Francis Xavier is said to have boasted, “give me a child of seven, and I will give you the man.” Even if that attribution is apocryphal, it is not wrong: the Jesuits can get their hooks in you. I graduated from a Jesuit high school in 1989, at a time when Pedro Arrupe’s admonition to be “Men for Others” was on everyone’s lips. (Later, when the school finally admitted girls, it became “Men and Women for Others.”) It was a time when liberation theology was still alive and leading to the martyrdom of Jesuits like Rutilio Grande. We were taught about Oscar Romero and the four American missionaries who were raped and murdered by the Salvadoran military. That education led me to go on a trip to Peru, where I met Jesuits serving the poorest communities while under threat from the Sendero Luminoso, a Maoist terror group. These men—and particularly the Peruvians with whom they worked—soon revealed by their example that it was actually my classmates and I who were being evangelized on that mission trip.
A few months after my high school graduation, the massacre at the University of Central America reinforced the risk of following the Gospel. When I visited the Jesuit teachers I had befriended at Loyola, I remember seeing commemorations of the UCA martyrs hanging in their residences. It was clear that this horrible event had not only shaken the Jesuits but galvanized them. In a small way, it also galvanized me: after college, I served two years as a Jesuit volunteer in Kingston, Jamaica, where I once again witnessed Jesuits living in the most dangerous neighborhoods, confronting the criminal gangs that were often indistinguishable from the government. (Six years after my return from Jamaica, another Jesuit was murdered for working with poor farmers on land reform.)
So, when I was offered a position here at SLU, I was pleased to be coming back to a Jesuit institution, where I expected to encounter the same kind of commitment to social justice. In my five years here, I’ve witnessed the Jesuit mission in many ways: in the College-in-Prison Program, in Casa Salud, in the service trips, in Micah House, most especially in the desire of faculty and students to find magis—something more—in their work. Nor is it at all surprising to me that a Jesuit like Fr. Heithaus would have stood up and called for desegregation at SLU in the 1940s, even at the risk of punishment and exile. Certainly he sets a fitting example as we discern the future of his and our university.
I wonder, though, whether his memory calls us to form a “haven,” a term that suggests a refuge or a retreat. Having just heard a commemorative reading of Fr. Heithaus’s sermon, I have a hard time associating him with “haven.” As he clearly saw, justice calls for confrontation.
In his spirit, then, I wish to confront my Jesuit colleagues: how corrosive does the atmosphere of our university have to be before the President is removed? I hope that my rehearsal of my Jesuit bona fides makes clear my intentions: I mean to ask the kind of question that the Jesuits taught me to ask. Surely each one of us, whether lay or clergy, has the right and responsibility of articulating our university’s mission. But the Jesuits have a particular obligation to offer a vision, and right now they seem to be forfeiting the field. As Jay Hammond suggested in explaining his resignation as chair of Theological Studies, many Jesuits feel embarrassed and angered by what is happening at SLU. Will they say so publicly?
Yes, I have seen the Jesuits’ leadership in last semester’s novena and in the demonstration outside the December Board of Trustees meeting. And I know that, in their letter of October 19, 2012, many Jesuits took a great risk in signing a statement that so clearly identified the university mission with the faculty rather than the current administration. The Jesuit authors’ refusal to let the President sign this letter sent an unmistakable signal. The letter also suggested that many Jesuits have “been working quietly to exert a constructive influence in the ways that we can,” and I have no doubt that this is the case. It is also true that most of our Jesuit colleagues simply aren’t empowered to remove the President. They are at the mercy of events as surely as the rest of us. Yet there are Jesuits who are so empowered, and their silence is starting to sound like consent.
I have also heard the argument that the Jesuits would set a bad precedent if they were to intervene in the current situation. Saint Louis University is run by a lay board, not by the Jesuits themselves; were they to interfere now, the argument goes, they would send a dangerous signal to any future president. This hesitation makes sense under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. The mismanagement of the university has been well documented. Worse than mismanagement, however, has been the university culture in which disagreement is seen as defiance, and in which dissent is termed disloyalty. If we return to that culture while the Jesuits stand by, it won’t just be SLU’s reputation that will be irrevocably damaged. It will be the reputation of the Jesuits themselves, whose silence will send a much louder and more lasting signal than any decisive action.
As we’ve seen with the recent resignation of Matthew Hall, the current administration is starting to drive good people away. Dr. Hall is not the first, and he likely won’t be the last. And as talented younger faculty leave, the accomplished older faculty—whose roots at SLU and in St. Louis run too deep to be wrenched out—will likely struggle with a deep desolation as they see their university reduced to ruin. For myself, my deepest fear is that the phrase “Jesuit mission” will become for SLU what “excellence” has become for so many other universities: an empty signifier that bears no relation to reality.