“The Promotion of Justice Will Cost Us Something”: Jesuit Radicalism and the Option for the Poor in Appalachia in the 1970s and Beyond

As Appalachian social movements emerged and intensified in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the Second Vatican Council radically shifted the priorities of the Roman Catholic Church and challenged believers to enter into struggles for justice. As a result, numerous sisters, priests, and laypeople came to the region and partnered with existing organizations and movements to initiate new forms of faith-based ministry, service, and activism. The Society of Jesus, a religious order of priests also known as the Jesuits, had been present in the region in various capacities, including the order’s founding of Wheeling College mid-century. By the mid-1970s several individual Jesuits and the college itself had become active participants in the growing Appalachian movements for justice, informed by Vatican II, the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, and the theology of the Appalachian bishops’ pastoral letter “This Land is Home to Me.” In particular, the Catholic teaching of the “option for the poor” prompted some Jesuits to embrace costly forms of justice work and to encourage their institutions to make the same kind of commitments. This paper explores the Jesuits’ radical vision for mission in Appalachia, including pastoral work in Lincoln County, West Virginia; academic initiatives such as the proposed Center for Appalachian Concern at Wheeling College; and the environmental and social justice activism of priests like Al Fritsch and Joseph Hacala. Drawing on the examples of assassinated Salvadoran Jesuit activist theologian Ignacio Ellacuría and the Jesuit Pope Francis, the paper then suggests paths forward for Jesuit institutions to continue “costly” ministries through ever deeper engagement with, and reexamination of, Appalachian issues and movements. The radical vision of the Appalachian Jesuits offers insights for our times in which tensions and divisions have become more visible not only in society on regional and national levels, but also in religious communities divided about the role of the churches in social change.