Seeds of Life and Love: The Contested Identity of Catholic Universities

Chris Pramuk, Associate Professor of Theology at Xavier University and editor of our partner blog, Raids Across the Color Line, has published a response to DT’s recent Shark Week, specifically to Kevin Ahern’s post from Thursday.  We’ve happily re-blogged the first few paragraphs of Chris’s post, but be sure to read the entire post for its important contribution to the conversation!  #DTSharkWeek

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In a recent post at DT, Kevin Ahern of Manhattan College argues powerfully that the “Gospel of the Marginalized” as described by Pope Francis and the “preferential option for the poor” as articulated by Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria and other liberation theologians must take pride of place in the ethos and culture of the Catholic university today—as, indeed, it has at Ellacuria’s University of Central America, at the cost of martyrdom. Again and again, as Ahern observes, Pope Francis in word and deed reinforces a core insight of liberation and political theologies: no longer can we view “Catholic social teaching” as a kind of appendage to the church’s mission. Ahern asks us to consider what Pope Francis’s vision of the church might mean for the mission of Catholic universities in the United States today, as when Francis calls us:

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! 

As a sign of hope and commitment to the “Gospel of the marginalized” on Catholic campuses Ahern points to the proliferation of service learning programs and opportunities for immersion experiences among the poor. (Amen!) He concludes with a penetrating “examination of conscience,” masterful in its vision of the Catholic university as a holistic enterprise, its religious mission clearly not relegated to the theology and philosophy departments.

Why, then, do I find myself uneasy with Ahern’s proposal? I have read the essay three times, and agree substantively with everything in it. And yet, pedagogically, as a teacher, I wonder if Ahern’s justly impassioned case for placing the preferential option for the poor at the center of Catholic university identity too much glosses over the cultural and imaginative shift implied—the wholesale conversion implied—in Pope Francis’s and Ellacuria’s vision of Christian discipleship. In other words, the Gospel of the marginalized implies an enormous shift of vision and heart that would seem very far removed from the imaginative playing fields in which our students (and we all) are plunged, and which they take as normative.

What seems missing from Ahern’s proposal is an adequate acknowledgment of the gravity and scope of epistemic or cultural barriers to conversion that prevent us from seeing our suffering neighbor through the “mind of Christ.” To be sure, Ahern names four barriers, all inveighed by Francis, that are crucial indeed: consumerism, clericalism, the globalization of indifference, and practical relativism, the latter which the Pope laments 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.” To these four, however, if we are honest, we may have to add a fifth: namely, “practical ignorance of or indifference to the Gospel.”

Read the rest of the post here!