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Jesuit Rector Takes Philosophical, Religious Views of War in Class


Rev. John Langan, S.J., rector of Georgetown's Jesuit community, professor of philosophy and the Cardinal Bernardin Chair in Catholic Social Thought, studies the foundations of ethics and connects theoretical constructs with the application of ethics in challenging real life problems.

October 22, 2007 – "When is a conflict a "just war?" It's a question the Rev. John Langan, S.J., explores with his students as they analyze whether and how wars are ethically justified.

This subject is complex enough for a seasoned academic such as Langan, who just celebrated his 50th year in the Society of Jesus. But as it turns out, hints about his future scholarship lay in an essay Langan composed as a teenager.

Several years ago, he discovered a paper that he had written in high school that applied a just war analysis to the Suez War of 1954.

"It was a bit spooky," he says, "but I pretty much would stand by everything I'd written."

Langan, rector of Georgetown's Jesuit community, professor of philosophy and the Cardinal Bernardin Chair in Catholic Social Thought, has built a career of establishing connections. He studies the foundations of ethics and connects theoretical constructs with the application of ethics in challenging real life problems. The subject captures his interest because of the way ethics may be used to work out conflict situations.

His course, "Just Wars in Theory and Practice," centers on one of those contentious issues. Though the Bible encourages peace, Catholic doctrine says there are legitimate uses of force.

"The central claims of [just war theory] are that war is sometimes necessary and sometimes justifiable to protect certain values, and secondly, that war, if it's to be just, must be conducted in a limited way -- trying to avoid excessive force and trying to protect civilian lives," Langan says.

In the class, he encourages his students to understand how religious and philosophical traditions inform moral stances on war, and how these situations relate to broader issues in ethical theory.

Satisfaction in teaching comes from "students beginning to think about how soldiers and officers understood what they were doing in this war, or any war," Langan explains, and in having those students realize that "there's a long history of thinking and reflecting on these problems."

"[Langan] is a very careful and thorough teacher, and one of the world's leading experts on just war theory," says Anthony Clark Arend, professor of government. "He is extraordinarily well-respected in both the academic and policy communities, and he brings an academic rigor to a discussion of what can often be a highly emotional issue."

Ethics Across a Cultural Divide

Ethics and interreligious conflict may not seem like complementary research areas, but Langan connects the two in his focus on relations between the West and the Islamic world.

"Obviously we need an ethic for controlling religious conflict," he says. "An ethic which is not secular in the sense of removing religion, but an ethic which enables people from different religious traditions to live and work together."

Much of his recent work is in the context of "Building Bridges," a multiyear effort of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to bring together Muslim and Christian leaders in a discussion of issues with theological, political and cultural import.

"There's been a long history of struggle and learning and working out the relationship between church and state and church and society, and church and other interest groups," Langan explains. "We've learned certain things over the last couple hundred years that are pretty much essential for living harmoniously in a pluralistic country and now a pluralistic world."

There are substantial differences that must be addressed before mutual understanding takes place, he acknowledges.

"Obviously the element of conflict is very real," he says, "but the goal is to use engagement and shared understanding to help control that conflict, and eventually to move beyond it."

Bridging the Broader Questions

But it's not all conflict and war for Langan.

"I have a strong conviction that within every major area of human activity, there is a kind of implicit ethic, and I rely very much on talking to reflective practitioners about what that ethic requires," he says. "I think that's true in business, it's true in sports, wherever human beings are cooperating over a serious period of time, to do some things that are demanding and challenging.

"Ethics is not imported into these subjects, and it's not a kind of imposed constraint that the Church or society seeks to put on. It's something that grows out of the activity as intelligent people carry it forward."

Langan's ethical studies stretch beyond the classroom. His past work includes serving as a consultant to Chemical Bank and the Navy in the 1980s, and advising many in the fields of government, business and other arenas.

"On just about every imaginable social issue, John has made significant contributions to the public conversation," says the Rev. Christopher Steck, S.J., associate professor of theology. Steck credits Langan's work, in part, with bringing him to Georgetown. "He always approaches contentious issues with a sensitive appreciation for the complexities involved and careful insight into the values and goods at stake."

Connections Close to Home

In his role as rector of the Jesuit community, Langan builds bridges of a different sort. His first responsibility is for the well-being of Georgetown's Jesuits. He meets regularly with each member of the community to provide cura personalis (personal care) and ensure their physical, psychological and spiritual wellness. He is also responsible for how the Jesuit community interacts with university faculty, staff, students and alumni.

"Father Langan animates the community, in how we interact with the university, how we make individual and communal contributions, and how we support our values in the context of our community and the university," says the Rev. Philip Boroughs, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry.

Langan, the official Society of Jesus representative to the university, insists he is still "learning the role." But he is taking steps to expand the outreach of the Jesuit community to the university. Since opening in 2002, the Jesuit residence in Wolfington Hall has hosted hundreds of faculty, staff, student and alumni gatherings.

"We have a vigorous tradition of hospitality," he says of the Jesuits.

The rector hopes to make Wolfington Hall the site of more scholarly events in the coming years, reflecting the active involvement of Georgetown's Jesuits in much of the scholarship that happens at the university.

In the midst of his duties as rector, Langan admits that it's sometimes "tough to get academic writing done." But he says maintaining his researching and teaching schedule is vital to the academic connections he seeks to strengthen across the Jesuit community.

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