New Jesuit institute to focus on social issues

By Peter Finney, Jr.

Used with permission from the December 8, 2007 Clarion Herald

       Because social issues such as poverty, racism and migration are so divisive, debates concerning the best ways to advance the common good often deteriorate into talk radio sound bites that are nothing more than verbal hand grenades.  It's almost as if the last person lobbing a loaded phrase or launching an ad hominem attack wins. 

       That's why it's so refreshing to see Loyola University and the New Orleans Province of the Society of Jesus collaborate on a fresh approach to discussing poverty, racism and migration, issues that have been radioactive in the South.  In essence, the newly minted Jesuit Social Research Institute, whose staff includes three Jesuit priests, will try to address those issues by listening, gathering facts and advocating for public policies based on its research and the proud but often overlooked tradition of Catholic social teaching.  "One of the things we want to do is grassroots-based research," said Jesuit Father Ted Arroyo, executive director of the new institute and former provincial of the New Orleans province. "We want to work out of people's experiences." 

     Migration has become a hot-button issue across the country, and even more so in south Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina, when thousands of illegal immigrants poured into the region to do the grunt work of gutting and restoring homes. Congressional attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform died twice in the U.S. Senate during the summer, leaving the issue muddled.  Father Arroyo and his two Jesuit colleagues, Fathers Tom Greene and Michael Bouzigard, spent a week attending an international migration conference in Mexico. One of the presentations discussed the link between Mexico's lack of development and increasing migration to the U.S. "One of the fellows said, `Mexico is addicted to the remesas (the money that is being sent back to Mexican families by the  workers), and the U.S. is addicted to Mexican labor,'" Father Arroyo said.  Then the priests were taken to a small village, almost eerie in its population mix.  "It was all old women and young children and very few males," Father Arroyo said.  "This was a `sending' village. These people are completely dependent on the money that is sent back, and there is no development, not even agriculture. Sitting  among these cactus bushes, there's a message." 

      Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, New Orleans provincial and former president of Catholic Charities USA, said he hopes the institute will help Catholics rediscover the social teaching of the church.  "The immigrant worker was one of the privileged groups for whom the Jewish community in the  Scriptures had a duty of justice to accept and welcome," Father Kammer said. "The bishops have made it clear that while the country has a right to regulate its borders, it  also has a duty to welcome the immigrant. The church's human rights tradition says that people have the right to migrate out of their own countries in order to make a living." 

       Loyola students may help the institute with its research, and there may be a chance for them to help in projects that help New Orleans' recovery.  "This city is a  laboratory,"  said Father Kevin Wildes, Loyola's president. "Every social system in this city is broken and needs to be rebuilt. This is a tragedy, in one sense, but on the other hand, it's a great opportunity. If we screw this up, shame on us." 

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org