On immigration, founding charisms can guide Catholic schools

Demonstrators in Boston protest the travel restrictions and immigration policies of President Donald J. Trump on Jan. 29.  (CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters)

The annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (A.C.C.U.) brought hundreds of administrators to Washington, D.C., during the last weekend in January. Just days before, newly inaugurated President Donald J. Trump had signed executive orders concerning undocumented immigrants, “sanctuary cities,” restrictions on refugees and a ban on travel to the United States from seven countries. More than 100 Catholic college and university presidents responded by signing an A.C.C.U. statement of support for undocumented students and for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

While the full consequences of the recent executive orders remain unclear—and with further changes in immigration policy still possible—Catholic higher education must decide how to respond further. Specifically, schools must consider how they will advocate for persons whose immigration status may be in question, both in their defense of current students and in their welcome of prospective students. Beyond statements of support for international students and faculty, Catholic colleges and universities must be explicit about what they will and will not do in carrying out the law, and how their actions will reflect the Catholic identity and mission of these schools.


It is important to recall the history of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, particularly how many became places of refuge and opportunity for immigrants from many lands. If German, Irish, Italian and other immigrants could find a home at Catholic schools in previous generations, should not the same opportunity be available for people arriving to this country today?

Being hospitable to ideas, beliefs and cultures that are not our own benefits everyone at a Catholic college or university.

As boards of trustees and presidents consider this question, a resource that should not be overlooked is the founding religious charism of each school. The vast majority of Catholic colleges and universities were founded by religious orders—Jesuit, Franciscan, Dominican, Sisters of Mercy, Benedictine and Holy Cross, to name only a few of the largest. Each religious order has a unique identity or “charism” (from the Greek charisma, meaning “gift”). Benedictines, for example, are well-known for the charism of hospitality.

These charisms are gifts but gifts that require responsibility on the part of the recipient community. For years now, Catholic colleges and universities have been concerned about keeping their charisms alive on campus, especially as the number of priests, brothers and sisters in their founding religious orders declines. This decline is unfortunate, but it teaches us something that we should have known all along: The mission of Catholic colleges and universities is entrusted to administrators, faculty, students and alumni, and not just to those who are members of the religious order.

There is always the risk that charisms can become merely ornamental—slogans in admissions brochures and placards around campus. A school’s charism may come to be seen as in competition with the bottom line rather than as a foundational principle that ought to be guiding the institution’s decisions about enrollment, hiring and budget. However, when Catholic colleges and universities face thorny questions, such as the consequences of immigration policy for higher education, these same founding charisms can provide direction.

The first function of a charism is to preserve the identity, values and mission of a school. The founding charism provides stable ground for Catholic colleges and universities to stand upon amid the ever-changing and complex reality of U.S. higher education. But religious charisms also ought to help promote transformation—that is, to exist in the prophetic dimension. Charisms establish a set of practices that have the potential in every age to transform both campus life and the world beyond the school. Applying the charism to real questions will help reveal the dynamic nature of religious charisms in a new era.

The Benedictine charism of hospitality, for example, demands that Benedictine colleges and universities consider the ethical implications of hospitality as they respond to changes in immigration policy. In the short term, schools will need to decide to what extent they will comply with President Trump’s executive orders and what legal services they will provide for students and faculty who are affected by the change in policy. As higher education in the United States becomes even more competitive, Catholic colleges and universities must also balance institutional viability with accessibility for first-generation students and those from low-income families. Religious charisms such as hospitality can provide a valuable lens for making these decisions. Yet hospitality is not just about what we provide for “the other.” Being hospitable to ideas, beliefs and cultures that are not our own benefits everyone on campus and ultimately blurs the line between the donor and recipient of hospitality.

Unfortunately, students at Catholic schools too often learn only about the founding charism, whether it be hospitality, peace or service. This is mostly a flat and historical perspective. The transformative function of charisms will be realized only when students are instead taught how to be hospitable, peaceful and generous, a lesson best taught by example. When Catholic colleges and universities witness their founding charisms—through institutional structures, policies and day-to-day practice—those charisms serve their real purpose: wisdom for life.

Certainly, St. Benedict did not have our current immigration situation in mind when he first formulated the practice of hospitality. Nonetheless, our task, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, is to return to the original spirit of the founder and interpret it in light of today’s needs. In so doing, it is important to recall that many of the religious founders also lived amid political and economic uncertainty—lest we be tempted to think that they could practice hospitality because they lived in more peaceful times. Hospitality was risky business in Benedict’s time no less than it is for us today.

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