The Justice and Peace Studies department began with a question put to the University of St. Thomas by Archbishop John Roach. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops had just completed their 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response." So how would the university respond? Archbishop Roach asked the university to take a leading role in charting a meaningful response to "the challenge of peace."
Fifteen years later, in 1998, the U.S Catholic bishops issued another document, "Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions." In it they cited an urgent need to unite the Catholic commitment to education with the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching in all Catholic institutions. Theirs is not a mere suggestion. Rather it is an essential call to the Church to engage in action-based education concerning its social teachings, which serve after all as the defining measure of true Catholic education. The call is "for a renewed commitment to integrate Catholic social teaching into the mainstream of all Catholic educational institutions and programs." Such a commitment requires more than abstract principles, catalog statements or isolated courses. To integrate Catholic social teaching into the mainstream of the university requires that it become an overall moral framework that permeates all facets of the curriculum and classroom experience.
UST's Justice and Peace Studies department teaches these topics and principles in ways that grew out of research by the founding director, Fr. David Smith. Building on the work of an interdisciplinary faculty committee, Fr. Smith used his 1987-88 sabbatical time to travel around the world and view model peace studies programs at other Catholic institutions. From the beginning the goal was to create a program that had a strong spiritual dimension, as well as significant research, writing and discussion components. Over time, it became clear that in order to accomplish all of these goals the program needed substantial experiential and internship opportunities for students.
What has developed is an interdisciplinary department that uses various types of co-curricular educational opportunities (volunteering, VISION trips, internships, clubs, etc.) in addition to formal classroom activities. Guiding our curriculum and classroom method is a version the "hermeneutical circle" developed by Catholic theologians, which we call "The Circle of Praxis." Thanks also to the influence of Catholic social teaching, we emphasize the concepts of "structural violence" and "criticism of structures." In order to help students develop practical tools for transforming social structures, the department gives special attention to conflict resolution and active nonviolence, according to the practice and ultimate vision of restorative justice.
Another important aspect of our department is its emphasis on studying radically different worldviews and religions, with particular attention to their attitudes and actions for justice and peace. While the department gives special attention to Roman Catholic social teachings and spirituality, students also explore other traditions' views of justice, peace, active non-violence, conflict resolution and theories of war. Why? On the one hand, much violence and injustice occurs between members of different traditions. On the other hand the social teachings of the Church ask us to demonstrate solidarity with the victims of history and to apply the principle of subsidiary. According to this principle, power should flow to the lowest level appropriate for fulfilling its function. This means social transformation and work for peace can hardly be authentic unless local communities around the world are engaged according to the best insights of their own cultures and worldviews.
For this reason our department aims to train students to work for the common good primarily at the community level: in schools, non-profits, local governments, charities and business. Many of our students go on to graduate studies, and a few end up working at the highest levels of the government, business, academic and non-governmental worlds. Above all, however, we train people who are helping to renew society's stock of social capital, which is so critical to a robust democracy. We also train students who are able to work in Track II diplomacy, that is, in behind-the-scenes community efforts which accompany and often precede official negotiation of conflicts. This is the fastest growing sectors of justice and peace work around the world. People working in these spaces are creating the conditions for just change in local communities and they continue working there after peace accords are signed and the media go home.
It is the focus of UST's Justice and Peace Studies department on the community level and our conviction that change happens at the grassroots level that differentiates us from many other peace studies programs which aim primarily at elites and elite opinion formation. It explains why we have chosen to focus on educating our students into active citizenship, conflict resolution and interfaith dialogue.
Institutionalization of the Justice and Peace Studies department at the University of St. Thomas has happened gradually, as students began to demand more and more -- first a minor, then a self-study major, later a formal JPST major and, most recently three new career-oriented concentrations. In recent years the field of peace, justice and conflict studies has seen a growing interest in master's level courses and certificates in peace education. At present our department has some sixty majors and minors, graduating about 15 majors a year. Reflecting the the high caliber of our students, in 2007 half of them graduated with honors and awards. Our students are also widely known for being exceptionally well informed, engaged, and motivated. Faculty across the university frequently ask Justice and Peace Studies professors to encourage our majors to sign up for their classes, for they have a reputation for bringing enthusiasm and a critical eye to their studies. Justice and Peace students have many opportunities to gain leadership training and are disproportionately represented in the leadership of many student clubs and organizations around campus.
St. Thomas's Justice and Peace Studies department is one of the best of its kind in the country. Swarthmore, Berea and Moravian, Gustavus Adolphus colleges and Bethel University (MN) have modeled their programs upon ours,Hamline University, Loyola University (Chicago), South Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota have all consulted us while developing similar programs. Three JPST faculty have served on the board of the national Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA), and individually our faculty repeatedly receive recognition.