Faith-based universities can stay relevant by focusing on justice for all

If we shift our gaze to how people of all — and no — faiths live out the university’s mission, then new and exciting constellations begin to emerge.

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10-28-02 LOGO......DePaul University Logo prominent on campus buildings.....( On Belden Properties building at Kenmore and Belden)......Rich Hein/Sun-Times

With its 23,000+ students, DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the country. And yet its founding religious order is dwindling; it recently welcomed its second lay president (a practicing Episcopalian); and less than 40% of DePaul students identify as Catholic.

Sun-Times files

Although the U.S. continues to be a place of tremendous religious diversity, the number of religious “nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation in particular — is rising precipitously.

In 2020, the religiously unaffiliated made up 30% of all U.S. citizens, Pew Research Center data show, and that number is likely to increase.

This phenomenon has far-reaching implications for faith-based institutions, particularly religiously affiliated colleges and universities, which are woven into the fabric of our nation’s cities and towns.

Especially Chicago.

Opinion bug


With its 23,000+ students, DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the country. And yet its founding religious order is dwindling; it recently welcomed its second lay president (a practicing Episcopalian); and less than 40% of DePaul students identify as Catholic. 

As the university prepares for its 125th anniversary in January, do these factors portend a decline in DePaul’s Catholic identity?

If the litmus test is formal religious affiliation, it’s hard to argue otherwise. However, if we shift our gaze to how people of all (and no) faiths actively live out our university’s mission, then new and exciting constellations emerge.

As a religious studies professor at DePaul for over 15 years, I believe our scrappy, mission-centered university is helping to lead the way in demonstrating how faith-based universities can continue to be highly relevant in our ever-changing, pluralistic world.

The starting point for our approach is Vincent de Paul himself, a champion of “doing” justice and serving the poor. As a young man, Vincent (1581-1660) was a social climber. But encounters with rural French peasants shook him to the core, and he steadily redirected his life to serve the most marginalized.

At DePaul, Vincent’s spirit lives on. One of my favorite symbols is a prominently located 9-foot bronze statue of the late Monsignor John J. Egan, a life-long civil rights activist. Egan was not a Vincentian, but his words on the statue’s inscription echo Vincent beautifully: “What are you doing for justice?”

Vincentian education is often described as a “go-then” philosophy. Students first go into communities to serve others, then come back to reflect on these experiences in a structured and intentional way. The “go” is captured in the motto, “Here, we do,” which appears on our billboards throughout Chicago.

But the reflection part is also important. Vincent believed in going and reflecting. When these things are done right, new habits of action are cultivated and, crucially, we become qualitatively different human beings. A more representative and robust catch-phrase for DePaul might be: “Here, we do, we reflect, and we become.”

These three verbs invite new ways of thinking about faith and spirituality.

Do, reflect, become

To be sure, this emphasis on faith-in-action, or spiritual activism, is not unique to Vincentianism. It is the hallmark of any prophetic tradition, Christian or otherwise. And one doesn’t have to be religious in any formal sense to be a spiritual activist. Rather, this kind of spirituality is available to all, so long as the work is done with intention and a steady eye to justice.

At DePaul, a faculty-led pilot program is under way to connect our mission to classroom pedagogy. While our gatherings focus primarily on pedagogy, I suspect that for many faculty, these workshops will also help give clarity to a sense of vocational and/or spiritual purpose.

Conversations like these allow shared values to bubble up organically. But they take time, resources, and careful planning, and much work still needs to be done. Yet, the hope moving forward is that these opportunities would eventually be available to all members of our community, so that they can undertake their own process of doing, reflecting and becoming in ways that are authentic to their own experience and sense of calling.

When we begin to see faith and spirituality in these big-tent terms, extraordinary things begin to happen.

For example: An Episcopalian president now celebrates and upholds DePaul’s Catholic and Vincentian identity. A Vincentian priest (and a vice president of the university) honored this historic moment by insisting that inauguration events include an interfaith blessing, with wisdom teachings from Buddhist, Indigenous, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and secular traditions. Faculty and students of all, and no, religious stripes continue to find inspiration in the Vincentian call to recognize the inherent dignity of every member of our community — including immigrants, racial minorities and gender non-binary individuals. 

At this major turning point in DePaul’s — and the nation’s — history, we have good reason to face the future with hope, provided we nourish socially-engaged approaches to spirituality that are radically hospitable to all.

Christopher D. Tirres is Vincent de Paul professor of religious studies and the inaugural endowed professor of Diplomacy and Interreligious Engagement at DePaul University. He is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. 

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