Crucifixes - Plus Other Religious Symbols - on Campus?

Cambridge, MA. You will have heard by now about how the European Court has decreed that crucifixes in Italian classrooms are illegal, a violation of the rights of those who wish not to be confronted with such religious symbols. The debate is a fascinating one: that the Court should interfere in local affairs, as it seems often to do; that some Italians at least argue that the crucifix, of all symbols, is cultural and not religious; and that many still think that it does Christianity a service to have on display only the symbols of the Christian faith; some Christians seem genuinely clueless as to why anyone would object to a crucifix in front of them. Jim Martin has already brought to your attention the Vatican reaction — or lack thereof — to the decision, though the sources indicate that there is real displeasure or at least regret in the Vatican at this development.
     The specific issue will take some time to resolve, surely, but it reminds me of debates we had at Boston College over the years, precisely on this issue, crucifixes and other Christian symbols in the classroom: I recall more or less heated debates on the matter in the 1980s, and 1990s, and early this year, long after I shifted from BC to Harvard, the matter arose again, this time by a determined effort to have crucifixes or other Catholic Christian symbols in every classroom.
     My own position, back to the 1980s, was that we should avoid, on Catholic university campuses, a bland secularism that erases all religious symbols or reduces them to cultural relics, but also an exclusively Christian set of symbols of religion that makes all else invisible. The faculty and student body on our campuses are religiously diverse; the curriculum includes courses on and references to many different religions; the library is full of books about different religions, including the sacred scriptures of different faiths; most Catholic campuses provide proper spaces for worship in accord with other traditions. That the visual art on campus should be only Christian, or indeed Catholic Christian (as a crucifix usually is), seems too narrow, a deficit of spiritual imagination. We do best, I suggest, when we make our religious diversity visible and more prominent as a real part of our lives. To see Hindu and Buddhist symbols on a Catholic campus, for instance, is not a doctrinal claim, but a reminder of the diversity that our universities have opted for, chosen, fostered, for decades, and a respectful recognition of the religious heritage of those we have welcomed into our midst. To have only Christian symbols might give the appearance of a uniform Catholicism that wants other religions to be privatized and invisible — and none of us profits from this “erasure” of the other. And would not fearing the visibility of other religions underestimate the ability of our faculty and students to notice differences - or the power of the crucified to make himself known even to those who have both eyes open?
     So it would be good in this country, and indeed in Italy, for religious communities to work together to make prominent the images and practices of the religions present in any given locale. Let there be more such symbols in educational institutions, so that having seen this diversity with our eyes open, we can meditate on what we see, and decide what it means for us.
     I cannot help but call your attention to a short reflection I wrote during one of those controversies at BC some decades ago, my little essay charmingly called “Goddess in the Classroom.” It in turn recalls a pivotal moment in my own formation, when I was teaching in Kathmandu in 1974. I’m not sure the issues, or the answers, have changed much in 35 years.

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Marie Rehbein
9 years 2 months ago
     People expect to see the religious symbols that are associated with the religion that is sponsoring the institution when they are in the institution's buildings.  That is, in a Catholic college, one expects to see crosses and crucifixes. 
     In chapels of non-denominational colleges, one would expect to find a variety of symbolic artifacts available for use depending upon the religious affiliation of the chapel users at the given time.  However, one would not expect to see religious symbols of any kind in the classrooms of such schools. 
     Therefore, it seems to be overcomplicating the situation to advocate for the display of a variety of religious symbols in Catholic sponsored classrooms.  It seems likeliest that students who go to a religiously affiliated school are comfortable with the symbols of that religion and do not need to have other symbols present in order to feel welcome.
     I am reminded of the time of my oldest child's college search.  One college that came to his attention turned out to be Jewish.  This was not a problem except for the fact that Catholic Mass was only available once a month at that remotely located campus.  
     Mass being so infrequently available was much more significant than a lack of Catholic symbols being visible around the campus.  Had they displayed crucifixes, it would have given the impression that they understood absolutely nothing of their meaning.  It seems likely that displaying artifacts associated with other religions on a Catholic campus gives the same lame impression.
Brendan McGrath
9 years 2 months ago
On the matter of crucifixes in classrooms and other locations at Catholic colleges:  I went to Georgetown University (graduated in 2005), and got my Master of Theological Studies (MTS) at Notre Dame (Aug. 2006 to May 2008); the issue often came up at Georgetown, as part of the ongoing debate over Georgetown's Catholic identity.  Overall, I think that Georgetown and other Catholic colleges could learn a lot from Notre Dame, which I think has a better model - though on the other hand, ND may have appeared "more Catholic" to me than it actually is, since I was mainly in the Theology department, etc.  But overall, I think people on the outside looking only at things like the Obama visit don't see how Catholic Notre Dame is - it's really just about on target, I think.
Anyway - I strongly feel that every classroom in a Catholic school should have a crucifix, and that Catholic art, sculpture, etc. should be everywhere.  I want us to be as ostentatiously Catholic as possible - flaunt it, baby.  I am not a right-wing "conservative" Catholic (though EWTN is a such a guilty pleasure), but I do tend to be both liberal and traditional, and this is an issue on which I'm pretty traditional.  I DO want everyone to be welcome, and I think it would be fine to have symbols of other religions displayed, but I do think the Catholic ones should be predominant.  It's tough to find the right balance - but somehow, I think the attitude should be that yes, everyone is welcome, but they're welcome to a place that is Catholic.  (Of course, proper pastoral care can or should be provided for those who aren't Catholic.)
In short, I went to a Catholic college because I wanted a Catholic school - give me Catholicism!


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