The American Jesuit University: A Source of Reconciliation

By Michael C. McCarthy, SJ

The superior general of the Society of Jesus made an extraordinary claim in July 2018 at Loyola, the birthplace of St. Ignatius. A university, Fr. Arturo Sosa asserted, is “a source of a reconciled life.”

The university as a source of reconciled life? For anyone who works in higher education, the concept seems counterintuitive at best. Before his sudden death earlier in the same month, Dr. Stephen Freedman, provost at Fordham and dear colleague to many of us in the AJCU, frequently remarked that universities are “opinion-rich environments.” He usually said it with a smile, as if to remind us never to presume that people will go along with what may seem to us so eminently reasonable. We operate in contexts of constant debate, tension, unrest, contest, skepticism, and disagreement. And yet Stephen always added: “It’s both our blessing and our curse.”

The blessing of our “opinion-rich environment” is the range of ideas, beliefs, commitments, points of view, backgrounds, and purposes that members of the same community inhabit. It is what makes life so rich and universities such interesting places to work! The curse is not the tension such differences can create but our liability to tribalism: the unexamined instinct to galvanize against perceived threats from others and the dynamics of chronic mistrust and resentment such reflexes generate within institutions.

In this way, American universities reflect the country as a whole. Blessed with an embarrassment of riches of every kind, we also seem cursed with polarizing habits. Research confirms, for instance, the intensified political antipathy many Americans feel. According to the Pew Center in 1994, 16 percent of Democrats polled viewed Republicans “very unfavorably,” but in 2014 that number had risen to 38 percent, with 27 percent even saying the other party was “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” In the same period Republican strong disfavor of Democrats rose from 17 percent to 43 percent, with 36 percent seeing Democrats as a national threat.

The dynamics of political polarization, that is, the increased distrust of “them,” affect universities in many ways. Difficult issues contemporary campuses face, such as diversity, free speech, race, as well as concerns about economic viability and curricular innovation seem to invite the tribal instinct. Moreover, data shows increasingly negative attitudes toward institutional religion, the Catholic Church, as well as public perceptions that higher education itself is headed in the wrong direction. All these conditions spell significant challenge for American universities, and particularly those that advance their mission and identity as Jesuit and Catholic. In short, we face a general erosion of mutual trust that manifests itself in serious and varied ways, both internally and externally. Most, if not all, of the AJCU schools could point to painful examples of breakdown in their recent histories.

To colleagues who work at these colleges and universities, therefore, I would argue that it is in our own institutional interest and in the interest of our country to invest more in building up our internal cultures, so that our natural blessings may be multiplied and the effects of our curse may be contained. We need to focus not on our “virtual communities” but on our actual communities, so that bonds of personal relationship, if not actual affection, may ground our ability to imagine the possibility of common good.

For those who have special concern to promote the distinctively Jesuit, Catholic mission and identity of our institutions, such investment in fellowship will pay dividends, precisely because that mission IS impossible unless people have hope that, within a community of divergent viewpoints, they may work together toward deeply shared values and ideals. Moreover, if we can create habits of generosity, even a willingness to sacrifice, rather than a propensity to draw the wagons into ever-smaller circles, we will also benefit society as a whole. We face the task of building real community in a cultural context where people are often conflicted between a desire for shared good and impulses that undermine it.

How might the challenge before us relate to Fr. Sosa’s claim that a university is “a source of a reconciled life”?

Why Reconciliation?

Over the last 50 years, addresses of Jesuit superiors general have pointed out emerging challenges and opportunities confronting Jesuit education. In 1973, to alumni who were proud of the excellent academic and religious education they received, Fr. Pedro Arrupe’s famous “Men for Others” speech stressed that our primary educational objective must now be to form people who understand that pious devotion is a farce if it does not issue in a love that actively works for social justice.

In his 2000 speech at Santa Clara, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach cautioned that even in Jesuit institutions promotion of social justice was becoming detached from its wellspring in faith. He urged a renewed sense of integration. He also noted that, in the American context, Jesuit universities needed to maintain commitment to their grounding mission and identity as they advanced in achieving academic excellence and institutional success. In Mexico City in 2010, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás championed “depth of thought and imagination” at a time when digital technologies were advancing the “globalization of superficiality.” Moreover, he challenged Jesuit institutions across the world not to operate as silos but to seek ways to network effectively.

At Loyola in July 2018, Fr. Sosa repeated the call to continue building up a network with common goals. His emphasis on reconciliation, however, reflected a theme that has come to prominence in Jesuit documents over the last ten years. In 2008, the Thirty-Fifth General Congregation, which elected Nicolás, retrieved from the biblical tradition the notion of justice as “right relationship” and asserted that Jesuits and their collaborators are called to establish such relationships through a “mission of reconciliation.” St. Ignatius called his early companions to be agents of reconciliation, but today, in a world torn by violence, strife, and division, there is just as much need. “This reconciliation calls us to build a new world of right relationships, a new Jubilee reaching across all divisions so that God might restore his justice for all” (GC 35 Decree 3.16).

A group of representatives from Jesuit colleges and universities from across the world at the Inaugural meeting of the International Association of Jesuit Universities. Photo featured courtesy of  The Jesuit Curia in Rome .

A group of representatives from Jesuit colleges and universities from across the world at the Inaugural meeting of the International Association of Jesuit Universities. Photo featured courtesy of The Jesuit Curia in Rome.

In 2016, the Thirty-Sixth General Congregation, which elected Fr. Sosa, developed this theme even further. It asserted that all Jesuit works should seek to build bridges. In no sense retreating from a commitment to social justice, the emphasis on reconciliation seems to recognize that claims to “justice,” as indeed to “faith” itself, can justify multiple forms of violence. It notes:

Fundamentalism, intolerance, and ethnic-religious- political conflicts as a source of violence: In many societies, there is an increased level of conflict and polarization, which often gives rise to violence that is all the more appalling because it is motivated and justified by distorted religious convictions. In such situations, Jesuits, along with all who seek the common good, are called to contribute from their religious-spiritual traditions towards the building of peace, on local and global levels. (GC 36 Decree 1.28)

Sosa’s address begins by noting the Society of Jesus is committed to university work in order to “turn the words of Jesus into historical truth … I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). The fullness of life involves “plunging into the broad range of skins and cultures that make up humanity.” Because humanity is complex, however, to achieve this task demands the habit and constant work of reconciliation. Because universities trade in complexity, they should have the capacity to attend to the historical and cultural processes of change, which leave us so uncertain of the future:

The university that we seek, as a source of life, deeply committed to the processes of reconciliation, experiences in its own daily existence the tensions of social and cultural complexity.... The university also lives in the uncertainty of the historical period in which it operates, and experiences in its own being the fragility of life, because it feels and knows itself to be fragile.

Moreover, Fr. Sosa argues that Jesuit universities should prepare their graduates to be citizens who are active in political processes, with a view to effecting justice in ways that bring peace. He says: “being called upon to make a direct commitment in politics involves placing oneself at the service of reconciliation and justice.” Indeed, he goes so far as to say that one of the most important contributions of Jesuit higher education is to educate people engaged in politics for the betterment of human societies worldwide.

The emphasis of the Jesuit superior general on political participation at the service of reconciliation and justice is striking. Furthermore, he asserts that our identity is the source of our own particular contribution on the broader work of higher education. In the American context, his stress on reconciliation highlights the unique challenges and opportunities we face in the ACJU. Large scale issues such as fiscal sustainability, shared governance, the status of adjunct faculty, suspicion and even hostility toward our Catholic, religious, or spiritual moorings, support for the humanities, questions of race, gender, class, the health, well-being, and safety of our students, as well as basic affordability...all of these issues and more surely constitute major challenges that need to be addressed. Many people, it seems to me, waste a lot of time and energy looking for silver bullets that will solve our problems once and for all. But, friends, those silver bullets don’t exist!

Our greatest opportunity is to enhance the conditions for citizens of our universities (and of our country) to become what the pope called “artisans of the common good.” In a talk in Rome on the eve of New Year’s 2018, Pope Francis noted that people who have most influence in society are common people, who create a culture through the small, quotidian habits of interaction and behaviors that express love for the city. If we can put our energies there, we will develop the capacity to address the major concerns that face us together.

And then our “opinion-rich environments” will be places of more blessing than cursing.

Michael C. McCarthy, S.J., serves as Vice President for Mission Integration and Planning at Fordham University and is an associate professor in the department of theology. Previously he was Executive Director of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education and held the Edmund Campion University Professorship at Santa Clara University.