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.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Jesuit Universities, the Pro-Life Issue, and the Institutional Examen


Universite catholique de Louvain

In a recent post at the America Magazine website, John J. Conley, S.J. asks “Can A Pro-Life Scholar Survive in Academia?”

In the piece, Conley recalls the experience of Stéphane Mercier, a lecturer in the philosophy department at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium.  Mercier gave a lecture in February 2017 entitled “Against the Alleged Right to Choose Abortion” in which he argued that it is morally wrong to engage in the direct killing of an innocent human being, and that the act of abortion is precisely this kind of killing.  He also buttressed his argument “with philosophical refutations of common pro-choice theses.”  And yet, as Fr. Conley recounts, as a direct response to this lecture, Mr. Mercier was suspended from teaching at Louvain and told that his contract would not be renewed.

In a public statement the Université catholique [sic] de Louvain assured the public that Mercier’s lecture was “in contradiction with the values supported by the university.”  The bishops who comprise the University’s Board of Governors—including the Archbishop of Malins-Brussels who serves as Grand Chancellor of the University—offered no support and “declared that they would not intervene in the case.”  A spokesman for the bishops objected to Mr. Mercier’s “inflammatory rhetoric,” namely, referring to abortion as “murder.”

It is difficult to see how Mercier’s description of abortion as “murder” is not in keeping with Louvain’s “values” as a Catholic university given that the Catholic Church has, at the highest levels of its teaching authority, referred to abortion as an “infamy” (Gaudium et Spes ¶ 27), an “unspeakable crime” (Id. ¶ 51), and, indeed, “murder” (Evangelium Vitae ¶ 58).  One wonder’s what the administrators at Louvain must think of Pope Francis’ recent comment that going to an abortion doctor is “like hiring a hitman.”

Certainly, there are, as Michael Perry has explained, prudential decisions that the person arguing against abortion must make in describing the act that he or she opposes.  The rhetoric one employs can profoundly affect how the conversation proceeds.  If one’s goal is to persuade another person who supports “a woman’s right to choose,” it may well be imprudent to describe abortion as “murder” since this may end the exchange before it has had a chance to really begin.  Persuasion is not simply a matter of the truth of one’s premises, logical validity, and the coherence of one’s argument, though each of these is important.  Persuasion is also a matter of trust and good faith – belief that the interlocutors are not really opponents, but people who may approach the topic from different points-of-view, but who are ultimately engaged in a shared enterprise.

So, while Mr. Mercier’s choice of words may or may not have been imprudent and off-putting to his audience, given the Catholic Church’s unshakeable commitment to the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death, it is difficult to see how Mr. Mercier’s thesis was “in contradiction with the values supported by the university” insofar as the Université catholique de Louvain claims to be Catholic.

The Belgian bishops decision not to intervene in the inner workings of the University is in keeping with the respect that the hierarchy has shown for the autonomy of Catholic universities since the Second Vatican Council.  The Land O’Lakes Statement, signed by the representatives of sixteen Catholic universities in North America, was, as Alice Gallin, O.S.U. described in her book Negotiating Identity, a “declaration of independence from authorities outside the university” including church officials (p. 129).  In the Land O’Lakes Statement, the signatories declared: “[T]he Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself” (§ 1).

Later, in the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II likewise recognized that every Catholic university must possess the “institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of truth and the common good” (¶ 12).

A bishop can, of course, simultaneously respect the institutional autonomy of a Catholic university and call out the university for its failure to understand and live its Catholic identity.  Indeed, the bishop could even call out the university for its failure to honor the principle of academic freedom.  Here, Louvain failed to uphold both the University’s claimed Catholic identity and the principle of academic freedom in spectacular fashion.  

Catholics in the academy who seek the assistance of their bishops in upholding the Catholic identity of the institutions where they serve are accustomed to disappointment.   But it is not impertinent to suggest that Catholic bishops should offer fraternal correction to the Catholic universities within their dioceses when these institutions misstate the nature of Catholic identity and undermine that identity by their actions. 

Thus, although Ex Corde recognizes that “[t]he responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the university rests primarily with the university itself” (art. 1, ¶ 1), it also provides that “[i]f problems arise concerning this Catholic character, the local bishop is to take the initiatives necessary to resolve the matter” (art. 5, ¶ 2).   Likewise, the Code of Canon Law provides that the local bishop has the authority to determine that a university may not “bear the title or name of Catholic university” (Canon 808) where the institution fails to manifest an authentic Catholic identity.

The examen is a fixture in Jesuit spirituality – a method of prayer that St. Ignatius taught in in his Spiritual Exercises.  The person who takes up the examen is invited to place him or herself in God’s presence; recall the different moments of the day; reflect upon what he or she did, or said, or thought in those instances and whether those occasions drew the person closer to God or further away; and reflect on how to collaborate more effectively with God’s plan in the future.  Thus, when taken up earnestly and with sincerity of heart, the examen can be a method of real self-improvement, moving closer to God and to fulfilling the specific vocation he has entrusted to each of us.

Recently the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) published Some Characteristics of Jesuit Colleges and Universities: A Self-Evaluation Instrument.  The document was prepared as a kind of institutional examen.  The AJCU intends for it “to be used by Jesuit universities and colleges in the United States as a tool for self-improvement, particularly with regard to their fulfillment of their Jesuit and Catholic identity” (p. 1).   Thus, the document’s method of proceeding is to pose a series of questions centered around a number of characteristics that Jesuit colleges and universities ought to manifest.  

One of these characteristics is the responsibility of the University’s leadership to “competently communicate[] and enliven[] the Jesuit, Catholic mission of the institution” (p. 5).  Here the document acknowledges, albeit implicitly, that Jesuit universities have a problem with fulfilling their mission because they have a problem of personnel.  Because they are committed to a standard of “excellence” Jesuit universities “adopt the standards of the academy that value scholarly productivity . . . while devaluing an integrative understanding of knowledge that is rooted ultimately in transcendent questions” (p. 7).

Even in those instances where institutions are successful in hiring Catholic leadership, the majority of our lay people come without adequate formation or interest in learning about and implementing the mission beyond humanistic concerns, like “care for the person” or a “commitment to service.”  In the absence of a “thick” understanding of the tradition, these good and well-intentioned leaders will be uncertain about how to hire faculty and administrators who explicitly engage the university’s mission and establish and promote programming that links directly to our Jesuit, Catholic identity.  How does the institution hope to address this issue?  

This is the question that will be determinative of the future of Jesuit and Catholic higher education.  Without faculty who know and embrace the intellectual tradition and carry it forward in their teaching and research, Jesuit and Catholic higher education will cease to exist.  The name “Jesuit” may remain on the door, but it will cease to be a meaningful descriptive.  It will stand as an empty epithet, a phrase hollow of any significance other than as a merely historical reference.

A cynic, born of experience, might conclude that the exercise of going through the institutional examen is just another example of what James Burtchaell, C.S.C. described in The Dying of the Light as “the untiring Jesuit energy for self-study” (p. 624).  Navel-gazing, whether Ignatian or otherwise, is a useless exercise.  It is not genuine self-reflection and it cannot lead to genuine change.

In his post, Fr. Conley says that “over the years, I have heard accounts of appointments and promotions denied because of faculty members’ pro-life positions.”  Faculty and administrators who have no interest in navel-gazing, but who wish to make use of the examen as a serious opportunity for institutional reflection and reform might ask themselves: “Have qualified faculty candidates who are pro-life scholars been denied appointments at our institution?  If so, why is this the case?  Have we hired faculty candidates knowing, in advance, that they have written and plan to write in favor of abortion as morally licit and legally justified?  If so, why is this the case?  Does our university have a intellectual and social justice commitment to the Church's teaching on abortion?  If no, why is this the case?”

Absent a serious and honest engagement with these kinds of questions, the institutional examen is destined to be nothing more than the latest addition to a library shelf already full of volumes dedicated to Jesuit identity -- mere words, gathering dust -- while the universities they seek to guide continue on their path away from the gospel of life. 



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