Author: Charlotte Allen

Georgetown University’s history is intertwined with the history of American Catholicism. It was founded in 1789 by America’s first Catholic bishop, John Carroll, and staffed by the Jesuit religious order—the Society of Jesus—whose dauntingly educated priests included many of the first Catholic missionaries to the New World. Yet, outside of a handful of historic university buildings on the main campus, most of the classrooms, libraries, and dormitories are devoid of religious symbols. And, although a couple of the older buildings had retained crucifixes on their classroom walls, they were removed over the years during renovations and, perhaps inadvertently, never rehung. The newer rooms never got them in the first place.p. About two years ago, an undergraduate named Jon Soucy decided he wanted to bring the symbols back. “I came here because I wanted to go to a Catholic school, and Georgetown is a great Catholic college,” said Soucy, who attended a Catholic high school near his hometown of Belleville, Illinois. “I think it would be perfectly normal for a Catholic institution to have crucifixes on the walls,” he said. “We wanted to have an image of our Lord on the cross, the most important thing that ever happened in history if you’re a Catholic.” He and about a dozen other students formed the Georgetown University Committee for Crucifixes in the Classrooms and petitioned the administration for the change, setting off a controversy few in the Georgetown community expected.p. But the controversy should not have been a surprise, because, for the past few years, Catholic universities across the country have been in the throes of an identity crisis. Ever since the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and its mandate that the Catholic Church open itself to the world, Catholic universities have pursued secularization policies as a way of coming to terms with the world—and putting themselves on a par with the nation’s best research universities. Yet, a few years ago, an increasingly vocal minority of students and alumni began talking about restoring “Catholic identity” on these campuses. Georgetown addressed these concerns in 1995 by convening a 41-member seminar composed mostly of faculty members. Not surprisingly, the whole notion of Catholic identity proved difficult to define, and the report’s have-it-both-ways title, “Centered Pluralism,” suggested a certain ambivalence about exactly how Catholic (“-centered”) Georgetown ought to remain amid the “pluralism” it has consciously courted in its quest for academic excellence.p. Indeed, it has not been easy for any school to figure out how to become “more Catholic” without resurrecting an authoritarian, pre-Vatican II image that might alienate top-flight professors—many of whom are convinced that Catholicism and academic freedom are incompatible. The Georgetown seminar’s report, issued in 1996, insisted that the school “has more to contribute than merely to become one more thoroughly secularized university.” And that may be so. But, as the crucifix episode would show, nobody seemed quite sure of what that contribution should be.p. Georgetown has been open to students of all faiths since its founding, but, as recently as 30 years ago, 82 percent of entering freshmen defined themselves as Catholic. In 1997, just under 58 percent of Georgetown’s new freshmen called themselves Catholic. Close to 23 percent identified themselves as Protestant, just over five percent were Jewish, and nearly 22 percent professed other faiths or no religion at all. For the likely majority of those students—not to mention the majority of Washington residents—Georgetown is simply the District of Columbia’s version of the Ivy League. “The students are coming here to learn about government and politics and to do interesting internships,” said Joseph Ferrara, an adjunct professor of government at Georgetown. “They aren’t coming to Georgetown merely to get a Catholic education.”p. Like most American Catholic universities, Georgetown has no formal ties to the Catholic Church. Even its relationship with the Society of Jesus is loose. This was not always the case. Historically, most of the nation’s 230 Catholic colleges and universities were wholly owned subsidiaries of religious orders, which controlled the governing boards, selected presidents, and even held sway over faculty hiring. But, during the late ‘60s, a series of court rulings suggested that religiously operated universities might become ineligible for government aid. Most of the schools affiliated with religious orders, Georgetown included, severed their formal links and incorporated themselves as independent entities with lay-dominated, self-perpetuating boards.p. This all happened at a time when the ranks of the religious orders themselves were in steep decline: during the 1960s and 1970s, there were mass resignations from Catholic religious orders—and a paucity of new vocations that persists to this day. Back then members of the religious orders handled much of the teaching, even on secular subjects; merely by strolling the grounds they lent their campuses uniquely Catholic auras. Yet, with their numbers reduced and with many academic clerics and nuns adopting lay garbs, this background-noise Catholicism faded. Today, although a substantial Jesuit community still resides on the Georgetown campus, only 35 of the priests hold faculty or administrative appointments.p. Also gone is a distinctively Catholic curriculum. At the beginning of this century, Catholic universities distinguished themselves from their secular cousins by focusing on undergraduate education to the near exclusion of research as well as offering highly structured, European-style liberal arts programs that included a thorough grounding in classical languages and theology. Although the curricula at Catholic colleges gradually became less rigid as the twentieth century progressed, liberal arts and Greek and Latin remained at their core. But that approach eventually fell out of favor, and the glut of G.I. Bill beneficiaries at war’s end—older students who were less interested in liberal arts than in career training—diluted what was left of the old curriculum. Today, only the residual requirement of a few lower-level theology or religion courses distinguishes the curricula at most Catholic schools from those of secular universities.p. All of these phenomena go a long way toward explaining why the recovery of “Catholic identity” is a burning topic on Catholic campuses. But they do not explain why the campus crucifixes nearly vanished at Georgetown and some other Jesuit schools, including Boston College, or why several current and former faculty members and administrators at Georgetown clearly did not want to talk about crucifixes when I interviewed them for this story. “The crucifixes are a very small issue,” insisted Monika Hellwig, a former Georgetown theology professor who is now executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.p. No, the institutional unease stemmed from two other factors. One is a lingering inferiority complex on Catholic campuses, left over from the pre-Vatican II era, when the quality of education at American Catholic universities was perceived as—and in many cases was—inferior. Thus, in the eyes of many, to reverse the trajectory of secularization is to return to the bad old days of being second-rate. “When scholars consider a place like Georgetown or Notre Dame, their first question is: Is this a place where I can do my work free of interference by religious influence?” said R. Bruce Douglass, dean of the faculty at Georgetown and cochair of the committee charged with recommending ways of implementing the “Centered Pluralism” report. “There’s a definite tendency to equate quality with secularization.”p. The other factor is an ongoing battle involving the Vatican, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the presidents of many Catholic colleges over how to implement a 1990 papal directive, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), which requires bishops to exercise control over the Catholic institutions of higher learning in their dioceses, especially with respect to the theology taught there. “Bishops have a particular responsibility to promote Catholic Universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity,” Ex Corde stated. The trouble is that many academic theologians are unabashedly liberal, especially on such issues as women’s ordination to the priesthood, birth control, and homosexual relations—which puts them at odds with theologically conservative John Paul II, who has censured several renegade theologians over the years. The Jesuit order itself went through an ideological turnabout after Vatican II and now has a reputation as one of the most theologically, socially, and politically liberal Catholic bodies.p. Furthermore, the presidents of American Catholic colleges, Jesuit and non-Jesuit alike, are nearly unanimously opposed to efforts to exert official episcopal control over their institutions. The U.S. bishops, for their part, have been reluctant to take on the new chore of involving themselves in course content and faculty appointments at the colleges in their dioceses. When a 1993 draft report from a task force set up by the U.S. bishops’ conference to implement Ex Corde recommended specific lines of oversight between the local episcopate and the academy, the bishops and the college presidents both demurred. A second, softer draft in 1996 called for merely, as one priest connected to the task force characterized it, a “continuing dialogue” between academic institutions and local bishops. The college presidents liked those vaguer parameters, and so did the U.S. bishops, who approved the second draft. But the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education vetoed it in 1997, telling the bishops to come up with more specific rules.p. A third draft, rewritten to comply with the 1997 Vatican mandate, was released in November. And, while the bishops have not voted on it, it is certain to prompt the same objections that the first draft did. While this latest version declares that a Catholic university “enjoys institutional autonomy … so that it may carry out its mission of freely searching for all truth,” it also contains an affirmative action hiring clause that would require Catholic universities to try to ensure that “a majority of the faculty” consisted of “faithful Catholics” and an even more controversial mandate that those who teach “theological disciplines” at Catholic colleges attest to the local bishop their commitment to “teach in communion with the Church.”p. The first of these two requirements flies in the face of existing Georgetown policy. “I don’t think that Catholic religious identity as a credential for hiring is appropriate,” faculty dean Douglass, who is not a Catholic himself, told me last summer. As for the second requirement, it is unlikely to sit well with many Vatican-hostile liberal theologians—or with the American Association of University Professors, which has censured several Catholic colleges for disciplining professors on doctrinal grounds, the most famous case being that of the Reverend Charles Curran, a priest removed from the theology faculty at the Catholic University of America in the late ‘80s for his stands on birth control, abortion, and homosexuality.p. During the early twentieth century, Vatican suppression of “modernist” academic thought seemed to go hand in hand with general institutional mediocrity at U.S. Catholic colleges. U.S. accrediting authorities long looked askance at Catholic institutions, and it was not until 1937 that Phi Beta Kappa admitted its first Catholic member-college. Starting in the 1950s, Catholic academics themselves began to criticize harshly their own institutions for their perceived scholarly shortcomings and pervasive anti-intellectualism. By 1960, there was a growing sense of dissatisfaction with Catholic universities’ failures to produce scholars. “The Catholic production of Ph.D.s was about three percent of the total,” says Philip Gleason, a retired historian at Notre Dame whose 1995 book, Contending With Modernity, is probably the definitive account of Catholic higher education in the twentieth century. “Maybe one in ten Catholic universities even had Ph.D. programs, and many weren’t strong.”p. In 1965, Harvey Cox, now a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, published his highly influential The Secular City, which contended that religious institutions had no future in the secularized twentieth century as long as they remained identifiably religious. At the same time, judges were dropping ominous hints that the First Amendment’s ban on established churches barred the reception of government funds by religiously affiliated colleges and universities. Many Catholic colleges were by then in serious financial trouble, unable to survive on tuition checks and thin endowments, and they needed the government money. A rush toward secularization ensued. Many universities hastily restructured themselves with lay boards in order to give themselves a secular patina that would mollify both the funding agencies and the critics of Catholicism. The Jesuit-run Fordham University even briefly considered selling off its chapel and removing every single religious icon from its campus.p. Today, only at a handful of openly confessional Catholic colleges that eschew secular research aspirations do administrators welcome an opportunity to attest to their fidelity to Church doctrine. The Georgetown faculty’s “Centered Pluralism” report, for example, reads in places less like an exploration of Catholic identity than a manifesto for freedom from Catholicism: “Georgetown cannot tolerate any attempt to silence voices arguing for controversial conclusions, including those that may be contrary to those of the Roman Catholic church.”p. For their part, conservative Catholic scholars maintain that their liberal colleagues are just plain paranoid about ecclesiastical monitoring. “It’s bogus—all this dire imagining of church interference with academic freedom—it’s like saying the pope is in your bedroom,” said Ralph McInerny, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame and author of the popular Father Dowling mystery series. Many conservative Catholics hold that bishops should act more decisively in bringing out-of-line university theologians in their diocese to heel. One of the most egregious of the latter, in the eyes of many conservative Catholics, is Daniel Maguire, a theology professor at Marquette University who is on the board of Catholics for a Free Choice, an abortion-rights advocacy group that the bishops have criticized. The bishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, regarded as one of the nation’s most liberal hierarchs, has stated that Maguire’s pro-choice activism is at odds with Church teaching but has done nothing to discipline him.p. Of course, it is not hard to see why the U.S. bishops are reluctant to begin mediating on-campus heresy charges. American Catholicism is quite polarized these days, with a liberal flank that is still angry about the suppression of modernism and a conservative flank that is still angry about what it perceives as the excesses of secularization that followed Vatican II. Already, bishops who fail to crack down on heterodoxy to the satisfaction of their conservative critics are likely to find themselves denounced in The Wanderer, a widely circulated traditionalist weekly newspaper that serves in part as a print chat room for disgruntled lay Catholics.p. It was in this context that Soucy’s committee began its campaign. In August 1996, one of Soucy’s classmates, Elizabeth Fiore, wrote an acerbic article for The Georgetown Academy, a conservative campus newspaper, complaining that Georgetown’s “timid and meek” refusal to place a crucifix in every classroom apparently sprang from fears that the university might appear “politically incorrect” and “`too’ Catholic” to the outside society. The Wanderer promptly picked up Fiore’s article. She and Soucy put together the crucifix committee, and they spent much of the 1996-1997 academic year writing letters and approaching university administrators.p. University officials, possibly sensing that crucifixes were a potential hot-button item, seemed to ignore the campaign and to avoid Fiore and Soucy when they could. “I wrote a letter to President [Leo J.] O’Donovan in the spring of my sophomore year asking why we didn’t have crucifixes,” Fiore said. “I got back a stock form letter that pointed out the nice statues on campus and the closely knit community, but he never answered my question.” (O’Donovan, who was out of town when this article was written, was not available for an interview.) Perhaps O’Donovan and others thought that the crucifix question would go away, drowned in a sea of religious indifference among the vast majority of students. Or perhaps the administrators feared that non-Christians on campus would find crucifixes offensive.p. In November 1997, a Soucy-led crucifix committee held open forums and a pro-crucifix rally that attracted about 100 students—and also a number of local reporters. The committee also strategically enlisted a range of non-Catholics and non-Christians in its campaign, for it turned out that few of them really objected to Catholic icons on a Catholic campus. Georgetown’s Rabbi Harold H. White, the director of the school’s Jewish ministry and an early supporter of crucifixes, told a reporter from the Hoya, the student newspaper, that the images were potent symbols of how “we come to God through suffering.” The president of the Jewish Students’ Association, Marc Nock, similarly voiced no objections. Adjunct theology professor Maysam al Faruqi, a Muslim, was another crucifix supporter. Even the Hoya endorsed the campaign, stating in an editorial: “In striving to become a diverse and national university, Georgetown left something behind—what Georgetown meant.” The student government passed a resolution supporting classroom crucifixes, and, finally, Georgetown’s alumni board—perhaps troubled by a reportedly low 23 percent giving rate among Georgetown graduates—did, too. Before that vote, O’Donovan had appointed the dean of students, James Donahue, and the Reverend Adam Bunnell, the university’s chaplain, to canvass students, faculty members, administrators, and staffers of all faiths and make recommendations.p. As it turned out, not all Georgetown students supported the crucifix drive—and many did not care. The most conspicuous opposition came from the faculty, possibly because the crucifix campaign had pushed “Centered Pluralism” to the back burner. John Hirsh, an English professor, told me he wrote a protest letter to the Hoya complaining that the installation of crucifixes would signify “contempt for the beliefs of others.” An associate professor of classics, Alexander Sens, raised the issue of anti-Semitism. “Some men and women of good will … may feel troubled by the presence of crucifixes in the classrooms because for them it serves as a reminder of the role that the Catholic (and more generally Christian) characterization of Jews as `perfidious’ Christ-killers played in the ugly history of anti-Semitism in this and previous centuries,” he wrote to the Hoya. Sens now says he regrets bringing up anti-Semitism. “I was trying to equate the symbolism of the crucifix with the symbolism of the Confederate flag,” explained Sens, who defined himself as “nominally Jewish” but insisted (like the other Georgetown professors I talked to) that he was not personally bothered by the prospect of teaching in a classroom where a crucifix hangs. “Now, I wish that I had framed the issue differently, because my letter was mischaracterized as being anti-Catholic,” he said. “What this whole thing was really about was competing versions of the Catholic Church. A really conservative group of students was behind the crucifixes, and it was really about a kind of Tridentine, pre-Vatican II version of the Church.” Indeed, it turned out that no one at Georgetown—Jew, Muslim, woman, or black—reported experiencing distress at the prospect of teaching, studying, or working in the same room as a crucifix, as the crucifix opponents had supposed. “I didn’t find anyone who actually felt oppressed by a religious symbol,” Bunnell told me.p. The tension among Church authorities, a research-oriented, liberally thinking faculty fearful of ecclesiastical repression, and a growing number of students and alumni eager for a more palpable campus religiosity is likely to increase over time at Georgetown and other institutions that aspire to the high regard of secular academia. This past October, a task force on Catholic identity convened by O’Donovan in November 1997 to implement “Centered Pluralism,” but comprising students and staff as well as professors, issued a report that slightly toned down the earlier document’s strident language on academic freedom and listed some middle-of-the-road recommendations designed to make Georgetown seem more Catholic while avoiding overt restorationism. These recommendations included recruiting more Jesuits, promoting “Jesuit pedagogy” in case no live Jesuits could be found, setting up a graduate-level theology program and a center for Catholic social thought, and beefing up the service programs and the campus ministry. O’Donovan is expected to act on the recommendations by the end of the school year in May—after which he may have to ponder the implications for his contentious faculty of the third draft implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which, along with everything else, requires Catholic university professors to be of “good character” and to “participate in the religious life and activities of the university.”p. But there is something else that O’Donovan and other officials at Catholic universities might wish to ponder as they think about enhancing their schools’ Catholic identity: the clever way in which Bunnell and Donahue finally finessed Soucy’s crucifix campaign, coming up with a resolution that provided something for everyone. Last spring, they reinstalled some of the crucifixes that had been taken off the walls of several older classroom buildings. Then Bunnell set about collecting an array of new crucifixes, some of them drawn from Jesuit mission lands in the Third World and all reflecting a large variety of cultural and artistic styles: traditionally sculpted, Byzantine-style icons, Celtic crosses, and carved, dark-skinned wooden Jesuses from Africa. For conservatives, Bunnell’s crucifix collection is vibrantly devotional; for liberals, it is highly aesthetic and international. Only one campus classroom building, the Bunn Intercultural Center, which houses Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, will not display crucifixes—instead, it will show religious symbols from different faiths on a rotating basis. Bunnell plans to have the crucifixes displayed in March, then mounted. He also plans a series of symposia on the theology of the cross featuring both Catholic theologians and the Jewish novelist Chaim Potok, who has used crucifixion symbolism in his writing.p. In a sense, the crucifix campaign was probably the best thing that has happened to Georgetown in recent years. After more than three decades of modeling themselves on their secular counterparts, many Catholic universities have belatedly discovered that there is some virtue in being different. They seem to stand for something—an ethos, a viable religiosity, a still-powerful aura of tradition—that the secular schools have left behind.p. Catholic institutions, including universities, have an obligation (like that of institutions affiliated with any religious body) to present authentic Catholic teaching and to make it clear when a particular set of views are not authentically Catholic. But they also have an obligation to academic freedom. Georgetown’s current policy, allowing people to say pretty much what they like, seems a desirable principle, and it is likely that Georgetown’s Jesuit administrators will figure out a nuanced reconciliation of that principle with whatever implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae ultimately becomes operative. What Georgetown can do—and has done in resolving the crucifix controversy—is to foster Catholic identity through bolstering Catholic culture. The crucible of any genuine culture is art and religion, not reports, recommendations, manifestos, or theories. In such a culture, holiness is nourished—and that is the desired end of all religious life.

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