preferential option for the poor

university in this world

I was introduced once again to Ignacio Ellacuría in an email exchange with one of my authors working on a project for the Dispatches book series with Fortress Press. I remembered Ellacuría delivered an address to Santa Clara University upon receiving an honorary doctorate. The address sought to think about the nature of the (Catholic) University and the coinherence of science and theology that can come as it wrestles to understand itself in and for this world. 

"How does a university transform the social reality of which it is so much a part?

There is no abstract and consistent answer here. A university cannot always and in every place be the same. We must constantly look at our own peculiar historical reality. ...

What then does a university do, immersed in this reality? Transform it? Yes. Do everything possible so that liberty is victorious over oppression, justice over injustice, love over hate? Yes. Without this overall commitment, we would not be a university, and even less so would we be a Catholic university.

But how is this done? The university must carry our this general commitment with the means uniquely at its disposal: We as an intellectual community must analyze causes; use imagination and creativity together to discover remedies to our problems; communicate to our constituencies a consciousness that inspires the freedom of self-determination; education professionals with a conscience, who will be the immediate instruments of such a transformation; and constantly hone an educational institution that is both academically excellent and ethically oriented.

But how ...?

Liberation theology has emphasized what the preferential option for the poor means in authentic Christianity. Such an option constitutes an essential part of Christian life--but it is also a historic obligation. For the poor embody Christ in a special way; they mirror for us his message of revelation, salvation, and conversion. And they are also a universal social reality.

Reason and faith merge, therefore, in confronting the reality of the poor. Reason must open its eyes to their suffering; faith--which is sometimes scandalous to those without it--sees in the weak of this world the triumph of God, for we see in the poor what salvation must mean and the conversion to which we are called.

A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence--excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate."

This makes me think again what my college could be and what the university where it is situated could be for those persons without science, without skill, without voice, without qualification in the Lower Mainland. Rising poverty, economic inequality, haunting overdose crises, social isolation, political tribalism, and the like, delimit some of the reality in which we live. What might our college look like if it was shaped to attend towards and to transform such social realities?