Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Crisis in Education and What Catholic Legal Theory Might Do About It


I express my debt to my friends John Breen (a much-missed colleague) and Patrick McKinley Brennan for their thoughtful recent postings and exchanges that emerge from the recent Scarpa Conference generously hosted by Patrick and Villanova. I have a few thoughts, which are in need of great elaboration, that I modestly add to theirs—and someday, the good Lord willing, I shall accomplish this task. But the nature of a web log is to be brief (even when a posting has to be divided as I do with this one). Today, I set out some thoughts with the hope that they may trigger additional reflections by other Mirror of Justice contributors and this site’s readers. Perhaps what I offer today may also offer supplementary grist for the mills of our Catholic Legal Theorist minds.

Both Patrick and John speak of crisis—may I add crises—which education in general and Catholic (including legal) education face today. Whether the directors of education, including teachers, are aware of these crises remains an open question. However, there is very little evidence to suggest that most educators truthfully comprehend the crises which confront the educational enterprise of today. John refers to the fascinating address delivered by the late Fr. Robert J. Henle, S.J., former president of Georgetown University. Fr. Henle arrived at Georgetown during my senior year of college (1969-70); he remained in that post whilst I was a Georgetown law student (1970-73). In 1997, I had the honor of being a visiting professor at St. Louis University School of Law. At least once a week, I had the honor to celebrate Mass for and with the infirmed Jesuits who lived at Fusz Pavilion, the Jesuit infirmary of the then Missouri Province. Fr. Henle was one of the concelebrants who would not be denied exercising his priesthood notwithstanding his physical blindness and his permanent confinement to a wheelchair. After the first or second Mass that I celebrated for the infirmed, Fr. Henle called me over and said: “You’re new here, aren’t you?” I replied in the affirmative and told him what I was doing at Saint Louis U. for the semester. I then said, “Fr. Henle, I have two of your autographs!” He quickly responded by saying, “Ah, you’re a graduate of Georgetown!” He seemed pleased. But he would also confess a bit of disappointment that, in retrospect, he could see that mistakes were made in his leadership of Georgetown that may well have provided a nurturing environment for the crises of which John and Patrick address.

Fr. Henle and I then began a series of short discussions over the rest of the semester. It became clear to me that Fr. Henle was, as John mentioned, conscious of the transformation that education, particularly education that uses the moniker “Jesuit,” was undergoing. His awareness of this led him to teach a course in Thomistic-based jurisprudence at Saint Louis’s Law School, after he left Georgetown, for as long as he could. I don’t think anyone replaced Fr. Henle by offering such a course once he had to step down due to his mounting infirmity. It struck me that Fr. Henle intended to ask the unasked questions of his law students that few if any other teachers were willing to or cared to raise. His questions became a catalyst for those that I asked of myself and, then, of my students and colleagues who were willing to listen to them.

After practicing law for twelve years, I realized there was more to do with my life because of the “crises” I detected both in my own life and the world in which I found myself. At this time, I renewed an old Jesuit acquaintance of mine, Fr. Royden Davis, S.J. who had been my dean when I was at Georgetown College. Like me, he was a graduate of the College and Georgetown Law. He was a great director in helping me discern my religious vocation—would I apply to the Benedictines, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, or, yes, the Jesuits? Fr. Davis said that whatever choice I made would be right if I allowed God to help me in charting my progress of transitioning from the less temporal to the more spiritual.

With Fr. Davis’s generous help, I knew that Fr. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus for one purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine. (Of course, education of youth would be one but not the only means for meeting this objective.) The purpose for which the Society of Jesus was established was the reason I applied to the Society of Jesus; that was the reason why I stayed in the Society of Jesus; that is the reason why I made my solemn profession in the Society of Jesus; and, that is the reason why I shall die in the Society of Jesus.

Regrettably, I do not think all Jesuits share this view. Moreover, many of the so-called collaborators of Jesuits, including law faculty, do not share this view. As one Jesuit confrere recently reminded many of us Jesuits, the reason for this anomaly resides in the fact that there is little sense of why Christ came in to the world to save us from our sins and eternal damnation. Patrick, I think, was speaking along this line in his most recent posting. My prayer and reflection on this disagreement about the nature of Catholic and Jesuit enterprises, including education, have led me to better understand the crises of education today, even education that calls itself “Catholic.” But is it Catholic? Does it fail to realize that Christ’s human life had a particular purpose that Catholic and Jesuit works should strive to embrace?

I see many schools that portray themselves as Catholic trying to do, and outdo, their secular counterparts—be they private or public—in providing a degree diploma rather than a (Christian) humanistic education, which prepares them for life far more than a certificate proclaiming certain worldly achievement ever would. The crises we face today in education (and in other venues) were recognized a long time ago by folks such as Christopher Dawson (to whom I have referred in some of my past postings) and William F. Buckley, Jr. in his 1951 God and Man at Yale—the Superstitions of Academic Freedom. I fear that too many young people and their families view higher education as a way to a self-centered prosperous future (nothing wrong with that unless that’s the only goal) but little more. Hence students and those who underwrite their great cost of education today—be it at private or public institutions of learning—regard themselves more as consumers rather than as students. This is a part of the crisis to which Patrick and John referred. If one is principally a consumer, he or she expects to receive the promised product—a degree that confers certain unstated “rights and privileges” as many if not most university diplomas read. There is less expectation that the degree is to be earned because it is now considered something that is purchased for a (dear) price. This element of the crisis is surely something that plagues American legal education today. For those who disagree with me, you might think of the particular crisis that legal education is facing in the present age. Did we engage in the commodification of something—i.e., legal education—that should not have been made a commodity? Recognition that education is now often viewed as an item of the marketplace and little else intensifies the nature of the crisis. Here I am reminded of counsel given by Elihu Root who was once reported as saying, “About half the practice of a decent lawyer consists in telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop.” In his own way, Root may have recognized that there was a problem with legal education of the time in which he lived. But is there hope for fending off the crises of higher education today? Yes, but it will take work and fearless dedication.

This is where Catholic legal theory can and ought to play a crucial role. Law schools train citizen lawyers who, regardless of where they go in their professional lives, will be leaders—or at least, potential leaders—for the communities they serve. For them, the question must be this: did they learn anything of enduring value in their legal education? If they encounter the questions that Fr. Henle introduced in his classes, if they pursue issues that deal with the nature of the human person and the world in which this person lives, a good beginning is in sight. But this view improves if additional questions are asked: does this person comprehend his or her nature and destiny? Why does this person live in society? Should this society be governed by norms, the rule of law if you will, that are the product of the objective human intellect comprehending intelligible reality? Who is to govern this society? Should we have a government of unlimited powers so that people turn to it rather than to their own natural authority to address the many crises of human existence? Should the human person relegate all authority and power to a small element of society that deems itself an elite and that stands above the general citizenry and dictates sometimes subtlety and sometimes not so subtlety, as Jacob Talmon, Christopher Dawson, and William F. Buckley, Jr. suggested in their respective works? Perhaps one last question needs to be addressed at this point: in considering the matter of the destiny of the human person, should consideration be given to the possibility that there another life or dimension of human existence that rarely, if ever, is addressed in any part of the academy these days?

This last issue of course raises the question of the existence of God and the presence of God in our earthly lives. This is a matter that could be and was addressed in most educational institutions in the past. However, sometime in the twentieth century, this vital issue fell out of favor in public and many private institutions of higher learning. There is evidence today that this same issue is also being addressed less and less in the universities that rely on the modifier “Catholic.”

But can we members of the Mirror of Justice do something about addressing these unasked and yet essential questions? Yes, we can, if I may liberally borrow from an early address of our current President. But in order to do this, we need to acknowledge that there is a crisis of faith that impedes the work of the Catholic academy. I think John and Patrick were addressing aspects of this very topic in their exchange. We can do something about this pressing issue of the crisis of faith if we recognize that as Catholics and Christians (see, Tom Berg, I welcome you, too, in this challenge because of my great respect and affection for you and for your contributions to this project someone has called “Catholic Legal Theory”) we are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. He has asked us to continue his mission in this world. Sometimes this labor calls for boldness, but it always calls for courage, wisdom, prudence, justice, and love. God gives each of us these gifts to those who ask for them. And with them, we can then proclaim what should be proclaimed in our teaching, writing, and lecturing, so that answers to the questions that I have outlined above can begin to emerge and be taken seriously. We Catholic (and Christian) legal theorists are called to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine. We are also called to help our temporal colleagues who do not yet see the wisdom in this calling to at least acknowledge the relevance and necessity or addressing in their own teaching and publishing the questions I outlined above that are not restricted to the work of only the Catholic or Christian.

If we and they are bold enough to make these issues a central part of our labor, the crisis of education, especially legal education, will begin to have what I argue are rational and necessary solutions to the issues that the human family must address not only for their salvation in this life but for the life that is eternal. I suppose I need not say this, but I shall anyway: we need not be afraid of this enterprise for our Lord is present to help us shoulder these burdens. These burdens are not so much burdens as they are the call to evangelization, something to which all Christians are called in the time God has given us in this world. (See, e.g., Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) N. 35.

As I previously stated, I am in debt and grateful to Patrick and John for raising some important issues. My small contribution today is designed merely to add a few further thoughts that might help others wrestle with the important questions they have raised.


RJA sj


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