Seeds of Life and Love: The Contested Identity of Catholic Universities

Our partner blog at Daily Theology is running a fabulous series of posts on the much-contested question of the identity and mission of Catholic universities today, especially in light of recent controversy swirling around the University of Notre Dame’s potential changes to its core curriculum. I want to offer a few thoughts on these questions, in part, as a response to DT, and in part, by way of working out my own struggle with the whole vexatious problem of “Catholic identity.” I hope the length of this post–much longer than my usual–can be pardoned as a reflection of the complexity and ultimately, I think, the beauty, of the discussion at hand.

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Gospel of the Marginalized

In a recent post at DT, Kevin Ahern of Manhattan College argues powerfully that the “Gospel of the Marginalized” as described by Pope Francis and the “preferential option for the poor” as articulated by Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria and other liberation theologians must take pride of place in the ethos and culture of the Catholic university today—as, indeed, it has at Ellacuria’s University of Central America, at the cost of martyrdom. Again and again, as Ahern observes, Pope Francis in word and deed reinforces a core insight of liberation and political theologies: no longer can we view “Catholic social teaching” as a kind of appendage to the church’s mission. Ahern asks us to consider what Pope Francis’s vision of the church might mean for the mission of Catholic universities in the United States today, as when Francis calls us:

to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith…to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!…Truly, dear brothers, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed! (1)

As a sign of hope and commitment to the “Gospel of the marginalized” on Catholic campuses Ahern points to the proliferation of service learning programs and opportunities for immersion experiences among the poor. (Amen!) He concludes with a penetrating “examination of conscience,” masterful in its vision of the Catholic university as a holistic enterprise, its religious mission clearly not relegated to the theology and philosophy departments.

Why, then, do I find myself uneasy with Ahern’s proposal? I have read the essay three times, and agree substantively with everything in it. And yet, pedagogically, as a teacher, I wonder if Ahern’s justly impassioned case for placing the preferential option for the poor at the center of Catholic university identity too much glosses over the cultural and imaginative shift implied—the wholesale conversion implied—in Pope Francis’s and Ellacuria’s vision of Christian discipleship. In other words, the Gospel of the marginalized implies an enormous shift of vision and heart that would seem very far removed from the imaginative playing fields in which our students (and we all) are plunged, and which they take as normative.

What seems missing from Ahern’s proposal is an adequate acknowledgment of the gravity and scope of epistemic or cultural barriers to conversion that prevent us from seeing our suffering neighbor through the “mind of Christ.” To be sure, Ahern names four barriers, all inveighed by Francis, that are crucial indeed: consumerism, clericalism, the globalization of indifference, and practical relativism, the latter which the Pope laments as “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist.” To these four, however, if we are honest, we may have to add a fifth: namely, “practical ignorance of or indifference to the Gospel.”

Hinkle Hall, Home of the Department of Theology, Xavier University
Hinkle Hall, Home of the Department of Theology, Xavier University

It is not incidental that Pope Francis and Ellacuria are Jesuits. The soils of their religious imagination have been thoroughly tilled—the desires of their hearts have been schooled—by the encounter with Jesus and the divine-human drama of the Gospels as mediated by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Their living sense of Christ has been intensified further by their pastoral (and political) immersion in the lives of the people of God, the crucified poor, and their witness to faith. Their sense of “Catholic identity”—by which I mean the imaginative lens through which they holistically see and approach the world—is thus inseparable from their Jesuit formation and Ignatian “way of proceeding” as companions of Jesus, marked in their Jesuit and Latin American contexts for some fifty years by systemic commitment to the poor. How many of us can say the same of ourselves, our students, our institutions? And perhaps this is precisely Ahern’s point, the heart of his veiled lament.(2)

Seeds of Transformation and Cross-Fertilization

If we wish to break through the epistemic, social, racial, economic, and institutional barriers that prevent us from seeing and seeking out the Lord “in every excluded person” who is marginalized, it will necessitate a more difficult and honest self-reflection on (Catholic) imagination and culture, and how the stories we choose to tell about ourselves—and the stories we choose to exclude—come to shape our deepest desires and practices as persons and as institutions. To say it too crudely: How do we help our students truly “see the Lord” in the suffering world if they–and even we–haven’t yet really met the Lord?

How many of us have “met the Lord” in the sense that Francis surely means—such that our hearts are “burning within us,” as in the disciples on the road to Emmaus? What can we do to build what Francis calls a “culture of encounter” that itself flows from our love affair with the person of Jesus, the risen Christ, who is not merely a “notion,” in Newman’s sense, but truly “real,” a “fact of the imagination,” or, in the Ignatian sense, alive and with us “in all things”? It has taken me thirty years and more to outgrow the somewhat vague, formalized “idea” of Christ and of “Catholic identity” instilled in me by 12 years of parochial school catechism classes. St. Ignatius has helped me along this path; Thomas Merton has helped me even more.

Engaging "Jesuit Theology and Spirituality" at Xavier University
Engaging “Jesuit Theology and Spirituality” at Xavier University

To pause on this point, it seems to me we should be very careful about downplaying or diminishing the role of theology in the core curriculum. Where else, if not in their theology classes, will our students have the opportunity to encounter the person of Jesus at the heart of the Catholic Christian (and Jesuit) imagination? Or, if you prefer, where else to reflect on the corporate memory and experience of Christ as evoked in the New Testament, interpreted in various schools of theology, liturgy, art, and “Tradition” down through the ages?

Whether because of external pressures on the core curriculum from without or because of specialization and fragmentation within theology itself, it seems we increasingly run the risk of offering “everything but” an encounter with Jesus and the prophets as mediated in the Bible or in still-vital mystical traditions such as the Spiritual Exercises and the monastic disciplines. In any case, without a basic familiarity with these elements of the Tradition—the prophets, the life of Christ, the saints past and present, and so on—can the “Gospel of the marginalized” truly find purchase in the imagination, intellect, and heart of our students?

To be clear, I share Ahern’s conviction that “tilling the soils” of our students’ imaginations must be and has always been a holistic enterprise at the Catholic university. Where better to cultivate a sense of “God’s Grandeur” (to allude to Hopkins’ famous poem) than in science or biology classes? Where else to discover the mystery of divine-humanity “in all things” than during an immersion experience stretched outside our pious comfort zones, e.g., in the heart of the blighted city? Yet neither of these essential formative contexts will necessarily sow or “cross-fertilize,” if you will, the landscapes of our students’ imaginations with the Christian memory and divine-human drama of “grace,” of “God with us” in Christ.

This is not to downplay the significance or transformative impact of student experiences that are not explicitly framed in religious or theological terms. Many of my own transformations have been sparked by such experiences. Rather, it is to be honest about the image and language-worlds we choose to inhabit (and choose not to inhabit) on our Catholic campuses, and the degree to which students find themselves immersed and invited explicitly into the Christian mystery.

In short, mustn’t there be a constellation of formative spaces in the Catholic university where the corporate memory and experience of Christ is cultivated? If so, where are these spaces? In the theology classroom? Or, as theology requirements are gutted, in campus ministry programs? In the liturgy? In the recitation of Christian formulas during commencement?

Granting the infinitely diverse religious backgrounds from which our students come, not least our Catholic students, these are by no means easy questions. I have served on enough Jesuit Catholic “Mission and Identity” committees, alongside respected colleagues and friends of every faith background, to know the delicacy of this dance. But returning to Pope Francis and Ellacuria, is not the encounter with Jesus the “good soil” from which the Christian learns to link the incarnate God directly, in the flesh, with the marginalized?

In a way, I am suggesting that Ahern’s radically outward-looking proposal is not radical enough to the extent it does not quite address the mystical, sapiential, or imaginative wellsprings—the “pedagogy of the heart”—from which springs the Gospel option for the poor, and for that matter, interfaith dialogue and other essential thrusts of a socially engaged Catholic spirituality. In Christian terms, these latter are not ethical mandates or programs so much as the fruits of falling in love, and then desiring, in freedom, to follow.

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Xavier theology majors with Br. Paul Quenon, poet and monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani

All of this is to suggest that both the impediments and the potential solutions to “Catholic identity” are deeper than our discussions sometimes acknowledge. They lay in the realm of imagination, not least the existential, epistemic barriers that any formation of “Catholic sensibilities” must address. In truth the more time I spend with students of every background the more I am convinced that we must “start further back,” as it were, from the Bible or our favorite theologians or any explicitly religious texts to consider (respect, honor) the deep “soil” of our students’ imaginations, the unfathomable “texts” of their hearts, as they come to us.

To borrow from Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed, our task has as much to do with tilling the soils of the imagination as it does with casting the seeds, or turf battles over what kind of seed to cast. Without well-tilled soil, as Jesus intimates, the quality and kind of seed doesn’t matter, for when it breaks open it will find little receptivity for its nascent roots.

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The Arts and Catholic Identity

Why, I often wonder, is so much of my teaching taken up with critical questions of epistemology? Why am I so inclined to use poetry, music and storytelling in the classroom? Because, it seems, I want the seeds of faith, when they are cast, to tremble and break open “naturally” in my students’ imaginations; I have come to trust that the “categorical” stuff of revelation will awaken sacred human desires they already have, so long as they have the tools to recognize, name, and discern such desires, to count them as trustworthy, as seeds of the divine image.

As the younger generation of theologians seems intuitively to understand, music, poetry and the arts help to cultivate the receptive imagination of our students, readying it for faith, tilling the ground for the soul’s reception of a Christ-haunted faith, a faith both terrible and beautiful, which might, “in the fullness of time,” bear fruit even in martyrdom. Would we wish for our students—nay, for ourselves, as Ellacuria implicitly asks—the terrible grace of martyrdom? Perhaps not. At least, please, Lord, not just yet! But perhaps, for a few, we will have nurtured the seeds that flower one day in that direction.

Interfaith.GuatemalaI pose this final observation about “Catholic identity” not as a critique but as a grateful complement to Ahern’s discussion: How might a greater commitment to the arts and humanities—where traditionally the soils of the imagination have been fertilized at the Catholic university—facilitate our conversion to the Gospel of the marginalized, and even to martyrdom, in solidarity with the poor? (2)

MPGallagher.HumanPoetryI’ll gesture toward an initial response to this question and bring this lengthy post to a conclusion by citing from an extraordinary book called The Human Poetry of Faith, by Jesuit Fr. Michael Paul Gallagher, recently retired Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. In one of many provocative “spiritual exercises” peppered throughout the book, Fr. Gallagher imagines a conversation between the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and English poet and playwright William Shakespeare.  In both spirit and substance, this time-bending, culture-crossing exchange shares a lot, I think, with Kevin Ahern’s fundamental vision and passion for Catholic education, while also evoking the crucial role of the arts, as I’ve tried to articulate here.

A Costly Wisdom

Shakespeare: We both trusted passionate incarnation rather than theory. We wanted to make the cost of the human journey real to people. We hoped to remind them of the full range of their humanity.

Romero: Being present to the wounded ones of the world breaks down our prisons of pettiness. I felt impotent before such brutality, and yet reaching my limits was good for me. The powerlessness pushed me to trust beyond myself, ultimately to trust in God.

S: I wanted my audience to be taken beyond themselves by what they saw, to recognize their own hidden pain, and in this way to be—as you might say—converted. Our own vulnerability is mirrored back to us through the brokenness of others.

R: That is what God is always doing in our reluctant humanity, transforming “hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.” As an artist you did something similar.

S: It meant descending into the darker regions of humanity before being able to imagine roads toward harmony.

R: You are echoing there the journey of Christ himself.

S: His journey was first of all an experience. I see the gospels as a drama, not just because I am a dramatist.

RomeroR: Christ’s journey is still an experience and a drama—made real in the pain of ordinary people and in the slow erosion of our egoism. History is not the neutral place I thought it to be: it is a battleground between love and hate. Taking sides in this struggle brought me into more joy and more agony than I had ever imagined. I came alive as never before, and eventually it cost me my life.

S: Hamlet and Lear and even Othello entered into an aliveness beyond agony. There was a costly wisdom beyond the darkness. But it has to be embodied. I did it in drama. You did it in the drama of your witness.

R: So we both followed our call—to taste the cup of life to the full, which meant entering areas of agony and even cruelty. When times were toughest for me, my prayer became a simple plea, to be worthy of the suffering of the poor.

S: And I came to trust that there was another quality of mercy and peace beyond all the pain, and one that pointed towards a religious horizon. In the mouth of Hamlet facing death, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…the readiness is all.” (4)

The passage evokes for me the two-fold mystery and Christ-haunted paradox at play in every Catholic university’s calling: to facilitate the living encounter with Christ, even, if not especially, where the name of Christ is not spoken. It becomes a question of how to help our students of every background learn to recognize and discern the movements of grace, of God’s abiding presence and promises for life, at the intersection of our own divine-humanity.

How beautiful, and yet how tenuous and costly, is this act of faith in an incarnate God. In truth the seeds of life and love are already cast into the world by the vineyard owner. What better can we do to nurture them at our Catholic universities?


(1) Pope Francis, homily to College of Cardinals, February 15, 2015 (

(2) I skirt here a frequent point of contention in the “core wars” at Jesuit Catholic universities: to what extent can “Jesuit identity” be neatly distinguished, if not practically separated, from “Catholic identity”? Do we distinguish these terms in order to separate, or to unite? (To recall Jacques Maritain’s description of the Catholic impetus, “distinguir para unir“.) If the former, perhaps we mislead ourselves and our students. Are not both terms symbolic of a commitment of all our gifts rising from the transformative encounter with Christ?

(3) On the arts and teaching for justice in the classroom, framed by the Spiritual Exercises and the thought of William Lynch, SJ, see Christopher Pramuk, “Beauty Limned in Violence: Experimenting with Protest Music in the Ignatian Classroom,” in Transforming Ourselves, Transforming the World: Justice in Jesuit Higher Education, ed. Mary Beth Combs and Patricia Ruggiano Schmidt. New York: Fordham University Press (2013), 15-29.

(4) Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ, The Human Poetry of Faith: A Spiritual Guide to Life (Paulist, 2003), 63-4.

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