Bringing social teaching to campus

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities last September released a document titled “Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Teaching: A Vision Statement,” aimed at helping Catholic colleges and universities continue to infuse Catholic social teaching across the curriculum. The association’s vice president, Michael Galligan-Stierle, spearheaded the 18-month effort, a product of consultation with the association’s Peace and Justice Advisory Committee and Catholic college and university faculty from across the nation. Galligan-Stierle spoke with NCR about the project. What follows is an edited version of that interview.

NCR: Why this new document?
Galligan-Stierle: In 1998 the U.S. bishops’ conference published “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions.” As part of the higher education subgroup that contributed to the document, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities conducted research and contributed a report on the state of Catholic higher education and the social mission of the church.

For the 10-year anniversary of the document’s publication in 2008, the bishops’ conference gathered many of the subgroup task force leaders to highlight the good work being accomplished and to encourage us to continue. Our Peace and Justice Advisory Committee took that occasion to distill the “pulse” of Catholic social teaching and Catholic higher education today. The vision statement grew out of this effort and is aimed at helping those in the world of Catholic higher education continue to communicate and utilize the concepts and values of Catholic social teaching across the curriculum.

Tell me a little more about the process that led to the document.
In 2007, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development first sponsored a gathering to recall the publication of “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions.” Our Peace and Justice Advisory Committee set aside time to draft a user-friendly, concise statement dealing with Catholic higher education’s convictions and commitments regarding Catholic social teaching. Then, through monthly conference calls, listening sessions, and composition and editing sessions, the vision statement was eventually issued after an 18-month process.

What’s the track record of integrating Catholic social teachings into the university setting?
Since the late 1970s Catholic colleges and universities have sponsored and nurtured justice and peace programs and related courses. Over time those programs have morphed into Catholic social teaching programs across the curriculum -- providing theological and ecclesial foundations for creating a more just and peaceful society and world.

Some schools offer specific courses on Catholic social teaching, others integrate that type of content into a range of courses, yet others have peace and justice centers or institutes. Catholic higher education’s commitment to Catholic social teaching continues to find ways to creatively and systemically encourage future generations to embrace the church’s vision of the common good.

To give but one recent example, Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., established a new core curriculum called “Justice Matters.” Through this curriculum every student studies multiple dimensions of social justice each year. In this system, attention to social justice is not an elective choice for just some students; it’s a requirement for all students. It is not a single course; it’s a four-course sequence over four years.

Given the current political dynamics of the country, is there a specific area where the voice of Catholic universities and colleges can be most effective?
The vision statement addresses six different areas where the voice of Catholic higher education can be especially effective today: the economy, environment, migration, gender/race/ethnicity, peace, and human rights language. In general it encourages Catholic colleges and universities to continue to instill in our graduates the values, principles and concepts of Catholic social teaching as the foundation of a just society. This document also promotes the continued use of these teachings as ways of connecting the common good with the professions of business, politics and media. The goal of an education infused with Catholic social teaching is for students to become citizens committed to working for the common good in whatever circumstances they find themselves.

Beyond the scope of the vision statement, Catholic colleges and universities can also be particularly effective voices in the areas of education growth, health care, immigration, and human life and dignity.

What happens next for the statement?
In early September 2009, we included the vision statement in Update, our quarterly digital newsletter, which goes out to more than 4,000 subscribers within Catholic higher education. The text will be included in packets of material for all participants at the annual Catholic higher education peace and justice gathering at the University of San Diego Jan. 15-17, 2010, where keynote speakers will engage the vision statement in their presentations. And, the statement will be distributed to all participants at our association’s annual meeting, Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2010, in Washington, D.C.

In short, the vision statement is meant to be an aid to conversation. The outcome of the conversation should be a challenge that leads to further reflection on actions that embrace a fuller embodiment of Catholic social teaching. In the best of all worlds the vision statement will become a stimulant, an igniter for campus discussions that lead to action.

Anything you want to add?
With regard to Catholic social teaching, one thing Catholic higher education does particularly well is to help students and others reflect upon the meaning of service. I was reminded of this at a listening session where Barbara Humphrey McCrabb, asssistant director for higher education at the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education, noted how the vision statement helped to affirm the fact that community-based learning, rooted in Catholic social teaching, in her words, “helps to illustrate the partnership between Catholic higher education and church. It becomes a place where theory and practice come together in a context of faith that ‘provides a foundation of lifelong reflection and service.’ ”

I also think the statement is very timely. It comes after the compendium of Catholic social teaching was issued and right after Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical Caritas in Veritate. As he said, “Only in charity, illumined by the light of reason and faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess a more humane and humanizing value.” I am not sure you can summarize Catholic social teaching for our world today any better than that.

Joshua J. McElwee is an editorial intern for NCR, and, in the interest of disclosure, interned for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities during 2008-2009.

'Devoted to seeking justice and serving the world'

“Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Teaching: A Vision Statement” urges Catholic colleges and universities to support Catholic social teaching in several different topic areas. Here are some highlights from the document in a few of those areas:

Education and formation
Catholic social teaching can be a powerful tool in preparing students for the ethical and moral dimensions of professional practice and good citizenship. … Catholic social teaching should also be employed as a lens through which to assess the education we offer. Do graduates approach their careers as vocations in service to the common good? Do students understand higher education as a privilege that brings a corresponding responsibility to contribute to society with special attentiveness to the vulnerable, less fortunate, and powerless?

Devoted to seeking justice and serving the world, Catholic higher education commits itself to academic research grounded in Catholic social teaching. … Colleagues … are encouraged to conduct research and frame research questions using the principles of Catholic social teaching for the good of all society. Universities are particularly encouraged to promote solidarity-based research through university-sponsored fellowships and research grants.

Times of economic crisis present an opportunity to rethink the economic models that have dominated the most recent moment of globalization. … The new economic realities of our time call for a deeper engagement between economics and Catholic social teaching. Catholic universities are envisioned as places where the questions and ideals of Catholic social teaching continue to query the assumptions of orthodox economic thought. … Concepts such as the dignity of labor, the common good, the preferential option for the poor, and human solidarity are essential to forge a more just, merciful and sustainable global economy. Students formed in a Catholic social teaching vision and methodology learn that economic responsibility is not reduced to competitiveness and the maximization of profit.

Global climate change and environmental degradation pose fundamental challenges to our contemporary form of life. Just as care for the sick and respect for the sanctity of life have made Catholic universities centers of research on bioethics, our era desperately needs a similar combination of ethical reflection and scientific research grounded in care for God’s creation. To address these global moral challenges, students need education in the complex science of climate change and resource consumption in tandem with a rich moral formation. Research and course work on the science and morality of environment and climate change can be reinforced and grounded by making our campuses practical laboratories in sustainable living. Furthermore, Catholic higher education is called upon to help the world see and justly respond to the fact that environmental degradation will adversely affect the world’s poor in profound ways.

Catholic social teaching incorporates a rich tradition of reflection on peace. This tradition includes both the ethics of war and peace (just war and nonviolence) as well as the spirituality, theology, ethics, and praxis of peacebuilding (conflict prevention, conflict management, and post-conflict reconciliation). Since peace is not just the absence of war, but the result of justice motivated by love, peace calls for the development of just institutions at all levels of society, including international institutions that can address questions that individual nations cannot address alone. Catholic colleges and universities are uniquely positioned both to educate about, reflect on and contribute to the development of this tradition, as well as to serve as a resource to the many “artisans of peace” in the church who are transforming conflict around the world.

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