By MICHAEL C. MCCARTHY S.J.
Vice President for Mission Integration and Planning
Professors often talk about how much they learn from their students, and I’m no exception.
A case in point: recently I was engaged in a terrific discussion with a group of Fordham juniors in my class on Religion in the Modern World. We were discussing today’s standards for public discourse and how difficult it can be to talk about values in open settings—even those values we profess to share.
We certainly have shared values; we absolutely need them. Yet, often we don’t know how to talk about them with any depth or texture. Values seem so personal, so private. Our instinctive respect for the individual tends to make us nervous about treading on another’s belief system. That concern, in turn, pushes us to use commonly accepted terms—terms that we are pretty certain others will accept even if we are not sure we agree on their meaning.
Our class had been discussing an essay by an author who called this practice “smuggling.” The writer cited a classic example: the word “freedom.” No one is against freedom, and so we can always invoke this exalted term in a public discussion about a particular issue. And yet, what “freedom” may mean in any situation—what its implications are, for instance—may be far from obvious.
That prompted me to ask a related, and very relevant, question for us at Fordham: “What about ‘Jesuit values’?”
The class laughed, as if in recognition, to say: “Yes, at Fordham we sure do talk about ‘Jesuit values’ a lot without a very clear understanding of what it means.” But, the period ended before I could explain why I thought this was such an important question and why it has been on my mind of late.
Last year I had the privilege of chairing a committee that carried out a self-study on the mission and identity of Fordham as a Jesuit, Catholic university. It was an honor to join such distinguished faculty and administrative colleagues: Nancy Busch Rossnagel, Jenifer Campbell, Christine Firer Hinze, James McCartin, Patricio Meneses, Stephie Mukherjee, Tom Scirghi, S.J., and Falugini Sen.
We were part of a process in which all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States are engaged. It’s called the Mission Priority Examen, and it asks us to reflect at a deeper level, with the help of a visiting team from peer institutions, on how we are doing with respect to our Jesuit, Catholic mission and identity. Furthermore, we were asked to propose four priorities that we would commit ourselves to advancing in the next five years.
It was an illuminating process in many ways, and we were especially lucky to have colleagues from Fairfield, Georgetown, Santa Clara and Seattle University visit us, meet with various parties and submit a final report. The report itself is exceptionally well written and raises many important questions for us to consider.
One of the most critical points, however, comes almost as a warning against the blithe use of terms, namely the word “mission.” “The mission of Fordham is central to who we are and what we do,” the report’s authors write. They caution that the word “is invoked freely, however, when debates arise about contentious issues and the term can quickly become a one-issue trump card in times of division.”
Our colleagues urged us to be proactive in our discussion of our mission and identity, so that in times of conflict, “Fordham’s mission has already been presented with a broad enough context that it is not used—or dismissed—because of one-dimensional renderings.”
The point I wanted to raise in class was just this. Do “Jesuit values” have any meaning or content that we can share? Or is it a term easily susceptible to “one-dimensional renderings?”
Even worse have “Jesuit values” too become a vehicle for “smuggling” an agenda the individual smuggler holds dear—such as Catholic dogma, progressive politics, social justice activism, a commitment to faith or a commitment to liberal arts over a culture driven by “corporate values”—by using the all-encompassing umbrella of “Jesuit mission”?
Have we created the space where we can discuss what these “Jesuit values” actually mean? Can we commit ourselves to a more capacious understanding of mission—one that is both broad and deep? One that is sufficiently robust to unite us, even when we have such diverse intellectual commitments and are at times in authentic disagreement? Are we capable of lively debate that is precise and honest about what we mean by “Jesuit values” while also recognizing that it provides an arena to discuss, disagree and hopefully discern a way forward together?
There is an inherent tension, even a paradox, in embracing a mission that seeks unity in diversity and difference. But that tension is also the heart of a Jesuit university.
Next year, I will have been a Jesuit for 35 years. During that time, it has been hard enough to understand what it means to be a Jesuit. And I am just one man. But I continue to learn—a process that is itself part of what it means to be a Jesuit.
During that time I have been associated with many Jesuit schools across the country. And I do believe that, while they are in fact genuinely committed to “Jesuit values,” there is a common absence of real understanding.
What gives me great hope about the possibility of clarifying our terms is that, in spite of our poor understanding, we live the mission with great passion and sincerity.
Most importantly, however, what I learn from my students is the centrality of being a student . . . of listening and being open to sharpening our ideas about sacrosanct terms too many of us assume we long ago mastered.
A university is a place of learning—not just for students, but also for faculty, staff and administration. That Jesuit value, and mission, should be the shared starting point for another terrific, and even wider, discussion in which we are all self-aware of when we feel tempted to smuggle.