Boston College Goes Overboard with Catholic Symbols February 15, 2009

Boston College Goes Overboard with Catholic Symbols

Hey, it’s your buddy Ron Gold.

I was reading how Boston College, a Jesuit, Catholic school, recently filled their campus and classrooms with Catholic symbols in a stealthy fashion:

Students and faculty returned to campus after winter break to find that Boston College had quietly completed, without announcement or fanfare, an eight-year project to dramatically increase the presence of Roman Catholic religious symbols on campus. The additions are subtle but significant, as the university joins other Catholic institutions around the nation in visibly reclaiming its Catholic identity.

The new Catholic imagery includes a few large statues and mosaics, though more obtrusive are the Catholic icons placed in all 151 classrooms, most of which are crucifixes.

There have been no significant objections from the 70% Catholic student body, but some members of the faculty unsuccessfully attempted to get the crucifixes removed. One faculty member explains his distaste:

“I believe that the display of religious signs and symbols, such as the crucifix, in the classroom is contrary to the letter and spirit of open intellectual discourse that makes education worthwhile and distinguishes first-rate universities from mediocre and provincial ones,” Maxim D. Shrayer, chairman of the department of Slavic and Eastern languages and literatures, said in an interview.

However, some of the faculty has been downright giddy over the changes:

“Christian iconography and symbols permeate this place and always have,” said the Rev. John Paris, a Jesuit priest who teaches bioethics at BC. Paris said he finds “offensive” the notion that a crucifix impedes the ability of students or faculty to think critically in a classroom and called the criticism “the narrow and bizarre musings of a few disgruntled folks.”

“This is a small problem for those with small minds,” Paris added. “This is not a serious controversy.”

Of course, Boston College has every right to litter their campus with Catholic symbols, but I don’t see why it’s necessary or a good idea.

Even though the current students don’t appear to be bothered by the new symbols, I could see prospective students being turned-off by them. I know if I were a high school student thinking of enrolling at Boston College, then saw loads of Catholic images while visiting the campus, I would feel unwelcome. Surely, many other non-Catholics would feel the same way.

Also, having crucifixes in the classrooms does nothing to help the ambiance. I can’t be the only one who finds the image of someone being crucified to be mildly disturbing. And for that matter, having a crucifix in a science class as opposed to a miracle class is a bit of a contradictory message.

But in the end, what is Boston College really accomplishing by putting up all of these Catholic symbols, besides isolating non-Catholics? I can see how their big statue of a saint is an appropriate ode to their history, though the crucifixes in every classroom are totally unnecessary. Really, any student who feels compelled to constantly be in the presence of Catholic imagery can wear a cross.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Lee

    I know if I were a high school student thinking of enrolling at Boston College, then saw loads of Catholic images while visiting the campus, I would feel unwelcome.

    But, of course, you are unwelcome! This is a catholic college; they have no desire to attract our kind! Fortunately, the Boston area has many more liberal schools to choose from….

  • Reginald Selkirk

    If you get a bad grade on an exam, can you buy some indulgences to make up for it?

  • Richard Wade

    …The additions are subtle but significant, as the university joins other Catholic institutions around the nation in visibly reclaiming its Catholic identity.

    Group identity, homage to their school’s history, these may be surface rationalizations for putting these things all around the campus, but the root belief in the back of the minds of people who want to be surrounded by them is that these objects

    contain magic!

  • So, Father Paris, a Jesuit, is giddy. What a shocker.

    And Maxim Shrayer, dean of Slavic languages, is not. Going out on a limb here, but judging by his name, Prof Shrayer is probably not Catholic. In fact, it sounds like he’s not Christian.

    What odds BC will find it hard to recruit other non-Catholic faculty the farther down this road they go? (And what odds they either don’t care, or will rejoice?)

  • @Reginald, they’re not selling indulgences any more. At least, not yet.

  • Rasputin

    As an atheist with a Boston College degree, I seriously doubt this will have any impact on anything.

    It is almost certainly done at the behest of the Archdiocese which is still struggling to recover after the pedophilia scandal.

    The students and faculty will piss and moan because that’s what students and faculty do but they will continue as usual imo.

  • Jen

    I went to a Jesuit college and we had crucifixes in every class room. They were probably eight inches tall or so. I didn’t really think about it at the time, even though I identified as an atheist, but I suppose that’s not particularly welcoming. On the other hand, we had a fairly wide range of religions represented at school, and an active Hillel group and a Muslim group. No atheist group, though. I think I was more offended we couldn’t have a pro-choice baby-killing club than that we had stupid crucifixes near the clocks.

  • Aj

    …a Jesuit priest who teaches bioethics…

    Before the creationist teaching evolution but after the Jehovah’s Witness teaching blood transfusions.

  • I’m not sure I really find anything objectionable about putting up Catholic symbols around a Catholic college. It’s not really worth being “delighted” about either IMO.

  • “…Boston College, a Jesuit, Catholic school…”

    A Catholic school putting Catholic images in the classroom? Shocking, really.

    Look, regardless of what you or I think of crucifixes or Catholocism, it’s a flippin’ Catholic school.

    Athiests would be better off railing against the government violating the principle of separation of church and state (a valid cause) than attacking a religious organization for using religious symbols.

    What’s the next post… against Protestant Evangelical churches preaching that their members should evangelize? Against synagouges displaying the Star of David (They can just wear one around their necks!)

    You’re an excellent writer with excellent posts. But unless I have completely missed the point (always a risk), the usefulness of this post is lost on me.

    And just out of curiosity, would you feel that a Sikh professor wearing his turban and kirpan while teaching would affect the “ambiance” of the classrooom?

  • Frank

    It is a Catholic college.

    The strange thing would be if there were no Catholic symbols.

    You really ought to worry about more important things.

  • inkadu

    I considered going to Boston College, but when I found out it was a Catholic college I said no. I had just come to atheism and already spent to my summers in evangelical camp. I wanted to have nothing to do with a liberal arts university that had an institutional interest in the direction of my spiritual life.

  • Christopher, to answer your questions:

    It’s easy for me to write something that almost all of my fellow atheists would agree with, like how teaching creationism in public schools, Islamic terrorism, and the Catholic pedophilia scandal are bad things. On this occasion, I didn’t want to go that route, so I intentionally looked at a case that was more subtle and unlikely to bring up strong emotions.

    I made no claims that Boston College has done a horrible deed (my harshest words were that the symbols are unnecessary), but I think their actions bring up many interesting points. They’ve been doing fine for many years, so why did they suddenly put up all these symbols? Why did they do it so sneakily? Only 70% of the students are Catholic, and I imagine a significant amount of the faculty isn’t Catholic either, and clearly the school relies on non-Catholic talent and would like to recruit the best students and teachers regardless of religion. So are they sending a message that non-Catholics are less welcome than Catholics? Is this concern backed up by the teacher who says that those who are bothered by the symbols have a “small mind?”

    You seem to think that this is a complete non-issue. While I don’t think it’s the most pressing issue out there (I won’t be losing sleep over it, or for matter matter, spend time worrying about it), I don’t think it’s entirely insignificant either. The fact that we disagree about this is what makes it worth discussing.

    Okay, I’ve written way more than I wanted to, so to answer your last question, I find turbans aesthetically pleasing, so I want as many around as possible.

  • I guess wasting money is not a concern of BC.

    As a resident of Boston, from my observations, most who go to BC are wealthy enough to place a life-size crusifix in every room in the mansion, so I guess when the school wastes money, its no biggy.

    However, I wonder if any of the funding came from ‘Faith-based Initiatives’…FBI..odd

  • I made no claims that Boston College has done a horrible deed (my harshest words were that the symbols are unnecessary), but I think their actions bring up many interesting points.

    True, while the act itself is purely symbolic, it does tell us something about the priorities of Boston College. While some colleges out there choose to distance themselves from their historically religious origin, it seems Boston College is not going that route. That’s too bad, because I’d rather see a college prioritize diversity.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    @Reginald, they’re not selling indulgences any more. At least, not yet.

    Oh that’s right. You get them by visiting certain religious shrines. Coincidentally (!) the Vatican now has an airline which flies pilgrims to religious shrines.

  • Ron, I’m with you on the turbans.

    I understand your response. I guess what I’m saying is it’s their right to have a small mind. That’s what’s beautiful about this country.

    I guess my attitude is to say embrace their “celebration” or “proclamation” or “display” of their beliefs, doing it in their private setting and not pushing their religious perspective on the public arena.

    Now if Boston College was spending thousands on donating to Prop 8 or something, I’d see your point. But a Catholic college putting up Catholic symobls… the demographics of the school matter little. It’s their God given…. oops… Constitutional given right. And a silly use of it or not, I’m glad they have it.

  • Well, it is a Catholic college so I can’t get worked up over them putting up Catholic statues and other imagery on campus. It’s their prerogative.

  • Belinda

    I beg to differ with the very first comment. A Catholic college wishing to visibly display the truth of it’s charism would welcome and encourage athiests or non-believers to attend. The point of being a Catholic educator is first and foremost to spread the good news of the Gospel of Christ. The western concept of university is the product of the Catholic church. Faith and Reason have been a consistent belief of Catholics and the physical symbol of that belief is on the one hand good advertizing and also truth. Boston College, being a Catholic university, has a different mission from a secular one and it would be misleading NOT to have crucifixes in each room.

  • Belinda

    I would rather know up front what the mission or policy of a university is so that I could make an informed decision than register for college under the “Idea” that I was attending a secular university when I’m not. The visible symbols of the faith would, at the very least, provide someone with information regarding that university’s religious affiliation. It’s difficult enough to determine what kind of education one is receiving. To me, this is just further information being provided so that students and their parents can make an informed decision. As a Catholic I can tell you that a school having crucifixes in classrooms wouldn’t reassure me that my teen is getting a Catholic education. There are many who have the “symbols” but are not Catholic in their beliefs. It’s only a small indication of the education philosophy. One must really do their research to determine what kind of education one wants and what one would receive at any institution.

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