Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

An Interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno: Part II

Photo by Alessia Giuliani

For Part I, click here.  For Kirsty’s review of God’s Mechanics, click here.

The idea of a religious university as they exist in the US is not a familiar one for those of us in the UK, although of course our university system has deep confessional roots.  Could you tell us something about the idea – and the practice – of a Jesuit university?

The Jesuits got into the education business pretty much by accident. They started out as a group of men who’d met at the University of Paris, who all had advanced degrees, at a time when there was a huge need for educational reform in Europe, and so they were asked to set up schools throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. These schools trained not just clergy but also the children of the burgeoning middle class. The great strength of these schools was a common (and pretty good) curriculum, with the books to support it; an international outlook; and the self-confidence to push knowledge and learning beyond the safe boundaries of what had been done before.

When the Jesuits were suppressed in the mid 1700s (their internationalism got in the way of the strongly nationalistic zeitgeist in Europe, as various kings pressured the Pope to put them out of business) a lot of their European schools were taken over by other entities, both Church and secular. In Europe, at least, the tradition of Jesuit universities was broken, although after the Napoleonic wars (when most of those kings were history and the Jesuits were re-established) the Jesuits did establish a system of secondary schools. Some, like Stonyhurst, actually endured through the suppression.

However, outside of Europe the situation was rather different. For example, even though during the 40 years of the suppression of the Jesuit order the Jesuits in the American colonies could no longer call themselves “Jesuit,” they didn’t go away. After all, they were in essence the only Catholic clergy around in the colonies. They all still knew each other and worked together. One thing they did during the suppression was to start a school in the Maryland colony/state that eventually became Georgetown University. (Bill Clinton attended Georgetown.)

Likewise, there are lots of Jesuit universities to this day in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

As the Americas were flooded with immigrants in the 19th century, many from Catholic nations like Ireland, Poland, and Italy, the Jesuits set up 8-year schools (for students ages 13-21) to educate the children of those immigrants. By the early 20th century most of these schools were split into separate high schools and universities. Thus, for instance, I attended the “University of Detroit High School” when I was aged 13-17 which was a separate institution, with its own campus, about a mile from the University of Detroit itself.

By the mid 20th century the Jesuit high schools had become very competitive, academically rigorous “college prep” schools whose pupils were the children or grandchildren of those immigrants who had “made it”. It was (and is) expected that everyone attending such a school would be going on to university studies. I recall taking three different entrance exams to get into U of D High, including an IQ test (you had to test at least one sigma above the norm at a minimum before they would even consider you for admission) and a language aptitude test (I placed in the Latin-Greek-German track).

(Nowadays there is also a growing number of new Jesuit high schools focused directly on kids from poor neighborhoods. Many have work-study programs where the kids are found jobs within the community to help pay their tuition costs… and give the kids work experience in the larger world.)

By contrast, most Jesuit universities maintain their tradition of educating immigrants and the first in their families to go to university. Loyola University in Chicago, for example, has a sizable Muslim population because there are lots of south Asians who have moved to Chicago. They produce lots of pre-professional students, who go on to become doctors and lawyers. And in fact the larger Jesuit universities have well-respected postgraduate-level medical and law schools.

In the past, a large number of the faculty of these schools were Jesuit priests and brothers, but that is no longer the case. A faculty of 200 at a small school might have only half a dozen Jesuits among them. But the schools work hard to maintain their “Jesuit” identity. There’s a long tradition of Jesuits and laypeople working together, and the laypeople who are brought into administration are precisely those who buy into the Jesuit identity. (Note that while the schools are unabashedly Catholic, there is no religious requirement to attend or to teach there. In fact the current president of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles is non-Catholic.)

And what is that “Jesuit” identity? You can find all sorts of pious boilerplate on various university websites… I would boil it down to a few essentials.

The first is that you don’t just get an education to advance yourself, but to help others. This is a natural outgrowth of when students were the bright kids of immigrants and expected to be the successful professionals who would support the rest of their immigrant family, and their immigrant community — if you were a poor Irish immigrant in Boston you could expect to find a sympathetic doctor or lawyer (or judge!) among the Irish immigrants who had gone to Boston College. As the immigrant communities became assimilated, this sense of a responsibility for others has taken on a wider scope. One catch-phrase you hear a lot at Jesuit schools is “people for others”.

The second characteristic of a Jesuit education is a breadth of knowledge that includes work in philosophy and some form of theology regardless of the main course of study. A typical Jesuit graduate is not likely to be as bright as a Hawking or Dawkins but you would never see one of them commit the philosophical howlers that Hawking and Dawkins are guilty of. What really gets taught here is the talent of assimilation and evaluation: the typical Jesuit-educated person can sit in a roomful of people talking about an unfamiliar subject and at the end of the conversation be able to identify and evaluate what the arguments are and why each side made those arguments.

The final aspect is an almost cocky self-confidence. This is different from the sense of “entitlement” that comes from graduating from a big name school like Harvard or Yale. Yale graduates assume they will succeed because they are confident that they are of the elite, by birth or acceptance. Jesuit graduates are convinced they will succeed because, against all odds, they have clawed their way by hard work and cleverness through a rigorous and difficult system. Jesuit graduates are characterized by a certain kind of glibness that not only lets them speak with seeming authority, off the cuff, on any topic, but to glory in the fact when they know they’re faking it. (The Yale graduate thinks he actually knows what he’s talking about.) No surprise that so many go into law and politics.

What is common in all three aspects is in fact a faith in God, and in particular in a Catholic sense of who God is and what our relationship is to God. Obviously there is a religious foundation to living one’s life for others: the first aspect. The breadth of knowledge, the second aspect, echoes St. Ignatius of Loyola’s insight (he’s the one who founded the Jesuits) to “find God in all things”. And what can be more arrogantly cocky than to know that we’re sinners but nonetheless God’s adopted children?

Asteroid 4597 Consolmagno imaged at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope

How do you reconcile a strong Catholic faith with a strong ecumenical tradition?

This is a topic that I probably spend half of my book God’s Mechanics talking about — how I and other techies deal with the reality that there are so many religions, and all of them have a lot of good… and a potential for abuse. There’s a lot to talk about.

My simple sound-bite answer is that I find the Catholic church to be the most complete expression of my Christian faith. It’s the most full-featured church; but probably the one with the heaviest overhead, as well. And I recognize that the better something is, the worse it can be when it goes wrong. It really takes faith to commit yourself to something so unwieldy as a religion…

Since you mention Dawkins and Hawking above, could you give us a potted critique of their philosophies?

In short? No. I haven’t bothered reading either of them in any depth, since even a cursory look at what they have said in public on matters philosophical doesn’t entice me to look further.

Concerning Hawking’s latest public comments about whether God is “necessary”… if he had concluded that his M theory didn’t work after all, would he have run out and joined a church? Of course not. He’d have just looked for a better theory. But that shows the fallacy of trying to use “science” to disprove — or prove — the existence of the supernatural. Furthermore, a “god” whose existence could be proved by science would be inferior to science, and not much of a god. I don’t believe in that kind of god, either.

Possibly a silly question here.  I’m struck by the apparent contrast between the Jesuit tradition, with its reputation for ascetism, educational inclusiveness and social engagement, and the extraordinary wealth and political power of the Vatican.  How do you, personally, relate one to the other?  Is the Society of Jesus counter-cultural, or for you does it occupy a particular place in the Catholic church and the order of things?

Well, to start with, your assumptions are not all that unusual; but they’re not very accurate, either.

While Jesuits do take a vow of poverty, our understanding of that vow is not extreme or ascetic. We try to live a life that is typical of whomever we are working with (usually at a lower middle class level). And our use of money is tied directly to the nature of our work. We don’t buy things just because we can afford them; but if we need something for the work, and the money is there, then we get the best tool for the job regardless of the price.

Likewise, the “wealth” of the Vatican is one of those long-enduring myths. Its wealth is in the form of real estate and artwork, neither of which are easy to turn into cash (even if you would want to — can you imagine Michelangelo’s Pietà squirreled away in the vault of some 21st century Michael Jackson?). In terms of its annual income, the Vatican wouldn’t come close to making the Fortune 1000 list. Its annual budget is only around 300 million Euros a year; that’s not much more than the cost of a Hollywood blockbuster. (The Vatican Observatory’s budget is about one half of one percent of that, the same proportion as NASA’s to the US government’s budget.)

In Antarctica collecting meteorites. Photo by Sara Russell

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, had an article in the Boston College magazine a few years ago that made some important points about our perception of the Vatican. Among the comments he makes is that, “to talk about ‘what the Vatican thinks’ is almost meaningless, because the Vatican does not have a unified intellect and will. It is a complex bureaucracy, housing many different points of view, hopes, dreams, and temperaments…” Later in the article, he also points out that “the Catholic Church is one of the most decentralized institutions on earth. Ninety-nine percent of decisions that matter in the Church are not made in Rome… it manages to hold a worldwide organization together with an exceptionally small central headquarters. For the 1.1 billion Catholics, there are about 1,700 people working in the Roman Curiae… if the same ratio were applied to our government in Washington, D.C., there would be 500 federal employees working in the capital, as opposed to roughly 500,000.”

Finally, I’ll just point out that for an organization that’s supposedly so politically powerful, the Catholic Church sure has a hard time winning any political battles. In America, the big issues for the Church include immigration reform and reducing abortion. Of these, the left gives lip service to the first, the right gives lip service to the second, but neither party has taken any real action towards either goal. And everyone has ignored the Church’s opposition to the Gulf wars.

Meanwhile, in the UK, it is still socially acceptable in “polite” society to be snidely anti-Catholic, as evidenced by the protests during the Pope’s visit. And there was a long history in Britain of restricting Catholics by law from the right to vote or hold positions of power, restrictions that are not completely removed even today. One bad result of this low-grade bigotry (it’s more like a low-grade fever than a raging disease) is that it encourages a self-pitying, self-righteous isolation among Catholics themselves. That “we-few” mentality often means that we won’t listen to or recognize legitimate concerns.

Many thanks for being so frank in answering my questions and so generous with your time, Brother Guy.  One last request: we always ask our guests for five book recommendations (of any kind – it doesn’t have to be about the topic at hand) with a quick word about each book.

It’s hard to limit myself to just five, but here are five books that I find myself recommending over and over:

The Stars, A New Way to See Them, by H. A. Rey. The first book for anyone over the age of 10 who wants to learn constellations, and astronomy… written by the guy who wrote Curious George.

Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton. Yes, it is dated, and his style is 100 years old; that’s part of the charm of it for me. Besides being a very entertaining apologetic, it’s also a gentle reminder of how intellectual fads (like the ones he criticizes) come and go.

Cordelia’s Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s a great entry point into her series of Miles Vorkosigan space operas, and living evidence that science fiction can be about a whole lot more than space ships… while still being full of space ships.

Godstalk, by P. C. Hodgell. She takes a standard “extruded fantasy product” universe and does it right, ringing intelligent changes on real characters whose questions and quests reflect on our own “what am I doing here” issues.

Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward. Anyone who’s a fan of the Narnia books and C. S. Lewis in general (especially his book The Discarded Image, which I almost included here itself) has to read this book. It’s full of the kind of head-slapping insights that make you appreciate these works in a whole new light.

9 comments on “An Interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno: Part II

  1. Pingback: An Interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno: Part I « Vulpes Libris

  2. chasing bawa
    November 11, 2010

    I watched a programme about the Vatican a few months ago in which Brother Consolmagno popped up. How cool is it to work at the Vatican Observatory?! Although I am an aetheist, science and religion are two things that interest me greatly, especially when it comes to the history of science, and his calm and collected views greatly impressed me. It’s interesting to see how scientists’ attitudes towards publically expressing their religious beliefs with regard to their science is changing, as historically, since the Enlightenment, to even have a whiff of religion attached to a scientific theory would have somehow affected how it was received professionally.

  3. DOT
    November 11, 2010

    Fascinating interview. I was educated from the age of seven by Jesuits – Stonyhurst College – but have since abandoned – bad word – thought through my beliefs and come to different conclusions.

    On that point, I was disappointed Brother Guy Consolmagno skimmed over Hawkings and Dawkins. I have not read their books relating to religion, I am not a great fan of the vociferousness with which Dawkins pumps his atheistic beliefs, but they are both articulate thinkers and their arguments deserve to be addressed.

    Small point, but I thought Jesuit Brothers where phased out years ago.

  4. kirstyjane
    November 11, 2010

    Thanks very much for the comments – I enjoyed doing this interview a great deal. DOT, as you can see, the Jesuit Brothers are very much going strong and this page even features the man of the hour:

  5. Melrose
    November 11, 2010

    I’ve found Brother Guy Consolmagnos’ interview fascinating and informative, especially the second part, where Guy gave a simple explanation of the Jesuit tradition and some background on the structure of his church, both areas of which I had very little knowledge. From Guy’s description of the essentials of the Jesuit identity, I would say that he, himself, is a fine example!

  6. Brendan Gilligan
    November 11, 2010

    Is it possible to use your interview (1 & II) with Brother Guy Consolmagno, for our magazine titled ‘The Vatican: Past & Present’. A quarterly magazine from the publishers of ‘The Universe Catholic Weekly’ in the UK.


  7. Moira
    November 13, 2010

    Just popping in to say that, although I have nothing very profound to say, I really enjoyed both parts of the interview. Although a non-Catholic (atheist, actually) I was educated by Catholics. Not Jesuits, but a lovely RC convent in Hampshire populated by some of the most wonderfully tolerant and eccentric nuns I’ve ever encountered. I went to many, many schools – but that’s one I remember best and enjoyed most and I now look back on it as being the most important part of my education. I am probably, therefore, rather more kindly disposed to Catholics than many over here, but I was startled by the venomous reaction of so many to the Pope’s recent visit.

    C S Lewis makes my teeth itch, by the way. I’m tempted to try Planet Narnia just to see if it makes me feel any more kindly towards him.

  8. Jackie
    November 14, 2010

    The 2nd part of this interview was just as interesting as the first, I think I learned even more. Being in the U.S., I’ve heard of the Jesuit universities, but was glad to know what that really means. I was startled at the real facts about The Vatican’s wealth, something I’m always hearing people criticize.
    “The Heavens Proclaim” has a riveting cover & the perfect use of one of my favorite Bible verses.
    Having enjoyed this interview with Brother Guy so much, I’m going to seek out some of his books now….

  9. Pingback: The VL Amateur Astronomy Extravaganza, Part I « Vulpes Libris

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