Georgetown doesn’t have a Jesuit President, and likely won’t in the future. We don’t, in fact, have very many Jesuits—only 34 working on campus, out of some 728 full-time faculty. It’s quite possible to go through four years here without taking a class with or even, if you make an effort, meeting a Jesuit. For many students, the most prominent reminder of our Jesuit identity is how often we’re told that we have one. So, what’s the use of our Jesuit heritage today? Should we cast our religious identity aside like so many other Universities and seek to become a Potomac Harvard? After weighing the costs and benefits, we can only say no. Jesuit we began, and Jesuit we should remain.
There are costs. As a Catholic university, we ensure that about half of our undergraduate population remains Catholic, which limits the diversity of our student body.
We miss out on research grants on sensitive issues, such as developing stem-cell technology. And our history of dealing with issues such as LGBTQ students on campus, the abortion debate and contraception hasn’t been impressive. All are side effects of the Catholic Church’s uncomfortable engagement with modernity.
But the Society of Jesus can also be a bridge between the Church and the contemporary world. Jesuits, from John Carroll to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to John Courtney Murray to Robert Drinan, have been true innovators in combining Jesuit values with temporal problems, sometimes right here at Georgetown. It’s this legacy of daring to move the Church forward that should be reinforced by Georgetown’s Jesuits here and now. Rev. Peter Phan, recently censured by the Church, represents this tradition, though not a Jesuit himself.
But it’s not only priests who have a duty to embrace this identity. As students, we come here because we want more than just a top-notch research institution. We want to engage in a moral and spiritual conversation as well.
The clichés we bandy around—cura personalis, contemplation in action—are also acted out, in Georgetown’s student-led emphasis on service, in the graduates we send to Teach For America and the Peace Corps and in the commitment to social justice each student should take away from this institution. In part, that means students need to seek out moral conversations—seek out the Jesuits, even, perhaps especially, if we disagree with them or the Church they represent.
At the end of the day, the benefits of our Jesuit identity still outweigh the costs. The University needs to continue to take steps to improve our diversity, but also to bring Jesuits to campus. Engagement with the Jesuits is vital to our intellectual development, and to the assignment with which Ignatius of Loyola closed his correspondence: Go out, and set the world on fire.