Theology, the university, and the poor
I recently read the commencement address given by Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ in June 1982 at Santa Clara University. (Ellacuria would be killed in El Salvador just over seven years later, in November 1989, at the very university about which he speaks in this address, Universidad Centroamericana.) The talk is available here:
. Ellacuria’s words have made me reflect again on a topic which has emerged many times on this blog: namely, the preferential option for the poor. In particular, I want to ask, What role does the university play in realizing this option? And how does our theology relate to this task of the university?
Ellacuria may provide some guidance:
A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the universitv should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.
What strikes me about this passage is that the realization of the option for the poor at the university is not limited to a sector of it, such as a Center for Social Concerns, as we have at Notre Dame (
), or some analogous institution. Ellacuria certainly does not deny the value of this sort of center–which, at Notre Dame, does serve the poor in concrete ways that are worthy of support. But this vital part of the university is not his focus. The things he calls for involve the university’s work as a whole. The intellectual presence of the university should have a positive outcome for the poor. Its academic excellence should provide the means to analyze the complex social realities of a world in which the majority of humankind lives in poverty. The science and the skills that the university develops and teaches should be used for those who have no access to them. The collective voice which the university has–of numerous students, faculty, staff, and administrators, whose voices are heard throughout campus–should give voice to those who have none (which means, above all, listening to them, and bringing their concerns out into the open).
Theology, as both an academic and a Christian pursuit, must have an important role to play here. But what exactly is it? It cannot be to reliquish its intellectual rigor in order to be an advocate for the poor. Rather, as Ellacuria suggests, it must put its intellectual rigor in service of the poor. Nor can it be to forsake faithful reflection on the gospel in order to make way for a secular ideology. That is far from Ellacuria’s mind. Ultimately, for Ellacuria, theology’s role at the university is this: to understand more deeply how to confront the realities of a sinful and suffering world in an authentically Christ-centered way.
Much more really needs to be said on this topic. But for now, perhaps you and I can take some time to meditate on the concluding words of Ellacuria’s address, in light of our own contexts (wherever we are):
And how do you help us [the poor]? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility.