Last weekend Pope Francis welcomed twenty new members of the College of Cardinals, including several from dioceses on the peripheries, such as the tiny Island Kingdom of Tonga. In keeping with major themes from his pontificate, Francis’s homily to the cardinals framed the mission of church in light of Jesus’s compassionate actions to reach out to the marginalized (Mk 1:40-45). “The compassion of Jesus,” the pope stressed, leads him “to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized!” The pope concluded his homily by urging the cardinals to keep in mind the church’s real mission or “logic” of the gospel:
I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it. I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith…to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!…Truly, dear brothers, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed!
This is a profound message about Catholic identity that goes beyond the “college” of cardinals. If reaching out to the marginalized is where Christian credibility is discovered and revealed, what does that say about the identity of Catholic higher education?
In considering this, I have been reminded of an address by another Latin American Jesuit that I assign to my students every semester to help them evaluate our college’s Catholic identity. In 1982, Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ offered the commencement address at Santa Clara University—seven years before he and others at University of Central America were brutally murdered for their social witness. In his address, Ellacuría emphasized the unique and important role of the Catholic university in reaching out to the marginalized. For him, the Catholic university has two aspects. First, it is called to engage “culture, with knowledge.” Here, we can see the important role of courses in math, theology, art, science, etc.
But the vocation of the Catholic university does not end there. Catholic higher education is also called to live up to its role as a “social force” committed to witnessing to the gospel in their communities and in the world:
A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.
It strikes me that the biggest challenge facing Catholic higher education and Catholic institutional identity today is not how many core theology classes we have, though this is clearly important. It is not about our commencement speakers or how we deal with issues of contraception as the so-called Cardinal Newman Society obsesses over. And it’s not about how our institutions will survive transitions from religious to lay presidents.
Rather, the critical challenge to Catholic institutional identity today concerns how we embody what Francis describes as the “gospel of the marginalized.” How do we utilize our institutional resources, the training of highly educated people, and the Catholic social and intellectual tradition to serve the needs of those marginalized on our campuses, in our communities, and in the human family? Put in another way, do our institutions resemble the community leaders who arrogantly shunned and excluded the sick and the poor or do they resemble more Jesus Christ who reached out to them to reinstate them into the community (Mk 1:40)?
Occupying a position at the intersection of the church and society, Catholic colleges and universities are confronted with several social and ecclesial trends that prevent us from becoming social forces for the marginalized. Drawing on Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium, let me briefly identify four of these:
- Consumerism (EG 53-60): which turns our students into passive consumers, education into a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder; and the university into a service provider – like a supermarket or country club rather than a community of learning.
- Clericalism (EG 102): which in the academic context uplifts the privilege and power of a select group of administrators and faculty while also dehumanizing others on the campus; those at less “prestigious” schools; and those without any education.
- Globalization of indifference (EG 54): whereby, to quote Francis, “we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” And
- Practical relativism (EG 80): which Francis describes as “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist.”
But there is hope. Many Catholic colleges are taking the lead in service learning and international immersion programs. A handful of Catholic colleges, including my own institution-Manhattan College-have committed themselves to fair trade and environmental sustainability and many have developed formalized partnerships with Catholic Relief Services and other social action groups. More impressive, perhaps, is the recent introduction of Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, a new community college aimed at students with “limited financial resources.” I dream that similar institutions can be established in all major cities in the US, perhaps as partnerships between multiple Catholic colleges.
But even with these successes, we cannot think that a few programs for a few students will fully embody the gospel mandate to go out to the marginalized. Even the best service learning programs for example, do not involve the majority of students on a campus.
As we evaluate the role and mission of Catholic higher education in this Lenten season, allow me to conclude by proposing a few questions to guide an examination of conscience as we seek to renew our communities in light of the teachings of the gospel.
Examination of conscience
- Is our concern for the marginalized integrated throughout the curriculum or limited only to a few token courses?
- Do we mention the Christian commitment to the marginalized in orientation programs for new faculty, staff, and administrators?
- As faculty, do we gravitate more toward those students who are comfortable with the material and engaged in class? How do we relate to students who did not go to the best high school? Those for whom English is a second or third language? What about commuter students and those students who work one or two jobs to pay for school?
- As scholars, do we value our colleagues more based on the prestige of their graduate work and the number of publications they have? Do we judge the worth of a scholar by the ranking of their institution? Does that calculation leave others on the margins? What about adjuncts? Do we see them as members of our community?
- As administrators, do we prioritize rankings and money over the mission to the marginalized?
- How do we reach out to students who feel marginalized on our campus? How do we support minority communities on campus? Do we have adequate support systems for students with specific needs, including those disabilities, chronic illness, those with children, those recovering from trauma, and those who are “commuters”?
- Do our investment funds reinforce or resist the marginalization of others, particularly in the face of structures of sin (e.g., racism, sexism, environmental exploitation, modern slavery)?
- Do we choose members of governing boards because of their commitment to serving the marginalized (mission) or only because of their ability to raise or give money? If the latter, how does that shape the way we live out our mission? Could we even imagine inviting social workers or local community leaders onto our boards?
- Do our graduates, including those who are not Catholic and those who graduate from our professional schools (e.g., law, medical, business, engineering) embody our commitment to go out to the marginalized?
- Do we welcome members of the local community on to campus for events, to make use of our libraries, chapels, and green spaces? Or do we erect fences and walls like elite country clubs that are for “members only” with the proper security ID?
These are not easy questions. In a certain sense they are far more difficult to address than how many theology or religion core courses are required. But they are important and necessary issues to address for any of us concerned with Catholic institutional identity.