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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Boston College: Catholic in Name Only?

The recent comments by Fr. Jenkins of Notre Dame have brought renewed interest to the debate regarding the religious and Catholic character of Boston College and Georgetown University. Blogger Dyspeptic Mutterings has made his case in response to my original post on the issue.

This morning, The Conservative Voice cited the fact that "the GLBT club at Boston College staged a photo and art exhibit in an on-campus lobby" as evidence that BC is "CINO," or Catholic in Name Only.

The CINO moniker is not new; from The American Spectator reader mail:
In 1998, James T. Burtchaell, a Catholic priest and former Provost at Notre Dame University, wrote of the decline of religion at religiously established universities and colleges in the U.S. The Dying of the Light is a case study of 17 educational institutions that have, for all intents and purposes, severed their ties to their religious founding fathers. ... One of the three Catholic colleges/universities examined was Boston College. It is Burtchaell's contention that Jesuit and lay faculties at Boston College and similarly constituted Jesuit universities have, by purposeful design, sought to consign religion to a much diminished role in the overall education of their students, driven by the pervasive belief that religion is outside the boundaries of intellectual discourse, and of minimal importance in quotidian life. Like its companion Jesuit institution, Georgetown University, where a huge brouhaha erupted about putting crucifixes in classrooms, Boston College is, essentially, Catholic in name only.
The administration at Boston College has recently contested these charges. As catholicexchange.com reported this month:
Boston College is fighting back in the press saying “Boston College’s Catholicity is unquestionable. We are firmly committed to our Catholic mission and heritage.”
Coverage from The Heights.

This debate has been heightened by The Carinal Newman Society's "movement to rescue Catholic higher eductation." BC has apparently been a prime target.
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Comments on "Boston College: Catholic in Name Only?"


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (9/29/2005 01:27:00 AM) : 

Much as this may upset folks like the Cardinal Newman Society, the mission of a Jesuit university is not simply to rubber stamp and promulgate Catholic teachings. The Jesuit order draws its inspiration from the distinct vision of its founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola. As such, Jesuit universities differ from other Catholic universities in a number of important ways. I can think of at least three right now: academic freedom, diversity, and justice.

First and foremost is the supremacy of free intellectual inquiry that is (or should be) at the heart of a Jesuit university but that is often muddled elsewhere in Catholic higher education. While other Catholic universities may tend towards towing the “Catholic” party line (one they choose to narrowly define), groups like the Cardinal Newman Society reinforce the importance of Jesuit universities standing up for their distinct call: “finding God in all things,” for “the greater glory of God.” History shows that this often means challenging convention, secular or ecclesiastic. The fact that colleges and universities became the Jesuits' single most important endeavor speaks to a distinctly intellectual mission. St Ignatius broke new ground when he talked about "finding God in all things." For him, and for the Jesuits who followed his lead and committed themselves to the "greater glory of God," "all things" and the "greater glory" included even those realms that the church hierarchy condemned or approached with suspicion--notably in the sciences. Jesuit mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and others were not only among the most accomplished men in their fields, but were instrumental in questioning the church's monopoly on "truth" and pushing the church itself into modernity. “Finding God in all things” necessarily means having to search out those things, even in the most unlikely places. That is a far cry from nailing religious symbolism in rooms that are meant to foster free thought.

"Finding God in all things" also means a distinct attitude in how the Jesuits engage the broader world, other religions and other cultures. Ignatius' instructions to "go set the world aflame" meant that the Jesuits became the first truly global order and the first "multicultural" one, both in terms of reach and membership. It meant not only being open to other cultures but learning from them and ultimately incorporating aspects of those cultures back into the order itself. The artistic and cultural patrimony that the Jesuits have left around the world speaks to this point: Jesuits adapted their work based on their host contexts and responded to the specific circumstances they faced. Unlike other Catholic educational endeavors, Jesuit universities were-- and for the most part remain--urban. They did not shy away from the real world around them or insolate themselves from other worldviews. This has special significance today in terms of the importance of AHANA issues, diversity in general and religious pluralism at a place like Boston College. Everything about BC, from its founding mission to its Gothic architecture, was a calculated response to the social and urban challenges it faced. This is an entirely different concept of the university from other Catholic institutions which began as idyllic, secluded and somewhat utopian experiments. Given these different starting points, it is not surprising that a place like BC has nurtured its religious diversity, engaged interfaith dialogue and initiated programs in Jewish and Islamic Studies, while a place like Notre Dame has not.

The last distinction I want to make is how Jesuit universities and non-Jesuit, Catholic universities respond to the call for the “preferential option for the poor.” This call has been interpreted by the Jesuit order as a call not only to service, but to justice--all the more evident since Jesuit Superior Pedro Arupe named human rights and social justice as principles ministries of the order. Thus while other Catholic universities may manifest their Catholicity through Mass attendance, the Sacraments, devotion to the Virgin Mary, etc., Jesuit universities focus on their commitment to justice issues. That’s not to say that these are not important issues elsewhere in Catholic higher education, or that students at Jesuit universities do not attend Mass, go to confession or say the rosary; it’s just a matter of emphasis. Perhaps the most popular Jesuit motto, “men and women for others," speaks to the primacy of human rights and social justice issues in the context of Jesuit education. Unfortunately, groups like the Cardinal Newman Society and others like them deride this emphasis as “Cafeteria Catholicism.” But they are themselves picking and choosing what aspects of Catholicism they want others to uphold. They would rather see BC students praying for the unborn than protesting the School of the Americas. They would rather see BC students flocking to the priesthood than to the Peace Corps. They would rather see BC students donate to the Knights of Malta than to UNICEF. Actually, BC students do all of the above. It just happens that many tend towards the latter in each case not in spite of, but because of their religious convictions.


Anonymous AHL said ... (9/29/2005 07:49:00 AM) : 

Let us remember, too, that BC pioneered the Church in the 21st century initiative which, from what I've read, has been very successful. Also, as the previous poster said, the Jesuit order is among the more liberal of the Catholic orders.


Blogger Dale said ... (9/29/2005 10:33:00 AM) : 

The problem is that the powers that be at BC, at crunch time, choose not to be "Jesuit and Catholic," but "Jesuit vs. Catholic." And it, too, is a "narrowly-defined" vision of progressive Jesuits, at that.

My evidence? In the 832 words Anonymous offered as a very eloquent defense of BC.

The point about Jesuit pioneering in the natural sciences is well taken. It is also beside the point, given that BC has a rather small emphasis on the natural sciences and no one is slagging BC's approach to scientific research. [The question of bioethics is another matter, but I'll set aside the discussion of the views of "Pull the Plug" Paris for another day.]

Anon also needs to study more about the founding of the historically Catholic universities in this country--almost none of them have been founded by Catholic Fourierites.

More to the point, Anon's defense of BC pretty well gives the game away, pitting, as the admin does at crunch time, the Jesuit character vs. the Catholic. Indeed, the dismissal of the concern as one of a "party line," speaks volumes. But the most striking comment is the bald assertion that "religious symbolism" somehow stifles "free thought" in the classroom. This is a psychological reaction, not an intellectual one. It suggests that a visible Catholic identity has to be divorced from the Really Important Stuff. Indeed, one has to downplay one's identity to find truth. I'll just note that one should be able to "find God in all things" if there is a crucifix somewhere in the room.

Furthermore, there is nothing uniquely Catholic or Jesuit about inclusivity, academic freedom, diversity, etc. Marxists can sign on for that. Some of them even mean it. These things can be admirable means to an end, but they are too often shibboleths for those determined to kick the religious identity to the curb. And there is one crucial missing from Anon's interpretation of Jesuit history and the Jesuit mission: genuine loyalty to the Church.

I'll end with this: while social justice is essential to any Catholic mission in the world, the problem is that, as presented by Anon, BC is offering a decidedly secularized version of it. More distressingly, Anon somewhat patronizingly pits it against other forms of Catholic witness (as an aside, it would be nice if, just once, those who emphasize social justice could recognize that the pro-life cause is a social justice issue). To be truly Catholic--and Jesuit--it has to offer an unashamedly Catholic face. Otherwise, it simply becomes a secular NGO.

With the occasional religious symbolism.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (9/29/2005 03:27:00 PM) : 

BC's emphasis on the sciences is far from "small." Not only are they among the best funded departments at BC, but Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Geophysics and the Seismology field station are among its top programs. While Biology has lagged, it has been earmarked for increased funding and will benefit from a new Life Sciences building as part of the "New" Boston College speech outlined by the BC president a few weeks back. Newspapers around the country ran an AP story calling BC a "scientific powerhouse" just last May, and BC has had success in poaching faculty and researchers away from places like MIT and Los Alamos. While critics may point to these developments as "secular," those familiar with the school's ethos will recognize this as part of the Jesuit order's legacy, i.e. finding God in scientific discovery.

The original post made no mention of "Catholic Fourierites" or any other specific groups. It simply stated that while most Jesuit institutions are urban and fundamentally engaged in the issues facing their societies, many other kinds of Catholic institutions are not. Case in point: Boston was already a 200 year-old center of industry, culture and politics in 1827 when Benedict Fenwick, SJ, first opened Boston College. It had become a leading seat of education, immigration and the civil rights movement by 1863 when it was formally chartered. By contrast, South Bend, Indiana was an uninhabited wilderness in 1842 when Edward Sorin, CSC, first opened Notre Dame. By all accounts, it remains a Midwestern backwater today. BC and other Jesuit schools were founded as a direct response to urban social and cultural realities. Notre Dame and others were founded not necessarily in opposition to those realities, but were motivated by an entirely different set of missionary objectives. In fact, the utopian vision of an insular, safe-haven for Catholic education, blissfully removed from broader social and cultural realities has been revived in the grad vision for Ave Maria University, which incidentally calls itself the "New Notre Dame."

Like All Things, inclusively, academic freedom and diversity are uniquely Jesuit when achieved for the Greater Glory of God. This is nothing to be ashamed of.

The analogy of a secular NGO with occasional religious symbolism is in fact the exact opposite of what a Jesuit university should strive to be. Rather than rely on symbols, it should itself be an inspired "leaven for good in the world" in all realms of its endeavors.


Blogger Dale said ... (9/29/2005 04:57:00 PM) : 


I'm not sure we are getting anywhere with this, as from my perspective you aren't engaging the main point, but one more response:

1. The Fourierite reference was an analogy. You haven't given any examples of utopian Catholic universities, though the point about the missionary function is on the mark. Moreover, it is clear that the original urban Jesuit universities were also missionary in nature and less saloneque than you imagine them to be. Ditto the Society itself.

Also, speaking as a lifelong Midwesterner raised in a town much much smaller than South Bend, two questions: is elitist snobbery OK when done AMDG? Or is the Jesuit "leaven for the good of the world" too important to waste on "Midwestern backwaters"? In addition to being grating, you do your argument no good with such characterizations.

2. I stand corrected on BC's strength in the sciences (my Massachusetts friends go to MIT). However, you continue "majoring in minors" as I pointed out that it was not BC's science curriculum that was being criticized.

3. I'm not a huge fan of Monaghan and less than enamored with his project, esp. vis-a-vis the treatment of the Michigan campus, but you apparently do not know anyone associated with AM. Your criticisms sound too much like the progressive talking points criticizing the AM plan.

By their fruits you shall know them: I know students and grads from the School of Law, and they are far from the Fortress Catholic caricature, being very active in civil rights. AM may be flawed in execution, but its determination to offer a distinctively and unapologetically Catholic voice is worthy of admiration. It may be missionary, but that's what the Council called for from the laity in . Whatever else it is, the "grand vision" is the opposite of "insular."

4. You have yet to distinguish Jesuit inclusivity, activity, etc. from the secular world's, unless Brown glorifies God by doing the exact same thing and establishing similar studies programs. What makes it particularly Jesuit, and how does it glorify God?

5. A last point: however unconsciously, you continue to pit Jesuit identity against Catholic, lauding the superiority of the former over the supposed flaws of the latter. I somehow doubt that was what Fr. Fenwick had in mind.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (9/30/2005 01:04:00 AM) : 

OK, you're right, I think we're starting to go in circles too, though I have enjoyed reading your well-reasoned replies. I'd ask what the main point is that you don't think I'm engaging, but frankly I don't think I have much to add that I haven't said already-- except to say that I meant no insult to the Midwest. Backwater dump or not, what South Bend has become since 1842 is actually besides the point.

OK back to thesis ....


Blogger Dale said ... (9/30/2005 11:44:00 AM) : 


Good luck on the thesis. My favorite undergrad history prof wrote his back in the pre-word processor stone age.

Two weeks before it was due to be submitted, the faculty building at the campus where he was doing GA work burned to the ground.

So did the only copy of his doctoral thesis. Sorry--no extension (yes, they were hard cases). Fortunately, he'd kept his footnotes at his residence, and was--barely--able to piece it back together and submit it on time. But the stress of that effort literally caused all of his hair to fall out during those two weeks, and it never grew back.

Morals of the story: (1) backup, backup, backup, and (2) never attend his alma mater (I forget where it was, but I think it was Ivy League).


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