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Jesuits discuss ‘being human today’

Jesuits involved in the intellectual apostolates of the Irish, Dutch, British, and Flanders Provinces met recently (3-5 June) in Campion Hall, Oxford. This third gathering grew informally out of last summer’s joint apostolic project between the Jesuits of the four provinces nurturing closer collaboration between individuals and institutions of the four provinces. There were five Irish Jesuits present. Three of them, Michael O’Sullivan, Gerry Whelan and Pat Riordan, gave short papers which became the basis for group discussion. Two other Irish Jesuits, Cathal Doherty and Kevin O’Rourke, were also present.

Among the other Jesuits present were Michael Kirwan, Michael Barnes, and Nicholas Austin, all from Heythrop College, London, and both James Hanvey and James Campbell from Campion Hall, Oxford. Attending from Leuven University were Marc Desmet, Rob Faesen and Nicolas Standaert. All present are engaged in teaching and academic research.

A total of eight papers were delivered on a range of subjects, all in response to the central theme, ‘What does it mean to be human today?’ Gerry Whelan, who teaches Fundamental Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, focussed on the anthropology in Laudato Sí, the Pope’s teaching on the environment.

He outlined two approaches to the relationship between humans and the natural environment that were rejected by the Pope in his encyclical. The first is a misguided anthropocentrism, which sees the human being as the centre of all value and therefore justified in using and abusing the natural environment for his or her own ends. The second is biocentrism. This views all life forms as equal in value, such that “the human person is considered simply as one being among the others, the product of chance or physical determinism”. (Laudato Sí). With this perspective, the Pope asserts in relation to the environment, “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”.

Gerry Whelan went on to draw out what might be called the Pope’s own “moderately anthropocentric position”, which accepts the unique value of humankind whilst drawing on an ethics of care for the environment based on an understanding of natural law and its attendant notion of virtue.

In his paper, entitled ‘Authentic Subjectivity and Social Transformation,’ Michael O’Sullivan focussed on the ‘dynamism for authenticity’ in human beings as a valuable concept in any exploration of what it means to be human today. He quoted from the diary of a very young Karl Marx who passionately wanted to live an authentic life looking after the welfare of humanity by ‘breaking the chains of a cold God’. Marx was committed to social transformation but dismissive of Christian faith convictions.

The opposite imbalance shows, according to Michael O’Sullivan, in the writings of Pius VII and in a confidential document entitled ‘Religion and National Security’ drawn up by Chile’s military dictator General Pinochet. These were examples of a pervasive faith-based Christian spirituality that was disempowering for people in the face of legitimate social concerns. Michael argued that a third position was needed “which negates these dualistic positions and does so in the light of what human and Christian authenticity requires”. Drawing on his own academic background and his praxis as a missionary who was forced to leave Pinochet’s Chile because of escalating terror tactics against him and some of his close co-workers, he says that Liberation Theology is “the most fruitful resource for developing an authentic spirituality related to social transformation…”

These and other papers encouraged reflection on the challenges of secularisation, nationalism, technological change, environmental concerns, intolerance and mass migration.

The convenor of the meeting, Fr Dorian Llywelyn SJ of Heythrop College, said, “This was a great example of Jesuits thinking together across institutional, province and national boundaries, getting to know each others’ intellectual language”. He said the meeting generated a lot of fruitful dialogue across a wide range of discussion topics, adding that “we came away feeling very energised and hopeful that in future we would be able to share resources and ideas in practical ways across innovative joint platforms”.

Gerry Whelan echoed those sentiments: “I believe we all enjoyed it immensely, finding the exchange of ideas most fascinating… We hope to keep meeting as a group for academic exchange, and we await developments such as General Congregation 36 before we make any other proposals.”

The group decided to take up a suggestion made by Gerry that they all meet up again toward the end of the year. The broad theme of that meeting will be focus on Pope Francis’ ‘theology on the frontiers’. Kevin O’Rourke will be involved in coordinating that event, which will take place in Leuven with Gerry Whelan on the steering committee.