Related: Catholic issues, Civil & Human Rights, Education, Higher Education, Political Issues, Politics, Religion, Sisters of Notre Dame, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, War and Peace

Pacem in Terris @ 50


students at paceminterris conference edited (Medium)Trinity Students at the CUA Pacem in Terris Conference

turkson johnson and students (Medium)Trinity Students Vanna Tuffuo, Cori Anderson, Reina Guzman
and Distinguished Professor Sr. Mary Johnson, SND

with Ghana Cardinal Peter Turkson at the CUA Pacem in Terris Conference

Students in Sr. Mary Johnson’s classes had a unique opportunity this week to participate in a conference at Catholic university marking the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s famous encyclical about “Peace on Earth.”  While the students were at the conference, they had the rare opportunity to meet one of the cardinals who was rumored to be “papabile” (a potential candidate to be the pope).  While Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson was not elected as pope, his influence on the recent conclave and his leadership in Church affairs for Africa and for evangelization, justice and peace throughout the world is considerable.

Trinity co-sponsored this conference, and many SNDs were present as well as our students.  I was pleased to be invited to offer remarks as part of a panel on the “vocation of peacebuilding,” and my remarks specifically focused on the role of universities in fostering a concern for peace and justice.

Following are excerpts from my Remarks on Universities and the Vocation of Peacebuilding:

“That’s all nice, but can they get jobs?”

I’ve heard comments like this too often in recent years when the subject of the purpose of a college education comes up.  Dismissing the liberal art as insufficiently utilitarian seems to be the constant theme of critical commentaries about higher education today.  In state after state, we are seeing an increasingly worrisome trend of legislatures and governors pushing legislation that requires universities to report their outcomes in the form of the starting salaries of graduates — great for schools that produce a lot of computer scientists and engineers, but potentially life-threatening for colleges that educate teachers, social workers, counselors, philosophers and theologians.  The increasing trend toward monetization of the value of higher learning as the primary, if not the only, measure assessing the worth of college is quite pernicious in the way it diminishes and undermines the moral and intellectual values at stake in higher education.

No wonder, then, that we don’t hear very much about how universities prepare their graduates to be agents of peace.  Oh, sure, there are a few modest efforts —- the Washington Monthly has a ranking that includes the number of Peace Corps graduates, for example, but on the rankings that gain far more public notoriety — U.S. News and World Report, for example — what really counts is money.  Make no mistake about it, the true worth of college in the political and secular arenas today is mostly about money, fame and the production of workers for corporate America.

Some legislators might even see an agenda to promote the vocation of peace building as some kind of leftist plot.  Consider this:  just last week, in a related move, the U.S. Senate took action (the Coburn Amendment) to prohibit federal funding for political science research that does not explicitly promote “national security or the economic interests of the United States”.

During the last decade, I have found myself wondering why the university community in general was so silent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, why we have stood idly by while civil liberties were severely curtailed in the wake of 9/11, why universities retreated from our once-relentless concern for the common good, for civil rights, for justice and peace, for care for the least and left out among us.

We suffered exhaustion, intimidation, frustration and discouragement in pursuing an agenda of moral value.  We were accused of political correctness for standing up for the right things.

And maybe, just maybe, we bought into the shifting attitudes toward “liberal” causes; we grabbed hold of the pendulum and swung with it toward the center, if not the right, because it felt pretty lonely out there along the edges of left field increasingly occupied by people even the more liberal among us might regard as fringe.  Howard Dean, Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan — somehow they seemed dangerous without the glamorous anti-establishment frisson of the Berrigan Brothers or Abbie Hoffman.  We grew up and packed up our copies of Letters from the Birmingham Jail along with our college papers on disarmament.  So long ago, it seems, all that idealistic and passionate concern for peace and justice we had as college kids.

The 50th Anniversary of Pacem in Terris comes at just the right moment to rescue us from the moral confusion, activist ennui and secular utilitarian demands placed upon the modern university.  This moment calls us to become re-acquainted with the more fundamental purpose of the university, which is to serve as the intellectual counterweight to government, a place for rational exploration and debate about the shape of society, the purpose of the economy, the role of leaders, the dimensions of public policy, the rights of citizens and the necessary place for considerations of defense.

Pacem in Terris might be read as the manifesto for the Good Society, the framework for an entire curriculum on social justice and enlightened human community.  Its themes are worthy of its own major, themes that should course through virtually all academic disciplines:  (numbers in parentheses are references to paragraphs in the encyclical)

  • For the theologians, the encyclical is a clear statement on the dialogue of faith and reason, in the acknowledgement of progress in science and technology as also showing the “infinite greatness of God;” (3)
  • Lawyers can find much instruction in the text:  the role of law in establishing a community that honors the common good is a clear theme;  (7 and many more…)
  • Budding public policymakers, politicians and leaders of public interest groups can find much to instruct them in this document that recognizes that the right to life (11) includes the means to ensure “proper development of life…food, clothing, shelter, medical care and finally the necessary social services.  Therefore a human being also has the right to security in cases of sickness, inability to work, widowhood and old age, unemployment or in any other case in which he is deprived of the means of subsistence through no fault of his own.” (11) — and don’t we wish that we could do a dramatic reading of this passage on the floor of Congress!
  • The document extols Freedom of speech and expression (12), religion (14), families (15 and 16), workers (18-20), property (20-21), and for the educators among us, we are overjoyed to read about the right to “…a basic education and to technical and professional training …. Every effort should be made to ensure that persons be enabled, on the basis of merit, to go on to higher studies so that, as far as possible, they may occupy posts and take on responsibilities in human society….” (13)
  • For the sociologists, political scientists and women’s studies specialists, the document recognizes the
    • progression of working classes (40)
    • increased role of women (41)
    • end of empires and rise of independent nation states (42)
  • For the public administrators:  Civil authority must serve the common good and protect human rights.  (60 and throughout)
  • For the engineers:  Public works (roads, transportation, etc.) are part of the social and economic progress of citizens. (64)
  • Heck, there’s even a part for the actuaries pointing to the need for access to insurance. (64)
  • And of course, for the international affairs and diplomacy specialists on campus, the entire encyclical, particularly its last sections, is a roadmap for leaders of nation states to act morally and with a large sense of justice, to pursue global cooperation through the United Nations and to work together for disarmament and peace.

The document challenges universities to teach our students how to participate as free citizens and effective leaders in a society for the common good; to understand and promote the cause of just governance; to promote racial justice.

(To read the full set of remarks, click here)

See my blog Willful Cluelessness at Rutgers on the Huffington Post

Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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