A Discussion with Gabino Uribarri Bilbao, S.J., Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Comillas Pontifical University, Spain
July 12, 2012
Background: In this exchange on July 12, 2012, in Madrid, Spain, Gabino Uribarri Bilbao, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed the nature of current Jesuit universities, looking specifically at globalization and secularization.
When and why did you join the Jesuits, and what exactly do you do now?
I got to know the Jesuits by virtue of attending a Jesuit high school, and the more I got to know them, the more I admired and wanted to emulate them. I joined the order myself in 1977 after completing my first year of university. These days, I’m the dean of theology at [Comillas Pontifical University, known as U.P. Comillas]—one of just two administrative positions (and the only deanship) held by a Jesuit at this university.
Would you say that Comillas has globalized in any significant ways in the last decade or two?
Certainly. We’re a Spanish university, of course, but lately we’ve been seeing classes that are 50 percent or more non-Spanish. Most of those foreign students come from Latin America or Europe, but we do get the odd few from Africa and Asia as well. This huge influx of people has made the university—it’s hard to offer generalizations about different people and places when those people are sitting in your classroom. Everyone’s situation—and the situation of the Church, culture, politics, what have you—is obviously highly dependent on place, and that’s starting to make itself a factor in our classrooms. Some of the biggest variances we see are with the implementation and views of Vatican II, the process of secularization, and the relationship between the Church and society. When you’ve got a class with Latin Americans, other Europeans, and perhaps an African or an Asian as well as Spaniards, it’s tough to say, “Secularization is X.”
Has that changed the way in which you and your department think about and/or teach theology?
Frankly, it hasn’t changed theology much as a subject. The specificity of place works both ways, you see: this is a Spanish university that teaches theology from the perspective and context of Spain and the Spanish Church. Our students know what they’re getting when they come here. For our part, we’re obviously aware that we have students from other places in our classrooms, but we’re still teaching a theology that’s embedded in the Spanish and European milieus, and that’s not going to change any time soon. We haven’t seen a lot of curriculum change in the sense of teaching a new theology or a new perspective, but we have been forging ahead with interreligious dialogue, especially since General Congregation (GC) 34. We had had a small dialogue initiative set up beforehand, but GC 34 really pushed things forward on that score across the globe, and we’ve since been specifically asked to develop our dialogue resources by the European provincials.
How is theology taught here, and what do your students think of it?
All of our students have to take a course in dogmatic theology, a course in social ethics, and a course in professional ethics, all of which are taught by the theology faculty. Students know that these courses are part of study at U.P. Comillas and accept them as such, but theology is not a popular subject. For one thing, it doesn’t pay—pretty much the only students we get taking theology beyond the required courses are either studying to be religious leaders (lay or ordained) or possibly scholars of theology. Given there’s basically nowhere to go with theology either in the public or the private sector, lay theology students’ peers always tend to think their studies are a little crazy.
Would you say that the university as a whole makes an attempt to intentionally prepare students for a globalized world?
These days, we’re intentional about that. Most of the students take at least one semester abroad, and that’s having a profound impact on student life and culture here. Not only are individual students learning important lessons from studying abroad, but there’s now a collective experience of globalization by virtue of everyone comparing notes from their different exchange programs. The increasing numbers of international students we have here also plays into that, since they can contribute perspectives from their home countries to the conversations our Spanish students are having in response to study abroad. We’re also working on this in the academic realm; we started a program in European Business Studies that is all about getting people ready to work in an increasingly integrated Europe.
Could you speak about secularization and globalization in the contexts of Spain and U.P. Comillas?
Spain is in an interesting place with secularization right now. We’re not as secularized as some of the other European countries (especially the northern ones that everyone talks about), but there’s been a huge and ongoing decrease in the popular vision and culture of Spain as a Catholic country. At the same time, Church institutions are still relatively strong here, so we’re in the odd position of educating members of religious orders from abroad—largely Africans and Asians—and then seeing some of those same people working in Spain after they’ve concluded their studies. What that points to is a significant difference in resources: the developing or (relatively) newly Catholic countries are seeing more vocations, but we have the institutional resources in place to educate their people.
With regard to our students, it’s obvious that religious knowledge is declining pretty steadily and remarkably. Most students today can’t instinctively navigate a church building or a Bible—ask them to flip open a Bible to a certain book or verse, and they won’t even have an approximate idea of where it is. What worries me is that nothing is replacing that knowledge; this great store of cultural wisdom is drying up, and in its place is little or nothing, apparently.
As a Jesuit educator, that means you’re starting your 20-something students on really elementary concepts of faith. How do you and the faculty of theology deal with that?
Well, our goal is to help our students discover that theology is interesting and worthwhile for its own sake, not just as some required classes they have to get through because they chose U.P. Comillas. Luckily, we’ve got some creative faculty here who are really figuring out how to reach students. Often, these people start with hidden-in-plain-sight references to faith in the students’ fields of study: one professor begins his first class each semester with world news with religious content in order to show students that they have to understand something about religion in order to understand a fair amount of news these days; another, a professor of nursing, reminds her students that people in pain usually say “Oh my God!” and she prepares her students to deal with that instinct towards religion in extremis. Our efforts are working a little bit, but we’re not exactly changing the national culture through what we’re doing here.
Based on all that, what are your predictions and concerns for the future of Jesuit education in general?
Our greatest challenge—and it’s here now—is to keep our Jesuit identity despite a critical lack of Jesuits. The Society is spread very thin right now, and that’s at least as true in our schools and universities as it is in our pastoral efforts at large. As we’re already discovering, collaboration with lay faculty is and will be the key to survival. So far, our efforts here have been pretty successful. Both sides have had their missteps and awkward moments, but overall it seems to have been good for both the Jesuits and our lay colleagues that we’ve opened up the administration and the mission of this university to a collaborative/cooperative working relationship.
The reason all this is important in the first place is that a Jesuit education offers some goods that are really useful to students individually and most of all to society as a whole. Our fundamental theory of education is premised upon taking seriously the person as such, finding each where he or she is at the moment, and cultivating their whole person from there, taking into account the contextual nature of education and experience that we spoke about earlier. We’re also very invested in educating students for the good of society as a whole. A big reason we go to the trouble of requiring courses in theology and ethics in the first place is to instill a sense of social responsibility in each of our students that they can carry with them into their lives and professions. The other important thing about theological education is that it’s intended to give students a perspective that transcends their everyday experiences, and I think that’s still an important resource to have. That’s why students’ unfamiliarity with the Bible is so saddening to me. Finally, there’s a very practical aspect to Jesuit education that’s very important. We know why we teach what we teach, and we communicate that to students as well. We also emphasize the importance of practicality in the students’ own lives: some of their learning is being done for the sake of learning, but we do want them to have a competence and a “point” when they leave us.
Moving forward, the challenge will be reinforcing our historical strengths—holistic education, social responsibility, establishing the student in transcendent relationships—while being bold and creative in innovating. Here at Comillas, for example, we created a brand-new dual-degree program in international studies with an integral study-abroad component. We’re going to have to keep evolving our educational delivery even as we get back to basics on our traditions.