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   Volume III, Issue 4
April 2007   

Dr. Suzanne Toton and "Justice Education": Addressing the origins of social problems or treating the symptoms?

In the face of global and local poverty and social injustice, how should Roman Catholic colleges and universities position themselves? Is educating about injustice and promoting charity and service enough? Based on her own experience and drawing on the experience of the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador, Dr. Suzanne C. Toton addresses these questions in her new book, Justice Education: From Service to Solidarity (Marquette UP, 2006), the subject of her recent Scholarship@Villanova talk in Falvey on February 21.

Toton states that both individuals and Catholic institutions are called by the Gospels to adopt a preferential option for the poor. She argues that this is, by and large, poorly integrated into Catholic higher educational institutions, including our own.

Toton, a faculty member in the theology & religious studies department and the Center for Peace & Justice Education, has taught service learning courses at Villanova University. For a dozen years she was an active member of Philadelphia Interfaith Action (PIA), a powerful community organization that addressed blight, crime, job creation and the lack of affordable housing in Philadelphia.

She experienced a moment of revelation when she attended a PIA-hosted meeting with representatives from the federal, state and city governments, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and others, aimed at pressing the federal government to declare the “sinking homes” section of the city’s Logan neighborhood, a Superfund site. Toton was struck by the fact that while she and hundreds of Villanova students had tutored in the schools of this very neighborhood, Villanova University’s presence was missing at the table. For Toton, the University missed an opportunity to witness the power of the poor organizing themselves for justice and, more importantly, to stand in solidarity with them.

She continues to be inspired by the insights of Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino, especially his work The Principle of Mercy, where he notes that the liberation of the oppressed is the fundamental task of humanity. Sobrino insists that the Gospel calls Christians to live their lives toward creating a social order structured by the principle of mercy. Sobrino challenges Christians to ask the following: Where is Christ crucified today? What have we done to put the crucified people on the Cross? What do we do to keep them there? And what should we do to get them off?

Toton pointed to institutions that, having taken the principle of mercy to heart, were radically transformed by it. One important example, the University of Central America in San Salvador, where Jon Sobrino taught, went through a significant change. That university was similar to Villanova, being about the same size and drawing students predominantly from wealthier families. But as El Salvador fell into civil war and government-led terror campaigns, the UCA became a powerful force for justice and peace.

While the UCA educated for competence and compassion, it did not see individual change and social change as necessarily mutually exclusive. Its leadership argued, however, that it mattered where the university placed its focus. The UCA chose to focus on changing the social order, arguing that competent and compassionate graduates would be ineffective operating in a fundamentally unjust social order. Even the university's research was driven by a preferential option for the poor. The university became a powerful voice with and for the poor and one of the strongest forces for justice in El Salvador. Tragically, in November 1989, soldiers acting under orders from the highest levels of the Salvadoran military assassinated six Jesuits and two laywomen there, including the university president and vice-president.

Toton would like to see U.S. Catholic colleges and universities, including Villanova, come closer to the model of the University of Central America and institutionally adopt a preferential option for the poor. She points to a consensus among a number of prominent sociologists who, addressing the issue of charity, question whether there is a direct correlation between a growth in charitable service and philanthropy and a decline in justice in society.

In embracing service as the "response" to poverty, are Catholic colleges and universities buying into the notion of managing poverty, rather than preventing it, namely replacing rights with gifts?

Audience questions following her book talk naturally focused on what actions this University should take. According to Toton, at the outset, institutionally Villanova could make a preferential option for the poor, and, like the University of Central America, commit itself through its teaching, research and action to the struggle in order to create a more just social order.

Toton said, “To pull us out of ourselves and help us better understand how we as a university might specifically contribute to this effort, like the UCA, we too should look for opportunities to build relationships not only with the poor, but with those who are organized and already engaged in the struggle for justice.”

Toton ended her talk with a quote from theologian Ronald Marstin: "Companionship with the poor is not a rampart we are called to storm; it is a grace to which we are invited to open ourselves."

Contributed by David Burke; photograph by Natalie Tomasco