Arts / Faith and Humanities / Campus Community / People of SU

Lifting up the Best of Catholicism

Written by Mike Thee

September 13, 2019

Jeanette Rodriguez

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

Jeanette Rodriguez begins as interim director of the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture.

Theology and Religious Studies Professor Jeanette Rodriguez has been named interim director of the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture (ICTC). In conjunction with the new role, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., approved Rodriguez’s appointment as the Malcolm and Mari Stamper Endowed Chair in Catholic Intellectual and Cultural Traditions. 

“There is no better person than Dr. Rodriguez to lead ICTC into its next chapter,” Provost Shane P. Martin wrote to the campus community in August. “Since joining our faculty in 1990, she has brought unparalleled intellectual rigor and passion to her teaching, scholarship and service.”  

A leading theologian, Rodriguez’s teaching and scholarship includes religion and culture, religion and social conflict, theologies of liberation, U.S. LatinX theology, feminist theology, cultural memory, Christology and theology of Inculturation. She has authored four books and dozens of other publications. 

Rodriguez has served as chair of Department of Theology and Religious Studies and has had a number of other appointments including, most recently, the Reverend Louis Gaffney Chair. Among other key national leadership positions, she served as president of the Academy of Hispanic Catholic Theologians, a national council member for the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi, an executive committee member of the European Network of Genocide Scholars and a member of the board of directors of the National Catholic Reporter.  

She was recipient of the James B. McGoldrick, S.J., Fellowship in 2013, the highest honor conferred on a Seattle University faculty member, as well as the Distinguished Teaching Award in 2010. She has received the U.S. Catholic Award (2000) and an honorary doctorate from St. Xavier University in Chicago (2010). 

Just days into her new role while still settling into her office at ICTC, Professor Rodriguez took some time to discuss her appointment and where she sees the institute today and in the years ahead.

The Commons: You’ve already got so many other things going on at the university and beyond—why did you agree to take on this role?  

Jeannette Rodriguez: Well, I am a Catholic theologian, first of all, and so I believe and wanted to be part of the vision behind the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, especially given the climate that we’re in right now—politically, socially, economically, religiously. 

I’m reminded of a story of St. Francis and how after the war (between Assisi and Perugia) he went to pray at the Church of San Damiano, which had been destroyed and he thought he heard God say, “Rebuild my church”— he heard it literally, rebuild stone by stone. But of course we know that given the century and the corruption at the Church at that time, rebuild my church really meant renovare, to renew it. 

I was happy to be offered the position because I want to be part of the goals of the institute, which is to ignite curiosity; to encourage faculty to explore and be in conversation with this 2,000 years of tradition that we have cherished and passed on. This treasure of knowledge, the arts, culture, science, etc. and rich reflection on the “lived experience”; to engage the community; and perhaps guide our actions and commitments today. 

We’re always in renewal, in the 2,000 years of our tradition, there’s always been reform, and today we need renewal and wisdom to engage the challenges of today as we critically interpret the “signs of the times.” Ultimately I want in collaboration with others to lift up the best of Catholicism, which is inclusive, curious and open. It’s about sharing a sacramental worldview that sees the world as good, that sees humanity as good, that sees the manifestation of God in all things— in love, forgiveness, struggle, birth, death and the beauty of creation. All those things are sacramental moments and it is good for us to remember. 

The Commons: Is it a challenge for you to reconcile your identity as a Catholic with the disagreements you might have at times with the institutional Church? Or to put it another way, what keeps you in the fold? 

Jeanette Rodriguez: Number one, I’m a Latina Catholic, so my experience of the Church is different. I grew up in a church of the poor and a church of the martyrs, and I’m also a post-Vatican II baby. So I grew up with an understanding of the Church and a vision of the Church that I believe in, which is the Church is the people of God—that men and women are equally called by virtue of their baptism to serve and to lead; that we are not meant to live alone or for ourselves alone; that God is bigger than any one institution and we are invited to seek the Truth where it manifests itself; that this earth that we walk upon is a gift and our responsibility to take care of. 

I’m very tied into my community. I think one of the challenges is that we live in a very individualistic, psychologized society where people mistake individuating for being alone and we think that our bodies are our own instead of part of a larger community. And this is what I think Catholicism has to offer—a worldview that does not have you be alone, but to be accompanied in this journey of life. 

That’s not to say there are not things that I struggle or wrestle with about the institutional Church or its policies, for this reason we have the prophetic tradition—to remind us what the original intent and desire of God is for us. I think Fr. Pat Howell said it beautifully when he wrote, “We are like the rest of society; a combination of strength and weakness, grace and sinfulness, energy and apathy.” (Great Risks Had to Be Taken: The Jesuit Response to the Second Vatican Council, 1958-2018, Howell, 2019, pg. 2) 

My identity sits on two pillars: my Catholicism and my Latinidad. My Catholicism is not something that was fed to me solely from the pulpit; it’s something that was fed to me through my grandmother, mother, father, my community, the priests, religious and lay people who accompanied us, as well as my own study and research. 

When Catholicism is at its best, there is a care for the other, an openness and respect for the diversity and dignity of the human person, an openness that seeks inclusivity, a love for knowledge and culture. My hope is that the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture will bring forth the best of Catholicism. 

The Commons: How do you see ICTC today and where would you like to see it in the future? 

Jeanette Rodriguez: We’re only seven years old, and I think we’ve done a really good job of bringing people into a conceptual space to dialogue about some important issues (of our day). Through the Catholic Heritage Lecture Series we’ve hosted people from the community as well as campus. We’ve taken a look at some really big issues like the environment through Laudato Si’, and immigration. We want to facilitate that kind of thinking, because, a Jesuit and Catholic university is at the service of the larger Church and society by being the thinking part of the Church. We want to use the gifts our faculty and staff as well as students have in terms of knowledge, skills and experience. I’m hoping people will join me in not just retrieving and transmitting, but contributing to, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. 

We want to support course development that engages the Catholic tradition and faculty in research that has them explore and be in conversation with the best of our Catholic tradition, because as you know, the Catholic tradition is not just about theology—it also has something to say to economics, to business, to nursing, to the professions, to teaching. It addresses everything that has to do with the human condition. And so I see my role as helping to connect the dots and to provide the resources needed for people to do that kind of research and teaching. I know that many staff people have also been engaged with the institute, which is great. 

The Commons: You were just appointed to this new role recently, and I know that the theme and schedule for the upcoming academic year was already set, but can you talk about what we can look forward to in the year ahead and perhaps beyond that?  

Jeanette Rodriguez: This coming academic year, the goal is to look at Catholicism in cultures. You can find all the information on our website at ICTC. 

Also, as you mentioned, I only started last week so this is not concretized, but one of the things that theologians do—and I’m a theologian—is look at the signs of the times, and right now we’re in a really difficult place and we are also in an election year. There is something the U.S. Council of Bishops put out many years ago called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Catholics believe in leading with the primacy of conscience, and I would like to initiate a reading group this year where we look at the documents from the bishops on faithful citizenship as people prepare to go to the voting booths—not to tell them how to vote but to critically examine and understand the issues as they prepare to vote and exercise democratic participation. 

Looking ahead to next year (2020-2021), we will focus on global Catholicism, and this is my own area of interest and expertise. I think sometimes we forget that Catholicism is global, we forget that it is the biggest nonprofit organization in the world. And the kind of issues that people are dealing with around the globe are about life and death, and I wonder sometimes what it would mean for us to be in conversation with global Catholicism.  

Related coverage: Professor Rodriguez was part of an international roundtable on nonviolence to inform a possible future papal encyclical on the subject.

The Commons: What do you see as ICTC’s role and relationship with the local archdiocese and Catholic community?  

Jeanette Rodriguez: One area is to provide them with the resources and skills needed to do their pastoral work or for formation. We want to be of service, of course, to the Archdiocese and the Archbishop, but we’re not a church or a parish; we’re a university. We want to provide those skills but we’re not here to catechize. Personally, I like being able to provide an ambience where you have people at the university engaging in conversation with people in the local community and in the Church—in the parishes. So whatever we can do to be more inclusive, and like I said, provide those spaces for conversation is a primary goal in order to make available the rich resources that the university and the tradition has. 

The Commons: Can you talk about how the presence and expression of Catholicism here in this region differs from other parts of the country? 

Jeanette Rodriguez: I do think there’s a difference in how Catholicism is manifested here compared to, say, the east coast, which is where I’m from. Content, as well as context, is important and the context here in the Northwest is that it’s known as the most unchurched region in the country. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t spiritual or that people are not seeking meaning or awe or wonder or something beyond themselves to believe in. Really, the question is, how big is your God? Where do we encounter the sacred? 

The Commons: More specifically, how would you describe Catholicism here at SU? 

Jeanette Rodriguez: The Catholic community here at SU is a seed. It’s small, but I think whether they’re practicing Catholics or Catholic is in their DNA, being Catholic is having a particular worldview—how we understand ourselves and humanity—and I think that’s there even though we may not use God language or Catholic language. 

I think people here have an easier time embracing the Jesuit identity than the Catholic identity, and I think that has to do with people reducing Catholicism to just the institutional Church, and there’s a lot to critique. We are in a very difficult time. But being Catholic is so much more than that, and I think the university does a good job trying to lift up all the best of Catholicism by being a witness—not necessarily preaching or converting—and by being inclusive, by being open. 

My experience with students is that many report that the university does offer many opportunities for service and justice through the classroom experience, and community engagement. Each college offers fabulous opportunities for students to put their skills and passion at the service of the most vulnerable. So while they may not agree with the institutional Church on a number of issues they will follow a church that accompanies the poor and those in a struggle for human dignity and justice.