By MegAnne Liebsch
May 13, 2020 — Here are just a few of the phrases friends and colleagues use to describe Fr. Fred Kammer, SJ:
- Social justice hero.
- Born leader.
- Visionary writer
- Strategic planner.
- Faithful servant.
- Enthusiastic cook.
- Skilled dancer.
At 76, Fr. Kammer has accrued a larger-than-life reputation in Jesuit circles. It’s well-earned.
His career reflects a singular love for God and for justice. Over the last 12 years, Fr. Kammer has poured that devotion into the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) at Loyola University New Orleans. A joint project of Loyola University and the Jesuit Central and Southern Province, JSRI addresses poverty, race and immigration in the Gulf South through research, education and advocacy.
Since becoming executive director in 2009, Fr. Kammer has led JSRI in every stage of its development, shaping its mission based on Catholic social teaching and ensuring its longevity through tireless fundraising. Even now, as he prepares to retire from JSRI at the end of May, Fr. Kammer often works six-day weeks. After Mass on Sunday mornings, he slips into the empty office and spends the afternoon getting ahead on paperwork.
“I can’t get over the amount of work he’s done. He basically did the job of two people. He was both the administrator and then the research scholar and editor,” says Sue Weishar, his longtime colleague at JSRI. “He was born to be a Jesuit. I mean, you just see that in his work, in his commitment.”
But he’s not a workaholic — at least not in the traditional sense. For Fr. Kammer, the work is deeply spiritual, inseparable from his Jesuit vocation. He sees his vocation in three parts: priestly and theological ministry, professional expertise — for him, law and social research — and Ignatian spirituality.
“St. Ignatius talked a lot about engaging the world,” says Fr. Kammer. “And our [work at JSRI] is about engaging the world’s dark side and hopefully pointing out places of light and hope.”
Over the last 15 years, JSRI has published dozens of studies evaluating education, economic opportunity, incarceration and quality of life in the region. Its yearly report, Just South Index, measures socioeconomic outcomes in the Gulf South and compares them to the rest of the U.S. The 2019 report concluded — for the fourth year in a row — that Gulf South states rank below the U.S. average on key measures, such as household income, health insurance coverage and education.
Using this data, JSRI staff compiles policy recommendations for state and national legislation. Staff frequently give testimony in state legislatures or meet with U.S. congresspersons to push for policies that would reverse the inequities they study. In the past, JSRI has helped block anti-immigrant laws and repeal Jim Crow-era judicial procedures. Achieving policy change is a powerful source of “light and hope” in JSRI’s work, Fr. Kammer says.
“Fred has a great ability to analyze legislation and then to connect the issues to Catholic social teaching,” says Fr. Thomas Greene, SJ, who worked at JSRI under Fr. Kammer and now serves as provincial of Jesuits Central and Southern. “His ministry over the years shows what ‘the service of faith and promotion of justice’ look like when lived out in the Jesuit vocation.”
Fr. Kammer’s faith knits together the distinct parts of his vocation into one cohesive fabric. “Jesus says, ‘I’ve come to bring good news to the poor and sight to the blind and to announce a year of favor from the Lord,’” he told me, quoting Luke 4:18. “He was talking about the Jubilee Year, which is about reconciliation with God, with one another and with the earth.”
For Fr. Kammer, social analysis is an act of reconciliation. JSRI’s research asks: “What about our prisons that don’t rehabilitate? What about our schools that don’t teach? What about our economic system that leaves people poor?” The answers, he says, compel us to mend these broken relationships.
A real leader of the movement: Tracing Fr. Kammer’s career before JSRI
Growing up in New Orleans, Fr. Kammer attended Jesuit High School. His Jesuit teachers were attuned to the civil rights issues of the day. And he was deeply influenced by Fr. Louis J. Twomey, SJ, of Loyola University, a “labor priest” who taught about racism, the rights of workers and Catholic social thought. It was an attractive career model — work that confronted the issues of the day. So, in 1963, he entered the Jesuits.
Vatican II had just opened, and its revelatory teachings shaped his formation as a Jesuit. Fr. Kammer and his community would read the Vatican II documents, typed and printed on ditto paper. He felt called to the vision of a “modern church” that stood with its people against unjust governments and social systems.
“From the first pages of the Gospels, Jesus is confronting the most oppressive social system or structure in his world, which was the way in which religious law and custom were substituted for the loving relationship to God and one another,” Fr. Kammer says. “He wouldn’t have known it was a social system or structure because they didn’t have these intellectual categories. But he sensed it and confronted it all through the Gospels, and it’s what killed him.”
Much of Fr. Kammer’s career springs from these foundational convictions. As a young Jesuit, he worked as a poverty lawyer at a legal aid organization in Atlanta. After leaving a subsequent legal aid job in Baton Rouge, he found himself working as an official for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
“I looked around and said, ‘What am I doing here?’” Fr. Kammer laughs. “But it turned out that it was really a fortuitous move, because it forced me to more overtly blend the faith and justice things together.”
He aimed to get congregations involved with social justice movements, so he developed a column for the diocesan paper about Catholic social teaching and current events. The approach has stuck with him. Now, he pens a quarterly column for JSRI called Catholic Social Thought, covering everything from gun violence to global finance and racism.
Inspired by the writings of Pope John Paul II, Fr. Kammer used his column to help Catholics understand systemic injustice. “The danger of focusing on structures and systems is people can say, ‘Oh, it’s not me, it’s the system.’ John Paul II was afraid of people losing their moral agency…and those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world. Meaning you can change the world.” Through his column, Fr. Kammer asserted that people had the moral responsibility and the power to dismantle unjust systems.
Ultimately, he became president — or as he calls it “nationwide cheerleader” — of Catholic Charities USA. The position took him to charities across the country, where he gave lectures on faith, justice and advocacy. His goal was to form advocates, encouraging charities to identify policy reforms that would help the communities they served.
“He was giant even back then, just so smart, so dedicated, so focused on social justice and he was just like a role model to me. He was just a real leader of the movement,” says Mary Baudouin, who serves as the assistant for social ministries of Jesuits Central and Southern. She met Fr. Kammer when she was working at Catholic Charities New Orleans. Years later, he hired Baudoin for the social ministries position — the first woman to hold such a role in the province. They have remained professional collaborators and close friends.
Baudouin and Fr. Kammer are famous for their dinner parties. Both are masters of New Orleans cuisine and hospitality.
“When he’s working, he’s serious, but when he is in a social setting, he’s serious about not working,” Baudouin says. “He was also a great dancer. A lot of people don’t know, but when we’d be going to Catholic Charities USA meetings, everybody wanted to dance with Fred because he was such a good dancer.”
‘What can we do?’ Founding JSRI
In 2002, Fr. Kammer assumed leadership of the Jesuits New Orleans Province (now Jesuits Central and Southern). On the top of his to-do list was establishing a center for social research and analysis. But during that planning process, Hurricane Katrina hit.
Fr. Kammer sprang into action, Baudouin says. He distributed resources to all Jesuit ministries — even those not formally sponsored by the province — so that they could stay open to the community. He made sure all the Jesuits and province staff had housing, including Baudouin and her family.
“He was the leader that we needed at the time to get through Katrina,” Baudoin says.
Katrina and its aftermath crystalized Fr. Kammer’s vision of how the Jesuits could address social problems in New Orleans and the South through research and advocacy.
“The New Orleans Province at the time was the poorest,” Baudouin says. “It had a huge number of migrants, and racism was just so prevalent. There was this vision of, what can we do about that? How can we put the resources of the Jesuits to address those basic problems?”
Fr. Kammer threw himself into fundraising for what became the Jesuit Social Research Institute. All told, he raised over $4 million of the $6 million starting budget. When his term as provincial ended, his successor made him executive director.
“He really birthed the organization then nurtured it to where it is now — strong, healthy and sustainable,” says Weishar.
By all accounts. Fr. Kammer is a master planner. He has a keen eye for the big picture and somehow always asks the right questions, says Fr. Ted Arroyo, SJ, who served as the first executive director of JSRI.
Though Fr. Kammer’s own responsibilities often took him out of the office — giving lectures, fundraising, networking with partners or advocating at state legislatures — he maintained an intimate knowledge of all corners of JSRI’s work. He can rattle off his staff’s portfolio of work with encyclopedic detail: a study on the State of Education in Louisiana, the State of Education in Mississippi, the State of Work in Florida; a joint Catholic Campaign for Human Development study on poverty in the South; and a report on solitary confinement in Louisiana prisons.
Armed with a small yet dedicated staff, Fr. Kammer grew JSRI into a renowned leader on campus and across the U.S. “It has been a great privilege to seek his advice and wisdom here at Loyola, and to protect his legacy with JSRI,” says Loyola University president Tania Tetlow.
Before the pandemic, Fr. Kammer traveled the country meeting with young students, volunteers and activists. “He saw that he could share that knowledge of Catholic social teaching, that commitment to social and economic and racial justice with a younger generation,” Baudouin says. Fr. Kammer was a founding member of Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) South and has served on the boards of JVC and the Ignatian Solidarity Network.
At Jesuit Volunteer Corps retreats, he’s famous for making pancakes (the trick is a dash of vanilla). Baudouin remembers one JVC retreat in Texas when there were so many retreatants, Fr. Kammer was flipping pancakes for hours to appease a steady stream of breakfasters. “One of the JVs was standing in line right next to him, and he fainted, and Fred never missed a beat,” Baudouin says. Kammer caught the JV without setting down his spatula. “He’s flipping pancakes and holding this young man up while he’s still flipping pancakes!”
Salted by fire
Fr. Kammer is not overly sentimental about leaving JSRI. He claims he’s been executive director for “two years too long.” True to form, he’s approaching his retirement with meticulous planning and preparation, digitizing over a decade’s worth of notes — in case they’re helpful for the next director.
“He’s not moved into the technological world very gracefully, put it that way,” Baudouin laughs. “He loves newsprint. I mean, after his retreats or after planning sessions, there’s pages and pages and pages of newsprint.”
Regardless, scanning old notes and files has given Fr. Kammer a chance to reflect on his 12-plus years at JSRI. Under his direction, JSRI has carved out a singular authority on social analysis through the lens of Catholic social teaching. It’s a point of immense pride for Fr. Kammer.
“It’s very clear in the work we do and in the writing we do, that we hew pretty closely to Catholic social teaching,” he says.
Fr. Kammer has a knack for animating seemingly dry church doctrine — preferential option, subsidiarity, distributism. Catholic social teaching is more than a constitution to memorize. It’s a compass that directs his actions and choices. And he’s embedded that same compass in JSRI.
“He is salted by the fire of his love and commitment to social justice,” says Weishar. There’s a magnetism to his belief in this work. Through her time at JSRI, Weishar has discovered “a beautiful coherence” in refracting social problems through the lens of Catholic teaching and Ignatian spirituality. Rather than feel bogged down by social injustice, she sees “a coherent framework for addressing it.”
She credits much of this formation to Fr. Kammer. “Words can’t express my gratitude, really,” she says. “I’ll be forever grateful, eternally grateful for this opportunity. It’s just been an honor and a privilege to work with Fred Kammer.”
MegAnne Liebsch is the communications associate for the Office of Justice and Ecology of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. She holds an MA in Media and International Conflict from University College Dublin and is an alumna of La Salle University. She is based in Washington, DC.