Global Humanitarian Crises and the Role of Catholic Universities

by David DeCosse |

Between my SchoolBoy French and his halting english, we
 made our way through our introductions and found a spot on the ground to share lunch. I asked him about the earthquake. He said he had lost many.

His face was supple and strong, sad and resolute, aware of a merciless reality but still confident in a triumphant mercy. How had he come to such faith, I wondered. My mind made another mad scramble for words in English and French to pray for him and his country.

I think of that wonderful Haitian priest I met at a theological conference in Europe last summer when I think of the challenge that global humanitarian crises pose to Catholic universities. Of course, there is the challenge to respond in service to the tremendous human suffering caused by an event like the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, in which 230,000 people died and 1,000,000 were made homeless. But the poignant lunch with my Haitianfriend also called to mind other factors that profoundly affect how Catholic universities should think about their responses to these catastrophes. One is the changing nature of moral discourse and political structures in the world: These changes tie my friend the Haitian priest and myself —and, by extension, the globalized world—together in a way that was not possible even 20 years ago. The other factor is the profound challenge to the interior life
that such humanitarian crises pose, certainly 
for those immediately affected but also for our students. Catholic universities can make the mistake of “outwardness” in response to these crises, thinking that the only answer in the face of such overwhelming need is what we can do for others. Instead, I will argue, these cataclysms should also be occasions to invite our students to venture in their inwardness toward what Pope Benedict XVI has called the frontier where “faith and the fight for justice” meet.

First, it is important to speak of service. In the face of a humanitarian crisis, the Catholic university’s imperative to serve derives from the Catholic conviction that each human being
is made in the image of God and possesses an inalienable and equal dignity. Here Catholicism encounters contradictory trends alive and well
in our culture that militate against paying too much attention to desperation on the other side of the world. There is, for instance, the danger of self-absorption by students, staff, and faculty shaped in an attention-grabbing, consumerist culture. There are also the strategic views of national interest that bear longstanding disregard of humanitarian concerns, with no room for the basic duty to help a country that may be of no further use to us. Of more recent origin is a bellicose American communitarianism fueled
by resentment over the attacks of September
 11, 2001, and marked by contemptuous indifference to Muslims the world over, all of whom are held collectively responsible for the homicidal acts of a few. In the face of such trends, many of which course through our campuses, the Catholic university should boldly affirm its belief in the moral claims arising from universal human dignity—and in the special nature of those claims arising from the poor. Moreover, the Catholic university should affirm that it is consistent with its role as a university
to respond in service to such crises. What St. Ignatius of Loyola said when explaining why the Society of Jesus would assume the responsibility for universities provides justification for such a response: to spread the benefits of “improvement in learning and in living...more universally.”

A tent city in Jacmel, Haiti (southern Haiti) housing over two thousand people following the January 2010 earthquake. Bobby Moon SCU ’10

But how concretely, in the face of humanitarian disaster, should the Catholic university respond? I assume that the usual efforts—especially sending money to relief organizations—will take place among
campus denizens, whatever the university
 at large does. But such individual efforts for immediate assistance can be enhanced by all sorts of resources on campus: by the particular knowledge some persons on campus may
have of the affected area; by the efficient use
of community networks to provide contact information where donations and supplies may be sent; by the gathering and posting of such information in one office, such as Campus Ministry. Campus officials should never underestimate sounding out students for the best ways to communicate quickly to a broad group of people. Of course, educational events are also in order in the near term, especially ones featuring persons who were at the scene
of the disaster or who may have up-to-date information from the scene. YouTube can be an indispensable classroom tool for bringing the sights and sounds of what happened before our students.

Beyond the indispensable importance
of these short-term efforts, though, Catholic universities should come to see humanitarian crises not only as catastrophic irruptions
outside the normal course of events, but also
as crises that occur amid long social histories. The love that animates the immediate service
of a Catholic university must not be separated from the scrutiny of the histories of injustice that almost always compound these disasters. This insistence on the inseparability of love
and justice should not only play a role in the classroom, at campus religious services, and in public statements from university officials—it should also inform decisions that the university makes about how to address a humanitarian crisis in the years of rebuilding that may follow. In such times, teams of faculty and students may bring to the affected area needed expertise in engineering, agriculture, or law. But such teams should see the larger institutional and political context amid which such work takes place.

It is also important that Catholic universities move from a model of one university responding to a crisis to a model of collaboration with other key institutions also helping with relief efforts. One such option, for instance, is to seek a closer collaboration with an organization like Catholic Relief Services, which has had boots on the ground for years in many areas throughout the world. Another such option was advanced in an April 2010 speech by the Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Nicolás when he urged Jesuit university presidents throughout the world to become far more networked with each other. As he put it: “Can we not go beyond the loose family relationships we now have as institutions, and re-imagine and re-organize ourselves so that, in this globalized world, we can more effectively realize the universality which has always

The love that animates the immediate service of a Catholic university must not be separated from the scrutiny of the histories of injustice that almost always compound these disasters. This insistence on the inseparability of love and justice should not only play a role in the classroom, at campus religious services, and in public statements from university officials. But it should also inform decisions that the university makes about how to address a humanitarian crisis in the years of rebuilding that may follow.

been part of Ignatius’ vision of the Society?” Whether it is with an organization like CRS or with another university in the developing world, such collaborations hold the promise of more efficient delivery of service in the aftermath of disaster; of more fruitful exchanges of knowledge in all fields relevant to a crisis; and of more lasting bonds of solidarity not only for the disaster today but also for the next one that is sure to come.

It is an axiom of globalization that new modes of communication have created a smaller world. But it is not just the technical possibility of streaming news live onto flat- screens in campus dining halls that has brought global humanitarian crises to the attention of Catholic universities. The causes of our increased attention go deeper, and among them are fundamental shifts during the last decades in moral discourse and global political structures.

The first shift to note is the increasing prominence of human rights discourse throughout the world—a discourse on behalf of which Catholicism since the 1960s has been the world’s most passionate advocate. At the least, this language of rights has injected into public conversations a set of concepts and obligations by which humanitarian crises can be assessed and addressed. It is one thing to feel compassion for the thousands of Haitians who lost their homes in the January 2010 earthquake. It is another thing—and something more specified and obligatory—to say that the dignity of
men, women, and children is the basis of the human right to have a roof over your head; and, furthermore, to say that on the basis of such a right we are all under some obligation to help provide such a roof for the thousands of Haitian homeless.

The discourse of human rights—and 
the catastrophic violation of such rights in events such as the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides—has also given rise to new global political structures. In particular, I am thinking of the effort called the Responsibility to Protect (also known as R2P), which emerged in 2001 from the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and has since been affirmed if not codified at the highest levels of international politics.4 Contrary to an older global system
in which the sovereignty of states was all but absolute, the R2P movement has more clearly specified how sovereignty is conditioned by
the human rights of citizens. Thus a state cannot as easily invoke sovereignty—although, of course, some still do—to mask either its oppression of its own citizens or its failure
to protect them from massive violations of human rights. To be sure, deference is still given to the sovereignty of a state. But if a
state manifestly fails to protect human rights

After science has explained how shifting geologic faults have caused an earthquake and after history has demonstrated the decades of injustice that made an earthquake so much worse than it had to be, we are still left with these ultimate and profoundly personal questions. As educators, our primary task
is to invite students into the depth of the questions themselves—not only in the lives of those on the other side of the world but also, even primarily, in our students’ own lives.

within its borders, then the responsibility to protect falls on the international community.
In turn, the international community may exercise its responsibility by intervening in many forms—for instance, by convening intensified political discussions by parties in conflict or by the provision of humanitarian aid—short
of the armed crossing of borders. But, finally, in the face of the most repressive and extreme rights violations—genocide would qualify, the Haitian earthquake would not—R2P argues that military force may be used to cross borders to protect civilians without the consent of the government in question.

The language of human rights, then,
has focused the world’s attention on global humanitarian crises. And the logic of human rights has evoked a more explicit justification both for states to take care of their own citizens and for the international community to step in when states do not. But neither of these trends that support global responsibility in the face of humanitarian disaster can mask the increasing weakness of states themselves.5 In the language
of political science, we are moving from a world of nation-states to one of market-states. While the nation-state sought to maximize its citizens’ welfare by the provision of basic necessities, the market-state aims at the maximization of citizens’ opportunities by increasing reliance on the market. Thus, in the face of humanitarian crises, governments, even in the developed world, that once stanched the bleeding of life and limb now may be limited in how they can respond because they have outsourced essential services. Legal scholar Philip Bobbitt spoke of this phenomenon when he noted that “our infrastructures [are] so much more fragile that even the wealthiest states—indeed, especially the wealthiest states— will face insecurities hitherto thought to be the domain of the poorest countries.”

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the bitter fruit of such a process. The government certainly failed in New Orleans. But its failure was born of years of neglect until, when disaster finally struck, the emperor truly had no clothes. The inundation of a huge American city, the attacks of September 11, and the fear of a dirty bomb going off in Manhattan or Chicago or Los Angeles—these disasters, real or imagined, project a random vulnerability across the United States that is associated with the declining power of the state and that was unthinkable 20 years ago.

I cannot imagine the scope of the loss that my friend the Haitian priest suffered. But I can imagine it better than I could 20 years ago.

I would like to close by cautioning against the risk of “outwardness.” By that word, I mean a response by a Catholic university to a global humanitarian crisis that consists of nothing more than service, actions on behalf of justice, immersion trips to the affected area, and the like. Of course, all of these are indispensable. But they are not enough.

The sudden, massive, and ferocious scope
of humanitarian crises also poses profound questions of meaning. How can a good God permit such suffering? What is at the heart of reality? After science has explained how shifting geologic faults have caused an earthquake and after history has demonstrated the decades of injustice that made an earthquake so much worse than it had to be, we are still left with these ultimate and profoundly personal questions. As educators, our primary task is to invite students into the depth of the questions themselves—not only in the lives of those on the other side of the world but also, even primarily, in our students’ own lives.

To do this, Catholic universities may
need to be more proactive in countering what Jesuit Superior General Nicolás has called a “globalization of superficiality” amid which our students live—a world of terse, text messages and Twitter feeds that discourages a depth of inwardness. Catholic universities may also need to ensure that these questions are addressed in course offerings in such areas as metaphysics, Christology, the doctrine of God, psychology, literature, and non-Christian religions.

But, in the end, the Catholic university should honor the salience of these questions
by creating a community in which the divine answer—given especially in the choice to become one of us—is made plausible and near and tangible for our students. The God who freely chose to create the world to share the divine goodness is also the God who became one of us to break the bonds of injustice that make things so much more than they have to be and to accompany us in the dark, empty spaces of our finitude.

In the face of the enormity of suffering, I cannot pinpoint how my Haitian priest-friend found such strength. But, as I think back to my lunch with him, I reflect on the answer that was given because, beyond our fumbling English and French, we broke bread together.
 

Endnotes


  1. Pope Benedict XVI, “Address of His Holiness Benedict the Sixteenth to the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus” (February 21, 2008); available at Creighton University Online Ministries, http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/ CollaborativeMinistry/GC35/CG35_21_02_2008_attach- ment_eng.doc. Quoted in Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., “Depth, Uni- versality, and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit High Education Today,” 10, lecture at Universidad Iberoameri- cana, Mexico City (April 23, 2010); available at http://www. ausjal.org/files/Nicolas-2010.pdf.
  2. Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, no. 440. Quoted in Nicolás, 9.
  3. Ibid, 7.
  4. For this discussion of the Responsibility to Protect, I am indebted to Alex J. Bellamy, “The Responsibility to Protect: Five Years On,” Ethics and International Affairs 24, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 143–169, and to David Hollenbach, S.J., “‘The Responsibility to Protect’ and National Sovereignty in a Globalizing World: The Relevance of Catholic Tradition,” presentation at conference on Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church, Trento, Italy, July 24–27, 2010.
  5. For the following discussion, I am indebted to Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Knopf, 2008), 3–20, 521–46.
  6. Ibid, 9.
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