St. Mike’s Project Looks at Lonergan’s Connection to Residential Schools

An ambitious new research project shepherded by University of St. Michael’s College Professor Reid B. Locklin aims to re-examine the life and work of the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984) through the lens of his connection to the Indian Residential School System, the first such study conducted of the renowned Canadian philosopher and theologian.

“The goal of this project is to approach Lonergan as a kind of case study for all theologians who conduct our research in the context of settler colonialism, and who continue to benefit from it,” Locklin explained. “As it happens, Lonergan’s life and public career corresponded closely to the darkest period of the Residential Schools, and he was implicated in this system through a number of institutional connections. Our project asks a simple question: what happens if we make these facts of history more central to the ongoing reception and interpretation of his intellectual legacy?”

Locklin’s co-applicants on the two-year project, which has been awarded a prestigious Insight Development Grant from the Social Science and Human Research Council (SSHRC), are Professor Darren Dias, OP, who is a member of the Regis St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology (RSM) and the Executive Director of the Toronto School of Theology, and Concordia University’s Prof. Christine Jamieson.

The project, entitled Transcendental Method, Spiritual Violence & Genocide: Turning to the Person” of Bernard Lonergan in the Context of Settler Colonialism, will also be supported by a team of eight Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators from Canada and the United States, including Professors John Meehan, S.J. and Gordon Rixon, S.J., who is President of Regis College. Students from RSM and undergraduate students from St. Michael’s Christianity & Culture program will also lend research support.

Together, the group will meld traditional disciplinary research with Indigenous learning circles and connections with the land to subject Lonergan to a new form of criticism, while also unearthing unexpected points of convergence and conversation.

One of Canada’s best-known thinkers of the 20th century, Lonergan was a member of the Order of Canada and the British Academy who taught at Regis College in Toronto, Boston College, and the Gregorian University in Rome. A member of the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits, his work and teaching took place during an era when thousands of Indigenous children were sent to residential schools, including schools run by his own religious community, notes Locklin.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report released in 2015 described these institutions as places of “spiritual violence” engaged in “cultural genocide” by Canada’s federal government and the Christian churches and religious communities who operated them.

Image courtesy of Still Photography Division National Film Board of Canada Library & Archives Canada

Transcendental Method, Spiritual Violence & Genocide will look specifically at any historical ties Lonergan had to two Jesuit-run schools: one in Spanish, ON, which closed in 1958, and the other in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, which saw all its dormitories closed between the 1960s and 1980s. It will also examine the wider network of Residential Schools.

“The Jesuits walked away from Spanish but looked at Red Cloud (in South Dakota) and said, ‘Let’s try something different,” notes Locklin. Today, Red Cloud Indian School has been re-thought and run by the Jesuits with a mandate to emphasize Indigenous language and culture. Locklin himself taught at Red Cloud as a Jesuit volunteer in the early 1990s and, while there, discovered that some of the Jesuits at the school had studied with Lonergan at Regis College.

“The first question becomes: who knew what about the Residential Schools?” says Locklin, suggesting that even though Lonergan probably did not experience Residential Schools first-hand, living as a member of a religious community that sponsored them may well have exposed him to information about life in the schools, and the treatment of the students who attended them.

Project researchers, divided into three teams, will also conduct an analysis of colonialization and anti-colonialism in Lonergan’s writing on method, epistemology, Christian mission and the philosophy of education, and then take the findings and examine them in light of selected Indigenous philosophies and theologies.

Lonergan, the project’s proposal notes, embraced Enlightenment thought’s desire to turn to the subject. Citing an approach embraced by Boston College theologian and Lonergan scholar M. Shawn Copeland, Locklin says this project “will turn to the person rather than turning to the subject” in an attempt to examine the impact, if any, settler colonialism had on Lonergan’s life and work. People and their experience will ground the project and have a major impact on the findings.

The team hopes to break new ground in the field of Lonergan Studies as well as to “make a modest contribution” to ongoing efforts to engage in reconciliation in the academy and in the Catholic Church, Locklin says.

Findings will be shared via two public lectures, conference presentations, a collection of essays, and a series of online reports hosted on Locklin’s resource site, Teaching and Learning as Treaty Peoples (