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Jesuit: Study of Religion in Society is Incumbent on All Universities


Universities, by their very definition, have always been secular institutions, according to a Jesuit scholar who spoke on June 17 at Fordham.

John W. O’Malley, S.J. Photo by Ryan Brenizer

John W. O’Malley, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, said that his statement might be considered inflammatory in some Catholic circles. Still, he maintains it is true and historically verifiable.

“I am referring to those elements of our schools that are part of the traditional university—that is, the professional schools, which includes in North America the graduate school,” he said.

Father O’Malley, speaking at Rose Hill on the second day of “Faith and Reason: A Dialogue at the Heart of Jesuit Education,” examined how the Society of Jesus affected the nature of colleges and universities.

Today’s universities are the direct descendants of universities that sprang up in Western Europe beginning in the late 12th century, he said. These medieval institutions—professional schools of law, medicine and theology, as well as the entrance school of arts—had a single scope: intellectual problem solving.

“That philosophy was, despite what we are often led to believe, radically secular,” he said. “[Universities] did not concern themselves with playing a constructive role in the church or society, and did not concern themselves with students’ personal development.”

It was not until the 15th century that another tradition of formal schooling began, this time in Italy. Humanistic colleges sought to develop students by teaching literature, history, oratory and drama—subjects that illuminated the great questions of human existence.

“The aim of this education was the personal formation of the student,” Father O’Malley said. “Literature was the center of the curriculum. Good literature gave examples of virtues to be emulated and, by its appealing style, provided inspiration to do so.”

Universities in the United States present a special case, because for the most part, they did not begin as universities, but as colleges, he said. In fact, all of the Jesuit universities in the U.S. grew out of colleges, and retain more than vestigial elements of that origin, such as theaters, sports teams, school spirit and cura personalis, the claim to educate “men and women for others.”

“The Jesuits were educators who did not see an unbridgeable gap between academic and humanistic education,” Father O’Malley said. “They brought to schooling … a coherent program of spiritual development for students derived from the Spiritual Exercises [of St. Ignatius Loyola].”

Father O’Malley pointed out that modern universities have taken a cue from the Jesuit philosophy of cura personalis.  In fact, service and social responsibility at the university level nationwide has been increasing.

“One of the ways that this new sense of social responsibility has manifested itself is in the area of ethics,” Father O’Malley said. “This concern has invaded all of the professional schools and, if our news sources are reliable, seems more urgent today than ever.”

Among these social responsibilities, he suggested, is addressing the issue of religion in the contemporary world.

“For universities to neglect the study of religion is to neglect one of the most potent phenomena in our world,” he said. “If the study of religion is incumbent upon all universities, it would seem to be especially incumbent upon those with a religious affiliation.”

This responsibility cannot be restricted to the theology, philosophy or religious studies departments, but must be shared by sociology, political science, history and other disciplines especially in Catholic universities, Father O’Malley said.

“A Catholic university is where several things happen that do not happen in other universities, or at least do not happen in the same manner and degree,” he explained.

“A priority is given to creating opportunities for the spiritual nourishment of students, faculty, and staff. Secondly, the university tries to contribute to the common good of society in ways in keeping with its academic character. Thirdly, the university gives a priority to the study of issues that are of special concern to Catholics.”

The “Faith and Reason” conference, hosted by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture, gathered representatives from Jesuit colleges and universities in the Baltimore, New England and New York provinces.


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