Tuesday, February 07, 2012

From John Carroll to "distilled Jesuitism."

In today's edition of The Hoya, Georgetown student Michael Fischer (SFS '13) offers a cogent and provocative op-ed on matters pertaining to the religious identity of America's oldest Catholic university - and, by easy analogy, the religious identity of all Jesuit universities in the United States:
As they pass the statue of John Carroll, tour guides are advised to suggest to prospective students that our Jesuit founder would be proud of where we are today. As our annual celebration of Jesuit Heritage Week came to a close Sunday, I found myself deeply reflecting upon the question: What would past Jesuits think of Georgetown today?

Certainly, Georgetown's Jesuit forebears would marvel at its impressive growth. They would commend the university for breaking down barriers of race, creed and sex to cultivate and educate students who were once marginalized. They would be proud that students here commit themselves to engaging the greater community, especially those in most need.

Yet my reflections also lead me to worry that these men to whom we owe so much would also deliver a scathing critique of Georgetown today and perhaps say that we've entirely missed the point of this university.

In recent years, Georgetown has cultivated its identity through an approach I call 'distilled Jesuitism,' the abridged works of Jesuit thought and values for the masses. Even when we seek to broaden our understanding and appreciation of our Jesuit inheritance through events like Jesuit Heritage Week, we still speak in catchy buzzwords: "social justice," "contemplation in action" and "God in all things." Reliance on these phrases generates misconceptions that Georgetown is a pseudo-Jesuit, but not Catholic, institution.
I have to commend Fischer for his use of the phrase "distilled Jesuitism," which describes a real problem that Jesuits and others who care about our work need to seriously examine. We often allow our charism to be packaged and presented in terms of catchphrases like the ones listed above, offering a view of Jesuit identity that is selective at best. Depending on the catchphrases that we employ, we also run the risk of leaving out what is really distinctive about Jesuit institutions: their religious identity. Saint Joseph's University can proudly point to its commitment to "educating the whole person," but Penn and Temple could easily do the same without thereby committing themselves to a Catholic worldview. Boston College can state that it cares about "social justice," but few eyebrows would be raised if Harvard and Tufts made identical claims.

In short, I think it's clear that the problem of "distilled Jesuitism" is not unique to Georgetown. Frankly, I don't even think that it's unique to Jesuit higher education, or to Jesuit education in general: similar concerns could be raised about the way that themes from Ignatian spirituality are sometimes 'marketed' to contemporary 'spiritual consumers.' Rather than go off on one or another tangent connected to these themes, let me return to what Michael Fischer has to say:
It is impossible to be Jesuit without being Catholic. Georgetown does not offer a Jesuit education, but instead a Catholic education preserved by Jesuit sweat. A Catholic education does not require a Catholic faith, but it does nevertheless require observance of Catholic principles and values.

Jesuits founded Georgetown in order to educate under these convictions and beliefs. But the Latin root of the verb "to educate" means "to lead out." Its derivatives in Italian, Spanish and French all mean "to civilize."

Outsiders may say this sounds elitist. Yet from the start, a Jesuit education targeted the gifted and the graced, because St. Ignatius knew that their souls were at great risk: They had the potential to do the utmost good or the worst evil.

Georgetown was not founded primarily to train students to run governments, teach students to make money or provide students with the resources to cure diseases, though all these might be valuable consequences.

In 1989, [then-President] Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., reminded students that at Georgetown, "we have never bowed to either of two heresies: that the bachelor's degree is for making a living rather than for life itself or that one can debase the arts and sciences to make them ‘value-free.'"

Yes, the university should want to open up minds, break down prejudices and fill the vaults of knowledge. Yet at a Catholic school, under Jesuit guidance, education is primarily meant to build conviction, enshrine virtues and make truths known. The chief mission of Georgetown is not to send forth smart, skilled or even world-changing graduates but instead gentlemen and gentlewomen, individuals of substance, character and virtue.
To read the rest, click here. Naturally, I could say a lot about these topics, but for now I'll confine myself to the above comments on "distilled Jesuitism" and let Mr. Fischer otherwise speak for himself. Readers with thoughts on all this are, of course, more than welcome to add their own comments. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home