Professor Russell Powell installed as Father John Topel Endowed Scholar

April 18, 2024 · By Nicole Jennings
Russell Powell
Professor Russell Powell presents a Distinguished Lecture on Catholic social thought after being installed as the Father John Topel Endowed Scholar in Catholic Social Thought and Justice. Nicole Jennings

Seattle University School of Law celebrated the installation of Professor Russell Powell as the first Father John Topel Endowed Scholar in Catholic Social Thought and Justice.

The inaugural honor was established by Seattle U Law Dean Anthony E. Varona with support from Seattle University Provost Shane Martin and Fr. John Topel, S.J., as a tribute to Topel, who dedicated decades of his life to serving the university. In addition to Jesuit advisor to the law school dean, Topel, the Emeritus Stamper Professor of Catholic Traditions, has held a variety of positions, including acting president, vice president for Academic Affairs, a Board of Trustees member, and a theology faculty member.

The Fr. John Topel Endowed Scholar is expected to teach and write in the areas of Catholic social thought and justice. Powell was selected because of his extensive scholarship in these subjects, as well as for exhibiting a spirit and set of values matching those of the endowment’s namesake.

“I can think of no more deserving colleague than Russell Powell for this honor. He embodies and continues Father John's legacy,” Varona said at the installation, noting that in addition to teaching, Powell is the director of the law school’s Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) Program and has served as associate provost for Global Engagement. “Like Father John, Russ is an extraordinary scholar, beloved teacher, gifted and trusted leader and administrator, who insists that we do the right thing — especially when it is inconvenient — an ever-present, always engaged, always thoughtful, kind, and supportive colleague and friend.”

“I commit to furthering Father Topel's vision and legacy,” Powell said as he received the medal. Addressing the students, faculty, and staff in attendance, he said, “Thank you for working toward a more just and humane world. I am deeply grateful to have such a caring community that provides support and meaning for our work.”

Following his acceptance of the award, Powell delivered a Distinguished Lecture detailing the history of natural law theory, from philosophers such as Aristotle to Saint Thomas Aquinas. The theory holds that humans are inherently good, rational creatures who are guided by an innate sense of right and wrong. He connected this idea of humans as compassionate, moral beings with the elements of Catholic social thought and values, lauding Seattle U Law for its commitment to advocating for the poor and marginalized, as well as for racial and gender equality.

Seattle University President Eduardo Peñalver praised Topel’s “comfort with change and sense of adventure” as “emblematic of the Jesuit spirit.” He noted that Topel is “excited by change and innovation, and revels in new things and new learning.”

“The universities that the Jesuits founded adapt to changing times, which is why this endowment is especially fitting,” Peñalver said.

In addition to describing the qualities of the endowment’s honorees, speakers also delved into the meaning of the words “Catholic Social Thought and Justice.”

“Catholic social thought is rooted in Catholic educational tradition,” Peñalver said. “It is a distinctive Catholic conception of justice.”

He noted that this goes beyond the secular idea of social justice, as Catholic conceptions of the term are rooted in the religion’s belief that every human deserves dignity, because every human is made in the image of God.

Seattle University Vice President for Mission Integration Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos described the way that Catholic social thought influences Seattle U Law's commitment to justice for all.

“This installation speaks to the law school's fidelity to our mission,” she said.

Topel noted that a Jesuit education “is based on inquiry,” which enables Catholic universities to hire anyone, of any faith or no faith, “who inquires after truth” and who espouses the Catholic ideals of justice, dignity, caring for our fellow humans, and working toward a common good.

“Seattle University, as a Catholic university, must find God in the culture in which we are embedded, but must also transcend that culture, in the Church and in society as a whole,” he said. “Catholic social thought is an appeal to every human to care for the other.”

Powell’s long and varied career demonstrates his commitment to probing theological thought. His main area of research is comparative religious jurisprudence — with particular interest in Catholic social thought and Islamic legal theory — and his scholarship has explored almsgiving, forgiveness, divorce, theories of justice, and business ethics.

He has served as chair of the American Association of Law Schools Section on Islamic Law, the Islamic Law Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association, and the Conference on Catholic Legal Thought. Before entering academia, he spent six years training for the Catholic priesthood as a Jesuit scholastic.

With graduate degrees in philosophy/theology, Near Eastern studies, and law, Powell reads and speaks several languages, including Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, and Farsi. Before joining Seattle U Law’s faculty, Powell previously taught at the University of Jordan in Amman, Jordan, Santa Clara University in California, and Loyola University Chicago.

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