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Reflection Series: What It Means to Be a Preeminent Catholic Jesuit Research University

by Paul Lynch, Ph.D.


“What does it mean to be a preeminent Jesuit research university?” For this reflection piece, I was asked to focus on the meaning of “Jesuit” in that question. “Jesuit,” however, entails “Catholic,” so my reflections will focus on that word, as well. Ultimately, “Catholic” is more important than “Jesuit.” Saint Louis University could stop being a Jesuit university and remain a Catholic one; it could not do the opposite. 

The push to make SLU a preeminent Jesuit research university requires a consideration of how SLU’s Catholic, Jesuit mission relates to its research mission. That relation, I would suggest, includes two key obligations: to be an authentically Catholic, Jesuit university, SLU must be a research university, but to be a research university requires that researchers attend to SLU’s Catholic, Jesuit mission.

That latter claim may seem inimical to academic freedom, but it is, in fact, the commitment to research that has propelled the academic mission of Catholic colleges and universities (CCUs). Throughout the first part of the 20th century, CCUs were generally seen as inferior to their secular counterparts. American intellectuals, including many Catholics, regularly complained about CCUs’ lack of scholarly achievement. In 1967, however, leaders in Catholic higher education — including SLU’s then-president Paul C. Reinert, S.J., along with SLU’s board chair and its dean of Arts and Sciences — charted a new course for CCUs, outlined in The Idea of the Catholic University, more popularly known as the “Land o’ Lakes Statement," for the Wisconsin town where it was written. The Land o’ Lakes Statement committed Catholic universities to the same level of academic freedom and scholarly achievement as their secular counterparts. This commitment entailed a robust program of research, though a program undertaken within a larger horizon:

The Catholic university will, of course, maintain and support broad programs of research. It will promote basic research in all university fields but, in addition, it will be prepared to undertake by preference, though not exclusively, such research as will deal with problems of greater human urgency or of greater Christian concern.

- From The Idea of the Catholic University, aka The Land 'o Lakes Statement

This statement asserts the independence of research, which cannot be limited in advance to any purpose or outcome. Yet this independence is asserted within a Catholic, Jesuit framework.

As described by former Jesuit superior general Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., these twin commitments entail seeing the university as a proyecto social, a social project aimed at the common good. Nicolás borrows the phrase proyecto social from his fellow Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., who had been president of the University of Central America until his 1989 assassination by a U.S.-trained death squad. (Other victims included five of his Jesuit companions, along with their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter.) In 1982, Ellacuría traveled to Santa Clara University to offer the commencement address in which he outlined his vision for the Catholic university. That vision included a transformation of society, propelled by intellectuals doing what intellectuals do: analyzing causes, imagining remedies, and communicating new possibilities, all in the service of the Gospel’s call to serve 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 university 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.

- Ignacio Ellacuría Beascoechea, S. J.

To be present intellectually should be the mission of the preeminent Catholic, Jesuit university. It is also another way to understand the informal Jesuit motto of “men and women for and with others.” How are we with others? How are we present to them? Intellectually — through the rigor and aspiration of our research. But that is also the way we are for others; our academic excellence is what empowers us to unlock the wisdom necessary to “transform society in the spirit of the Gospels.”

Photo of Paul Lynch

Paul Lynch, Ph.D.

Paul Lynch, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English whose research interests include the rhetoric of religion, rhetorical theory, and writing pedagogy.


Read Other Essays in the Series