Art Spurs Debate over Catholic Identity, Open Inquiry

By Roberts, Tom | National Catholic Reporter, March 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

Art Spurs Debate over Catholic Identity, Open Inquiry


Roberts, Tom, National Catholic Reporter


"Catholic College Hangs Crucifixes" may not come across, at first glance, as a "Man Bites Dog" kind of headline, but at Boston College, crucifixes affixed to classroom walls, following on recent installations of other Catholic art on campus, have raised a howl in some quarters claiming infringement of intellectual freedom.

The debate on the campus of the Jesuit-run school might be seen variously as one more skirmish in the Catholic culture wars, as an affront on campus to those of other faiths, or as a sign that Catholic institutions are entering a new period of post-Vatican II maturity in which Catholics no longer have to prove they are open to other religious traditions.

Amir Hoveyda, head of the college's chemistry department, was quoted by the campus newspaper, The Observer, describing the crucifixes as "offensive."

"I can hardly imagine a more effective way to denigrate the faculty of an educational institution," he said. The crucifixes, he said, were installed "in a disturbingly surreptitious manner" and without discussion with the faculty.

"I welcome it," said Thomas Groome, chairperson of the Pastoral Institute, a department within the new school of theology and ministry. "It's a funny thing, but I think in postmodernity we are in a better place to claim our Catholic identity than in modernity."

In an earlier era, said Groome, Catholics in academia were almost embarrassed because of the church's "hegemonic claims" that it was the only path to salvation. More recently, however, "we've been able to say, maybe we don't have the only meta-narrative in town, but we have a good one, so why wouldn't we show it to the world?"

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Groome, author of What Makes Us Catholic: Eight Gifts for Life, said the "reinstating of the crucifix--it is a reinstatement--is timely. It's not seen today as hegemonic and sectarian the way it may have seemed 35 to 40 years ago. In a sense, we've been chastened. It's not a narrow sectarianism we're falling into."

The crucifixes were installed in all 151 classrooms on campus during the Christmas holiday, many of them brought back by students from "immersion and service trips" to Latin America and elsewhere, said school spokesman John Dunn. Installing the crucifixes was part of a more comprehensive move to enhance the school's Catholic identity, an eight-year effort that was begun in 2000 by university president Jesuit Fr. William Leahy with the founding of the Committee on Christian Art.

The charge of the committee, according to a statement from its chair, Jesuit Fr. T. Frank Kennedy, was to display "Christian art in spaces inside and outside" campus buildings reflecting "the Catholic heritage that is Boston College as it identifies itself as a Catholic and Jesuit university."

As a consequence of that work, two murals, one depicting Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and another showing former Jesuit superior general Pedro Arrupe, have been displayed in the foyer of Lyons Hall since 2001. A towering statue of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, was installed in front of Higgins Hall in 2005, and a new statue of St. Thomas More is being designed for the university's law school on its Newton campus.

The works commissioned by the Committee on Christian Art, made up of administrators, faculty and students, also include a sculpture by Peter Rockwell, son of famous American artist Norman Rockwell. It is titled "Tree of Life" and described by Kennedy as a "whimsical fountain that plays upon imagery from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. …

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