As a Jesuit Political Scientist, Religion Doesn’t Often Play a Direct Role in My Work. Am I Still Serving the Church?

by | Dec 6, 2021 | Current Events, Faith & Politics, Global Catholicism, In the News, Religious Life, The Jesuits

Earlier this fall, I found myself in Seattle for the annual conference of the American Political Science Association. I was not the only Jesuit involved in this conference— there were three of us among about 5000 scholars attending either in-person or virtually. My time in Seattle prompted  me to reflect on how I got to this somewhat unusual point as both a man in formation for Catholic priesthood and a political scientist.

Currently, I do research and teach as a postdoctoral fellow at Fordham University. My main area of study is the Middle East, particularly practices of corruption and patronage there. 

While I enjoy my research, especially when I get to spend time in the field, and I love teaching my students about politics, I have to confess that sometimes I get a bit jealous of other Jesuit scholastics. Many of them get to talk about God with impressionable high school students, playing a role in shaping the faith that will sustain these students for the rest of their lives. Others work directly with the poor, sometimes on the furthest margins of society. In my work, religion and faith don’t always play a direct role. Though I challenge my students to ask big questions, I don’t always bring up beliefs about God directly. 

So does my research and teaching support the mission of the Church?

I certainly hope that it does. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, also known as Gaudium et Spes, opens with a bold proposal: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men [and women] of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” The document goes on to say that since the Church is a human community, spreading the Gospel demands that we take seriously every human desire and human emotion.

My research and teaching focus on these desires, these joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties. I prefer to seek these desires out through survey data and interviews that allow average citizens to speak. While some scholars of corruption prefer to study elite strategies and regime dynamics, I favor letting those who are most adversely affected by corruption vent frustrations about it. In the classroom, I push my students to look at suffering in the world and ask tough questions about how and why we human beings allow such suffering to happen.

This work may not always involve directly talking about God, but it is deeply enmeshed with how we see God and God’s people, and it involves being acutely aware of their needs and their dignity. 

As I wrote for TJP earlier in the summer, I spent time in Beirut in July and August hoping to better understand the lived reality of the catastrophe that Lebanon’s politics and economy have become in the last two years due to corruption, selfishness, and stubbornness on the part of the country’s leaders. 

I firmly believe that the dignity of Lebanon’s people, and all people, is rooted in the God who creates us and endows us with this dignity. 

Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God is a call to defend the dignity of all people against evil, including corruption and political repression that work against the salvation that God intends for all people. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius helps the retreatant understand his or her own sinfulness, and the role that sin plays in the world, in order to actively oppose it. 

When Catholic scholars make use of the mind and its power of inquiry in service of the Church, they can help to further this fight against evil. Father Adolfo Nicolas, former Superior General of the Society, referred to the Jesuit intellectual apostolate as “a bridge of dialogue between Gospel and culture” a place of “true encounter, in which academic reflection and the concrete life of people are brought together.”

His words remind me of the close relationship between faith and justice that Father General Pedro Arrupe first articulated. It reminds me also of so many Jesuits I have come to call friends, who are engaged in research, teaching, or direct work with those who are suffering. I find it inspiring how many ways Jesuits and our partners in the Jesuit mission undertake the work of walking with the excluded, one of the Society’s current universal apostolic preferences. 

I see my role as a Jesuit in the intellectual apostolate, especially in the social sciences, to bring these varied approaches into conversation with one another and with the world at large. One individual can only do so much, but I find it inspiring being part of a large network in which seeking God’s vision in the dialogue between faith and reason, the sacred and the secular, animates what we do.