On Feb. 15, Fairfield University hosted the Rev. Matthew Carnes, S.J. for the annual Bellarmine Lecture, which centered on the global challenges faced by the current generation of students, and how Jesuit universities can serve as a beacon of hope to society. 

Carnes, who served as the director of the Georgetown University Center for Latin American Studies from 2016 to 2022, is currently taking a sabbatical and flew directly from Oxford, England with the sole purpose of talking to students and faculty of Fairfield University. During his visit, he was housed on campus at the Jesuit Community Residence. 

In his hour-long presentation, titled “Forging Hope, Reforging Democracy: A Contribution of Jesuit Universities to the Future,” Fr. Carnes emphasized the “transformative moment” in which Generation Z lives. In making this statement, he shared multiple graphs from Freedom House that illustrated how this generation of college students has only experienced a world in which everything, from the number of democracies to air pollution and global temperatures, is only worsening.

“Now notice the timeline, 2005 is the inflection point … so this is actually your whole lifetime. We have seen a decline in the quality of democracy. That makes your generation a bit different from older generations, like my generation,” Fr. Carnes said. “It means that your experience of the world in which democracies and civil liberties have been in decline has been part of your reality for the entire time you have been alive.”

The associate professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University dove deeper into this topic. He explained to the students present in the room and those on Zoom how, since 2005, the number of people living in free democracies has declined and now, 80% of the world lives in partly free or not free countries. And he emphasized that this trend is also visible in what were once “democratic strongholds” around the world. 

According to Fr. Carnes, those challenges to democracy occur through systemic efforts to undermine the government, which have been seen playing out in countries like Turkey, Hungary and Brazil. This is executed by questioning the electoral process, influencing the judicial branch of the state, and using migrants as scapegoats or enemies of the state. 

In response to these threats to democracy and the overall unhappiness of people, Father Carnes argues that Catholics, more specifically Jesuits, should come out with their innovative ideas and contribute to building a better society. 

“This world that we live in is incredibly complex in terms of the environment, in terms of the government, in terms of economic opportunities, in terms of happiness. What does this Jesuit educational tradition say on how to respond?” mentioned Fr. Carnes before introducing the strategy that the Jesuits have established to respond to these challenges. 

Basing his responses on a presentation that the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., gave to a group of Jesuit colleges and universities in Boston College, Fr. Carnes highlighted the need for governments to use Catholic ideas like the common good and reconciliation to respond to the current challenges.

“First of all, as universities, in a moment where there could be so much cynicism and so many questions on the very idea of objective facts, objective truths, we have a responsibility to educate people in the laws, data, data gathering … and ultimately allow us to look for something we might call truth” he added. 

Fr. Carnes also talked about how the idea of “reconciliation” is a unique tool that Jesuits and Jesuit universities have and that other entities should use in their efforts to relate with other community members. 

“Our stance is an openness to reconciliation,” he said. “This makes us different from the sort of adversarial way that, again, in democracies or business, we can relate to one another.”

He also described how being part of a group that was looking into Georgetown University’s historical involvement in African American slavery allowed him to understand the power of reconciliation in practice and how it serves as a mechanism to pursue amendments and rebuild relationships with the community.

Before closing the lecture, he listed three Jesuit contributions aligned with the topic of “forging hope, reforging democracy.”

First, he established that Jesuits believe in the idea of “discernment with presupposition,” which involves relating and listening to the other person with good faith and togetherness, not creating doubt and confusion by questioning. And in case an issue cannot be resolved by having a good interpretation, we should ask more questions until it is resolved. 

“This presupposition changes our relationship in democracy because it means that we come together with more trust in one another, trust that even though we come from different backgrounds, we can together listen to each other and we can hopefully strive for some kind of common good,” Fr. Carnes said while connecting the idea of “presupposition” to democracies. 

Secondly, he talked about how Jesuits have been moving beyond multiculturality to give space for interculturality, which emphasizes developing a critical awareness of one’s own culture, its gifts and limitations to then go out to meet other cultures and have an exchange between each other. 

Lastly, he called attention to the fact that the Jesuits bring attention to the generational gap that exists in the world, and to solve this, he mentioned that universities are the best place to have multigenerational exchanges of ideas as they are a place that intentionally brings generations together in one single place.

He closed the 2023 Bellarmine Lecture by stating that the Jesuit spirituality is one that believes in a “hope-filled future” that serves as a counter-position to cynicism and fear, as well as in the value of “holy boldness,” which Fr. Carnes described as the audacity to believe in a better world. 

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