Crucifixes and icons were recently placed in all Boston College classrooms at the request of the Jesuit school’s president, Rev. William P. Leahy, SJ. The move has generated a variety of both enthusiastic and hostile responses.
According to a statement from the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS), executive editor Donato Infante of the Boston College paper The Observer said that Father Leahy had employees hang the images in classrooms around campus over Christmas Break.
Infante reported that during a “State of the Heights” address two weeks ago, Fr. Leahy responded to complaints about the imagery by saying that the administration did not need to consult professors about the decision. He insisted the crucifixes and the icons will not be taken down.
Crucifixes and sacred art have had a scattered presence on campus since the 1970s, the CNS says. Two years ago, a new statue of the Society of Jesus’ founder St. Ignatius Loyola was erected on campus.
Now there is a Catholic icon, usually a crucifix, above the lintel in all 151 college classrooms, the Boston Globe reports.
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn explained the increased presence of Christian images. According to the Boston Globe, Dunn said the art “reflects our pride in and commitment to our religious heritage.”
The Boston Globe reports that student reaction has been generally supportive but faculty are divided. A January meeting of department chairs of the arts and sciences reportedly featured a heated argument over the images. A handful of faculty have written to the administration in protest, and some “unsuccessfully” circulated a petition asking to have the crucifixes removed.
Maxim D. Shrayer, chairman of the department of Slavic and Eastern languages and literatures, told the Boston Globe that he believes the display of religious signs and symbols 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.”
In a statement published in the Observer, chemistry professor Amir H. Hoveyda attacked the decision, saying:
“I can hardly imagine a more effective way to denigrate the faculty of an educational institution. If that has been the purpose of the administration of Boston College, I congratulate them, as they have succeeded brilliantly.”
He argued that “such surface displays… belittle the significance of any symbol that pertains to any form of spirituality” Claiming that the classroom is “a symbol of dispensing with any prioritized prejudices,” he said the display of the crucifixes “represents a bias towards one way of thinking.” He charged the university administration’s approach with being “irresponsible and anti-intellectual.”
“It is not how a progressive and enlightened university thinks and operates,” Prof. Hoveyda’s criticism continued, saying he had strongly believed in the principles of “freedom and tolerance and democracy” in his native Iran where he was imprisoned and “badly tortured” for those beliefs.
“I am not about to give in now; I more than ever appreciate the importance of values that I, many of my colleagues and students stand for. As far as I could tell, such values were supposed to be part of the Jesuit tradition as well.”
Fr. John Paris, SJ, was pleased with the display of the Christian imagery, saying to the Boston Globe “Christian iconography and symbols permeate this place and always have.”
He said the notion that a crucifix impedes the ability of students or faculty to think critically was “offensive” to him and described such criticism as “the narrow and bizarre musings of a few disgruntled folks.”
“This is a small problem for those with small minds," Paris continued, denying the issue is a serious controversy.
The Observer quoted Boston College junior Michael Williams, who said “Although seemingly a small gesture, rest assured that these symbols give great joy and confidence to me and many of my friends for the direction the school is taking as becoming, as Father Leahy has put it, the nation's leading Catholic university.”
CNS President Patrick J. Reilley also approved, saying “Bravo for Boston College!”
“For Catholics, outward signs, symbols and practices of our faith are an important part of relating to God in a material world,” he said in a CNS statement.
Reilley argued that the complaints are “a sad consequence of the mixed signals from Boston College over several years.”
“At times Catholic teaching and tradition are celebrated, other times they are scorned and undermined. But the crucifixes are a very happy movement forward!”
Infante asked critical professors to understand “what these symbols mean to us.”
“The hanging of the sacred art had nothing to do with asserting power. It had everything to do with honoring our God and being constantly reminded of His love,” he said.