During the month of October, Catholics in the United States celebrate Respect Life Month. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez called it a time of prayer and action to “defend the dignity of every human person, from conception until natural death.”
Recent news made this October an especially important time to educate the campus about the intrinsic value of every single human being. The undercover videos made by The Center for Medical Progress exposed the selling of fetal tissue by Planned Parenthood. On October 5th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill legalizing physician assisted suicide.
So, with all these life issues in the news, how did LMU celebrate Respect Life Month? Did they have pro-life lectures, a film series, or perhaps make extra efforts to help women with crisis pregnancies or to reverse the legalization of physician assisted suicide? Did they attempt to influence campus opinion on these topics, perhaps by a debate, or posting pro-life quotations from Pope Francis around campus, or hosting reading groups for the Jesuit statement “Standing for the Unborn”?
LMU observed Respect Life Month in exactly the same way in which they celebrated the Year of Faith which Pope Francis brought to a close. LMU did nothing. Not one lecture, not one retreat, not one banner. Doing absolutely nothing for Respect Life Month is a longstanding tradition at LMU, but some traditions are worth changing and worth challenging.
To paraphrase, “Standing for the Unborn,” it is our desire that our Jesuit university begins to offer a consistent message of respect for life, especially for unborn children.
Will LMU do anything to promote the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis starting December 8, 2015?
Will LMU do anything to promote Respect Life Month in October 2016?
We’ll let you know. We are hopeful.
Here’s a related question. What has LMU done with respect to the physician assisted suicide bill just signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown? Many area parishes worked hard to lobby against the bill and many are now gathering signatures to repeal the bill. A faculty member recently told me that the silence on campus in regard to this life and social justice issue has been deafening.
James G. Hanink
Here’s another question. What has LMU leadership been doing about the physician-assisted suicide bill that Jerry Brown just signed into law? Many parishes have been working hard to gather signatures for a “recall” of the bill. In a recent meeting with an LMU prof, I was told that campus indifference was palpable. A sad failure, especially in that the suicide lobby has little regard for social justice.
Ironically, by virtue of the fact that LMU is nominally Catholic, I think it is more difficult to inculcate a genuine Catholic culture on campus. Most students take their Catholicism for granted and never give it a second thought. At secular universities, Catholicism is explicitly countercultural. A pro-life event at UCLA would be understood and easily tolerated as “something the Catholic students care about”; at LMU, where almost everyone is Catholic but not everyone is pro-life, it may well be taken as a provocative insult to pro-choice students and faculty.
We should not hold our breaths waiting for students to buck the system. They are going to take their cues from the faculty and staff; and if it is apparent to them that Catholicism is not something to be taken seriously, it won’t be.
In my day, we had all sorts of cues which reinforced the idea that Catholicism was something that college students should care about. Many of the professors were religious, and most wore their collars or habits. It was routine to start class with a prayer. And the core curriculum included required courses in theology, philosophy, and history which meaningfully communicated Catholic tradition and morality.
I don’t expect or even want LMU to be a “Catholic ghetto”; we should welcome and respect students of all faiths, or no faith at all. At the same time, LMU students – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – should expect (and in fact welcome) a curriculum and a culture which is distinguishable in non-trivial ways from the secular alternatives. It is hard to see how that is the case today. In recent years we have had non-Catholics serve as the chair of the theology department, the dean of the college of liberal arts, the provost, and the president of the university. Under the new core curriculum, it appears that students can graduate without taking a single class on Western Civilization or the Catholic moral tradition. And even if the administration wanted to ensure that LMU students were at least acquainted with the Church’s moral doctrine, I am not sure that there are enough faculty members who are willing and able to teach it – let alone to teach it with the conviction that it is objectively true.
I wish that I could point to even a single example of a Catholic university which has handled this challenge well. Notre Dame supposedly has been able to retain a strong sense of Catholic identity, but only because of its unique place in American culture. Other Catholic universities, most of which are Jesuit, seem to be in about the same place as LMU – still willing to identify as Catholic, but not to the extent of making it a meaningful aspect of the curriculum or of social life on campus.
The closest I can come to a contemporary model of what LMU ought to be is, remarkably enough, Pepperdine. Like LMU, Pepperdine is specially advantaged by geography; both are uniquely compelling places to spend four years of college. However, unlike LMU, Pepperdine has decided to be more than just an academically respectable private university near the beach in Southern California. Over the past couple of decades, it has set a goal that it has now largely achieved – to be the pre-eminent Christian university in the United States.
Pepperdine did this not by watering down its commitment to its foundational values, but by capitalizing on them. It used to be that serious Christians had only two choices for higher education – to attend small Christian colleges with limited and undistinguished academic programs, or large secular universities which were indifferent or hostile to their faith. Pepperdine has proved that it is possible to create a nationally-ranked university (#52 in US News) which offers a core curriculum rooted in Christianity and Western Civilization, which treats the faith of its students, faculty, and benefactors seriously, which respects other faith traditions without compromising its own, and which holds its students accountable to standards of moral behavior. Pepperdine isn’t for everyone, but it is the first (and virtually only) choice for students who want to attend a faith-based comprehensive university which offers academic rigor and prestige – and incidentally has a beautiful campus in one of the most consequential cities in the world. As a result, Pepperdine draws from an international pool of applicants, and continues to be more selective in its admissions every year.
I am convinced that there are thousands of excellent, intellectually curious students who are waiting for a Catholic university to dare to be excellent instead of trendy. No Catholic university in America, not even Georgetown or Notre Dame, can compete with LMU’s location in the media and cultural center of the world. We have been called to greatness; all that we need are trustees and administrators with the wit and courage to embrace it.
Thanks much for this thoughtful post. It is so perceptive, and constructive, that one hesitates to say more.
But…it’s not the case that at LMU “almost everyone is Catholic.” On the contrary Catholics are a minority within the administration, among the faculty, and in the student body.
With respect to Catholic colleges which have done very well indeed in meeting the contemporary challenges of secularity, both Thomas Aquinas College and the University of Dallas come immediately to mind. So do the University of St. Thomas (Houston) and The Catholic University of America.
Finally, with respect to the “call to greatness.” Let’s consider the standards of greatness. The recent admonition of Pope Francis’s nuncio to our nation’s Catholic educators, with its specific reference to the need for real leadership at Jesuit universities, has much to teach us. I’d encourage readers to “google” his remarks.