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Sapientia et Doctrina: The Changing Jesuit Identity of Fordham University


Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Henry Schwalbenberg
Associate Professor of Economics,
Director of the Graduate Program in International Political Economy
and Development, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

I once attended a meeting with the renowned anthropologist Margaret Meade. She told us that an identity that has any meaningful significance must have multiple layers of meaning, of which some are probably contradictory. Since I have been at Fordham, I have heard many differing definitions of its Jesuit identity, of which not a few were contradictory. As we once again attempt to chart a new future for the University, I would like to add further to this confusion.

Historically it can be argued, but usually it is not, that there have been not one but two Jesuit orders with differing senses of their Jesuit identity. The first Jesuit order was the old Society of Jesus. A group of energetic students from the University of Paris founded it in 1540 and Pope Clement XIV, under intense pressure from the Catholic monarchs of Europe, destroyed it in 1773. The second Jesuit order is the restored Society of Jesus that Pope Pius VII “founded” in 1814. He had been a prisoner of the French, but with the defeat of Napoleon he returned to Rome and quickly set about to restore the Society of Jesus. While the restored Society would share many characteristics with the old Society, something important was missing. Perhaps a little simplistic, but one could argue that an orientation for the world was replaced with an orientation against the world.

Due to its suppression, the Jesuits did not participate or even exist during the American and French revolutions. Jesuit Father Bill Bangert [William V. Bangert, S.J.] marks this absence as a very significant turning point in his History of the Society of Jesus (Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1986). While the old Society had been at the forefront of the human enterprise during the Age of Discovery, the Jesuits were simply absent from one of the more important turning points in modern history, the difficult birth of democracy in America and in Europe. Members of the old Society with great zeal and confidence traveled to unknown destinations from where they could never return. In the process they learned Mandarin and translated Confucianism to the West and astronomy to the East. In the Amazon they found a drug that would prevent malaria. And in the jungles of Paraguay they attempted to build a utopian community among the indigenous people. Members of the restored Society, however, found it difficult to adjust to their world. Instead of being at the forefront of it, they frequently lived at its margins. They, like the pope who restored them, had been victimized and may have become more skeptical of the world around them. As an example of their reluctance to adapt to the world, it would take the restored Society about 150 years from the date of its restoration in 1814, before it and their church could fully embrace the ideal of democracy. As Father Bangert argued, the restored Society for much of its history “found it a painful, anxious, and uneasy experience to adjust to” their world.

In the forty years since the end of the Vatican Council, the restored Society of Jesus has attempted to rediscover its original roots. If successful, such a change could signal another significant turning point. For most of their history since 1814, Jesuits of the restored Society were largely engaged in the more parochial needs of their co-religionists. Today we may be witnessing a deeper engagement in the wider world similar to what happened to the old Society during the Age of Discovery.

How is this history related to Fordham University? A similar change may be happening at Fordham. Fordham originally served a marginalized Catholic population that had only recently immigrated to the United States. Perhaps the Jesuit identity that emerged in the 19th century was the one best suited for those times. But today the aspirations of the University are very much higher. For a University that wants to serve very diverse national and international constituencies with distinction, perhaps the only way to be both Jesuit and successful is to return to the original Jesuit identity that was first forged in 1540. A Jesuit identity, that looks outward toward the entire world with both zeal and confidence, is the one that once allowed Jesuit institutions to play significant roles at the forefront of the human enterprise.

By Henry Schwalbenberg


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