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Catholic universities in a chaotic cultural moment


By Terrence Downey


The theme of the recent conference of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, “Exploring Diversity as an Expression of God’s Grandeur,” provided an enlightened contrast to the frenzied political discourse surrounding refugees and immigrants in major western nations. That the conference was held in Washington, D.C., in the highly charged period immediately following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, and coincidental with his draconian executive order banning immigration, lent further urgency to the fundamental nature of the topic at hand.

For those of us in Catholic universities in both Canada and the United States, the conference was a clarion call to remind us that we can only be true to the Catholic intellectual tradition in which we operate by ardently rejecting what Pope Francis has described as the demonization of the other.

We can begin by recalling what is at the root of any Catholic institution of higher education: the belief that each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God, including those who look, think, act and believe unlike ourselves. In welcoming and then celebrating the presence of a diversity of voices, opinions, beliefs, inclinations and cultures, Catholic universities recognize and honour the grandeur of God; to do otherwise is to deny the handiwork of our Creator and betray the fertile intellectual tradition which animates our institutions.

But it is not enough for Catholic universities to simply acknowledge that we are against all forms of racism and discrimination in our universities and in the broader society. If we really believe what we say we believe, we have an obligation to directly and vigorously confront such injustices wherever they might be found both in the academy and in the public realm.

Within our Catholic liberal arts institutions, we must ensure that each and every student, regardless of culture or background, is always treated with the respect that our God-given inherent dignity obliges, and that faculty and staff in their words and actions provide role models of the careful listening and systematic research that informs vigorous scholarly dialogue and intelligent decision making no matter how controversial or complex the issue. 

Our curriculum must enable students to experience authentic encounters with our history, both the good and the bad, and to engage with the times and the society in which we live so that they are prepared for the intricate ethical decisions and crucial civic choices they will inevitably be called upon to make in their lives.

Graduates of our institutions must be capable of the well-informed and courageous deliberations that a healthy democracy demands; they must know their rights and especially their responsibilities as citizens. They must be inspired to envision and then strive to build a nation that willing accepts our Christian obligations to the poor, the destitute and to those who seek refuge on our wealthy shores.

Catholic universities also have a public voice that must be utilized to speak out boldly against the demonizing of the other that is very much the current cultural moment in wealthy western societies — including in some circles here in Canada. In this instance, Catholic universities are now called to do what good universities have always done in their periods of greatness: fearlessly confront the racism, callousness, materialism and short-sightedness of the prevailing order. 

This means that our institutions, and those of us who serve in them, must consistently summon the courage and the conviction to speak out clearly and forcefully to oppose the prejudices and greed that motivate hostility to immigrants and refugees especially where these forces enjoy popular and media support, and even if our speaking exposes our institutions and those of us in them to harsh retaliation from those in positions of power and influence. 

If we are to be true to our calling as Catholic institutions, and faithful to Catholic social teaching, we must be prepared to name the harsh reality before us no matter the consequences; indeed, in the face of the current humanitarian crisis, we are obliged to do nothing less. As Pope Francis reminds, “it’s a hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help.”

Terrence J. Downey is president of St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.