#BlackLivesMatter puts the Catholic vision of higher education to the test.

Police cars pass demonstrators on July 6 in Baton Rouge, La. Alton Sterling, a black man, was shot and killed by two white officers on July 5 outside a convenience store (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert).

When I was a young attorney in Chicago, I volunteered to teach anti-discrimination law to public housing residents facing relocation as part of the city’s plan to reduce concentrations of poverty. As high-rise projects were torn down, residents were to receive Section 8 housing vouchers that would allow them to move to the suburbs. At the outset, I was wildly ineffective in the role because I had assumed that the residents would be enthusiastic about the prospect of escaping the projects and moving to the suburbs where I had grown up. Instead, I was met by fear and anxiety, for those high-rise projects, though far from ideal, had served as the only community that many of the residents had known, and the suburbs of my childhood had not always provided a welcoming environment for blacks. Only by meeting and talking face to face with these residents did I gain a powerful reminder that my story is not the story.

The #BlackLivesMatter protests that have rocked cities and campuses across the country are rooted in marginalization and estrangement that fall too frequently along racial lines. These dynamics are not new, of course, but they might be growing more entrenched as we slowly lose our capacity for empathy. Opportunities to understand and experience the feelings and worldviews of those who are different from us are becoming more elusive. This month’s shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have provided yet another set of painful reminders of how different our stories of America can be.

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It is surprisingly easy in modern American society to avoid opportunities for empathy. While technology can increase our sense of connection, it also empowers us to construct our worlds in ways that support our preexisting worldviews and minimize opportunities for cognitive dissonance. Geographic segregation by race and socioeconomic status limits encounters with “the other” in our day-to-day existence. And thanks in part to increasingly precise gerrymandering, the political realm exacerbates our capacity for self-absorption.  

Catholic higher education, when functioning according to its intended purpose, is an antidote to self-absorption. For several reasons, Catholic colleges and universities are well-positioned to play a leadership role in today’s debates.

First, formation matters. Today’s university jeopardizes its ability to speak to today’s protestors when it departs from its mission of forming the person. Rising student debt and questionable employment outcomes have caused many families to approach college through a strictly economic lens. In addition there is increasing concern that the identification and cultivation of particular virtues represents a kind of moral paternalism. As a result more aspirational educational goals are pushed to the margins. The hollowing out of the university mission makes it difficult to engage meaningfully with today’s campus protesters. After all, they are not demanding better job training; they are demanding a more inclusive community. This is a deeply moral demand.

The Catholic vision of education has always been about formation—a relational endeavor that is best undertaken in communities marked by dialogue, interpersonal modeling and opportunities for reflection and growth. Knowledge has more than instrumental value, and the student experience aims at moral growth, not just professional preparation. This foundational orientation does not make answers to deep and difficult questions about diversity and inclusion easy, but it means that the deep and difficult questions are not distractions from the educational mission; they are why the church operates universities in the first place.

Second, history matters. As Americans, our short memories can be a strength, as we perpetually reinvent ourselves and shake off the past in pursuit of a brighter future. Among the many downsides, of course, is that we can be reluctant to connect present struggles to historical oppression. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation more than 150 years ago, but that did not end racial oppression in our country. Jim Crow laws provided the framework for a society that was hard-wired for the subjugation and exclusion of blacks. Our criminal justice system has too often contributed to racial disparities through targeted policing, selective prosecution and inequitable sentencing. A post-white-flight lack of economic opportunity in our inner cities has created crushing cycles of poverty. Blacks were largely cut out of the legitimate home mortgage market until the late 1960s. The list goes on. The progress we have made cannot obscure the fact that today’s protesters speak from a centuries-long stream of marginalization. In its 2,000-year-old role as steward of God’s revelation to the world, the church is intensely aware of history and how it matters. Students at Catholic universities should be equipped to situate current debates within a broader, coherent context.

Third, theology matters. It is more difficult to speak meaningfully about racial justice absent resources that have been mined over centuries within the Catholic intellectual tradition. A belief in the reality of sin—at both the personal and societal levels—can check our tendency to affirm our own goodness as a shield from accountability for injustice. Solidarity prevents us from relegating any human being to the category of “other.” The preferential option for the poor and marginalized demands that we listen proactively and authentically to the cries of protesters, not from a defensive posture but with an openness of heart and mind. A commitment to the common good—as amorphous as that term can be in today’s debates—requires, at a minimum, that our definition of success encompasses communities outside our immediate purview.

None of this is to suggest that the students, faculty, staff and alumni of Catholic universities should be hard-wired to agree with every demand made or position taken by individuals or groups associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Rather, my point is that Catholic universities are positioned to engage this latest chapter in the history of American social movements like few other institutions can. This engagement will reject the increasingly common tendency to choose sides and then treat that choice as the end of moral reflection on the matter. Those who have been formed by Catholic higher education should stand ready to walk in the shoes of those on both sides who are too easily demonized, to help translate justifiable anger into social change, and to help build bridges across the racial divide—not through arm’s-length pronouncements but through the messiness of real relationships. It requires long, difficult work to permit your story to shape my story, but it is work that has never been more important.

Why do universities exist? If our answers extend no further than workforce readiness or socially beneficial research, we have settled for an incomplete vision of higher education’s potential. In his 1990 apostolic constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Pope John Paul II described a Catholic university as an “authentic community animated by the spirit of Christ” with a “common dedication to the truth [and] a common vision of the dignity of the human person.” Now is the time, in the midst of seemingly intractable racial strife, when Catholic universities can demonstrate what this means in the real world, and why it matters.

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Anne Danielson
1 year 10 months ago
http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/rule-of-law/judicial-activism/cases/planned-parenthood-v-casey "Asked to address the issue of abortion again, the Supreme Court by a vote of 5-4 affirmed its 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, albeit based on different reasoning. Explaining that this “substantive due process” right is found in the concept of “individual liberty” within the Due Process Clause, the Court infamously declared in the so-called “mystery clause”: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” An authentic Catholic Education begins with recognizing that, regardless of Race/Ancestry, from the moment of creation, when we are brought into being at conception, every human person has been created in The Image and Likeness of God, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as a son or daughter, Willed by God, worthy of Redemption. At the heart of liberty, is the self-evident truth, that every beloved son or daughter, Is endowed by God, with an unalienable Right to Life, to Liberty, and to The Pursuit of Happiness, the purpose of which can only be, what God intended. Every human person has the inherent Right to be treated with Dignity and respect in private as well as in public, for authentic Liberty, which flows from God's Love, is both personal and relational. Let us never forget that all lives matter because God, The Ordered Communion of Perfect Complementary Love, Created The Human Race, as a reflection of Love, to be Perfected In Christ. http://mirrorofjustice.blogs.com/mirrorofjustice/2012/07/a-reflection-on-freedom.html Godspeed!
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 9 months ago
A movie, despite subtitles, perhaps could help people ease into a discussion. “The Intouchables” (2011) became the most successful French language movie of all time in Germany. The movie relates a true life story of an aristocrat after he becomes a quadriplegic from a paragliding accident and hires a man from the projects to be his caregiver.
Barry Fitzpatrick
1 year 7 months ago
When I was a principal of a Catholic high school, located in an urban area but which drew heavily from the suburbs, I asked a father from the wealthier suburbs why he chose to send his son to our school when he could have afforded anywhere he wanted. His answer was simple. He wanted his son to experience the real world now, not to have to wait to confront it in his career. We were a school with a sizeable minority population, and his son sat next to and befriended many of those young men who were different from others he was accustomed to "out in the county." I was reminded of that dad reading Professor Vischer's article on why our schools must address racial injustice. Our schools (and I believe it needs to start well before higher education) need to focus, as Vischer suggests, on the formation of a community that is inclusive and one that pays attention to the history that every member of the community brings to it. That is among the many reasons for studying our history in a different context, not just from the perspective of the majority class. Before creating that community, though, the schools need to look in the mirror and ask themselves what color is the reflection they see. Where I taught, we were most fortunate to have a racially diverse student body, but it was not something we strategically set out to do. Our location, our history, and our outreach to city schools helped, but it was the community of parents and alumni who saw to it that this community would remain diverse. We were able to take advantage of city schools sponsored by religious orders that catered to the less fortunate, and partnering with them made all of our communities better. Perhaps the reflection in the mirror can show us how we all too often choose up sides on social questions, and then we dig in our heels judging the other side as less than acceptable. Catholic schools must "walk in the shoes of those on (all) sides who are too easily demonized." What Vischer calls the "messiness of real relationships" is the heart of the matter. This is where we are called to be, this is where we can separate our schools from the fruitless taking of sides, and this is where we can become what John Paul II called an "authentic community animated by the spirit of Christ." Many social issues have racial elements embedded in them. They need not have racist baggage on top of that. Our job, I propose, is to take a breath and pay attention, and then to embrace the challenge Vischer throws our way and take the lead in helping formulate a common vision of what it means to be human in this world of ours. It means to be immersed in the messiness of those relationships. We need to provide the opportunity for those relationships to flourish and endure.
Tom Fields
1 year 7 months ago
Hello, We are white and we have 5 children. They have 5 BA';s and 3 MA's. They are all married and have 9 children---all together. They attended schools all over the Country and in Europe.. For College---West Point--4 Virginia schools. All of them have faced racial quotas throughout their lives---in schools and jobs.They are very, very accepting of all races and beliefs.The first year one of our daughters taught 4th Grade--she had only one child who spoke English as a first language. A part of teaching today is recognizing many many "stories"---not just the African-American situation---which is a liberal-political vote-gettter. We have all done volunteer work in minority communities. We are not the problem. We do not demonize anybody. In recent years the liberal political strategy has been to stir up minorities---demonize conservatives---while life for minorities in inner cities has become worse and worse---high school drop out rates, out-of-wedlock birth rates--while advocating abortion----unemployment rates---crime rates------ Universities can provide volunteers in inner cities; they can recognize "Black lives ", "Occupy Wall Street", et al as horrible diversions---supporting control of inner cities for insidious purposes. We are generations past "historical injustice'. Improve inner city schools--encourage marriage and church attendance---increase volunteers for teaching job skills----dump the race-baiting politicians---step down from the "Ivory Tower"---define and work on real problems--encourage church attendance---pray!

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