Confronting evil at St. Jerome's

  • January 16, 2009
{mosimage}Dr. Evil has a secret, and he’s itching to tell.

For eight years, Prof. David Seljak has been teaching one of the most popular courses at St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo . The course is often called Evil 101 . Ever since late in the summer of 2000 when Seljak covered campus lamp posts and bulletin boards with posters advertising “Evil” in 240 point Arial Bold type, the religious studies professor has been able to attract as many as 1,000 students a year to his course. He often has to turn students away because he simply can’t fit any more into the lecture hall.

Seljak’s secret is that the course title only tells half the story.

“In fact, the course is mostly about good,” Seljak told The Catholic Register.

This month Seljak is giving a compressed version of his evil course in three free public lectures as part of the annual St. Jerome’s lecture series (Jan. 16, 23 and 30). Under the title “Confronting Evil Today,” Seljak uncovers the hidden gem of Catholic social teaching.

Getting the word “evil” out there front and centre doesn’t just attract crowds, it also has a way of focussing the mind, said Seljak.

“People see that word and it nails something in the psyche that ‘Ethical Issues in Contemporary Society’ does not,” he said.

Showing film footage of what Allied soldiers found in Nazi death camps as the Second World War ended and presenting the facts of starvation and child deaths in once-colonized countries, Seljak doesn’t shy away from what evil looks like or what it means.

“I don’t mind traumatizing students. I think that’s the real Catholic ethos behind the course. Catholics have never shied away from traumatizing their children if it will do them some good — teaching them about heaven and hell,” he said. “Yes, it will scar you for life, but in a good way.”

Seljak doesn’t just confront evil. He also stares down the slur against Catholic social teaching that it is merely sentimental liberalism wrapped up in turgid, gooey God-talk.

“I’m not a pinko-liberal,” he declares. “There are some people who are going to label you as left-leaning, but a lot of the Catholic take on social justice is actually rooted in conservatism. It’s rooted in the idea that human beings are a family, and therefore we’re responsible for each other.”

Seljak is particularly inspired by Pope John Paul II’s critique of capitalism.

“He argued we were making a god of something that was supposed to be, and was, limited — very useful, good, but limited,” he said.

A mistaken ideology of markets as the solution to everything has concrete and evil consequences, said Seljak.

“You can do evil by taking that limited thing and believing it is infinitely good — that it is good everywhere and at all times,” he said. “Then we end up, as we do today, allowing millions of people to starve, to die of diseases that are easily treatable, because we have this abiding faith in the market.”

When Seljak started teaching at St. Jerome’s his course was called “Peace, Justice and Development.” It attracted about 10 students per semester.

“The usual suspects — people in the peace and conflict studies program at UW (University of Waterloo) and social justice Catholics,” he said. “I really felt I was preaching to the choir.”

These days the evil course is offered on campus and by distance education. It takes a look at how a range of world religions respond to evil, from the Hinduism of Mohandis Ghandi to Jewish responses to the Holocaust. By concentrating on such heroes as Sr. Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, Seljak ensures that both good and evil have a face.

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