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Defining the Catholic, Jesuit Mission

by professor frank r. herrmann, sj, '77

When Father Robert Drinan resigned his congressional seat pursuant to Pope John Paul II’s request that priests not hold elective office, his immediate compliance made clear to the world at large what was always clear to him and to those who knew him: he was, before all else, a Jesuit priest. He lived out his calling by serving all kinds of people, especially the voiceless and vulnerable as a lawyer, legal educator, and legislator. That was his way of being a Jesuit priest.

In recent years, the terms “Catholic” and “Jesuit” have been attached to Boston College Law School more prominently and consciously than in Father Drinan’s time. The use of the terms does not signal a move away from the kind of open and welcoming school that Father Drinan and others dedicated themselves to building. In fact, the words capture a vision that motivated him. To understand why the terms have been emphasized in the past few years, it is important to be aware, as Father Drinan was, of abroad—indeed world-wide—discussion that is taking place within Catholic higher education generally.

A gradual, and eventually complete, detachment from their origins has marked the history of many tertiary institutions of learning which began with a religious inspiration. The global Catholic community is concerned that its universities not follow the same path. Central to this discussion are questions of whether Catholic and Jesuit universities will retain their identity, their mission, and their distinctive voice; or whether they will forget why they were founded and, in the end, become indistinguishable from any other good secular university. One consequence of this concern is the reassertion of the term “Catholic” and, in the case of Jesuit schools, “Jesuit.” Of course, both terms were used in the history of the institution in earlier years, though perhaps they were muted in some periods when the identity of the institution was assumed to be apparent. Recent emphasis on the terms is not a local phenomenon. It will be found at every one of the twenty-eight Jesuit universities and colleges throughout the United States and in the great number of colleges in Europe, Africa, South America, India, Korea, and other Asian countries.


The use of the word “Catholic” links the institution with its origins. The breadth of the term, however, can create misunderstandings. How does “Catholic” law school ring in the ears of people who do not embrace the particular doctrines, practices, and social positions which they associate with the word?


As for the term “Jesuit,” the lived history of Boston College Law School (and of other Jesuit institutions some may have attended) has made people familiar with the word. People knew Father Drinan or Father Francis Nicholson or Father James Malley, and before them, Father William Kenealy. Because we know how these men lived their Catholicism—what it meant to them, what their values were, how they interacted with students, with the legal profession, and the world—we are comfortable with them. Some people fear the use of the word “Catholic” foreshadows a turning away from the spirit of these men and the community that shares their values.


The use of “Catholic” to connect the school to its origins does not disconnect it from what these men stood for or from the projects of justice they dedicated themselves to or from their openness to every individual student or other member of the law school community, regardless of background. Their lives as Jesuits specify, or are a kind of incarnation, what a “Catholic, Jesuit” law school means. These men dedicated themselves to the study of justice and cooperation with others in the works of justice; they were always open toward others in dialogue; they invited those who were interested to discern God’s will for themselves and the world without coercion toward anyone. This is what they did; this is what a Catholic school that is Jesuit does.


Other Catholic schools that are not Jesuit may take a different approach—or not. Other law schools that are not Catholic may share parts of Boston College Law School’s vision of legal education. All the better. But for us, being a “Catholic, Jesuit” law school means continuing down the path these men have walked, along with many other women and men in our community.


Father Drinan’s vision was not idiosyncratic. It found its roots in the documents of the Catholic Church and of the Jesuit Order. Repeatedly and emphatically, those documents call for collaboration among people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Catholics and Catholic institutions are challenged to establish a sincere dialogue among people of every creed, culture, race, gender, and nationality. The Second Vatican Council called for “a culture of dialogue” in which everyone is summoned to participate, listen, and be enriched. Pope Paul VI taught that dialogue is the basic attitude by which the Christian faith should relate to the world. An institution which does not foster such dialogue is not authentically a “Catholic, Jesuit” institution.


There can be no dialogue without diversity and mutual respect. Pope John Paul II has said, “Dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self-interest but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements, and dignity.” Those engaged in the dialogue must be consistent with their own convictions and “be open to understanding those of the other party without pretense or close-mindedness, but with truth, humility, and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each side.” This will lead to “the elimination of prejudice, intolerance and misunderstandings.”


The Jesuit superior general, Father Pieter Hans Kolvenbach, has exhorted all Jesuit institutions specifically to build this dialogue so that people will “recognize, preserve, and promote the spiritual goods existing in other religions, as well as their sociocultural values,” in order to “collaborate [among themselves] in the search for a world of peace, liberty, social justice, and moral values.” This vision motivated Father Drinan. The dialogue, Father Kolvenbach explains, moves one to bring together all that is good in the world and in the human person. Each person is enriched with the elements of truth and goodness received from the other. The dialogue should be about “all that is necessary and desirable for a life with dignity for all human persons. Each one should be not only open to the other but ready to take the initiative to enter into dialogue with other persons and cultures…. The one who dialogues not only speaks but also listens, and is open to the mystery of the other, to the point of identifying with the other and making one’s own all that is truly human in the other. Only through in-culturation—placing oneself inside the other’s manner of being—can one become inter-cultural.” The readiness to dialogue tends toward becoming a sign of fraternity which permits and gives a strong foundation for dialogue between nations, races, and cultures. Such open conversation results in “the mutual enrichment between particular cultures, without forced impositions of supremacy, and with the capacity of discernment and self-determination for all concerned.”


There is a specific goal to all of this dialogue. The objective is distant and only incrementally obtainable, but it is as critically important as it is lacking in the world. The goal is synthesized in an expression often repeated by Paul VI, John Paul II and the Jesuit general: we dialogue in order to “create a civilization of love.” A Catholic, Jesuit university and its law school are rooted in that radical vision.


Far-reaching though the vision is, it also has immediate application. The Jesuit superior general has pointed to some examples:


“Not only unjust poverty and ignorance, but also the exhaustion and degradation of the environment affect especially the poorest people whose survival depends directly and immediately upon their relationship with the environment and upon their not seeing themselves obligated to devastate their natural surroundings to meet the requirements of the centers of power of the world economy. A dialogue in this perspective could help the consumer recognize new lifestyles which are more participative, inclusive, and lasting."


“Politics—the area of tensions and conflicts between the particular and the common, forms of organization beginning with the family and base communities, through trade unions and intermediate organizations, parties, the state and forms of government, the law and international organizations—should also be themes taken up by the dialogue, advancing towards cultural forms which are more democratic, inclusive, and participatory."


“In the future, power should be the capacity for effective service and not a form of subjection and coercion of other persons, groups, and continents. This is one of the areas where the possibilities of fruitful dialogue towards a better future are most easily blocked."


As members of the same humanity, the common elements of our religious heritages and of our human concerns force us to tighten our common ties, basing them upon universally accepted ethical values. Dialogue, above all in this area, is an activity with its own motivations, requirements, and dignity, and should never be used as a strategy for manipulating or exploiting persons."


“Investigation, as well as teaching—and it is good to emphasize this here in the university setting—along with interdisciplinary dialogue should aim at a more dignified future for women and men, children and elderly of the planet, rather than the fortifying of the forms of wealth and power which are at the basis of the inequalities of our world. Criticisms and alternative proposals require solid knowledge applied to making a future which will be more just for all.”


The terms “Catholic” and “Jesuit” challenge the diverse members of every Jesuit institution to a dialogue of life, action, and experience oriented toward building a just world, or, even more boldly, “a civilization of love.” To that grand vision, Father Drinan dedicated his life. He leaves us the challenge of continuing his work.