Jesuit(ical*) Higher Education

Jesuit(ical*) Higher Education

[*”dissembling or equivocating, in the manner associated with Jesuits” – Google]

May 20, 2016

Jesuit universities have been the topic of criticism several times in this column over the years. We don’t apologize for that. Odds are that when you hear about a performance of The Vagina Monologues, an honorary degree being awarded to a pro-abortion politician, or campus activities led by LGBTQ groups, it will be at a Jesuit college.

My hunch, however, is that the criticism is not of concern to many modern Jesuits. Their universities remain in high demand, consistently ranking among the most selective schools in the country. I can remember overhearing Jewish students of mine over 20 years ago reacting in disbelief and disappointment when they discovered that Georgetown and Boston College were Catholic universities and that students “have to take Catholic theology courses there.” Georgetown and Boston College were among the “hot” schools at the time with high school seniors.

My daughter and her husband are graduates of a Jesuit college. And I was recently listening to my granddaughter, a public high school junior, talking about some of the colleges that she and her friends are interested in attending. More than a few Jesuit colleges were on the list. And I don’t think my granddaughter is even aware of the Jesuit affiliation. They are still “hot schools.”

I have never heard a Jesuit discuss the role of their universities in modern America. So I was eager to read the May 9 issue of the Jesuits’ America magazine, which featured a series of articles on the theme of “Jesuit Education Today.” I liked what I read. An article by Fr. Kevin P. Quinn, SJ, president of the University of Scranton, was entitled “Teaching That Transforms: The Distinctive Heart of Jesuit Higher Education.”

His answer to the question “What is different about Jesuit higher education?” is that it “transforms a student and prepares him or her for work that promotes the common good, while allowing the student to discern his or her vocation in life and, in the long run, to flourish as a human being.” Quinn cites the Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation’s statement, which calls upon Jesuit universities to remember that “Catholic and Jesuit, descriptors that define us as an institution, are not simply two characteristics among many,” but “signify our defining character, what makes us uniquely who we are.”

Quinn continues, “What universities claim to be teaching their students — specifically, to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems, and communicate clearly — is necessary but not sufficient for Jesuit universities. For a Jesuit university should ask more of its students by educating and forming them to become men and women of faith and service to their communities,” “men and women of a particular kind: individuals of faith who understand that their faith compels them to work for justice and in the service of others, regardless of their chosen profession.”

Quinn refers to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as “the touchstone of all Jesuit spirituality and the work of any Jesuit school,” specifically Ignatius’ call for us to “join with Jesus Christ” in the task of “redeeming the human race,” the “call issued to very human being,” by working to “conquer all enemies of mankind, which include disease, ignorance, poverty, and oppression.”

He writes of an “educational strategy” that “calls for personal transformation that would lead to transforming society. The ideal of a personal transformation requires a rigorous education to prepare students to become ethical and compassionate leaders who will infuse society with faith and justice,” and who will graduate with a commitment to “work hard transforming society, thereby contributing to the labor of God in attempting, as David Fleming, SJ, said, to ‘work for the redemption of the human race’.”

It sounds good, doesn’t it? In fact, I would say it is exactly what parents of prospective students at Catholic universities are looking for. The question is how performances of The Vagina Monologues, inviting Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards to speak on campus to argue a moral equivalence between the fight for women’s “reproductive rights” and the struggle to end slavery and racism, and the promotion of LGBTQ festivals fit into the “integration of academic, moral and spiritual learning,” of “joining with Jesus” in the “task of redeeming the human race.”

Whenever I ponder that question, I think back to a favorite Jesuit professor of mine from the 1960s. He used to tell us that he would favor having the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre teach a course at Fordham on existentialism. His argument was that thinking Catholics needed to understand the views of our enemies as our enemies understand them, to be able to refute them in an intelligent and effective manner. Is this the same position taken by the modern Jesuits who see nothing wrong with sponsoring speakers and plays such as The Vagina Monologues?

I found my old Jesuit professor’s position persuasive because I was confident that Fordham’s faculty at that time would provide the university’s students a solid counterweight to Sartre, with courses that defended and promoted the best of our Catholic intellectual heritage. I was confident that our side would hold its own, most of the time, in a fair and open competition with whatever Sartre had to say. Quinn’s case for modern Jesuit education would be persuasive, if modern Jesuits are committed to hiring faculty members who will do something comparable for their students.

The bottom line: Do modern Jesuit colleges work to ensure a counterbalance for the left-wing secular humanist views that are now part of life at Jesuit colleges? Do they work to provide a strong and thoughtful refutation of the message of speakers from Planned Parenthood? Do they promote plays that give a view of life rooted in our Catholic heritage to balance the message of The Vagina Monologues? There are such things. We could start with performances of A Man for All Seasons, for example.

If these things are not happening at modern Jesuit schools, all the talk about “joining with Jesus” in the “task of redeeming the human race” amounts to little more than the promotional material one would find in an admissions brochure designed to attract Catholic students and parents to the university.

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