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Michael Campbell-Johnston

Michael Campbell-Johnston, SJ is an English Jesuit. Having first joined the order in 1949, Campbell-Johnston has helped shape the modern Jesuits, especially in its social initiatives. Campbell-Johnston, who worked with Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, SJ, has also served as provincial of the...

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A Discussion with Michael Campbell-Johnston, S.J., Founder of the Jesuit Refugee Service, British Provincial, United Kingdom

Michaelcampbell-johnston
Background: In this exchange on July 23, 2012, in London, Michael Campbell-Johnston, S.J. and Colin Steele discussed Jesuit efforts in the social apostolate and Jesuit views on globalization and social justice.

Interview Conducted on July 23, 2012



Please give a brief description of your time as a Jesuit.

I knew I wanted to become a priest at a very early stage and entered the novitiate in 1949, just before my 18th birthday. Although the first years of my novitiate – conducted in the largely silent, cloistered way that was the pre-Vatican II norm – did not give me much of a sense of the world I would go on to serve, I did start getting interested in poverty and social justice when I was sent to France for my philosophy studies in 1952. The French Jesuits had a radical intellectual tradition at the time, and it was there that I was exposed to the existentialists and to Marx. Child of a middle-class family, I still lacked personal experience with poverty or social justice, but at least I began thinking about economic systems and their human products. When I came back to England, I asked to be sent to the London School of Economics for graduate work in economics, which was hugely unusual at the time. I was granted my wish, and became the second British Jesuit to study at LSE. After that, it was time for theology studies, and I got lucky again when I was told that I could study wherever I wanted as long as I did my first year in Heythrop. That I did, and then went promptly to Mexico with the intention of combining the remainder of my studies with experience of Third-World reality and parish work. After I’d finished theology, I went to Brazil to do my tertianship. During that time, I did a lot of pastoral work in rural areas and travelled throughout South America examining the new social institutes that the new father general, Pedro Arrupe, had ordered be set up in every South and Central American country.

By the end of my tertianship, I had the experience, the training, and the interest to start turning my vocation toward social justice. From there, I served in Guyana (which I turned into the major focus of the British Province outside of England itself), went to El Salvador just after Óscar Romero’s assassination, founded JRS [the Jesuit Refugee Service], worked in the General Curia, served six years as British provincial, and returned to Guyana. I was moved back here to London not too long ago on account of my age; I would rather still be in Guyana, but I suppose they’re right to have me back here.

You’ve been all over and played a key role in forming the modern social apostolate of the Society. What’s your 30,000-foot take on globalization, particularly in the developing world?

Poverty and inequality are serious problems, and they’re not new. Most people don’t realize the extent to which poor, undeveloped countries are kept that way by the rich countries to the north. We’re not going to realize the Millennium Development Goals – we’ve actually made reverse progress on several – and that’s mostly to do with our lack of a will, not a way. The expert consensus basically across the board for development is that we could fix most of the problems that are out there if we wanted to, but our politicians are too scared to do anything about it. The difficult part is that the democratization of information has made the citizens of the global south more and more aware of how and to what extent they’re being exploited, and they’re starting to speak up about it. The Latin American bishops’ conference, CELAM, offered a huge challeng to the Church on this front with its document, “Globalization and New Evangelization in Latin America.” They offered a new definition of globalization and drew from it seven key challenges to the Church in dealing with it.

Looking around the Church right now, we don’t really seem prepared to handle these challenges. The Church is deeply wounded, and mostly in ways directly traceable to the conservative reaction to Vatican II. We’re too central, too authoritarian, too focused on the structure, and not nearly enough on the poor. Our social teaching – the oft-cited “best-kept secret” of the tradition – is being grossly neglected. It’s not being taught to clergy or lay people, it’s not being preached and it’s too often not being practiced. The Jesuits aren’t always much help: too many of us today (especially in the North) are from the managerial class, which is the stratum of society most deeply invested in the status quo. They’re raised without experience of raw social injustice, so preaching and working for social justice is not their first instinct.

That’s quite a grim picture. Even if we already know too much about what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it, can you suggest any way(s) forward?

First of all, we’ve got to get serious about social justice. “Helping the poor” or “charity” just aren’t good enough any more – these are important, but they alleviate the symptoms of a much deeper pathology. Now that we have the knowledge to change systems of economics, politics, and culture, we have incurred the duty to change them, and radically. One of the ways we can do that as a Church is to give priests first-hand experience with social injustice and poverty. The British Province has a huge advantage in that respect over other European provinces since South Africa and Guyana are still integral parts of our province. That means we can send priests to those places during their formation, which helps them understand what drives poverty and the necessity of doing something about it. It’s high time more priests got that training: the Church is too often part of the problem when it comes to concealing social dynamics and poverty-producing structures. Ignacio Ellacuria, one of the UCA martyrs in El Salvador, called this the “civilization of poverty,” and it is wrong. The Church isn’t going to get it until we elect a non-European pope, and preferably one from the developing world. We may be moving towards that point, but the conservative element within the Vatican is still strong.

Specifically, what role can Jesuits play?

Particularly if we’re able to send people from North to South to experience the conditions on the other side of the poverty gap, we have to start educating people about the problems and especially the roots of the global poverty system. The solution, however, must come from the poor themselves, and we may be able to help that happen by accompanying the poor, refusing to romanticize them, and continuing the process of conscientización that, with education, was so central to liberation theology. That movement had its flaws, but it was right to emphasize the education and conscience-building of the poor as critical to starting an organic, self-sustaining drive for a solution. We’ve got to get back to the Christian Base Community model and stop educating wealthy and middle-class people in ways that enable them to hold onto their wealth and seek more of it.

To go back to your own formation, how did you go from relatively comfortable, sheltered 18-year-old novice to the Jesuits’ man for social justice all over the world?

The best thing that happened to me in my formation was the opportunity to study abroad. If I hadn’t studied and – more importantly – lived in Mexico, in Brazil, in South America, I would not have developed the vision that has driven my vocation ever since. A global formation, as it were, broadens the mind immensely and should be made de rigueur for Jesuits. For me, it was that time in Central and South America that exposed me for the first time to an alternative reality that was not only different from any I’d experienced before but different in ways that made me think uncomfortably about the ways in which the reality I grew up in perpetuated the realities I was coming to know. From there, my vocation pretty much formed itself. When I proposed making Guyana the primary overseas focus of the British Province (as opposed to Barbados), Fr. Arrupe said to me, “Since you suggested it, you go and do it.” That brought me back to Guyana, where I incubated the idea of forming what would become the Jesuit Refugee Service.

What would be your take-away messages to the Church and the Society given the state of the world and the Church today?

Social justice is the way forward; it’s what is going to define our legacy for good or ill in the 21st century. To do this work, we’ve got to take a hard look at ourselves and also open up to all willing and potential dialogue partners, including lapsed Catholics, non-Catholics, non-Christians, and atheists. In these times, people are moving away from traditional, organized churches in general, and we’re needlessly self-limiting if we won’t engage them. One of the worrisome trends in that shift, however, is the movement not out of religion entirely but from the Catholic Church into radical/fundamentalist churches because they offer the individual more say and decision-making authority than the Catholic Church does. Giving the faithful a voice was one of the big goals of Vatican II, and it’s a shame to lose people for exactly the reasons we predicted in the 1960s. Moreover, believers moving towards fundamentalist sects in response to the institutional obstinacy of the Catholic Church only hinders our ability to co-operate with our nominal co-religionists.

While I’m on the subject of the move away from traditional religion, I should mention that much of that flight really does hinge on the “traditional” aspect. There are plenty of young people here in the UK who have no interest in going to church but who listen avidly to the Jesuits’ “Prayer in Daily Life” podcast. Some even make retreats in the tradition of the Spiritual Exercises, which are the greatest resource our Jesuit tradition has to offer for renewal, reflection, and engagement with people of all faith situations. The more we can do to popularize the Exercises and their way via social and new media, the better. I’m convinced that if Ignatius were alive today, he’d be putting the Internet through its paces to get his message out there.

Looking to Christianity and Catholicism as a whole, I think we need to head off and reverse the move towards individualistic “cafeteria” Christianity so that we can speak with a more united voice on the issues of our day and our beliefs about them. Most of all, we have to take more responsibility in becoming aware of the world around us and consciously choosing our standards of living and consuming with respect to it. Christianity, after all, is both an individual and a social religion, and the two strands must be held together. This, too, was to be found in Vatican II, which took great strides towards rediscovering and re-emphasizing the social dimension of the sacraments, particularly thanks to the influence of Henri de Lubac, SJ’s writings on the social dimensions of dogma. Finally, we’ve got to open up the Vatican structure and spread out the power that’s become concentrated there in the post-Vatican II backlash. Hans Küng is right when he says (too stridently) that the Vatican apparatchiks have too much power – in some ways more even than the papacy – and that we’ve got to realize Vatican II’s goal of breaking the Vatican-centric model of the Church that’s held sway for too long. We can’t and shouldn’t go as non-centric as the Anglicans have, but the bottom line is that the central authority should not have the sway that it does right now.