The difficult questions Catholics need to ask after the college admissions scandal

This combination of images shows college campuses, clockwise from top left, Georgetown University, Stanford University, Yale University, and University of California, Los Angeles. (AP Photos)

As the news broke of organized and widespread deception by wealthy parents to ensure their children’s admission to prestigious universities, I was offended but not surprised. We can decry the hubris and moral relativism of the parents. We can be disappointed at coaches and testing personnel willing to be bribed, lie and cheat for financial gain. We can even wonder how many other cases there are and which powerful people also bought their degrees. These are important considerations. But for people of faith the questions go much deeper.

As a professor, I am daily confronted by the problematic issue of who has a seat in the classroom and who does not, while I am also overwhelmed with gratitude as I witness the profound transformation that education can bring to a person’s life. More important, as a theologian, I am tasked with calling attention to the Christian priorities that should be, must be, different from those of the “marketplace.”

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As a theologian, I am tasked with calling attention to the Christian priorities that should be, must be, different from those of the “marketplace.”

In his wise words to the World Meeting of Universities entrusted to the Society of Jesus in 2018. Superior General Father Arturo Sosa, S.J., stressed the link between the “abundant life” that Jesus came to bring (Jn 10:10) and the moral imperative to make such life accessible and possible to all by “humanizing history from our place at the university.” The work of education is “an apostolate.” I agree because an honest Christian understanding of the world’s complexity and inequalities reveals that the “image of God” stamped into each of us is not given for individual achievement but is the gift of a “form” toward which we have the capacity to grow for the good of all.

The New Testament provides multiple glimpses of the importance of education in Jesus’ own life. He studied and debated in the Temple and although the son of a carpenter, was far from illiterate. As the noted archaeologist William Fulco, S.J., tells me, because Jesus spoke Aramaic and needed Hebrew to read the Scriptures, he must have known enough Greek to function in his trade and must have spoken “kitchen” Latin, which was the language of the military. Jesus was a young man who studied with care and who generously shared his learning. We see him principally referred to as “teacher,” and his effective ways of teasing out and communicating vital ideas attracted many.

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The teaching of Jesus was offered to all equally as an invitation to a deeper engagement with their reality.

If, as we hold, Jesus is the paradigmatic human being, the “form” showing us through his incarnation who we have the potential to be, then education is not peripheral to our being but integrated into its very center. Unlike other religious groups at the time, the early church did not consider learning something only for the few, and they intentionally broke with groups claiming secret knowledge for their elite initiates.

As Jesus showed, education gives us life and has the potential to awaken life in others. The teaching of Jesus and his students was offered to all equally as an invitation to a deeper engagement with their reality. And although today that teaching appears to us swathed in the language of faith, at the time, they were teaching their community to critically read Scripture in the context of daily life. The resulting insights had implications for economics, power structures, gender roles and even the observance of laws that tyrannized people.

Thus, we could say the preaching of Jesus and his friends was multidisciplinary. Centered on a reign of God offered equally to all, it asked how such a vision of communal life affected the widow at the gate of the treasury, the sellers in the Temple, the sick who were driven out of town, the hungry on the Sabbath and the women marked for execution.

Questions about access to universities overlook the painful truth that the entire journey of education is profoundly challenging for the poor and people of color.

It is one of my guiding principles that as a consequence of Jesus’ example, the Christian approach to the world requires us to be champions for education as an inalienable and God-given human right and a theological good. As Father Sosa tells us, “the intellectual apostolate” is “a way to more effectively announce the Good news of the Gospel, to learn to grasp the presence of God in the world and the action of [God’s] Spirit in history in order to join in it and contribute to human liberation.”

The revelation of corruption surrounding who has access to higher education should bring us all to a critical and fruitful space. Yet, asking the question about access to universities overlooks the painful truth that the entire journey of education is profoundly challenging for the poor and people of color.

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And it requires us to keep asking new questions: Who has access to quality preschools? How many of our Catholic elementary schools and high schools have become “private schools” content to cater to the already privileged? How are we interacting with local public schools, which are often underfunded and overcrowded, to support public education? What are we doing to provide the possibility of higher education to adults serving in parish ministries who never had an opportunity? Are we politically active in support of candidates and programs that prioritize funding for education? What can we do at our parishes to partner up with local colleges to offer information and guidance on higher education for our youth? Are we investing in scholarships and mentoring for young people with great potential but scant resources? Are we asking corporations and advertisers to take some of their profits and reinvest these in education? Are we supporting fair wages and classroom sizes for teachers? Every question opens up a new area for our attention.

The lifting of the veil to reveal the underbelly of our present educational system precipitated by the college admissions scandal can be a moment of grace for people of good will, where we begin to take stock of the problems and prayerfully decide to work hard toward solutions so that all “may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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