by Gordon Nary
Gordon: What initially interested you in teaching?
Fr. Alejandro: I grew up in Mexico during the Luis Echeverría Administration (1970-1976) that, despite being a right-wing authoritarian regime, adopted a leftist-populist rhetoric, especially in education through its free primary (grammar) school textbooks made obligatory in all schools, public and private. The most tendentious textbook was the social sciences one that included only "official" history that excluded the great contribution of the Church -spiritually, academically, socially and culturally- to Mexico. I attended a private Catholic primary school, officially run by a board of (Catholic) parents where the Daughters of the Holy Spirit taught unofficially. The sisters complemented our official education secretly, not only with religious education and prayer, which were prohibited by the government outside parish settings; but with historical facts and a Catholic-contextualized point of view excluded from the official textbooks. The sisters were truly heroic in doing so during a period when government inspectors would periodically visit the school to ensure that government policy was being implemented. Through this experience I grew-up seeing the Church as "Mater et Magistra" -Mother and Teacher- of "Veritas" -Truth-, and I wanted to be part of that. Many, many years later I joined the Order of Friars Preachers -the Dominicans-, the first intellectual Order in the history of the Church whose motto is "Veritas." I have been truly blessed in being called by the Masters of the Order to teach at a Dominican University that not only serves the Order but the Universal Church; and fosters the formation of new leaders committed to promoting human development and proclaiming the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Gordon: What are your responsibilities as Dean of the Faculty at Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas - Angelicum and what courses do you teach
Fr. Alejandro: The primary duty of the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences is to sustain and advanced the great Dominican tradition of social ethics. This means to cultivate an authentic Catholic and Dominican (Thomistic) response -that makes a constant reference to "veritas": the indelible mark of the Dominican perspective– to today’s social, political, cultural, and economic issues. It is a strong option for a theological and philosophical realism that, at the social level, manifests itself as the ability to lead social change towards the civilization of love, as Christian social thought demands, against the contemporary cultural and intellectual tendencies towards the extremes of relativism and fundamentalism.
Currently, I contribute to the Faculty's mission through my courses in Catholic Social Teaching, Ethics, Political Ethics, Politics & Spirituality, and Cinema & Ethics,
Gordon: Where did you earn your doctorate and what were some of the most interesting courses that you took?
Fr. Alejandro: I became interested in the Church's social teaching through several courses by Fr. William O'Neill, S.J., now professor emeritus of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. Fr. O'Neill taught social teaching to all of us as part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, to which our Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology belongs. Due to different life circumstances and opportunities, I studied at and earned my doctorate from MarquetteUniversity in Milwaukee, WI, under the direction of Fr. Thomas Hughson, S.J. and Prof. William J. Thorn. Marquette's Faculty of Theology offers interdisciplinary specializations (Ph.D. in Theology and Society) where students complete graduate coursework in theology and another allied research discipline. In my case I chose political ethics (the importance of participatory democracy for the common good) under Fr. Hughson, and social media (how some films promote or undermine this important principle) under Prof. Thorn.
For me the most interesting courses were, because they were new to me, those under "The film and media studies major" that examines film and the media’s relationship with, and role in, democratic society. Therefore the Media, Technology and Culture; Media and the "Other"; History of American Film; World Cinema; Cultural Identity, Media and Religion; Media and Politics; Film and TV Aesthetics; and Film Studies courses.
Gordon: You are a member of Society of Christian Ethics, The Catholic Theological Society of America, the American Academy of Religion, The Society for the Study of Christian Ethics (U.K.), and Societas Ethica. Please provide an overview of the mission and primary activities of each organization
Fr. Alejandro: The purpose of the Society of Christian Ethics, which is the society I most participate in, is to promote scholarly work in Christian ethics and in the relation of Christian ethics to other traditions of ethics, and to social, economic, political and cultural problems; to encourage and improve the teaching of these fields in colleges, universities and theological schools; and to provide a community of discourse and debate for those engaged professionally within these general fields. An interesting fact is that I'm one of a handful of its members who comes from a social ethics background, the main focus of the society, as opposed to the majority who come from the fields of systematic theology or biblical studies.
The American Academy of Religion is the largest scholarly society dedicated to the academic study of religion, with more than 8,000 members around the world. The AAR's mission is to foster excellence in the academic study of religion and enhance the public understanding of religion. I'm mostly engage in their studies of American popular culture and religion.
The Catholic Theological Society of America is the principal association of Catholic theologians in North America. With a membership of more than 1300, the CTSA is the largest professional society of theologians in the world. The purpose of the CTSA is to promote theological research in the Roman Catholic tradition that is attentive to contemporary problems faced by the Church and the world.
The Society for the Study of Christian Ethics is the principal academic society in the U.K. for scholars and practitioners whose work relates to theological ethics and the fields of ethics, politics, religion, philosophy, theology and public life. It is a great network for English speaking academics in Europe.
The European Society for Research in Ethics, "Societas Ethica", sees itself as a platform for the exchange of scholarly work, ideas and experiences stemming from different philosophical and theological traditions. It endeavors to stimulate contacts between scholars in different countries, surpassing political, ideological and religious curtains. Both research in the analytical tradition and research in the traditions of continental philosophy have its esteemed place within the society. It is a bilingual organization with English and German as their official languages for conferences and publications.
Gordon: What are some of the primary challenges of religious education at Catholic universities?
Fr. Alejandro: First of all, we must make a distinction between Pontifical or Ecclesiastical universities and faculties and Catholic universities and faculties. My fifteen-year experience has been within a Pontifical University; although my first assignment after ordination was teaching for two years at the University of San Diego, CA, a Catholic University, where I also ministered as a campus chaplain.
According to the Apostolic Constitution "Veritatis Gaudium" (2018) that governs ecclesiastical universities and faculties, pontifical universities and faculties are to be particularly concerned "with Christian revelation and questions connected therewith and which are therefore more closely connected with her mission of evangelization”, as well as with other disciplines which, 'although lacking a special link with Christian revelation, can still help considerably in the work of evangelizing'" (n. 1). In my personal opinion, I think there is a temptation at pontifical institutions to focus on "Christian revelation and questions connected therewith" and neglect "her mission of evangelization"; to focus on the "depositum fidei" -the deposit of faith- and neglect or focus less on the "dialogue with, and discernment of, the signs of the times and diverse cultural expressions" (VG 1). This is a challenge we are especially trying to overcome at the Angelicum through the Faculty of Social Sciences.
I believe, at least from my experience at the University of San Diego, that Catholic universities and faculties have the opposite challenge. According to the Apostolic Constitution "Ex Code Ecclesiae" (1990) that governs Catholic universities and faculties, it's "[a] Catholic University's privileged task [...] 'to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth'" (EE 1). In my humble opinion, as Angelicum alumnus St. John Paul II expressed in said Constitution, Catholic universities excel at "the ardent search for truth and its unselfish transmission to youth and to all those learning to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better" (EE 1). But I would argue that they are faced with the challenge of uniting this rigorous and critical search for truth with "the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth'"; uniting "ratio et fides" -reason and faith. Many Catholic Universities struggle with connecting the depositum fidei as handed down by the Magisterium with their rigorous and critical search for truth; educating well prepared professionals for the work force and truly forming Christian change agents towards the civilization of love.
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.