David Hollenbach speaks at a 2016 Berkley Center conference on "Religion and Diplomacy."

David Hollenbach and the Jesuit Culture of Encounter

By: Henry Brill

March 25, 2020

Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., has applied Christian social ethics to some of the most pressing issues over the last 40 years. Encounter, a key theme in Jesuit thought and practice, has shaped his timely work on a wide-ranging set of issues, from economic reform and human rights to the refugee crisis.

What the Jesuits call a “culture of encounter” is helpful in understanding how and why Hollenbach has spent a career working on so many different humanitarian issues. The concept dates to the founding of the Society of Jesus, which Hollenbach entered in 1964, and continues to be invoked by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pontiff. It inspires people to walk with and advocate for those on the margins of society: the sick, the poor, the displaced. Encounter so conceived exemplifies the Catholic spirit of solidarity and recognizes the dignity of each and every human being by encouraging people to look beyond themselves and toward the needs of others. 

Continued encounter and serious dialogue with people from all over the world have shaped how Hollenbach has approached his scholarship and advocacy work for the last four decades. A conversation with Hollenbach provides a look at the personal and professional journey leading to his most recent book, Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees (2019), which presents ethical and religious solutions to the global refugee crisis.

​Formation in an Age of Social Revolution

Rev. Edward Gannon, S.J. Photo courtesy of University of Scranton Archives.
Rev. Edward Gannon, S.J. Photo courtesy of University of Scranton Archives.

Hollenbach entered the Society of Jesus in 1964, shortly after earning a B.S. in physics from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. It was there where he developed an interest in becoming a Jesuit, an interest sparked by a particular person. That person was Rev. Edward Gannon, S.J., a professor of philosophy at the university and himself a Jesuit. “I took several courses with him and found his work very stimulating and very inspiring,” remembers Hollenbach. “It was because of Gannon that I thought I would like to go in this direction with my life."

Bishops outside St. Peter's Basilica during the Second Vatican Council.

To become a Jesuit in the 1960s was to participate in new developments in Catholic thought and practice. It was during this period that the Catholic Church charted a new, more open relationship with the modern world under the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). 

Hollenbach not only experienced firsthand these changes as a member of a Catholic order, but he also interacted with key players in the council—a formative experience for the young Jesuit.

Shortly after Vatican II ended in December 1965, Hollenbach, still in the novice or training phase of Jesuit formation, was asked to help with a conference at Woodstock College, a Jesuit school of theology in Woodstock, Maryland. The college was home to some of the leading Catholic thinkers of the day. So, it is no surprise that faculty from the college decided to conduct a three-week long workshop on the implications of the council, a defining moment in Church history. 

Hollenbach speaks at a Georgetown conference on Murray in 2017.
Hollenbach speaks at a Georgetown conference on Murray in 2017.

One of the people Hollenbach met while at the Woodstock conference was Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J. Murray was an expert at the Second Vatican Council and one of the principal drafters of its Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae), a breakthrough document outlining Church support for the protection of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. Working with Murray and other renowned theologians at Woodstock was what Hollenbach identifies as a “turning point” in his career. “Here I was, a young 22- or 23-year-old Jesuit just beginning, and I had a lot of opportunity to interact with Murray,” recalls Hollenbach. “It was a big influence on me, to spend a number of weeks with these folks. I learned a lot and moved in the direction of saying that I want to spend my career studying theology.”

After this personal encounter with Murray and other theologians, Hollenbach went to St. Louis University, where he earned graduate degrees in philosophy. There, Hollenbach studied with formidable thinkers including the philosopher James Collins. Later Hollenbach returned to Woodstock College, to study theology with the Jesuit theologian Rev. Avery Dulles, S.J. Working with prominent intellectuals eventually brought Hollenbach to Georgetown, where he held his first teaching assignment while still in the regency phase of Jesuit formation. “I taught moral philosophy here at Georgetown for a couple of years,” says Hollenbach. “But the period when I was teaching at the university, all hell was breaking loose.”

A member of the National Guard watches over a destroyed city block in Washington, DC, 1968.

Hollenbach came to the Hilltop in 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The days following the King assassination saw a widespread civil uprising in Washington, DC. The capital saw violent riots, with protestors setting ablaze sizable portions of the city.

Anti-Vietnam War protests gather at the Pentagon in Washington, DC.

Unrest continued as Hollenbach taught on campus, although now the turmoil was fueled by a different issue: the Vietnam War.

“While I was teaching here, there were major student demonstrations against the war, one of which took place at Kent State University where some students were killed by National Guard fire,” recalls Hollenbach. "Students at Georgetown and around the country were up in arms."

Anti-Vietnam War protest at Georgetown, 1969. Photo courtesy of Georgetown University Archives.
Anti-Vietnam War protest at Georgetown, 1969. Photo courtesy of Georgetown University Archives.

Anxiety over Vietnam defined the totality of student life, both in and out of the classroom. Hollenbach remembers how that climate of unrest shaped his teaching. “There were all kinds of agitation, politically and about issues of justice, and here I was teaching ethics,” he recollects. “It was very practical and not just about the theory because the students were raising questions about what they should do if they were drafted. So, my theoretical work and the more practical concerns were interlocked, together in a sort of whirlwind.”

Gannon. Murray. Georgetown students. Personal encounter with these among others shaped how Hollenbach melds the practical and the theoretical in his moral philosophy. That dedication to the interaction between ethical theory and applied ethics has led Hollenbach to work on one of the most pressing issues facing the international community today: human rights. 

Human Rights Through a Catholic Lens

A poster depicts a Chinese family with one child, 1982. Photo by Robert Schediwy.
A poster depicts a Chinese family with one child, 1982. Photo by Robert Schediwy.

Hollenbach first engaged with human rights during his doctoral studies at Yale. A major UN conference on population issues was on the horizon as he was trying to decide the subject of his dissertation. Questions of population growth and control loomed large, especially as China worked to develop its so-called one-child policy. For Hollenbach, ever-attuned to contemporary events, writing on the social limitations of procreation seemed like a perfect fit. The Jesuit scholar took a unique approach to the question of population control, studying the issue through the lens of human rights in Catholic social teaching.

President Jimmy Carter works in the Oval Office, 1977.

That focus on human rights was timely: Shortly after Hollenbach finished his dissertation, Jimmy Carter was elected to the presidency and decided to make human rights a central tenet of American foreign policy. 

So, Hollenbach focused more squarely on human rights. “I was trying to decide what to do with my dissertation and I decided to take the center of it, which was all about Catholic social thought and human rights, and turn that into a book and apply it to U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis human rights,” recalls Hollenbach. This led to his first book, Claims in Conflict: Retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human Rights Tradition (1979).

Tanks line the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1968.
Tanks line the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1968.

A theory of human rights was very much needed as the 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of human rights abuses around the world. The situation in Latin America was perhaps the most critical, with the Dirty War in Argentina, a military dictatorship in Brazil, and the Pinochet regime in Chile. Those humanitarian concerns brought Hollenbach back to Georgetown, where he helped organize an interdisciplinary project on human rights in the Americas launched in 1977 by the Woodstock Theological Center, a later iteration of Woodstock College located at the university. The project brought together scholars, practitioners, and activists to explore the relationship between Christian thought and human rights, breaking early ground on the subject.

Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., (right) accepts an honorary degree at Loyola University Chicago. Photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago Archives.
Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., (right) accepts an honorary degree at Loyola University Chicago. Photo courtesy of Loyola University Chicago Archives.

One of the people Hollenbach met through the project was Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J. Ellacuría, a theologian who served as rector of the University of Central America in El Salvador, was among the six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her daughter who were murdered by military forces in 1989. “He was one of the contributors and wrote a major piece for the project,” recalls Hollenbach. “But then some years later he was assassinated by the death squads in El Salvador because he was influential and committed to change, and that touched me very, very deeply.”

"Jesus Comforts the Women of Jerusalem" by Rev. Engelbert Mveng, S.J.
"Jesus Comforts the Women of Jerusalem" by Rev. Engelbert Mveng, S.J.

Encounter with Ellacuría and other Jesuit thinkers who dedicated—and sacrificed—their lives for the pursuit of justice continues to impact Hollenbach and his scholarship. Take for instance the cover of Humanity in Crisis: a scene of Christ meeting the daughters of Jerusalem painted by Rev. Engelbert Mveng, S.J. A Jesuit anthropologist and artist from Cameroon, Mveng was assassinated in 1995 for his defense of poor people being oppressed by those with power. “I knew a couple of Jesuits who gave their lives for the promotion of human rights,” recalls Hollenbach. “So, my own human rights work is not just theoretical.”

That dedication to theory informed by practical concerns led Hollenbach to advise the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on a landmark pastoral letter on “Economic Justice for All,” published in 1986. Five bishops were charged with writing a document on economic issues in American society, a timely topic as the Reagan administration worked to cut social welfare programs. The University of Notre Dame organized a conference aimed to help the bishops’ committee. “The organizers at Notre Dame invited me to write a paper on Catholic social thought and unemployment for the benefit of the committee,” recalls Hollenbach.

Hollenbach (center) works on the pastoral letter with lay and clerical advisors. Photo by Judy Sloan/Gamma Liaison, originally published in the New York Times Magazine (August 12, 1984).
Hollenbach (center) works on the pastoral letter with lay and clerical advisors. Photo by Judy Sloan/Gamma Liaison, originally published in the New York Times Magazine (August 12, 1984).

​His paper was well received, so much so that Hollenbach was asked to join the consulting team responsible for helping draft the pastoral letter. The drafting consumed a previously planned sabbatical, but Hollenbach found the work engaging. And so did the general public. “When the first draft appeared in November 1984, it was the lead story on the front page of the New York Times,” remembers Hollenbach. 

The pastoral letter became a cause célèbre, and I was in the midst of it.

The pastoral letter spurred much public debate as the antithesis of Reagan-era fiscal policy. “There were all kinds of discussions that were going on around the country, in church groups and at universities,” says Hollenbach. “I was working at the Jesuit school of theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I was leaving town almost every week to go give a talk because there was so much interest in what the pastoral letter was really saying.”

That experience with public theology was formative for Hollenbach, who continues to engage pressing humanitarian issues through the study of social ethics. “The pastoral letter was an important influence in my life in terms of shaping my way of interacting between ethics, theology, the Church, and public policy,” says Hollenbach. If encounter with Jesuit and Catholic thinkers brought Hollenbach to work on timely social issues, then encounter of a rather different sort—outside of the academy and, indeed, outside of North America—led Hollenbach to devote much of the past 20 years to working on a different area: the global refugee crisis. 

​Forays into Forced Migration

The path leading Hollenbach to work on refugee issues was, in a word, unexpected. It started simply enough, when he was invited to teach at Hekima University College of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. The Jesuit scholar spent the 1996–1997 academic year teaching courses on social ethics and human rights, natural enough for a theologian whose CV included books such as Justice, Peace, and Human Rights: American Catholic Social Ethics in a Pluralistic World (1988) and Claims in Conflict: Retrieving and Renewing the Catholic Human Rights Tradition (1979). But it was not long before a formative encounter, yet again, led Hollenbach in a new direction.

While at Hekima College, Hollenbach met a fellow Jesuit who was to have an impact on his scholarship and advocacy work: Rev. John Guiney, S.J. Guiney was in charge of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) for East Africa, a region then home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world following the Rwandan genocide and with conflicts underway in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere in Africa. Guiney approached Hollenbach with a seemingly straightforward request to speak at a workshop on human rights and refugees for JRS staff. The problem: Although Hollenbach knew a lot about human rights, he was not very well versed in the issues surrounding forced migration. But Guiney convinced Hollenbach to give a series of talks for his staff.

Landscape view of the Kalobeyei Refugee Camp in Kenya.

A few days later, Guiney came back to Hollenbach with positive feedback on the session and another request: He was going to the Kakuma Refugee Camp to run a workshop for aid workers and wanted Hollenbach to come along.

The request took Hollenbach by surprise. Kakuma, then home to about 100,000 refugees, is on Kenya’s border with Sudan and Ethiopia and far from Hekima College, about a 14-hour drive. “I can’t do that,” Hollenbach remembers responding. “I'm teaching full time here at Hekima.” But Guiney would not take no for an answer, telling Hollenbach how much the Jesuit theologian was needed at Kakuma. “What do you mean you need me?” Hollenbach asked. “You don’t need me. You are going to do this without me.” Guiney insisted and even went to the college dean to ask for permission to travel outside Nairobi with Hollenbach. “The dean said ‘go,’ and so I went,” recalls Hollenbach. 

Hollenbach ended up spending 10 days at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, where physical conditions are imposing, to say the least. “The northwest of Kenya is not yet Sahara Desert, but it is still unbelievably hot—reaching about 110 degrees every day,” Hollenbach says. “You can really taste the blowing sand in your mouth.” But if the climate at Kakuma is harsh, the conditions for refugees are even harsher. “There were 100,000 refugees there, and some had been there for 15 years,” remembers Hollenbach. 

Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., on Jesuit Refugee Service

While at Kakuma, Hollenbach translated his human rights expertise into an education session for refugees, providing practical strategies for the difficult transition from host to home country. “I helped conduct a peacebuilding workshop run by JRS for refugees from southern Sudan who were hoping to return to their homes,” Hollenbach says. “The peacebuilding workshop was needed since many would return to land that had been taken by others, which could have been a cause of conflict.” 

Encounter with people living and working at Kakuma allowed Hollenbach to witness firsthand the suffering brought by forced migration, putting a human face on the refugee crisis. “I interacted with people there and realized that though they have cultures deeply different from ours, they are just as human as we are,” says Hollenbach. He recalls working at a safe haven for women in danger of sexual abuse, where he met a woman whose grace in the face of injustice still resonates with him. "I remember a Somali woman named Halima whose smile was like the sunrise—an amazing thing under the circumstances."

I remember a Somali woman named Halima whose smile was like the sunrise—an amazing thing under the circumstances.

Those 10 days of encounter with people like Halima were responsible for changing the trajectory of Hollenbach’s life and work. “It was a transformative experience, awakening me to the needs of displaced people,” says Hollenbach. “Ever since then, my work in human rights has moved in the direction of the rights of refugees.” The Jesuit ethicist has indeed devoted recent years of his scholarship to the refugee crisis. Since first visiting Kakuma, Hollenbach has edited two books on forced migration, Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy, and Africa (2008) and Driven from Home: Protecting the Rights of Forced Migrants (2010); written his most recent book, Humanity in Crisis; and published many articles on refugee issues in both popular and academic journals.

Hollenbach with scholar Seyla Benhabib at a CHRIJ event. Photo courtesy of Chris Soldt, Boston College.
Hollenbach with scholar Seyla Benhabib at a CHRIJ event. Photo courtesy of Chris Soldt, Boston College.

As Hollenbach turned his scholarship toward the refugee crisis, he also assumed leadership positions to promote interdisciplinary research in the field. Hollenbach was the founding director of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice (CHRIJ) at Boston College, where he held the University Chair in Human Rights and International Justice before coming to Georgetown. While at the center, Hollenbach collaborated with the three other founding faculty—who came from diverse fields including law, political science, and psychology—to develop research projects in human rights, international affairs, and global migration. The center sponsored a wide-reaching set of activities, touching many at Boston College and beyond. “We conducted a certificate program in human rights and international justice, did collaborative research, and conducted many events on campus that drew significant interest,” says Hollenbach.

But Hollenbach works on refugee issues not only within context of the academy. He also continues to encounter refugees through on-the-ground advocacy work with JRS and other Catholic organizations, the same type of activism that first drew him to focus on forced migration. Since visiting Kakuma in the late 1990s, Hollenbach has continued to work with JRS in countries including Uganda, Sudan, and Thailand, where he helped conduct a training exercise for staff members working with displaced people from Myanmar. 

In addition to working with refugees and aid workers, Hollenbach also conducts workshops on peacebuilding and reconciliation for Catholic Church leaders and politicians. By bringing his expertise in human rights and forced migration to high-level leaders, Hollenbach contributes to the promotion of international justice where it is needed the most—in places like South Sudan. “In Juba, South Sudan, I had the privilege of conducting a weeklong workshop for about 70 Catholic Church leaders from across the country right after South Sudan became independent,” says Hollenbach. “As a follow-up to this workshop about six months later, Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic archbishop of Juba arranged for me to give a series of lectures on human rights and peacebuilding in the new country to members of the South Sudan parliament.” 

That type of continued encounter with people on the ground—forced migrants, aid workers, religious and political leaders—shaped how Hollenbach frames religious and ethical responses to the refugee crisis in his most recent book, Humanity in Crisis.

​Responding to Refugees

Working with and for refugees around the world has shown Hollenbach how forced migration threatens the human dignity of those involved, putting the humanity we share in a state of crisis. That deep recognition of our shared humanity, the very ethos of encounter, runs through his scholarship and public theology on the forced migration crisis. By charting the ethical and religious foundations of our responsibility to fellow members of the human family, Hollenbach hopes to inspire much-needed action on the refugee crisis.

Hollenbach sees the formative place of migration in the American story as one source of our duty to aid forced migrants. “In the history of the United States, most of the people here now came as migrants or refugees,” he says. “To recognize that this is where we came from is a way of recognizing that we can relate to displaced people as similar to us, not simply as different.” Standing in solidarity with displaced people is vital, especially as recent years have seen the United States welcome fewer and fewer refugees. 

Rather than being a nation of immigrants, we are becoming a nation of deportation. That betrays who most of us are.

But the United States can exemplify once again that ethic of welcoming the displaced, according to Hollenbach. In Humanity in Crisis, the Jesuit theologian explores how various faith traditions—including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—can provide the ethical and religious grounding for action on the refugee crisis. “Each of the Abrahamic religions has a forced migration at its foundation, from the Exodus in Judaism and flight of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph into Egypt in Christianity, to Muhammad’s Hijra or migration from Mecca to Medina in Islam,” says Hollenbach. “Therefore, it is not an accident that all three of these great traditions have a strong sense of duty to refugees.”

Book Promo: Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees by David Hollenbach

That strong sense of duty translates into faith-based initiatives to welcome refugees into American society, the type of action Hollenbach hopes to inspire through his work. “If a parish wants to welcome a displaced family, they can contact one of the refugee resettlement agencies and work with them to find ways to help resettle a family in their community,” he says. “Getting to know a refugee family will help people see that they should not be afraid of refugees coming into our midst.” Meeting displaced people and learning about their stories can inspire members of faith communities to act on the forced migration crisis, much as Hollenbach was drawn into refugee issues over two decades ago. 

It is that transformative potential of encounter with displaced people and their suffering that gives Hollenbach hope for the future of the refugee crisis. “I am hopeful that if we can mobilize people—church groups, human rights groups, other organizations—and work together, we can make a real difference,” he says. Hollenbach continues to work toward widespread action on forced migration through his scholarship and activism at Georgetown, where he currently serves as Pedro Arrupe Distinguished Research Professor and a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. By applying the Jesuit commitment to justice through service, Hollenbach works for a humanity not in crisis but in solidarity.


UNHCR refugee tents

March 2, 2020

The Berkley Forum invited policymakers and humanitarian aid workers to reflect on sources of hope in humanitarian crisis to celebrate the launch of Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees by Senior Fellow Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J.

Refugees in a South Sudan displaced persons camps

December 11, 2019

In his new book, Humanity in Crisis: Ethical and Religious Response to Refugees, Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., examines the scope of our responsibilities and considers practical solutions to the global refugee crisis.

Panelists speak at the conference.

November 6, 2019

The Berkley Center and the Institute for the Study of International Migration hosted a daylong conference on “Current Challenges in Refugee Policy” on November 6, 2019.

David Hollenbach

October 15, 2016

Boston College conducted a conference on “Public Theology and the Global Common Good: The Contribution of David Hollenbach, S.J.,” featuring the work of Berkley Center Senior Fellow Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J.