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Is Gonzaga still a Jesuit, Catholic university? The ruminations of a bewildered witness | Dr. Eric Cunningham, Department of History, Gonzaga University | Ignatius Insight | March 28, 2011

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"The function of the university" wrote Thomas Merton, "is to help men and women save their souls, and in so doing, to save their society: from what? From the hell of meaninglessness, of obsession, of complex artifice, of systematic lying, of criminal evasions and neglects, of self-destructive futilities." [1] When Merton, a Trappist monk, penned these thoughts in 1965, he was not referring specifically to Catholic universities, but to universities in general. I highlighted this passage from Love and Living back in 1989, and I've returned to it several times over the years. Every time I read it, I try to imagine how a state university official in 1965 might have reacted to the idea that universities exist to "save souls." Then I imagine how a Catholic university official in 2011 would react to the same thought. I can't help but think that the secular administrator and the Catholic administrator would both find it prudent to avoid any mention of "souls" and "salvation" in their mission statements. Phrases like "excellence," "global citizenship," "civic responsibility," and "social justice," work much better, being lofty enough to inspire, yet vague enough not to ruffle the feathers of potential customers who may not care one way or another if salvation is included in the costs of tuition.

Having spent a good portion of my life in universities, it seems to me that the most obvious function of all universities, secular, and Catholic, is to generate enough revenue to remain in operation and, hopefully, grow. What the students do with their souls while they're in college is pretty much up to them. If they were interested in saving their souls, though, it would be awfully nice if they could find a university that would help them do that.

The changing face of Jesuit Catholic identity

During my seven-and-a-half years as a faculty member at Gonzaga, I have participated in numerous campus conversations on Catholic mission and identity, and I have always taken what I think is a strong and outspokenly pro-Church position. I believe that in an era in which Jesuits are few, lay faculty have to be able to articulate the Church's position accurately, especially on the various matters in which faith and reason would seem to be in conflict. Unfortunately, in taking a pro-Church position, I have often found myself at odds with 1) Catholic colleagues who don't share "my opinion" of what Catholic means, 2) non-Catholic colleagues who are generally indifferent to the question, and find all of the "mission" talk something of an irritation, and 3) the occasional student who doesn't appreciate—to quote one anonymous respondent on a recent instructor evaluation—"having religion shoved down my throat." As frustrating as it's been to try to defend a mainstream Catholic worldview at Gonzaga, particularly when my opponents have so often been Jesuit priests, my career as a reluctant culture warrior has provided me with great opportunities for personal growth. I have learned the meaning of William Blake's assertion that "a fool who persists in his folly will become wise." The wisdom I have attained is the full awareness of the folly of feverishly trying to shore up Catholic culture at a campus that will probably soon either abandon, or be forced by circumstances to drop its Catholic identity.

This is a provocative statement, but I make it with great seriousness, and in the sincere hope that someday, somehow, it will prove to have been wrong. I also make it as a lifelong practicing Catholic, who was not educated in Jesuit universities, and didn't know quite what to expect from day-to-day association with the fabled Society of Jesus. What little I knew of Jesuit education prior to coming to Gonzaga was conveyed to me by my father, who graduated from Holy Cross College in 1956, and by my uncle, who attended both Holy Cross and Boston College, and later taught at LeMoyne College. After many years as an English professor, he was appointed Dean of Arts and Sciences, and then Academic Vice President at Creighton University. My introduction to the Jesuit tradition was both informal and highly anecdotal.

I have vivid childhood memories of listening to my dad talk about his college days at Holy Cross. If I had to make any judgments about the nature of a Jesuit education based on these stories, it would have to be that the "Ignatian experience" was a long ordeal involving eccentric old Jesuit professors, no-nonsense dorm prefects, and early morning masses at daily chapel. I get the sense from my dad that entering the navy after Holy Cross was something of a relief.

My Uncle Bill's evaluation was more positive. As a lay administrator during the 1980s and 90s, he took part in one of the most important transitions in the history of Jesuit education, i.e., the turning over of leadership of the educational apostolate to the laity. People like my uncle, devout, scholarly, and committed to the Catholic Church, were exemplary companions in this project, and he, for one, made sure that the ideals and values of the Jesuit educational tradition were protected and preserved, even as the number of Jesuits teaching in the classrooms went into steep decline. Of course, he was fortunate enough to have learned the traditions, and he knew what he was preserving. When I was hired at Gonzaga, I wasn't entirely sure.

Looking for the ideal

As a cultural alien from the very secular University of Oregon, I felt it was my duty to learn as much as I could about the formal structures of Jesuit Catholic education. I studied the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, read the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, the Autobiography of St. Ignatius, and several works on Jesuit education and history by Fr. George Ganss, S.J. I read biographies of great Jesuit scholars such as Robert Bellarmine and Matteo Ricci, and I studied closely the letters written by St. Francis Xavier during his Asian mission. I slogged through the Ratio Studiorum, and I read histories of Gonzaga University and the Northwest missions written by our own late Fr. Schoenberg. I digested the Society's defining statements on social justice and education, promulgated by Fathers General Arrupe and Kolvenbach, and I studied the proceedings of the 34th and 35th General Congregations. In addition to this pointedly Jesuit reading, I also familiarized myself with papal documents dealing with the intellectual life (Fides et Ratio) and Catholic higher education (Ex Corde Ecclesiae), as well the important address to Catholic Educators in the United States given by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.

Aside from gaining valuable insights into the way the Church defines the purpose of the intellectual life and its standards for higher education, I discovered in these works a great wealth of logic, clarity, fidelity, and a persistent emphasis on sanctity and salvation. It was hard for me to understand how Gonzaga could be satisfied with its obscure and wordy mission statement when the Jesuit tradition included such strong, clear statements as these:
Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him fulfill the end for which he is created. (from The Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius, para. 23)

"...[T]he end of the Society and of its studies is to aid our fellowmen to the knowledge and love of God and to the salvation of their souls...". (from The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, para. 307)

It is the principal ministry of the Society of Jesus to educate youth in every branch of knowledge that is in keeping with its Institute. The aim of our educational program is to lead men to the knowledge and love of our Creator and Redeemer (from the Ratio Studiorum, 1599, para. 1)
I've always thought it unfortunate that these and other solid statements of purpose are largely ignored in most Gonzaga discussions. It's especially unfortunate now as we find ourselves thinking about revising the Core Curriculum and trying to figure out the best way to articulate our Catholic identity. Except for those recent documents that specifically outline the Jesuit commitment to social justice, I can't recall a single time that any foundational text related to our Catholic mission was mentioned in any faculty gathering. Since 2003, I have attended Ignatian Colleague dinners, "conversations on Conversations," and mission development seminars. I was given the rare privilege to be chosen as a delegate to the first-of-its-kind Society of Jesus Lay Congregation. I've been to core revision workshops, outcomes and assessments committee meetings, and fifteen faculty conferences. I'm still waiting for somebody to say something meaningful about our Catholic identity that goes beyond the obvious good of "social justice."

What exactly do we mean by social justice?

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul provides a good working definition of justice. It is to "render to a thing that which it is due (Romans 13:7)." Implied in the Christian concept of justice is rendering to God that which God is due. Accordingly, if we are not first rendering to God just dues of love, thanks, praise, and fidelity, then any other category of justice we hope to satisfy is arguably groundless—from the standpoint of Christianity, that is. From the standpoint of secular modernity, where all justice is negotiated in the political arena, there is no "absolute" from which all subordinate justices spring. The Enlightenment thinkers invoked "laws of nature," but those laws have been re-configured over the years to suit changing cultural preferences. Now it appears that all definitions of social justice, whether religiously grounded or not, exhibit the quality of a modern secular worldview.

Whenever I hear somebody speak of how much we value social justice, I can't help but think of the once-popular bumper sticker that said "I BRAKE FOR ANIMALS." The only response I can make is "well, who doesn't?" The whole justice "thing" often strikes me as an elaborate rhetorical strategy calculated to make sure the "good and smart" people who favor "justice" and "diversity" can win every argument against the bad and stupid people who just want to oppress, discriminate, and stifle free speech—without ever having to prove a point. It's a strategy that does much to suppress dialogue because anyone who takes issue with the "socially just" position is assumed to be morally or mentally deficient. This leaves them little space to raise important questions about mission definition. When questions are not raised, alternatives are not considered. Thus, all attempts to bring middle-of-the-road Catholic positions into the discussion are overwhelmed by the propagation of slogans, none of which are ever clearly defined. Phrases such as "men and women for others," "action in the world," "preferential option for the poor," "finding God in all things," etc., all of which signify praiseworthy Jesuit ideals, are also easy prey for a kind of Nietzschean "trans-valuation." Interpreted in the light of Catholic tradition and scripture—to say nothing of the context of their original sources—these things have profound and concrete meaning. Unmoored from tradition and scripture, they can mean almost anything, and can be used just as easily to discredit Catholicism as to uphold it.

The "good-bad" dichotomy in which we tend to frame social justice is incomplete, and it easily lends itself to a privileging of material over spiritual values. One could argue that the alternative to social justice is not social injustice, but rather divine justice. If our mission were to teach people to prize holiness and salvation over political satisfaction, we would find them pursuing social justice as a matter of course. Social justice would move fairly quickly from being the elusive end of a political strategy to the first fruits of a transcendental aspiration to render all things to God through Christ—as the Jesuit motto goes, Omnia Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (All to the Greater Glory of God). Unfortunately, anybody who tries to frame the question of justice in spiritual terms draws accusations of irrelevancy or insensitivity from the ideologically invested stewards of social justice. The real problem, we are admonished, is material misfortune, and an unbalanced distribution of wealth—"God has plenty of glory—it's the poor and suffering who need our help." It goes without saying that we must opt for the poor, but the service we render to our less fortunate brothers and sisters is a species of, and not a replacement for, the love we owe to God.

Re-defining Catholic

The politicization of our conversations on mission can become tedious for people whose ecclesiology is broad enough to accept both "liberal" social justice and "conservative" tradition. Why can't we adhere to the guidelines of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and carry out the progressive Jesuit vision of social justice at the same time? Since the Church herself is capable of embracing the dichotomy, Gonzaga could at least try. The answer to this question, while partially dependent on how much one university can reasonably accomplish with limited resources, is even more determined by decisions that have been made over the years in the making of campus culture. Not all of these decisions have been made by practicing Catholics. At almost any Catholic university, there are people of good conscience who simply don't agree with core Catholic teachings. These people see the Church's opposition to birth control, gay marriage, and women's ordination—to name only three things—as manifestly un-just, and they would like their institutions to replace outdated philosophies with something that better reflects the multiplicity of contemporary lifestyles and worldviews. This is a perfectly reasonable wish from the standpoint of modern civil society, but it requires a re-definition of Catholicism that excludes several currently non-negotiable elements of the faith; among these are the authority of the pope, an exclusively male priesthood, and a "preferential option" for heterosexual marriage. The frustration that many non-Catholics feel toward the Church's strange obstinacy is invariably reinforced by disgruntled and disappointed Catholics in their midst, who often have an entirely different set of gripes with the Church, but share the pain of alienation. In such a climate, tradition easily becomes vilified as the chief obstacle to freedom, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the traditional position to get a fair hearing, because in "fairness," tradition is the problem.

Has this been the real goal of the Jesuit, Catholic educational mission for the last forty years?—to say that true Catholicism is not the old religion of the hierarchy, but is, rather, a new narrative of social justice that the progressive wing of the Society of Jesus, in its intolerance for intolerance, would propose as an improvement over tradition? Are we, to paraphrase the rousing post-Vatican II hymn, trying to "sing a New Church into being," right here at GU? If so, and without passing any judgments for or against this project, I wonder if it is even possible. It would seem to me that implementing any vision of Jesuit Catholicism at Gonzaga will be very difficult, given the rapidly declining number of Jesuits available to sustain it.

Disappearing Jesuits

At present Gonzaga has only two full-time Jesuit professors under the age of sixty, and the American Society of Jesus is not replacing its retired priests with new vocations. This deficit has been looming since the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and has, in a sense, been prepared for. As any Jesuit will tell you, it has long been the goal of the Oregon province, and the Society as a whole, to transfer an increasing share of the administration of its various apostolates to the laity. While this is a good and probably necessary expedient, it begs at least two questions, 1) which members of the laity are going to be given the task of administering the apostolates?, and 2) how are they going to do it?

As a concerned lay companion in a vital Jesuit ministry, I think it would be helpful to see the establishment of a real lay formation program, so that those of us who have come to love the Jesuit Catholic tradition, in all its dimensions, can learn how we can best serve in the apostolic work, providing of course, that it continues.

Are we Catholic or not?

The larger question this all boils down to is this: Is Gonzaga still a Jesuit, Catholic university, or have we already become a secular liberal arts college with only a fond memory of Catholic origins and some lingering Catholic practices? If our unique Jesuit, humanistic, and Catholic identity is nothing substantially more than Christian flavored version of Enlightenment-style social justice, should we even be calling ourselves Catholic? A Gonzaga education costs a great deal of money—if we are not doing our very best to provide our students with the authentic Catholic education, as well as the Catholic culture that they have every right to expect, it might be better if we didn't call ourselves Catholic. I am certainly not suggesting that we do this—I'm only trying to raise what I think are some serious questions, based on my observations of the last several years.


As to what should be done, it seems to me that there are three broad options available to us, any of which would be dramatically altered by a change in economic realities.

Option One: Status Quo: We keep doing what we're doing, and make no adjustments to the trajectory of our Catholic identity. We continue to grow, and as we do, the Catholic concentration of our faculty and student body gets smaller. We remain officially unbothered by the fact that we are not in compliance with papal guidelines on faculty composition and curriculum. We continue to get hammered in the conservative Catholic press, and we continue not to worry too much about it. Life is good, but if we do nothing, our Catholic identity would almost surely go extinct. Not only would there soon be no Jesuits teaching anything, there would also be entire departments without any Catholic representation at all. We end up as a good private school that happens to have a Jesuit heritage.

Option Two: Gonzaga the Catholic Faith Center: We decide to make a serious return to our Catholic roots. We pick a year, say 2025 or 2030—by which we pledge to be in compliance with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and we immediately implement new hiring policies, new Student Life policies, and new University Ministry structure to attain that goal.

Option Three: A University for "the New Millennium:" A convergence of economic and demographic factors in the next year or two make it clear that the handwriting is on the wall, and it's time to reinvent Gonzaga according to a bold new paradigm. The initial shock is that the administration announces that with the decrease in the number of Jesuits, Catholic character is no longer a defining issue for our school. At the same time, the runaway national debt and a depressed economy adversely affect our enrollments, signaling the onset of prolonged fiscal "challenges." We radically increase online programs, and make major cuts in the Arts and Sciences.

These scenarios are pure speculation, and I claim no abilities as a forecaster. I do think that the future of Gonzaga, whatever it holds, is completely linked to the choices we make on the question of our Catholic identity, and some serious choices need to be made soon. Identity is literally and figuratively our core concern, and until we grapple with it, it makes little sense to talk about curriculum reviews, outcomes and assessments plans, or the implementation of vision statements.


In the end, Gonzaga can be whatever it wants to be, and I hope we are able to choose our path before circumstances choose it for us. The world has never had a greater need for a strong, faithful Church, and the Church has never had a greater need for strong, faithful universities. I don't envy our administrators, and I know they are doing their best to deal with challenges that academic institutions have never faced before. I pray that they will do all they can to preserve our Catholic identity—not only to honor our founders and their vision, but to give glory to God—and, of course to help save some souls along the way.


[1] Thomas Merton, Love and Living (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1979), 4.

[This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Charter: Gonzaga's Journal of Scholarship and Opinion. It has been republished here with the gracious permission of the author.]

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Dr. Eric Cunningham has been at Gonzaga since 2003. A specialist in modern Japanese history, Dr. Cunningham also teaches courses in world and East Asian history. He earned his BA in History from the University of Colorado in 1984, an MA in East Asian Languages and Literatures from the University of Oregon in 1999, and a PhD, History, also from the University of Oregon in 2004. Dr. Cunningham's other areas of scholarly interest include intellectual history, popular culture, psychedelia, postmodernism, literary critical theory, Zen Buddhism, and eschatology.

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