Monday, March 18, 2013

Fr. Heithaus’ Example: A Duty to Lead

Paul Lynch

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.


  1. As one of the contributing editors of the Heithaus Haven, I wish to note that Professor Paul Lynch, as a tenure track assistant professor, has not allowed us to withhold his identity. The editors respect his decision, but are mindful of his vulnerability, given Fr. Lawrence Biondi's longstanding practice of retribution against those who dissent from his decisions or question his judgment. It is our hope that his courage will be honored, and his words will be heard by Jesuits here and throughout the Society of Jesus.

    Professor Lynch's essay brings to my mind the words of the prophet Habakkuk:

    1:2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not listen?
    Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
    and you will not save?
    3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
    and look at trouble?
    Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
    4 So the law becomes slack
    and justice never prevails.
    The wicked surround the righteous—
    therefore judgement comes forth perverted.

    Our question to Jesuits superiors who have authority over the apostolic work at Saint Louis University is the same: How long must we endure this?

    Kenneth L. Parker
    Associate Professor of Historical Theology

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I second the idea that it would be great to see more leadership on these issues from the priests, as in the exemplary life of Fr. Heithaus. and now that the Jesuits have one of their own serving as Bishop of Rome, it would seem even more appropriate.

    Also: It seems like one of our biggest problems is to convince both outsiders and board members that these are not "normal circumstances." Frankly I'm not always clear about what "normal" means, too--since by now, a couple of years into this debacle, perhaps this is the "new normal." it seems to me, in fact, that the board would prefer to have us all thank them for what they have already done, and that we all move on to more urgent matters such as the basketball tournament (about which I am a huge fan, by the way). That said, I believe it would be accurate to say that SLU has more pressing issues to confront than the press defense of the Louisville Cardinals (birds, not priests).

    I mainly want to say thanks to Prof. Harvey for sharing his story and courageously speaking his mind on these issues -- and for having the heart to give his name openly, which he was under no pressure to do. As Prof. Parker mentions, Paul made this choice himself, after advice from senior faculty to consider the decision with care. Much kudos to you, Paul!

    Hal Bush, Professor of English

  4. In response to Paul Lynch,

    I don't see the need to call out the Jesuits as a group here. The members of the Society of Jesus who are on the Board of Trustees of SLU is a matter of public record isn't it? When I went to SLU's website I found their names.

    The Society of Jesus doesn't appoint members to the board of SLU. As far as I know the procedure for getting a Jesuit on or off of the board is the same as for lay people.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your comment.

      As a contributing editor of the Heithaus Haven, I was very pleased to receive and publish Paul Lynch's essay. The essay directly addresses the mission of the Heithaus Haven.

      A Jesuit university is a place of reasoned discourse. The purpose of that discourse is to shed light on social realities, to the end that we might all come together in solidarity. Paul's essay sheds light directly on a disheartening social reality we now face at SLU: the scandalizing of the Jesuits. In our own internal norms, practices, and structures, we have failed at SLU to embody the Jesuit mission we espouse. It has taken some time, but by now, many in our campus community have recognized and internalized the fact that these failures have scandalized not only the university, but also the Jesuits.

      Paul's brave essay has served as a catalyst for reasoned discourse on a topic that has been on the minds of many, but which few have been willing to broach publicly. The purpose of this discourse is to help resolve the scandal and to bring us together in solidarity. This discourse has given voice to the frustration of many that we are participating in a dishonest and inauthentic enterprise through our work at SLU. (A student declared to me recently, "SLU doesn't care about mission. SLU only cares about money.") While that frustration is dispiriting, at its core lies a deep love for Jesuit mission and a great admiration for the many individual Jesuits who work to serve faith and promote justice. We want to help the Jesuits serve their Jesuit mission, as they have so often helped us to do.

      Many private conversations have taken place between lay members of the SLU community and Jesuits who serve as our academic colleagues. Many lay members of the SLU community have also written privately to the Jesuits who serve on the board of trustees. (The names of the members of the board of trustees are well known. SLU chooses not to provide the trustees with publicly available email addresses, as it does for the rest of our community. But a list of email addresses has been assembled and made available on the "SLU Students for No Confidence" facebook page. Many of us have used those addresses to send our communications.)

      Paul's public essay has helped our community voice a common and shared concern and to issue yet another call to action. As his essay reminds us, the Jesuits are known for their dedication to the vocation of giving voice to the voiceless. It is the Jesuits who are now seemingly voiceless. I am grateful for Paul's effort to empower the Jesuits to find and raise their voices, to give glory and honor to their mission.

  5. In response to Anonymous:

    Thanks for replying to my piece. As I say, I think that some moments call for confrontation, so I welcome disagreement in the hope that an honest argument will lead us all to the best available way to proceed.

    I have two initial thoughts to your response. The first is that I didn't exactly call out the Jesuits as a group. The original post makes clear that most of the Jesuits attached to SLU do not have the power to intervene directly. I also hope it makes clear my admiration for the ways in which they have already spoken out, specifically their letter last fall and their organizing of both the novena and the ongoing opportunities, both liturgical and academic, to recall us all to the University's mission.

    But that first response isn't entirely satisfying: I am, as you say, calling out the Jesuits, and I stand by that because I think their "brand" (if you'll forgive the term) is on the line here just as the University's is. Your argument seems to be that I should have directed my comments directly to Jesuit board members, an argument that seems to ignore their affiliation as Jesuits. Like it or not, their actions--or, in this case, inaction--speaks about them _as_ Jesuits. They do not represent themselves alone. Indeed, their very presence on the Board is meant to ensure that SLU retains its Jesuit character even though it is no longer controlled by the Society directly. If this doesn't strike you as important, then ask yourself whether you'd be comfortable with no Jesuits on the Board at all. I suppose SLU would still be a university at that point, but it would be harder to call it a Jesuit university.

    I welcome your further reply. Honest argument is the only way we're going to see the University through this crisis.

    Paul Lynch
    Assistant Professor of English


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