"For Catholic colleges and universities the end purpose of teaching, research and service is the creation of a more compassionate, just and peaceful social order." In the first half of Justice Education, Toton lays the foundation for that assertion by drawing on systems theory, Latin American liberation theology and ecclesiology, and the life and teaching of Oscar Romero, in order to present the principles of social sin, personal and collective responsibility for institutional functioning, salvation as liberation, and the necessity of making a "preferential option for the poor." These three chapters break no new ground but provide an effective introduction to liberation theology for those unfamiliar with that perspective.
From a liberation perspective, educational institutions must "move beyond promoting the idea of justice to participating in its creation," that is, engaging not only in study and reflection but also in a praxis that goes beyond the works of mercy to an individual and collective conversion by which the "principle of mercy" becomes "the structuring principle of their lives and the university itself." In Toton's view, the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) experienced just such a transformation when it chose to move closer to the poor. It did so not physically, but by choosing to "do its research, teaching and carry on its social projects from the social location of the poor," acting in solidarity with the "poor with spirit" in order to change unjust social structures. As a result, academic departments rethought their disciplines, programs were established or suppressed on the basis of their contribution to El Salvador's development, priority was given to relevant research, and 600 hours of community service became a graduation requirement.
UCA's experience serves as both inspiration and challenge to similar institutions in the United States. To those who question its applicability as a model, Toton describes numerous groups of "poor with spirit" in the United States who have succeeded in making concrete changes in their environments by organizing themselves and joining with other organizations who share their concerns. She suggests that partnering with groups like the Philadelphia Interfaith Alliance, which follows Saul Alinsky's method of community organizing, would enable Catholic colleges and universities to engage in genuine and effective education for justice, in contrast to many current service programs. Too often, she believes, these latter experiences can constitute a kind of "false charity" that disempowers the poor, because they ignore and so serve to perpetuate social inequities. Toton diagnoses a "failure of nerve" in Catholic higher education in the United States and offers no example of collaboration between U.S. colleges or universities and community organizations.
Since she began work on this book some twenty years ago, Toton’s understanding of the means by which Christians are converted to act for justice has evolved, and what she presents is not yet a fully developed exposition. Precisely for that reason and because of her straightforward explanation of theological concepts, Justice Education could be an effective stimulus to conversation among all those concerned about the mission of Catholic educational institutions—including trustees, faculty across disciplines, and staff—and not simply those in campus ministry and theology departments. Following the example of UCA, those conversations could begin to address a key issue of justice education: "for whom the social weight and intellectual power of the university should be used and how they might be directed in such a way so as to reduce human suffering and repression."