New Assignment: From Harvard to Catholic Charities

By Higgins, Richard | The Christian Century, December 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

New Assignment: From Harvard to Catholic Charities


Higgins, Richard, The Christian Century


HE ALWAYS SAID that he was a priest first and a dean second. J. Bryan Hehir made that clear when he accepted the helm of Harvard Divinity School in 1998, declining to take the title (he is officially chair of the school's executive body) or to live in Jewett House, the school's stately deanery on Francis Avenue (he lives at a Catholic parish in Harvard Square). He even kept his part-time job at Catholic Relief Services, commuting each week to Baltimore.

Nevertheless, many at Harvard hoped that he would be smitten by the lure of being a Cambridge don and stay on. Those hopes grew as Hehir, the first Roman Catholic priest to steer the historically Protestant school, helped to lift morale damaged by the departure of the previous dean, worked energetically on new programs, fund raising and needed faculty appointments, and guided the school through an $11 million renovation of its library.

But it was not to be. Hehir, a respected moral theologian and Catholic social ethicist, and a specialist in international issues and theories of just war, announced last summer that he was taking a "new assignment in the church," as he calls it. He surrenders his Harvard faculty appointment--he is professor of the practice in religion and society--on December 31 to become president of Catholic Charities USA in Alexandria, Virginia, one of the nation's largest church-based providers of social service.

While it may be unusual for an Ivy League dean to voluntarily step down for a church-related job, it is entirely characteristic of Hehir.

"What I've done at Harvard I've always done with the knowledge that I am a priest of the Roman Catholic Church and that I need to be accountable to that," Hehir said in an interview with me at his residence, the red brick rectory of St. Paul's Parish in Cambridge. The parish is the historic home of the Catholic chaplaincy at Harvard.

Hehir, 61, a Massachusetts native, is a diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, which is governed by Cardinal Bernard Law. Law approved Hehir's decision to acquiesce to the pleas of former Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine to accept the divinity school post, but only if it was not to be long term. "I've always been clear that I've been in a position in which I could be given a church assignment, that there was a sense in which I was on loan to Harvard," Hehir said.

Harvard's new president, Lawrence H. Summers, has appointed a search committee to chose a new dean and is expected to name an interim dean shortly. Harvard officials had been hoping to have a new permanent dean in place by September 2002, but university insiders now say that may be too ambitious.

"Bryan's calm reasoning and unquestioned integrity restored confidence in the divinity school," said Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "One of the shining figures on campus, his presence will be sorely missed."

Hehir's new job, which he has already begun part-time--Hehir was installed as president of Catholic Charities USA during a mass at its annual convention in September--is not all that new, he says. It will engage on a more practical level his longtime academic and intellectual interest in how Catholic social institutions embody and interpret Catholic social and moral teaching.

In Hehir's view, his work at Harvard and for Catholic Charities are two facets of a single theme. "Harvard has been a superb academic setting in which to pursue the work of teaching and research in Catholic social ethics and public policy analysis," he said. "Catholic Charities is a uniquely challenging organization in which to continue this work in the service of the church and society."

Catholic Charities, founded in 1910, is a network of 1,400 agencies that offer direct services such as emergency food and shelter, substance abuse counseling, legal aid to immigrants, job training and care of the elderly and people who have AIDS. …

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