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The Jesuits’ Taco Bell Humanism

September 2013 By Martin R. Tripole

Martin R. Tripole, S.J., is Professor Emeritus of Theology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He has edited two volumes of essays on Jesuit education, Jesuit Education 21: Conference Proceedings on the Future of Jesuit Higher Education (Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2000) and Promise Renewed: Jesuit Higher Education for a New Millennium (Loyola Press, 1999). He has also written a study on Jesuit spirituality, Faith Beyond Justice: Widening the Perspective (Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1994), and a work on Christology, The Jesus Event and Our Response (Alba House, 1980), as well as numerous essays on theology, spirituality, and education. His latest book is Church in Crisis: The Enlightenment and Its Impact upon Today’s Church (Sapientia Press, 2012).

As I was dashing along on my way to celebrate Mass at a nearby convent recently, I noticed a city bus speeding down the street. Emblazoned on the side was the new slogan of Saint Joseph’s University, where I live and taught: “Live the
Magis.” Along the sides of the road that intersects the Philadelphia campus, large flags have been draped that read: “Magis.” I still think most of the suburbanites who catch sight of the word think it’s left over from the university’s celebration of the coming of the Magi at Christmas — this, not for a lack of effort to promote a wider understanding of the Jesuit university’s new motto.

So, what does it mean? The homepage of the school’s website answers all questions: “What’s
magis? It’s a Jesuit principle that underlies everything we do at Saint Joseph’s University. It inspires us to think a little broader, dig a little deeper, and work a little harder. More simply put, magis calls us to live greater.” Clicking through the “Live Greater” link provides more insight into the meaning of this Latin term: “The will to live greater exists inside all of us. It pushes us to be more, think more, learn more, and love more. At Saint Joseph’s, we find it in the classroom, through service, athletic competition, and in how we treat one another. Above all, living greater unites us as one — one University, one common cause, one powerful force for good in the world.”

One of the university’s promotional videos provides further clarification: “Taking a full course load, doing an internship, and still finding time for research. Giving up your weekend to give back. When coach asks for 50 reps but you do 80. Knowing that you’re never finished learning. When you can see that good enough simply isn’t. That’s the
magis. Live greater.” Another promotional video explains: “Doing more than the bare minimum. Having the courage to test yourself in the real world. Working for the A instead of settling for a B. Using your education to make a better world. When you finally see that it really isn’t all about you. That’s the magis. Live greater.”

The university’s use of the word is intended to reflect the thinking of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. But Ignatius seems never to have used the term; one looks in vain for any indication that the word, if it has any foundation in Ignatius’s thought, is an accurate reflection of the spirituality central to his Spiritual Exercises and Constitutions, which could be summed up as doing all “for the greater glory of God” (ad majorem Dei gloriam) and the salvation of souls. The university’s mission statement does indicate that it is “Catholic and Jesuit,” but when it urges us to “live greater,” does it mean anything more than when Taco Bell urges us to “live más”?

St. Ignatius & the Magis

For St. Ignatius, the whole of one’s life is situated within the context of God’s creation and redemption of the world in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus, if there is a magis to one’s life, it finds its meaning from within that context and none other. If the efforts of my life constitute a magis in any way, it is because they lead to the greater realization of God’s purposes in my life and in the lives of others. To imply that one can live the magis outside of that divine context is to falsify Ignatius’s spirituality. We don’t live the magis simply because we work harder to get an A in chemistry or because we push ourselves “to be more, think more, learn more, and love more,” but because we do these things to bring our lives into greater harmony with God’s will for mankind.

The magis is activated most of all when we make God present in our world in a life of prayer and worship, in a life in conformity with God’s moral order, through transforming the political, social, and economic structures of our world so that they reflect more completely the coming of God’s Kingdom into history. Bringing God into history, however, makes God more deeply present in our own lives — we become God’s living presence in history through magis living. The magis achieves its purposes more fully when our efforts to serve and praise God produce a conjunction of God and our lives that allows us to say with St. Paul, “I live now; no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). As a result, there is no human activity that can be understood as expressing the magis without this background conjoining one’s life and history with the life of the once dead and now resurrected Christ.

If this is so, it is easy to see how terribly misdirected is the university’s expression of the magis in such woefully inadequate statements as “to think a little broader, dig a little deeper, and work a little harder” or to “live greater.” Living greater can mean nothing more than putting on a few extra pounds if it is not situated in the context of greater union with Christ in the divine plan of universal salvation.

Social Justice & Evangelization

Understanding the magis without Christ is just one example of the massive movement underway today to understand Christianity without Christ. The larger manifestation of that movement occurs in the various attempts to secularize Christianity by reducing its efforts to the promotion of social justice. The Society of Jesus may be accused of contributing to this movement since its 32nd General Congregation (1974-1975) when it decreed that “the mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.” Though the emphasis on faith would seem to support the Church’s primary mission of evangelization, the decree made it clear that, from now on, “the Society should commit itself to work for the promotion of justice,” understood largely as a humanitarian cause.

But the Church is primarily a missionary Church, and her mission is to evangelize — to proclaim Christ and His Gospel. So stated Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his October 2006 address to the Fifth International Congress of Military Ordinariates: “The Church is missionary by nature and her principal task is evangelization, which aims to proclaim and to witness to Christ and to promote his Gospel of peace and love in every environment and culture.”

The understanding of the Church as essentially an evangelizing organism goes back at least to Pope Paul VI’s 1975 encyclical “On Evangelization in the Modern World.” There the Holy Father insisted that the Church “exists in order to evangelize,” which he defined as “proclaiming Christ to those who do not know him, of preaching, of catechesis, of conferring Baptism and the other Sacraments.” This definition does not include promoting social justice.

Yet Paul VI did indeed fight strongly in this encyclical for action on behalf of justice: He argued that it is the Church’s “duty” to “overcome everything which condemns [peoples] to remain on the margin of life,” such as “famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices.” He saw “profound links” between “evangelization and human advancement.” Nevertheless, he warned of the temptation to “reduce” the Church’s mission to “the dimensions of a simply temporal project”:

The Church is certainly not willing to restrict her mission only to the religious field and dissociate herself from man’s temporal problems. Nevertheless she reaffirms the primacy of her spiritual vocation and refuses to replace the proclamation of the Kingdom by the proclamation of forms of human liberation.

Paul VI emphatically insisted on the need to proclaim Christ, if true evangelization is to occur: “There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.”

Pope John Paul II, who made known his mis­givings about liberation theology, cited with approval this last statement of his predecessor in his opening address to the Latin American bishops at their 1979 Puebla Conference. While John Paul II acknowledged that “authentic liberation” includes a sociopolitical dimension, he inveighed against those who think that, with “a certain kind of commitment and praxis for justice, there the kingdom is already present.” He disapproved of those who give the Kingdom a “rather secularist sense” by arguing that “we do not arrive at the kingdom through faith and membership in the Church but rather merely by structural change and sociopolitical involvement.” The Pope reiterated the words of John Paul I: “It is a mistake to state that political, economic, and social liberation coincide with salvation in Jesus Christ.”

Benedict XVI wrote in his 2006 encyclical God Is Love of the need of action for social justice, not as the direct mission of the Church but of the laity. For Benedict, one of the essential elements in the life of the Church is a ministry of “concrete charitable activity,” whereas the “just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics.” The Church has only an “indirect duty” toward “the formation of just structures,” though this remains a “direct duty” of “the lay faithful.”

In his October 15, 2012, Lenten message, Benedict warned against reducing the Church’s “concrete works of charity” to “humanitarian aid.” He argued that “the greatest work of charity is evangelization,” which he understood as the “ministry of the word”: “There is no action more beneficial — and therefore more charitable — toward one’s neighbor than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God: evangelization is the highest and the most integral promotion of the human person.”

The Mission Statements of Jesuit Universities

The current mission statement of Saint Joseph’s University affirms that it is “a Catholic and Jesuit university” where “Christ and the Church are sources of truth, guides and inspirations for life.” Though no one today would know it, I insisted many years ago to a now deceased university president that the word “Christ” be added, indicating that our values are ultimately rooted in the Person of Christ and His teaching. The president agreed and inserted “Christ.”

This year Saint Joseph’s has created a task force to “revitalize” its mission statement. A university publication tells us that the school is unique because of its “unyielding commitment to service” and to fostering “outstanding leadership within students.” We are told that the alumni want a “service component, an ethical component” (are they the same?). There is need, it is noted, for the mission statement to be “more concise,” modeled on the recently revised statements of other Jesuit universities, such as Gonzaga and Xavier, or of large companies that have “one-sentence mission statements.”

Xavier University’s five-sentence mission statement identifies it as a “Jesuit Catholic university,” but its mission is merely “to educate each student intellectually, morally, and spiritually.” No mention is made of Christ, God, or the Church. Gonzaga University also has a five-sentence mission statement that identifies it as “Catholic, Jesuit, and humanistic,” and though the statement makes no mention of Christ or the Church, the university claims to be “grateful to God” as it carries out its mission to educate students “for lives of leadership and service for the common good.” Is all of this a further indication of the secularization process going on today in Jesuit Catholic higher education?

We are told, as of this writing, that there has already been a 36 percent increase over last year in the number of students who have made deposits for admission to this year’s fall semester at Saint Joseph’s University. The executive director of admissions, according to a student publication, believes this is “partially due to the local billboards and busses incorporated in the magis campaign that are seen by local Philadelphia traffic.”

Does anything speak more loudly than success?

I am grateful to
The New Oxford Review for permission to reproduce the above article which first appeared in the September 2013 issue of this publication

Version: 2nd November 2013

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