I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.[i]
Pope Francis presents us with a challenge. If taking the Christian faith seriously means, among other things, to work for new social arrangements that are more in line with Gospel, then individual acts of discipleship are not enough. We need, as he stressed in his address to popular movements, organized efforts for social change. Renewing a Catholic student movement in the United States is a critical step in that direction and it is one way that we can make the so-called “Francis effect” a reality.
College students represent one of the most powerful demographics in the United States and Catholicism is the one of the largest religious traditions among college-age students. A mobilized movement of this demographic, that includes but goes beyond students at Catholic colleges, could have a transformative impact on higher education, on the church, and social issues around the world. The time is now for a renewed student movement.
Catholic colleges and universities can do a lot to foster and support such a movement, but as part of their mission they need look beyond their institutional and congregational (Jesuit, Dominican) identities to the broader and often more diverse student church around the country. Not all students are lucky enough to have the access to ministry resources and courses in theology/religious studies as students at elite Catholic schools. What about the students at the community college or public university down the street with no courses in theology and no campus ministry? What about the students who have never heard of Catholic social teaching or liberation theology? A broad based student movement can help bridge some of these gaps. (Though, sadly, it is my experience that the bigger the campus ministry or university the less likely it is to want to work with others).
I. Signs of Hope
Over the past few years, I have been encouraged by a number of social justice movements taking shape on college campuses, including the DREAMer movement, fossil fuel divestment efforts, and #blacklivesmatter. These broad based movements represent clear signs of hope and a student awakening that we have not seen since the 1960s.
Sadly, too many Catholic students, campus ministry groups, and Catholic universities have remained silent in the face these and other pressing social issues. There have even been some recent efforts by Catholic universities to actively oppose student organizing for issues in line with Catholic social teaching. There are notable exceptions to this, of course. Many Catholic Colleges, with well-funded campus ministries and theology departments engender an awareness of social justice through service learning programs, service trips, and courses. Catholic Relief Services has developed a promising “student ambassador program” to promote its work. And some religious orders and congregations have introduced their own campus outreach groups, such as the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, the largest gathering for social justice in the country.There is also the ESTEEM leadership program created out of Yale and the Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.
These good efforts, by themselves, however, do not constitute a Catholic student movement and they are generally limited to students at rather high-profile institutions. What is needed now is a real movement of, by, and for young people themselves.[ii] Building off of the successful student and young worker-led movements, such as the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS-Pax Romana) and the International Young Christian Workers (IYCW), the Second Vatican Council highlighted this model as the most effective means of forming young people as apostles:
“The young,” the council stressed, “should become the first apostles of the young, in direct contact with them, exercising the apostolate by themselves among themselves, taking account of their social environment” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 12).
II. The Most Untold Story of Twentieth Century Catholicism
The impact of movements of, by, and for students and young workers is arguably the most untold Catholic stories of the past century. While their impact often goes unnoticed, consider the following:
- Catholic student movements were instrumental in the formation of the theology of liberation and first generation of liberation theologians;[iii]
- they played an animating role in promoting the early structures of the European Union and United Nations system,[iv]
- IMCS and IYCW shaped discourse at Vatican II through lay auditors their chaplains who were council experts,[v] and
- these same student movements helped to bring about positive social-political change in many countries, including Italy (FUCI), Brazil (JUC), Peru (UNEC), South Africa (NCFS), and the Philippines (SCAP). [vi]
Because their stories are often not told, we fail to see the transformative potential of student movements in society and in the church. And we fail to appreciate the role they continue to play today, in mobilizing students around the world today for justice.
III. The Challenge and Potential of a New Student Movement
In my 18 years of mobilizing Catholic college students, I know how difficult it is to form a sustainable student movement in the United States.[vii] For starters, engaging students has not been a priority of the Church in many parts of the country. The majority of college campuses do not have any campus ministries or Newman Clubs. Following the financial crisis in many dioceses, outreach to students has often been the first to go. Small schools and community colleges, have been hardest hit.
Where they do exist, it is very difficult, but not surprising, to get groups to think beyond their campus boundary. Still, other groups, adopting the evangelical Campus Crusade for Christ Model, seem to reduce Catholicism to a personal spirituality that pays little attention to social justice. Again, there are a number of exceptions to this. But the big picture remains bleak, especially for students who do not attended institutions with well-funded programs.
Commenting on this situation in the United States, one Maryknoll Missionary priest who has long worked with student movements in Latin America made the following comment: “college students in the United States today are what the working class in Europe was like 100 years ago. If we don’t see them as a priority we will lose them.”
In a recent article for Concilium, I outlined several obstacles that inhibit the formation of an effective student movement from taking shape, including consumerism, clericalism, and a vertical/spiritual escapism.[viii] All three of these trends serve to pacify and inhibit the formation of a real student movement. But they also point to a great apostolic task to help students recognize, as the US Bishops commented in 1985, that they are “empowered by the Holy Spirit” and they are called to work for social change as the church of the here and now.[ix]
III. An Apostolic Proposal
So how can we do this? How do we rebuild a Catholic student movement that can work for justice on campuses, in the church and in the world?
Imagine what we could accomplish if we could help students create a new national movement of student groups who are excited by the vision of the church presented by Pope Francis and who are concerned with putting the Catholic faith into social action.
- It would not have to be too big. 25 organized communities or cells could do a lot.
- This movement could network existing student groups (e.g, interested Newman Clubs, social action committee, groups at Catholic universities) and create new student-led student groups where they don’t exist, with special attention to community colleges and state schools,
- Student leaders from each of these groups could elect a leadership team to mobilize and represent the movement with a lay, ordained or religious chaplain.
- Catholic colleges could host study sessions on social themes (liberation theology, racial justice, etc) that would be targeted to student leaders at other schools,
- This movement would be part of the International Movement of Catholic Students and help to once again give US students a voice in the global movement of student and relevant United Nations and Vatican consultations. (US students could take special advantage of this to represent IMCS at the UN in New York).[x]
- The support of chaplains and faculty from Catholic colleges as well as religious orders and other partner networks will be key to ensure the sustainability of this movement, but it should remain student led.
As Pope Francis reminds us, the needs of the world are so great that we cannot remain passive. The Catholic community in the United States must mobilize more effectively for social justice and a student movement has to be a key element of this. There can be no delay. The time is now to act.
If interested, share your ideas here or please contact me.
[ii] This was the vision of Joseph Cardijn, the chaplain of the Young Christian Worker movement and one of the key figures of Vatican II. He called for a “special organization, in which, with them, by them and for them, it is they themselves who work at their proper formation and little by little come to take the initiative in the practice of responsibility.”Quoted in Michael De La Bedoyere, The Cardijn Story: A Study of the Life of Mgr. Joseph Cardijn and the Young Christian Workers’ Movement Which He Founded. Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1959, 73.
[iii] Anna Maria Bidegaín, From Catholic Action to Liberation Theology: The Historical Process of the Laity in Latin America in the Twentieth Century, Working Paper 48 (Notre Dame, IN: Kellogg Institute, 1985); Enrique D. Dussel, “Recent Latin American Theology,” in The Church in Latin America, 1492-1992, ed. Enrique D. Dussel, trans. Paul Burns, vol. 1, A History of the Church in the Third World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), 324.
[iv] Bernard Cook, “Pax Romana and the Reconstruction of a United Europe Along Christian Lines,” in Une Europe Malgré Tout, 1945-1990: Contacts et Réseaux Culturels, Intellectuels et Scientifiques Entre Européens Dans La Guerre Froide, ed. Antoine Fleury and Lubor Jílek, vol. 9 (Brussels: Peter Land, 2009), 267–79.
[v] Rosemary Goldie, “Lay Participation in the Work of Vatican II,” Miscellanea Lateranense, no. 40–41 (1975 1974): 503–25.
[vi] José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). See also my chapter on the Young Christian Workers in Kevin Ahern, Structures of Grace: Catholic Organizations Serving the Global Common Good (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015).
[vii] Building a socially engaged Catholic student movement in the United States has been a key part of my life since 1998 when I got involved with the National Catholic Student Coalition. I later worked for four years as president of the International Movement of Catholic Students, in building student movements in dozens of countries around the world and advocating for student concerns in the UN and in the Church.
[viii] consumerism, and its rejection of commitment, where students are seen (or see themselves) as passive consumers of a product and some ministers see themselves as service provider, clericalism and paternalism, where some priests, lay campus ministers, faculty, and college administrators keep students away from decision making and true leadership (even if that means letting them make mistakes), and a vertical escapism, where the Catholic faith and evangelization is reduced only to a mystical-spiritual nature, as if concern for social justice and the marginalized were non-essential elements of an authentic spirituality. Ahern, Kevin. “From Spectators to Protagonists: Youth Movements in a Global Church.” In Young Catholics: How They Think, How They Live, and How They Are Reshaping the Church, edited by Solange Lefebvre, Maria Clara Bingemer, and Silvia Scatena, 28–40. Concilium 2015/2. London: SCM Press, 2015.
[x] In many ways, this vision is building off of the National Catholic Student Coalition (1980 -2014). Some of the infrastructure of the NCSC might even be used to support this effort. But it would be a renewed student movement.