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Ivory towers or places of power?

Dr Kevin Hargaden and Catherine Devitt from the Irish Centre for Faith and Justice (ICFJ) are participants in a major initiative involving Jesuit universities across Europe. They are exploring how these third level institutes can impact positively on the major issues challenging European citizens in the 21st century. Kevin, who is the social theologian in the ICFJ, says that in the face of climate change and environmental decline, the migration and refugee crisis, the rise of nationalistic politics, and the continuing problems with our regional economies, Europeans may be tempted to despair, so he asks, “Where can we turn for renewal and can universities inform the major questions of our day?”

Noting that we live in an  increasingly post-Christian, secular environment,  he says the university might be one site for the sort of dialogue required to tackle these problems. “The only problem is that in popular discourse we think of universities and research institutes as ‘ivory towers’, disconnected from the suffering that these issues create on the ‘ground level’. But the best research seeks answers to everyday problems. If universities understood their vocation more clearly in terms of commitment to the common good, might they be centres for change that would help Europe to come to terms with the challenges it faces?”

It is with that hope in mind that the European Jesuit higher education institutions have come together to launch an ambitious fifteen year plan to target their research towards these questions that most press on the everyday lives of Europeans. The “Higher Education for Social Transformation” (HEST) initiative will consider the following [thematic] issues with a view to influencing positive social change:
1. Ecology and Environmental Challenges
2. Economy, Poverty and Ethics
3. Christian Muslim Relations
4. Dialogue Science and Religion
5. Ignatian Studies
6. Anthropology
7. Migrations and Refugees

The Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice will be active in this unique project in the Economy cluster through Kevin’s participation and through Catherine Devitt, who is a member of the Ecology cluster. The Ecology cluster had their first meeting in Madrid in early April 2017, bringing together academics from Jesuit universities in Spain, Germany, Lebanon, and Jesuit social centres including the Jesuit Centre. The meeting explored the meaning around Jesuit values for sustainability, seeking to determine what a specific Ignatian response to environmental problems would look like, and how the Jesuit framework and Ignatian pedagogy could be used to realise this vision. The next meeting will coincide with COP23 (the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change). COP23 will be attended by the Global Ignatian Advocacy Network. The HEST meeting will aim to refine a more precise vision of social transformation so as to guide the work of the Ecology Cluster over the next three years.

Kevin is a participant in the second research cluster, looking at “Economy, Poverty and Ethics”. In July 2017, this group met for two days in Brussels. Having considered the challenge of income inequality and the injustices that seem built-in to contemporary capitalism, the cluster has identified two critical research questions. Over the next three years, their team – made up of economists, business experts, theologians, philosophers, engineers and social scientists – will consider how businesses could be reorganised so that profit is not the sole motive and how society might adjust to slow the growing rates of long-term unemployment and inter-generational poverty that mar much of European society.

After two days of quite intense meetings, Kevin commented, “to be able to collaborate within such a diverse group of expertise is a real honour. With the professionalization of research, all too commonly we lose the big picture because we are so focused on the details of our specific field. With the HEST initiative, research communities across Europe have the chance to rediscover the big picture.”

Kevin believes that Jesuit universities from across the continent would work together on these global issues makes sense. “After all, binding them together is their Ignatian spirituality, captured so beautifully by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ when he wrote that ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’ Since, as Hopkins wrote in another poem, ‘Christ plays in ten thousand places’, the scholars charged with carrying on Jesuit research are (at least in theory) primed towards inter-disciplinary endeavour.”

But there is more to this project than a commitment for researchers from different parts of the university to collaborate on hard problems. There is a network of Jesuit Social Centres across the continent that is charged with the task of social analysis in their contexts. The HEST initiative brings the universities and the social centres together. Pure research and applied analysis will be joined, creating a unique context for thinking in fresh ways about these stubborn, often complex problems.

Each group will draw together skilled researchers from universities and Jesuit social centres. They will be multi-disciplinary, pan-European research teams approaching these critical questions from a range of different perspectives. According to Kevin, “The goal is to produce meaningful and quality research that can be communicated to a range of audiences so as to promote progressive advocacy in each thematic area. The hope is that these research clusters will go beyond describing problems to (humbly!) offering solutions and promoting change.”

This methodology, which takes social problems seriously, values academic excellence, and recognises the importance of making constructive proposals, will also serve to strengthen the Jesuit identity of individual universities and social centres, while also deepening the networks and links that bind these different groups together.

As the HEST initiative develops, its intention is to help Europeans to discern their core values, reflect on them in depth, and find ways to incarnate and apply them to make the lives of those on the margins of society more humane and just.