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Opinion: Serving God and Money?

On May 27th, the Wall Street Journal reported that Boston College is among the top universities in the country, tenth to be exact, in terms of graduates who are placed in the asset management field. If my Facebook feed is any indication, this news was generally well-received by the BC community. Such impressive alumni placement, which becomes even more impressive when scaled for school size, is surely another sign of BC’s increasingly prominent place within the ranks of our nation’s elite universities. Coupled with the oft-cited fact that Businessweek ranks CSOM 4th in the nation among undergraduate business schools, it would seem that Boston College has much to be proud of.

Billy Foshay/Gavel Media

It’s no secret why BC promotes these successes: it bolsters our brand, making BC a more prestigious option for prospective students. Further, it makes graduates prouder of their alma mater and therefore more likely to donate, etc. Having a good business school and placing alumni in cushy financial jobs has a clear upside for BC as an institution, but I would suggest that it is directly at odds with BC’s mission as a Jesuit establishment and should be deeply concerning to anyone who wants BC to retain its Catholic identity.

To say that social justice is a Catholic value is not to endorse a certain set of policies or to align the Church with a particular political party. Rather, it is to suggest that the Church should be, at its core, women and men for others. Being for others should not be incidental to the religious person, but on the contrary must be the overarching value by which one lives. It isn’t just a question of being a good person (whatever that means), but of living your life in such a way that you are a blessing to your sisters and brothers of the world. Being for others isn’t a feeling, but a practice.

Within the Catholic tradition, this practice is guided by the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’s manner of “living for others” is the paradigmatic example for the practice of Christian discipleship. Jesus’s people were the dispossessed, those rejected by society for their perceived sins. Jesus didn’t just live in solidarity with the poor, but was poor himself. A peasant from a remote corner of Galilee (see John 1:46), his prophetic revolt against the oppressors of his day would have been scandalous. Indeed, so scandalized were the political elite that Jesus was executed by the state in the most humiliating manner possible: crucifixion between two other condemned criminals. Jesus was murdered for his subversive manner of being-for-others: that, to me, is an indication of the centrality of social justice within Christianity. The practice of Christian discipleship requires one to be with the poor and oppressed, and therefore totally against the rich and oppressive, just as Jesus was and is.

The American financial system is diametrically opposed to these values. It exists primarily to enable the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor, thus perpetuating the injustices of the present society. To take one example, in the sub-prime crisis, multibillion-dollar corporations used complex financial instruments to extort wealth from the poor, all the while making money on the failure of the loans and (thus far) escaping prosecution for a clearly unjust scheme. The sub-prime crisis is just one manifestation of the cultural apotheosis of profit that characterizes America today. As Pope Francis put it, “we have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.” In the first century, Jesus was a dispossessed Palestinian Jew crucified by the state. As a Catholic institution, we must ask ourselves: if Jesus were alive today, would he be a managing director at Goldman Sachs, or one of the millions suffering because of the banks’ reckless, greedy speculation?

I’m not suggesting that all BC students should strive to imitate Jesus, or be Catholic, or anything like that. Rather, I’m making an argument about what BC’s institutional priorities ought to be. As a Catholic institution, BC needs to do more than just pay lip-service to forming women and men for others. If our Catholic identity means anything, it means that BC refuses to accept the standard of success that the world creates. It means BC holds itself to a different standard, that of the imitation of Jesus. Just as in the first century, there are occupying Romans and occupied Jews in society today. The Church is constituted by its commitment to be in solidarity with the suffering people of the world, a solidarity that is fundamentally inconsistent with the idolatry of money promoted by the financial system. Jesus’s life tells us that, though oppression in society is not yet overcome, God suffers with the poor. In the Christian tradition, the story of Jesus’s life, execution, and resurrection are preached as good news. In an almost-unthinkable paradox, the Church is called to relate the story of the humiliated, rejected, and crucified Messiah as good news. If the WSJ article and the Businessweek ranking are good news for BC, it could only be relative to an un-Catholic standard of success, which is decisively bad news for the Jesuit identity of the institution.

There are some in the BC community who are understandably anxious about the ability of the institution to retain its Catholic character in an increasingly secular world. I would suggest that the true threat to BC’s Catholic identity does not come from students not attending Mass, or forgetting the catechism, or even giving up on belief in God. The idolatry of money is a bigger threat to BC’s Catholic values than condoms or atheism ever could be, because it threatens to obscure the scandalous practice of being-for-others exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was executed for this practice; can a Catholic institution, or any Christian believer, forget his prophetic witness in good conscience? With this central teaching discarded, BC’s “Catholicism” will devolve into the dominant socio-political values of society expressed in different terms, and we will cease to be differentiable from any secular university. Maybe that will be helpful for BC’s brand; maybe it will increase our endowment. But those gains are worthless if they are bought for the price of BC’s Jesuit Catholic identity.