Jason Byassee: It is possible to institutionalize goodness

Recent initiatives at DePaul University and Western Theological Seminary show how.

How do you institutionalize goodness?

The question itself may confound. “Institution” suggests all the personal warmth of the customer service line at the cell phone company. Brilliant books such as Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” herald the end of institutions now that people can organize themselves using social networking platforms. By most definitions, once you’ve institutionalized anything, you’ve ruined it.

You knew I was going to argue against this didn’t you?

I was recently at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., a seminary of the Reformed Church in America. It’s a mildly evangelical, mildly mainline denomination, strong in the Mid-Atlantic states and the Midwest (“We do have one church in North Carolina,” one host told me). Western has exciting young theologians on its faculty, dynamic executive leadership and the support of a denomination that combines the best of evangelicalism (a fervency of spirit) and the mainline (willingness to think critically). At times, the RCA can also have the worst of those two traditions, I’m told. But with the RCA’s scrappy and other-directed leadership, I’m betting on the better self to win out.

Why? Because they’re not allergic to institutions (the Dutch Reformed tend not to be), and they believe in the gospel, and they know you can’t have one without the other.

Western’s “Friendship House” offers a prime example. Opened in August 2007, Friendship House gives students an optional form of housing that is more than a place to put their families and their stuff. Instead, Friendship House is a laboratory of goodness, a six-apartment residence hall where disabled people and able-bodied people live together in community -- 18 seminarians and six young adults with cognitive impairments. It’s not quite the same as a L’Arche house, Jean Vanier’s remarkable communities that began in France and spread throughout the world as quasi-monastic intentional Christian communities. Like Western’s other student housing, Friendship House is for students whose primary work is the academic goings-on at the seminary and ecclesial work in their various posts. Yet the Friendship House is a way that the seminary has been able to guarantee that future RCA pastors have lived in community and friendship with disabled people. It’s goodness institutionalized. Who knows what other marginalized people these future pastors will be drawn to in their future ministries?

I bumped into another example recently as well at DePaul University in Chicago. It’s a Catholic school, of course, founded by Vincentian fathers in concert with their call to engage the church with the poor. But over the years, DePaul’s interest in its specifically Catholic mission drifted, many observers thought. At DePaul, Catholic social justice had become generalized, non-specific do-gooding. For many in the church and the academy, DePaul picked up a reputation as a Catholic school that hadn’t just fallen out of love with its church. They barely even liked each other.

Then two things happened. One, DePaul grew . . . a lot, and fast. (It’s now the largest Catholic university and the eighth-largest private, not-for-profit university in the United States). The finance people realized they could expand beyond their original mission to provide education and professional training for first-generation immigrants and evolve into a four-year, residential liberal arts institution (before it didn’t even have dorms). And in 2004 it picked up a president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., who didn’t want to shuck all-things-Catholic. In fact, he wanted to make room for more Catholic scholarship, and encouraged the creation of a new Department of Catholic Studies as part of that. Michael Budde, a member of the new department, told me that strengthening the university’s engagement with Catholic intellectual traditions has been written into the university’s strategic plan. Last year, the university also launched a Center for World Catholicism, luring Peter Casarella from Catholic University to run it. And they’ve more recently pulled off a major hiring coup, luring Bill Cavanaugh from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

Just one more academic center, right? Some kids will learn more -- or even change their lives -- thanks to more options in religion classes, but most won’t. Perhaps. But what I liked about the school’s growth in Catholic intellectual engagement it is its (semi) permanence. Growth in Catholic Studies is in the school’s strategic plan. It isn’t the fruit of a one-time donation or something that can be easily reversed by a new administration. Nothing is ever permanent in academia (or in life). But this young strappling has deep roots, and the good of the church generally should be its fruit.

The goodness of a Friendship House, where a group of seminarians students live with and learn from people with disabilities. An interdisciplinary department whose existence is not up to the whims of one person. This is good institutionalized – in two directions. It can’t be avoided at Western, and it can’t be ripped up at DePaul.

That kind of aspiration to “lastingness” is something only institutions can provide.