted by the Holy Spirit for the Church as a whole.” For a Church that has largely lost sight of what the radical following of Christ requires, it is precisely those organizations on the margins of the institutional Church that are called to proclaim the danger of the Gospel, urging the whole Body of Christ to remember how beautifully subversive it is to follow Jesus. Thus, the spirit of Jesuit education concerns both the mission of the Church in the world and the revitalization of the Church itself.

I have sought to articulate my position at some length in order to unpack its specifically theological grounding. Let me express myself more succinctly: The mission of a Jesuit university must be conversion. By “conversion,” I emphatically do not mean proselytizing. Quite the contrary, Jesuit universities should not care at all whether their students identify as Catholic or not (and here I speak as a religious Jew with no interest in baptism but a deeply-rooted interest in following Jesus of Nazareth).

What they should care about is converting their students to the subversive way of the cross, a way that oftentimes is socially, politically, culturally, and morally opposed to the way of the world. That a university, in this day and age, would seek to follow a poor, despised, crucified rabbi named Jesus should be utterly scandalous. It should seem absurd. It should make no sense to anyone whose horizon of meaning and value is determined by the consumerist norms of prevailing society. It should also be dangerous, so dangerous that our university becomes, like Jesus, a target of ridicule, hatred, and violence. Indeed, in a world littered with persecution, the only rightful place for the Church is nailed to a cross, whether that cross looks like a prison cell, a lynching tree, or a sidewalk in Ferguson.

Anthony Golden / Gavel Media

Anthony Golden / Gavel Media

In recent months, Boston College has not been a Jesuit university. Not only has Boston College refused to lay down next to our assassinated brothers and sisters, it has threatened to punish those who, out of an abundance of pain and courage and love, lay down on holy ground to ritually reenact the too-many assassinations we have seen lately. We have heard it said, Boston College doesn’t take political stands. And yet it has: It has stood with the Romans of our day, watching dispassionately as Jesus cried out in agony from the cross. To borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “the hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” Spiritual audacity is precisely what was displayed by the St. Mary’s protesters; Boston College’s response demonstrated a spiritual cowardice and ungodly acquiescence to injustice that is not worthy of being called Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m unconsciously trying to impose my own political viewpoint on an institution that should rightly be apolitical. I don’t think I am, but I would be the last person to suggest that any (theo)political agenda, leftist or rightist, should be accepted uncritically. Indeed, to be a Jesuit university is to navigate the socio-political space of America with the memory of Jesus’s suffering and resistance firmly embedded in our mind. We live out our mission by asking critical questions, not supplying easily digestible answers. Thus, I end by citing Ellacuria again:

"And how do you help [the poor]? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility."

My aim here is not to insist upon a single answer or set of answers to these questions. But I fear that these questions are no longer even being asked. If anything has been in evidence throughout Boston College’s response to the St. Mary’s die-in, it is not simply the failure to perform spiritual audacity, but the failure to even hear its call. There is something more dangerous to religious universities than secularity: a university that calls itself religious while mimicking the ways of the world. Boston College cannot seek out popularity. We cannot yearn for prestige. If we are to properly live our vocation as a Jesuit university, our first step must always be towards the cross.

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