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Father Willard Jabusch: “Since you have such diversity and so many different religions … it’s very hard to present anything except a kind of smorgasbord of ethical ideas.” Catholic New World photos by Sandy Bertog

Providing guidance at an ‘amoral university’

The Interview, a regular feature of The Catholic New World, is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today’s Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

This week, Catholic New World staff writer Michelle Martin talks with Father Willard Jabusch.

For 11 years, Father Willard Jabusch has directed Calvert House, the Catholic campus ministry at the University of Chicago. In March, the Jesuit weekly America published his essay about the amoral nature of secular universities. Now, just over a month before he retires to take a position at the American College in Louvain, Belgium, Jabusch discussed the obligation universities and students have to the moral development of the next generation.

The Catholic New World: What does the term “the amoral university” mean?

Father Willard Jabusch:
What we don’t mean by it is “immoral university.” That would be teaching what is wrong. The amoral university doesn’t teach any kind of ethical system, doesn’t promote any sort of values at all, so it just stays away from any kind of teaching or guidance as far as morality is concerned. It would be interested in presenting data—just get the facts, learn history or science or whatever it is, and be interested in that, but not especially interested in what this means for the morality of human beings.

TCNW: I’m skeptical. Is it possible to present any information without imbuing it with some value?

FWJ: Very difficult to do. In theory, you have the amoral university. It’s completely disinterested. It’s an objective institution that’s simply presenting the facts, the data. But in reality, you have all kinds of different professors here with many individual moral systems or religions, and they of course would inevitably say something about what they hold.

TCNW: What do you think a university’s responsibility is to the moral and ethical development of its students?

FWJ: Well, I think most parents would hope that it was involved in that in some way. But given this very diverse group of people who make up a university, with the faculty, the students and the administration, I think it’s very difficult to do that. At a Catholic university, you might have more agreement on what this should be, what is our standard, what are the ethical principles we ought to have for students. But in a big secular university, whether it be a state or private secular university like this one, you’re not going to get a consensus on that.

TCNW: Are the students then responsible for their own moral and ethical development?

FWJ: In effect, that’s what is the case. That’s why you have some guidance. There is the Catholic ministry on campus, and that’s why I think Calvert House and the Sheil Center at Northwestern and the John Paul II Center at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) are very, very important. It’s not so much a refuge for the Catholic students to come and hang out, although that’s always possible. Some have called it an oasis in the midst of an ethical desert, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. But at least in the campus ministries, whether they’re Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and now there’s more and more Islam, and Buddhist and even some Hindus—at least with a campus ministry, you’re going to have some kind of standard that’s being presented. For us, it’s the Gospel standard, the way Jesus Christ would want us to live.

TCNW: Is it difficult to try to relate that message to what students are studying, since you’re not involved in their academic education?

FWJ: The problems and the issues really are the same. What do I do with my life? What is really important for me? How do I live as a committed Christian in the very capitalistic and very selfish, consumerist, agnostic society? So students, whatever discipline they’re in, whether it be law, medicine, business, humanities, physics, the questions very often are the same. They’re the big, basic questions. Why am I here? What’s it all about? What’s the place of suffering in the world? How do I live as a father or mother of a family in the midst of a world that doesn’t value my Christianity? A very big question, how do I find somebody to be my wife or my husband who will share some of my basic beliefs? That’s not so easy. In fact, it’s very difficult.

TCNW: That makes a very large responsibility for the campus ministry, to try to answer those questions.

FWJ: You do what you can do.

TCNW: It sounds as though you see the idea of the university being amoral as the best that you can hope for, given its secular nature.

FWJ: I think that is correct. It’s kind of like the blank blackboard, There’s simply nothing written on it at all as far moral principles are concerned. Because the Catholic Church stands for a lot of things that many, many people in academia do not esteem, there is a tension. We have some wonderful professors who are deeply committed to promoting what is good, true and beautiful. Others seem less committed.

TCNW: In your essay, you wrote one of your students said they don’t talk about ethics in any of his classes. I have difficulty believing that.

FWJ: Ethical questions are bound to arise in any field, but I think a lot of professors feel very nervous about presenting their point of view because they feel that they have to be very objective, and they just don’t want to say too much.

TCNW: What could be done to make the situation better?

FWJ: I don’t think we can expect the big, secular university to really do much more than they are doing, which, of course, is not very much. As far as teaching ethics … ethics come out of religion usually. Even humanism produces some sort of an ethical system. Since you have such diversity and so many different religions, so many different points of view, it’s very hard to present anything except a kind of smorgasbord of ethical ideas. The student can pick or choose or avoid the smorgasbord table altogether.

TCNW: Do you feel like you’re a smorgasbord offering?

FWJ: No, because I think the students who come here have already decided what they want for the main course, and that is Christianity in the Catholic tradition. Our students who come here are already convinced about their religious affiliation and are very committed young people, very perceptive, very bright, very generous.

For more information about Calvert House, visit www.uchicago.edu/aff/calvert/

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