Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday Think-er: The Great White Whale of Catholic Higher Ed

Moby Dick is not a Comedy
Recently I was at a meeting to offer some input to a university about mission and identity. The question arose, What does it means to be a Jesuit, Catholic school?

I suspect for anyone working in Catholic education this is a familiar topic.  I know the universities I've been associated with have spent endless hours having speakers and panels, small and large group conversations, even whole conferences on the topic.

Behind that interest often lies anxiety about "Mission Drift", the possibility that our schools might be falling away from their Catholic character.

And that's an important question. Unfortunately, much of that conversation gets hijacked by outside groups trying to stir the pot.  If you've never heard of the Cardinal Newman Society, consider yourself lucky. They are like the screech who comes to your party and will only talk about their cause, and without any willingness to have a honest and interesting conversation.

Any time any Catholic school invites a speaker who does not fit this group's definition of Catholic, whether it's a social worker in the developing world or the President of the United States, out the Newman minions fly decrying the university.  They consider themselves the defenders of the faith, and there is goodness in that intention. But unable to conceive of others also trying to work for the faith, they engage in mean-spirited tactics of embarrassment that are anything but Christian.

The head of the Cardinal Newman Society wants you to know he's going to tell on you.

Here endeth the rant. (Other than to say, someone really needs to do an investigative piece and get to the bottom of this group.)

Groundhog Days and Rabbit Holes
So as I sat at this meeting, I found myself wondering why am I still hearing the same conversation that I heard 20 years ago? Where is the progress?

And I'm sure there has been some. As wearying as many of these conversations are, I'm sure it's not a coincidence that the last 20 years have seen so many people who are not priests and brothers and sisters stepping up as leaders in our schools.

But I also wonder at this point whether our starting point might need adjustment.  St. Ignatius always said about the spiritual life, when you find yourself in a bad or confusing place, it's good to go back and ask, what are the choices that preceded this and led me here?

It's also very clear, the starting point of any argument -- its assumptions, if you will -- has a great influence on where the argument is able to go.  So for instance starting a conversation about whether to invade Iraq with the presumption that they are building weapons of mass destruction cannot help but influence where that conversation goes.

And that's not just about conclusions but the possible paths of thought we might go down.

Putting this in terms of Catholic identity: I wonder if right now we enter into these conversations thinking of ourselves as in a sense scientists with a microscope. We're delving into the foundations of things, looking for our own version of the God particle, the essential parts of a Catholic school.

One part Respect for All Life, One Part Pursuit of Truth, One Part Faith that Does Justice...
And a Whole Lot of Jesus

It's a very soothing metaphor, in that it promises the possibility of a set of clear, distinct and identifiable elements that can be distilled down and then used to judge one's "Catholicity."

And yet even as such a process results in mission statements, lists of Catholic traits, etc., it's striking that neither the process nor the end result ends up very satisfying to people. On any given day you may hear just about anything, but it's a rare day indeed when someone says they really loved a mission statement. And that's when most or everyone is really trying!

Another option: Pray-er
Maybe this is similar to the difference in experience between reciting the Creed and the Our Father. I don't want to speak for everyone -- Go Creeders! -- but I think many of us find the Creed a bit dull. (And in the new translation, also confusing. Thank you, translators who don't know from English.) It's our statement of faith, but it doesn't connect with us so much in a personal way. It's like a speech that we're asked to deliver together.

Whereas the Our Father, while having a set of pretty specific beats that can be elaborated into a set of principles, is first and foremost a personal, petitional prayer. It's us speaking to God. Often alongside other people who are also important in our lives -- our fellow community members, our parents and siblings, our friends.

What if we started somewhere closer to there -- not as scientists with a microscope, but as pray-ers. People who have each had experiences of life and need and the Church and God. Experiences to share.

If we started from that presupposition, what sort of a conversion might ensue? What would be the questions we might ask? The kind of content we distill? Or even the form that content or talk takes? For instance, if we start from a sense of ourselves as pray-ers or spiritual searchers, might our conversation take the form of a ritual?

What would it be like if we start from our experience of ourselves as pray-ers?

Second Option: Snap! Crackle! Pop! AHHHHHHH. 
Or -- on a much more secular note -- what if we thought of ourselves as organizational chiropractors? I know, it's a crazy term. But an institution is an organism, just like the human body. And issues that flare up in one area are often signals for a real problem somewhere completely different.

Maybe when we're having these flare ups that lead to conversations about Catholic identity, maybe the real issue is not whether we're Catholic or how to be Catholic. Maybe it's wages. Or people not feeling heard (either by the school or by the Church). Or an old wound that's just been activated.

The fact that some women at a Catholic university, for instance, might be furious that the school denies abortion coverage is not necessarily indicative of whether the school has properly expressed and shared its Catholic mission. Or about whether its hiring practices are really on target with mission. It could just be a sign that many women don't feel like they have a voice in the Church.

Identifying that is not to say the school should become pro-choice, either.  That, too, is in a sense missing the bigger point, the experience of being dismissed or not consulted or considered a fundamental part of the life of the Church.

Being the chiropractor who diagnoses where the real pressure is and tries to release it will never result in a mission statement or a set of principles of "who we are".  But it might help us become a better-lived version of the Kingdom.

He just worked out her pension problem.

I'm not suggesting either of these starting points as best or necessary next steps. They're just examples that show we have options. The conversation doesn't have to look like the one we keep having.

In AA they define insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I don't want to say our Catholic institutions have gone off the deep end. But sometimes these conversations certainly do drive us crazy.

And rather than judging that discomfort as resistance or just a necessary hardship of a bigger goal, maybe from time to time we should pay attention to that dis-ease. And ask ourselves, is this really the only way to proceed?

Maybe it isn't.