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Catholic Education Cannot Be Indifferent to Society

It’s like the early ‘˜70s all over again just before Martial Law was declared. Just like the Marcos regime, the Duterte administration is determined to silence the opposition. Trumped-up charges against individuals that the government considers troublemakers are on the rise. The president has recently issued a threat to arrest the leaders of the CPP-NPA-NDF who participated in the failed peace talks with the government. Extra-judicial killings of mostly poor people appear to be the new normal in the current dispensation.

These social and political realities in the Philippines today are noteworthy, not because the Church or some activists say so, but because of the human emotions and challenges now in play. This is the time to renew one’s commitment to freedom and social responsibility.

Let me start with our Catholic universities.

In the homily that former Ateneo de Manila University professor Fr. Joseph O’Hare, SJ, delivered at St. Ignatius Church in New York in 1989 during the memorial Mass for the slain Jesuits of the University of Central America in San Salvador, he said, “There are those who have said, and who will say in the days and weeks ahead, that the Jesuits of El Salvador were not disinterested academics, that they had deliberately chosen to insert themselves into the political conflict of their nation. If they had remained within the insulated safety of the library or the classroom, their critics will charge, if they had not meddled in politics, their lives would not have been threatened. But such criticism misunderstands the nature of any university, and most certainly the nature of a Catholic university. No university can be insulated from the agonies of the society in which it lives. No university that identifies itself as Catholic can be indifferent to the call of the church to promote the dignity of the human person.”

What caught my attention in these excerpts are the last two sentences and they are worth repeating: “No university can be insulated from the agonies of the society in which it lives. No university that identifies itself as Catholic can be indifferent to the call of the church to promote the dignity of the human person.”

Understandably, students attend Catholic universities for different reasons.  But given the current social and political realities today, where even a dead dictator is allowed to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes Cemetery) and where compelling accounts of human rights abuses are documented by reputable local and international organizations, the challenge of educating for social responsibility has taken on new urgency. For any Catholic and educational institutions that believe in educating the whole person, this urgency should be taken seriously.

Educating for academic skills alone, though important, is not sufficient to prepare graduates with commitment to freedom and social responsibility. Universities can teach students physics, biology, psychology and math. But if that is all Catholic universities do, they have failed its students. There has to be a difference in orientation and philosophy between a secular university and a Catholic university.

During his talk at the Congregation of Catholic Education this year, Pope Francis explained that man cannot live without hope and education is a generator of hope. I interpret this to mean that graduates of Catholic universities should provide hope to the less fortunate, to the oppressed, to the families of those whose children are killed extra-judicially by the police. Concretely, this means, in the words of St. Luke (Ch.4:18) “ proclaim good news to the poor¦to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…to set the oppressed free.”

Many Catholic educators have already expressed about this aspect of education, but none so eloquently as Pope John Paul II, who during his visit to the United States in 1987, challenged Catholic universities to face squarely the issues of justice, peace and unjust structures in society.

This distinctive mission of a Catholic university must have inspired Fr. Jun Viray, SJ, the former president of the Ateneo de Naga University, now the provincial of the Jesuits in the Philippines, to launch the Martial Law Museum at the Ateneo de Naga University as a reminder of the evils of Martial Law and to counter the efforts of the Marcoses to revise history.

In what has been described as the principal insight of the 1971 synod of bishops is the following sentence from that document: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

The bishops have clearly spoken. It’s about time that Catholic universities listen and do their part.