Reflections on Leadership Formation in Catholic Universities

[Based on a Panel Discussion on: “The Successes and Struggles of Catholic Universities in Developing Leaders for Peace and Progress in the Philippines” during the National Conference of the Association of Catholic Universities of the Philippines (ACUP), at the University of the Immaculate Conception in Davao, 10-11 January, 2014.  It followed the presentation of Peter Kodwo Appiah Cardinal Turkson, President, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, on “The Formation of New Catholics in Politics].

My greetings to His Eminence Peter Cardinal Turkson, and my gratitude to him for his presentation on the role of Catholic universities in the formation of politicians for the future.  I thank the organizers of ACUP for inviting me to participate in this panel discussion.  This is a topic which interests me deeply.  But for many of my remarks I will lean on the thoughts of Pope Francis in his recent apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (EG) or the “Joy of the Gospel.”

The theme of this panel discussion is: “The Successes and Struggles of Catholic Universities in Developing Leaders for Peace and Progress in the Philippines.”

Catholic Universities have had their apparent successes in forming leaders.  They can be found in the public and private sectors.  They are in key leadership positions of the Philippine executive, legislature and judiciary;  they are in leadership in the private sector and in NGOs.

Without denigrating what these leaders have achieved in their respective spheres of influence, if we look at the history of Catholic education in the Philippines, its output in leaders, and the present state of Philippine society and its high levels of poverty, corruption and environmental destruction, we must consider the manner in which we form leaders for the future in our Catholic higher educational institutions with concern rather than smugness.  There is more struggle to form true Catholic leaders than success.  Our schools have generated many leaders.  But many of these are brilliant in pursuit of private good, rather than the common good; they are leaders in corruption, rather than in integrity; they are leaders in the devastation of the environment for privileged groups, rather than in its measured use for all, leaders in illegal logging, immoral large-scale mining, mono-crop farming, use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and even in types of high-impact construction that disrespects the environment as created for all.  They are leaders therefore who have contributed substantially to what Pope Francis decries as “an economy that of exclusion and inequality”[1] within a contemporary culture where “idolatry of money”[2] is present.

The task of creating leaders for the future may need to begin with this admission.

The current situation

It may then consider the world out of which we wish to form leaders.  Here the words of Pope Francis may be relevant: “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ” (EG, 2).

This paragraph is filled with challenge for leadership formation.  If we wish to form leaders according to a Christian inspiration, the situation out of which they are formed is relevant.  But leaders are to lead those who follow them somewhere.  Where we educators wish to lead our leaders is also relevant.  This may have to begin with depth reflection on their current situation.

It is relatively simple to alert students to the pervasive “consumerism” which pervades society on all levels, and to invite students to reflect on this.  They are part of it, drivers of it, victims of it.  But more challenging would be to lead students to reflect on the “desolation and anguish” in society that endangers contemporary society “born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”  Society is endangered by its driving contradictions. The heart that is complacent yet covetous is a contradiction.  It is a heart that apparently does not care, yet is endlessly desirous.  The feverish pursuit of anything is normally in pursuit of great value.  Yet what is feverishly pursued is frivolous: not the depth of a passionate love in truth, nor the peace of an ethical imperative obeyed at great cost, but frivolous pleasure.  The healthy conscience is both alert and sharp, distinguishing right from wrong, grave from venial, judging not only past deeds but legislating future action.  Out of the live conscience comes the remorse that leads to contrition, if not conversion, the effective action that rights wrong and builds human society according to the good of all.  But the “blunted conscience” is a practical contradiction, unable to judge, unable to declare what ought to be.  It confuses self interest for what ought to be and superficiality for interiority.  Mired in these contradictions, human society is robbed of its human substance, of its human interiority within which the self discovers the other and God in this world.  It is robbed of its inner joy.  Therefore, the sadness, the loneliness, the “desolation,” even the anguish.  Perhaps it is the anguish caused by the unspoken fear that pretty much all is  “much ado about nothing,” and “since nothing really seems to matter” in the end, possession, frivolous pleasure, and moral ambiguity is all you get, and in all of these not much joy at that!

In a survey taken recently in one of our prominent schools, the outcome was: the students are bored.

Return to the joy of the Gospel:  profoundly personal

Francis’ general invitation is to move from the desolation of this situation to the joy of the Gospel – the joy of the experience of the love of Jesus Christ, the full expression in the Spirit of the love of the Father.  To form leaders, we must help our students, who are willy nilly both participants in and victims of this situation, gain critical insight into it, move beyond it.  We must mediate for our students, possible only in grace, an experience of being first loved by God, of the joy of this love, and thereby of the joy of the Gospel.  This is a joy, on the one hand, deeply personal,  on the other hand, profoundly social.  “The kerygma [the core Christian message] has a clear social content; at the very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others.   The content of the first proclamation has an immediate moral implication centered on charity” (EG 177).

The individual, personal, overwhelming experience of being loved by God is not something that can be taught.  It is not a concept that is communicated.  It is an encounter with God that begins with God and is carried through by God.  For always, God loves us first.  But it is an encounter for which he requires human openness in freedom.  As in all deeper experiences of the human spirit, this encounter is invited, not imposed.  Therefore, from the side of the Catholic universities, it is an experience that is mediated, not provided, normally not through the school’s instruction program, which addresses knowledge, but from the school’s formation program, which addresses freedom.  It is mediated through proclamation of the word of God, and reflection on this word.  But also through such as a chapel, which provides space for silence and prayer, through memorable school liturgies, through a meditative garden of flowers, trees, stones and flowing waters, through privileged conversations between teachers and students, or between counselors and faculty members.  It is mediated in shared prayer, in recollections and retreats, and through such as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  Here, the experience of being loved by God, being a sinner, and being loved nevertheless is mediated.  I am loved, as all are loved.   I am confused in this love because I know the depth of my sin.  But I am uplifted in this love.  Here, ever more profoundly, I grasp the depth of my personal dignity, the breadth of my human dignity.  It is based on this experience that I know being loved needs to love.  And how nothing that is human can be allowed to escape this love.

The joy of the Gospel: profoundly social[3]

Because I am loved, I need to love all, as God loves all.  This experience’s “mandate of charity encompasses all dimension of existence, all individuals, all areas of community life, and all peoples.  Nothing human can be alien to it.  True Christian hope, which seeks the eschatological kingdom, always generates history” (EG 181).   The moral imperative is not a demand of practical reason as in Kant or Hegel or Marx or even in empirical science.  It is a demand of love.  It moves from the experience of being loved by God in community to having to love community in community.

Many leadership formation programs routinely demand self-knowledge as a first step in the formation of the leader.  In this reflection, self knowledge is not just about knowing one’s likes and dislikes, one’s values, weaknesses and strengths.  Self-knowledge is incomplete without the self experiencing him- or herself loved by God.  It is through this experience, involving knowledge but not confined to it, that one is liberated from self-centeredness, from pettiness and niggardliness, for the magnanimity that at once understands the “social nature of the Gospel” and the “profound connection between evangelization and human advancement“.  Jesus’ mission is to inaugurate the kingdom of his Father; he commands his disciples to proclaim the good news that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (EG 178).

Where human society has fallen short of human advancement, and human society has been mired in “desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience,” … an “authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world” (EG 183).

This would be the experiential background for a thorough study of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  Pope Francis recommends the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church (EG, 184).

Over the past centuries, the world has changed driven by the pursuit of private good.  It is necessary to change the world today according to the demands of the common good.   For this purpose, leaders from Catholic Universities are required.

Forming leaders according to the demands of the common good.

Catholic Universities do much to improve their academic offerings.  Alongside with this, however, Catholic Universities must do much more in their formation programs to nurture the commitment of their students to the common good.  This must overcome unexamined educational operations – driven by the hopes of parents, the claims of industry, and the uncriticized claims of the consumption society – motivated on enabling the student “to get a good job” or “to get a high-paying job” or “to go abroad,” especially when the the professional training is complex and costly.  Many of our Catholic Universities have large schools of business and commerce whose professors see no problem in teaching their students that business is in its core about the maximization of profit.  Can we then wonder that we spawn cultures centered on the “idolatry of money?”  The perspective of professional training, including business and entrepreneurial training, in a Catholic University has ultimately to elicit commitment to  contribute significantly – proactively, professionally, creatively, doggedly – to the common good, just as the perspective of liberal arts training must be to liberate students for the common good.

Commitment is wrought not merely in the mind, but in the heart, the seat of human freedom.  As it is founded on the faith experience, as discussed above, so must it be based on a solid understanding of and commitment to justice.  Faith is not possible without justice; justice proves the truth of faith.  St. James says that faith that does not respond to the concrete needs of one’s neighbor is dead. (Ja. 2:15-17)

Justice is commutative when it sees that contracting parties fulfill their contractual obligations to each other.  It is distributive when the benefits and burdens of society are distributed equitably among all the members of society.  It is social justice when the demands of the common good are met – or, at least, based on the best insights of those responsible for the common good, optimally approximated.

If the common good provides that situation in history where each member of human society flourishes optimally in contributing to and benefitting from society, the demands of the common good are not articulated once and forever more, just as the common good itself is never achieved once and forever more.  History moves on, pushed onward by the genius and stupidity, achievements and failures, the insights and blindness of the human spirit and the actual activities of individual human beings.  Articulating what the common good is demands knowledge and insight and a sense of what can be achieved for society for a particular historical moment or age.

Essential for calling forth and nurturing commitment to the common good that begins in the students formative years, but shapes the life activity of alumni/ae well beyond the walls of academe, is a vibrant intellectual and practical culture of the common good centered in the Catholic University, but reaching out well beyond the university.  The universities bring together diverse disciplines such as theology, philosophy, literature, the social sciences (including history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science and economics), engineering, environmental science, information technology, commerce, medicine, and law.  This disciplines, which normally function parallel to each other, can be reoriented to come together regularly to ask the key questions relative to the articulation of demands of the common good. To it key actual players in society whose decisions impact on the common good can be invited.[4]  Here, the necessary trade-offs between the demands of such as the economy and the environment, the individual and society, between the police function and the military function, between law enforcement and human rights, between autonomous regions and the Philippine state, between Manila and the rest of the Philippines, including Mindanao, can be discussed and carefully weighed.  Issues that are relative, absolute and perennially contentious can be considered as positions are taken as to what the call of the common good is and where its moral imperatives are.  Such discussions, I contend, which necessarily transition to advocacy and political action for the common good, belong to the stuff of the Catholic university today.  It cannot confine itself to neutral research and “harmless” outreach.  With all of its multidisciplinary resources and its privilege to convene people who impact on the common good, it must discuss, dialogue and discern the call of the common good, and accept the practical consequences of the discernment.

In the formation of leaders for the future, the Catholic University must lead its future leaders to participation in these discussions, form their commitment in freedom to the common good, and invite them even as leaders of society to find light and strength in these ongoing discussion.  These could provide a venue of ongoing encounter and dialogue between the Catholic university and its alumni/ae, who have complained of being abandoned to the world and left to their inadequate devices after graduation.

An inner disposition which moves from the experience of the love of God to habitually seeking the common good may be described as a spirituality of solidarity with the common good.  This must color further leadership formation for peace, for wealth creation and its equitable distribution, for the care of the environment, and for caring for oneself as a leader.  It is this spirituality that Catholic universities today must invite their students to embrace.  I say “invite” emphatically.  For it can never be forced.  Unless it is free, it will not fill the students’ hearts with joy, it will not shape their decisions, nor motivate acceptance of the considerable sacrifices the choices entail.  But if free, it may accompany the leader in life decisions and historical and historical choices for the common good.

[1] EG, 53: Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

[2] EG 55:  One cause of this situation is found in our relationship with money, since we calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies. The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

[3] EG, 177-182

[4] An incipient example of this would be the Pakighinabi (Discussion) series of the Ateneo de Davao University, now involved in a series of discussion on the Framework Agreement Bangsamoro in partnership with the Al Qalam Center for Muslim Identity and Dialogue and the Forum ZFD under the “Peace Lens” format.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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3 Responses to Reflections on Leadership Formation in Catholic Universities

  1. Dom says:

    Fr. Joel, if I may offer some thoughts on the points you’ve raised here:

    One key point I’m taking from EG is about unity of life. The English translation uses the term “blunted conscience” but in the original Spanish, Pope Francis actually uses “conciencia aislada”, which would be more faithfully translated as “isolated conscience.” The difference, I believe, is subtle on the surface but more significant on deeper reflection. (My Spanish is quite basic, but I have been reading an alternate translation.)

    In your reflection, you write: “Therefore, from the side of the Catholic universities, it [the experience of being loved by God] is an experience that is mediated, not provided, normally not through the school’s instruction program, which addresses knowledge, but from the school’s formation program, which addresses freedom.” And there, I think, is a split which should be examined.

    Instruction programs should also be occasions for formation. Some subjects may have greater opportunities for this than others, but even when those occasions which seem far removed, the mediation should be felt. This is not to eliminate formation programs, of course; they should then be occasions for deeper formation, not only for considering God’s invitation, but occasions to reacquaint more intimately with the Church and to confront truly hard questions.

    Moreover: do the school’s formation programs hold the same stature as the school’s instruction programs? I don’t simply mean it in terms of hours or administrative weight. Do they hold the same prestige in the students’ eyes? Furthermore, how do the members in the instruction program regard the members in the formation program and vice versa?

    Beyond the chapel, school liturgies, gardens, and shared prayer, does the meditation and reflection on the word of God continue in the classroom, in the lounge, in the stairwell, in the elevator, etc?

    I have a few more points in mind, but it’s somewhat late so I must be off for now.

    Respectfully yours,

    • Hi, Dom! Both your points are well taken and deserving of further thought.

      I reflected on “blunted conscience” in its English rendition, and thought of it in terms similar to a blunted knife. But in its original Spanish, “consciencia aislada”, as you point out, is an isolated conscience – isolated from the totality of society and therefore from the common good. For me, this would indeed be a blunted conscience, but the Spanish brings out the social nuance better.

      Concerning the split between instruction and formation, I do not mean to deny instruction of its formative role, but to insist on formation as a necessary role of the Catholic University. My point (at least, as I intend it) is not that the classroom may not be used for formation, as it often is, but that it is normally used for instruction – often out of a hesitancy of the teacher to touch the “private” life of morals and freedom of the students where he or she must be responsible for learner outcomes that are measurable and gradable. E.g., the social teaching of the Church must be taught in the classroom, and students must be graded on their knowledge of it, not on whether or not they accept it as normative of their lives, even though this may be the ardent hope of the teacher. It is similar for teachers of mathematics, the empirical social sciences, literature, engineering, philosophy and the like.

      Our palette of formative activities complements the classroom, where formative interventions cannot be systematic, and attends primarily to the formation of freedom, without needing to measure outcomes. They do not however claim to take care of the formative function exclusively, but lean on the teachers, who are not only instructors but formators as well, to complement them. So, yes, beyond chapel, school liturgies, meditative gardens, etc., meditation and reflection on the word of God ought to continue, even if it is knowledge that is measured and graded, not the historical status of one’s formation. Here, the “stature” or “prestige” of instructional activities will immediately be higher in the students’ estimation, but in the long term it is the formational activities which, I believe, have greater impact on the students when by God’s grace these activities “succeed.” Consider what alumni/ae treasure when they look back on their formative years. Those formative encounters with teachers in the classroom, lounge, stairwell and elevator can make all the difference.

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