Sunset or Sunrise?

As I sat down to enjoy a breakfast cup of coffee recently on an out-of-town trip, I was caught off guard by a question that would challenge any early riser: How does it feel to preside over the demise of Jesuit higher education? Like it or not, I must admit that my questioner is not alone. There are many today who wonder about where we are and where we are going in Jesuit higher education, and indeed in Catholic higher education in general. As president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (A.J.C.U.), I have a pretty good grasp of the strengths and weaknesses, the highs and lows of our enterprise. I would reject both the pessimism of the Cassandras and the naïve optimism of any Pollyannas among us. Or, in the words of George Bonham, "I am bullish with a wary eye on the realities." Or remembering Ben Franklin’s response to the query about whether the image of the sun on the back of the presider’s chair in Independence Hall represented a sunrise or a sunset, I too would choose the sunrise, all the while being sensitive to why others might see a sunset.


Many of America’s readers are familiar with a 1998 study by James Burtchaell, C.S.C., Dying of the Light, that is subtitled, The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities From Their Christian Churches.


The chapter on Catholic colleges and universities supposes that these schools will follow the path of other church-related colleges in losing their identity. Father Burtchaell strongly challenges the efficacy of efforts to keep vigorous the Catholic (and Jesuit) identity of our schools. We are told that his view was influential with many bishops in last November’s vote on the norms to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae. He thinks the last 30 years saw a loss of presidential nerve in Catholic institutions, or worse, an abandoning of principles for the sake of funding opportunities. Current attempts to regain or maintain Catholic and Jesuit identity he dismisses as ineffective.

Many others argue in the same vein today, citing a loss of control of the Catholic schools by the religious communities that originally sponsored them. This happened because of changes in governance and a drastic decline in the number of the communities’ members. The previously tightly coherent curriculum has given way to a much less cohesive one. To make matters worse, the number of theology and philosophy courses has dropped dramatically.

Some commentators focus on high-profile incidents (controversial theologians, campus policy, student behavior and the like) as further evidence that we have lost our way. Others, digging more deeply beneath the surface, point out the increasing difficulty of maintaining a "critical mass" of faculty and staff informed about and committed to the Catholic, Jesuit identity of our schools in an increasingly pluralistic society. Indeed, Father Burtchaell (and others) provide a healthy antidote and challenge to any facile and false optimism about our efforts to foster our Catholic, Jesuit identity; but I would argue theirs is not the complete picture.


Less than perfect steps may have been taken during those past 30 years, but is that not true of any pioneering effort in uncharted territory? Our colleges and universities were confronting many complex stimuli simultaneously: the world of the Second Vatican Council, with its new model for the church and its promotion of greater involvement by the laity; internal and external challenges to improve the quality of these institutions even as they were rapidly growing in size and complexity; and new threats against public support for church-related schools. These colleges and universities responded with leadership and strategies that have brought them to the new millennium significantly stronger academically and financially, significantly more worthy of respect among peers and the general public and, very importantly, more intentionally Catholic and Jesuit than ever before.

The strategies that have been implemented have included an across-the board commitment to excellence and professionalism, a new mobilization of support from various constituencies and, probably most important, a turning by Jesuits to their lay colleagues for a union in true partnership. Perhaps the most controversial of the new strategies, however, was the development of boards of trustees that have a majority of lay members and full responsibility for governing the schools.

Any objective comparison of the 28 U.S. Jesuit colleges and universities of 1965 and these same institutions today would have to conclude that the combination of innovative strategies has achieved major successes. All 28 schools are respected among their peers, very influential in their communities (local, regional, national and, in many cases, international) and decidedly better able to serve the church. There is a growing sense of pride and networking among our approximately 190,000 students and more than 1.5 million living graduates.

Surveys conducted by the A.J.C.U. office provide substantial evidence that our campuses are serious about their Catholic, Jesuit identity and mission and are taking many steps to promote and foster that identity and mission. Boards of trustees are increasingly involved in this effort. Orientation and continuing development programs for faculty and staff complement what are called "hiring for mission" programs in the recruitment of new faculty members. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are made available in various forms and these experiences are often followed by participation in Christian Life Communities. At a recent meeting with the directors of campus ministry at Jesuit schools, I acquired an overview of the important work these men and women are doing with their broad range of programs for students, faculty and staff. Faith and liturgical life are strong on these campuses, due in no small part to those directors’ efforts. Of course they know as well as anyone that more can be done and needs to be done. My meetings with the rectors of the Jesuit communities serving the colleges and universities emphasize the importance of synergy between those communities and the institution’s identity and mission teams along with its campus ministry.

Jesuit colleges and universities today are called by the church and the Society of Jesus to practice a "faith that does justice." A recent A.J.C.U. survey reports on the many ways in which this is being done. Various forms of "service learning" link service activities with reflection and analysis. Local, national and international immersion experiences enrich the lives of students, faculty and staff, and in many cases, "spoil them for life"that is to say, give them an abiding concern for helping others. A wide variety of programs link our schools with surrounding communities in helping ways that respond to community needs. Faculty members link their expertise with those same needsfor example, in Baltimore, Chicago and San Jose. Students generously join in national programs like Habitat for Humanity, America Reads, Americorps and Oxfam. Students, faculty and staff join together to make service a significant part of their lives as responsible citizens. Many local alumni clubs participate in these programs as well

Last November all 28 campus ministers coordinated the attendance of over 600 students from all 28 campuses at an Ignatian Family Teach-in for Justice at Fort Benning, Ga., the home of the School of the Americas. The 28 Jesuit communities contributed to a symbolic gift to their brothers at the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuits and two of their co-workers there. All of this bears testimony that we are indeed educating "men and women for others," as we profess to do.

The reality of today’s world makes us all international citizens, and another A.J.C.U. report provides evidence of the international outreach of our campuses. All 28 institutions engage in various forms of international exchange, some quite extensively, as we are constantly challenged to do more in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Twenty-six of our schools participate in the highly competitive joint M.B.A. in China, where they also maintain an excellent cultural program for their own undergraduates. More recently, the 28 A.J.C.U. schools have collaborated to establish La Casa de Solidaridad, an immersion experience in El Salvador. Conversations are continuing about exchanges with the Free University of Berlin and with our Latin American counterparts to complement existing exchanges in Mexico and Chile. With over 190 institutions of Jesuit higher education around the world (78 resembling colleges and universities in the U.S.), we have the opportunity to be at once local, regional, national and international. JesuitNET, the Jesuit Distance Education Network, should help us to realize this opportunity.

Some Clouds on the Horizon?

Critics might say that all of this success and activity is well and good, but does it really speak to our Catholic, Jesuit identity? Are we really different from the many other good colleges and universities trying to respond to the opportunities and stimuli for higher education today? One obvious response has been offered by Archbishop Joseph Pittau, S.J., the secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, who emphasizes that to be a good Catholic university, we first have to be a good university. Pope John Paul II himself, in his 1990 document (called technically an apostolic constitution), Ex Corde Ecclesiae, set a noble agenda for Catholic universities when he wrote: "A faith that places itself at the margin of what is human, of what is therefore culture, would be a faith unfaithful to the fullness of what the Word of God manifests and reveals, a decapitated faith, worse still, a faith in the process of self-annihilation" (No. 44). For those believing in the Incarnation, and for those pursuing the Ignatian ideal of magisgreater effort and generosityone need not apologize for being the best we can be, or for pursuing the most ambitious of goals. Whatever successes we have been able to achieve do not constitute an obstacle to, but rather a presupposition for our being authentically Catholic and Jesuit.

Can we do more to foster our Catholic, Jesuit identity in ways that act as a leaven for all of this activity? Of course we can. We are all works in progress, needing challenges and support from one another.

Perhaps the most apparent obstacle to fostering Catholic and Jesuit identity today is the declining number of Jesuits who are expected to embody Jesuit ideals, and the concomitant difficulty of finding a sufficient number of men and women willing and able to keep those ideals alive. There is also the emphasis in higher educational institutions on allegiances to one’s professional field or discipline rather than to a particular institution. This can make faculty participation in identity and mission activities a stretch. So can the postmodern resistance to coherence and big pictures, and the many other pressures competing for faculty time and energy. The list could be extended.

We would be foolish to hide or neglect these very real difficulties, and in fact they are being addressed. Honest conversations about them are being pursued on individual campuses. More and more successful strategies are being developed for board involvement, such as a recent workshop sponsored by the Cardinal Suenens Program at John Carroll University. Materials for faculty and staff orientation and development are becoming more sophisticated, and various forms of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are becoming more accessible. Access to the exercises is very important because, as many have noted, Jesuit education is not so much based on a blueprint, but on an experience, the experience of the Spiritual Exercises. It was an experience originally articulated by a layman for laymen and laywomen. Hence its relevance today.

In all these efforts it is necessary to keep our sights on the Catholic intellectual tradition that gives meaning and value to everything we do as university communities. With this in mind, interdisciplinary Catholic studies programs are becoming more common on our campuses. But the Catholic intellectual tradition, with its strong confidence in the power of reason, its sacramental view (further developed in the Ignatian quest for God in all things), its commitment to faith and reason speaking to one another in rich dialogue has to influence all aspects of Catholic, Jesuit education, including teaching, learning, research, student life, campus ministry, service programs and administration. In Matthew’s Gospel, the kingdom of God is compared to yeast. By extension, the church can be authentically present almost everywhere, and in each place it tries to build itself into the culture and incorporate the culture into itself. The faith can engage each discipline, it welcomes scholars and students of all cultures, and it opens itself to the ongoing revelation contained in a vast and dynamic universe. Everyone is wanted and needed. Catholicism invites the academic community to probe the deepest meanings of its common endeavors.

One final cloud on the horizon: the polarization that is all too common a reality today in the political world, in the church and often on our campuses. This is especially unfortunate, because the complexity of the issues we are dealing with demands that the very best minds and hearts of every persuasion be at the table to try to find effective answers and responses. There are obviously different viewpoints on how our schools should be "Jesuit" and "Catholic." Our challenge is to be in vigorous but civil conversation with one another, and to find "both/and" rather than "either/or" resolutions to our differences.

In Bertolt Brecht’s "Galileo," one striking scene takes place on a stage that is bare except for a telescope at center stage facing the audience. Galileo enters with his pupil, Cosimo, and invites the young boy to look through the telescope. Cosimo does so and cries out in delight at what he sees. A group of philosophers enters, looking suitably serious and erudite. Galileo invites them to look through the telescope, and they draw back in horror, saying they fear they will see something that will contradict the philosopher Aristotle (as of course they would). Finally, a group of men looking like cardinals and representing theologians enters. Galileo invites them to the telescope, but they shrink back fearing they will see something that will contradict what they think is in the Scripture (as they will, using their faulty interpretation of Scripture).

The tragedy of the Galileo case was that Galileo, the philosophers and the theologians all had something to learn from one another. People who could and should have been challenging one another to share and interpret a new world view could not and would not talk to one another. In several ways the church has never recovered from the Galileo case, because it contradicts many of the good things we say about the Catholic intellectual tradition.

We must all look into the telescope focused on Jesuit higher education in all its strengths and weaknesses, and explore its value and complexity. With cooperation and collaboration, we can pursue the exciting task of understanding it, critiquing it and continually creating something betteran even brighter sunrise.

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