Social justice and Catholic higher education

It seems to be in vogue to write about one’s alma mater these days. blogger Lauren Hoedeman recently defended the University of Notre Dame by calling on those who discount the school’s Catholicity to reconsider their assertions. In a similar fashion, First Things junior fellow and Georgetown University alum Matthew Cantirino lamented that even though he was proud to attend the nation’s oldest Catholic institution, the school’s decision to invite Kathleen Sebelius as a guest of honor for its commencement ceremonies was “absurd.”

I do not share in the school pride Lauren and Matthew have for their respective alma maters. But in the spirit of unity, a summary of my own time spent at Loyola University Chicago – the Jesuit Catholic institution where I received a master’s degree in social justice – seems appropriate.

According to the Catholic Catechism, “Society ensures social justice when it provides the conditions that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation.” Social justice rightly understood is not a code word for communism, as Glenn Beck has proclaimed. Although he was right to demonstrate how it has been hijacked by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, social justice within the Catholic faith actually means something entirely different.

Jesuit Priest Luigi Taparelli D'Azeglio

Ryan Messmore, a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, clarifies this confusion by reminding us of its original meaning.“Today,” Messmore writes, “political activists often use the phrase ‘social justice’ to justify government redistribution of wealth.” Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, the 19th century Jesuit Italian priest who coined the phrase, however, “prefaced ‘justice’ with ‘social’ to emphasize the social nature of human beings and, flowing from this, the importance of various social spheres outside civic government.” Social justice to Taparelli entailed a “social order in which government doesn’t overrun or crowd out institutions of civil society such as family, church and local organizations.”

Catholic scholars like Michael Novak and George Weigel have attempted to recapture Taparelli’s definition by framing debates about social justice around subsidiarity and religious freedom, but many Americans have been conditioned to view social justice as something that needs to be avoided, partly due to the efforts of libertarian economist and author of “The Mirage of Social Justice” F.A. Hayek, and groups like the Chicago based White Rose Catholic Worker.

In the week leading up to the latest NATO summit in Chicago, White Rose activists stormed the headquarters of President Obama’s re-election offices in what was dubbed the start to their “Week without Capitalism” campaign. Precisely what type of economic system these former Loyola classmates of mine would like to see replace capitalism was not exactly articulated, but based on our classroom discussions and their pro-Occupy Wall Street message, it’s likely some variant of Eastern European style socialism. Unfortunately, their understanding of economics betrays a naïve understanding of both social justice and capitalism in the first place, says Fr. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and President of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. In a column appearing on, Sirico writes:

In countless debates and conversations with modern proponents of social justice, I have noticed that they are less interested in justice than in material equality. They borrow the language of justice and the common good but have either forgotten or rejected the classical meanings of those terms.

Their exclusive focus on income and wealth as the sources and markers of equality is, ironically, merely another variety of the greed and consumerism that they are quick to excoriate.

This is not really social justice; it’s materialism.

Unfortunately, Sirico’s views were practically nonexistent at Loyola. Though the program claimed to provide an “interdisciplinary foundation in justice theories and social ethics,” it was anything but open to the oft-referenced “oppressive” dictates of the Church’s white-male dominated hierarchy. Instead of preaching the teachings of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, Loyola’s social justice program educated its students with the writings of Unitarian ministers, eco-feminists, liberation theologians, liberal philosophers like John Rawls, dissenting Catholics like Charles Curran, progressive Christians like Jim Wallis, and radical groups like the 8th Day Center for Justice.

In many ways, Loyola is not unlike the multitude of Catholic universities that have embraced the postmodern trinity of multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance. During my time as a Rambler, the school 1) hosted a lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender drag show 2) refused to allow (but eventually approved) Karl Rove from speaking to the Loyola Republican club because administrators feared that he would invalidate the school’s nonprofit status 3) welcomed well known Catholic bashers Michael Eric Dyson and Rev. Al Sharpton and 4) disallowed yours truly from making an announcement at the Sunday night campus mass because a Jesuit priest took umbrage with a blog post I wrote in reaction to a column in the student-run newspaper that claimed Jesus was pro-choice.

Since that time, the school has strengthened its fetish-like commitment to interfaith dialogue by having a Buddhist monk address incoming freshman about spirituality and the Dalai Lama speak to faculty and students about “interfaith collaboration.”

There is good that can come from such interactions, but, as the editorial board at the National Catholic Register recently said, this type of passive-aggressive behavior is all too common at Catholic institutions of higher learning and can lead administrators to view “Catholic teaching as the enemy of academic freedom.”

Progress, however, is being made at some institutions. Small liberal arts schools like Aquinas College, the Catholic Dominican college located in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I received my bachelor’s degree, are turning away from their diversity first mentality, establishing Catholic studies programs, and inviting orthodox Catholics like George Weigel to speak about the importance of being true to the Church’s teachings. Even Pope Benedict has expressed a heightened interest in Catholic higher education.

Catholic universities that cling to this Catholic lite mentality seemingly do so out of fear of being labeled bigoted, close-minded and intolerant by potential students, benefactors, and by the media in particular. In reality though, the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that tolerates dissent from its members. As Catholic League President Bill Donahue recently said on EWTN’s “The World Over,” the editorial board at the New York Times allows less disagreement than the Catholic Church. That may be fine for the Times, but it’s definitely not acceptable for the Church. I think it’s time to embrace St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and urge our fellow Catholics to unite in what we say, what we do, and especially in what we teach.

Stephen Kokx is an adjunct professor of political science and a featured columnist at Follow him on twitter @StephenKokx



  • JoshD

    The whole Catholic studies phenomonon that is starting to spring up is both a good thing and a bad thing in my eyes. It is a good thing in that there is a push to return to orthodoxy (perhaps no where is this more clear than in the divide between C.S. and the Theology departments/ majors at U. of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN).

    It is however a problem in that Catholic Studies seem to need to be relegated to its own program of studies for the few “crazy, Latin-loving Republican Catholics” out there, than for authentic “Catholic Studies” to permeate the whole of every single course of study on a campus as it should be.

    I will never forget taking a van load of high school students on a college visit to my alma mater (Franciscan U. of Steubenville) and how shocked one of the students was that when she was observing a biology class and it turned into a discussion on moral theology. This was a girl who came from a very holy, Catholic family (preliminary efforts have been made for the cause of canonization for her grandmother) and who was educated in Catholic schools her whole life who was dumbfounded that faith and theology would be addressed in a class that wasn’t theology class.

    Admittedly, I took a small tangent into the problems of lower-level Catholic education, but the problems are the same. I hope and pray this movement towards “Catholic Studies” programs allows for a true renewal of entire campuses at every level, so that they might truly be a place for Catholic studies.

  • Sarah B

    Hey Steve,

    When did you finish your MA at Loyola? I graduated with my SJ MA in 2009. It’s a small program and I don’t recognize your name, so I’m assuming it was either before or after that.

    I did my ungergrad at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, and then went to Loyola for the MA grad degree. A whole other world, which sounds similar to the experience you mention between your under and grad experiences.

    I can’t disagree with anything that you’ve written here, which makes me sad. I wish I could, you know. I’m sure you wish you didn’t have to write it. In my class (2009) there was only one other person who was a semi-faithful Catholic. All of the others want to “sing a new church into being” and all that Joan Chittister crap.

    There was def. good and bad with the program. I loved my internship, where my boss was a faithful and devout Catholic, but who didn’t downplay the importance of working for true social justice. What bugs me is when Catholics who only see this characiture of social justice and then don’t want anything to do with it, then aren’t willing to listen to what the Church actually says when someone tries to present it.

    I’m glad that you wrote about this! You’re the only other vocally faithful Catholic to come out of that program that I’ve run across. Keep speaking the truth!



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