At a Crossroads
Georgetown's Evolving Catholic Identity
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012
Updated: Saturday, March 31, 2012 22:03
When Fr. William McFadden, S.J., came to Georgetown University in 1963, a crucifix occupied a place of honor at the front of every classroom. Before class began, students were asked to face the cross and say a simple prayer. It was a time before the Second Vatican Council modernized the Catholic Church, and strict adherence to Catholic doctrine was the standard.
“Students were required to attend Mass, and they had to stamp these little cards on the way out of the chapel to show that they had gone,” McFadden recalled. “A lot of it was for show, such as saying the prayer at the start of class. In actuality, it was really a way to get students to quiet down before class.”
Students were also required to go on religious retreats. Every Friday, buses lined up in Healy Circle to cart students from one of the residence halls to a nearby retreat center for the weekend.
But two years after McFadden came to Georgetown, Vatican II changed the Catholic Church — and the university along with it.
In 1968, the curriculum was overhauled, and as a part of it, the theology requirement was lowered from four to two courses. But McFadden said though religious practices were no longer mandatory, the university’s Catholic community flourished.
“Retreats became a voluntary thing and attracted students who actually wanted to go. And I found that when the theology requirement was lowered but extended to all students and not just Catholic ones, more students actually ended up taking elective religion classes overall. It allowed those students who really cared about Georgetown’s Catholic identity to revel in it.”
STATIONS OF THE CROSS
And so things remained for the next 30 years. But in 1996, Sister Elizabeth Fiore, V.H.M. (COL ’99), then a freshman, could not find a crucifix to pray under in the classroom in which she was studying. In the years after Vatican II, the university had not installed crucifixes in newly constructed buildings.
Enraged, Fiore published a letter in the August 1996 edition of the independent Catholic journal, The Academy.
“Society needs the reminder of the crucifix. Indeed, Georgetown University has flourished for over 200 years because she has needed the reminders of the cross. Now she must return to those reminders,” Fiore wrote. “Where Dante has reserved the hottest place in hell for those who are indifferent in the face of conflict, he has reserved the coldest place for those who partake in treacherous acts of betrayal. Georgetown students, be not puzzled if you suddenly feel a draft when you sit in class.”
Fiore, now a nun with the Monastery of Visitation in Georgetown, organized the Committee for Crucifixes in the Classroom, and during the next year, the group unsuccessfully worked to petition the university to place crosses in every classroom on campus.
“We didn’t remove all the crucifixes or make a decision to not hang them up purposefully,” English professor John Glavin, who also gives tours on the religious iconography on campus, said. “It’s just that when we built new buildings, crucifixes were never put up in the rooms. When students started protesting, we faced the question of what to do about it. We asked faculty, and many felt uncomfortable lecturing with the cross overhead.”
After forming a task force to evaluate the situation, the university announced a new policy in 1998.
“We decided there would be crucifixes, but they would have a historic or aesthetic importance,” Glavin said.
University Registrar John Pierce, who was involved in the task force on the issue, said that the university solicited donations, and the crucifixes were then placed in classrooms along with plaques explaining their origins and historical and artistic importance.
Those crucifixes are not front-and-center in classrooms. The university installed them based on where they best fit in each room, Pierce said, adding that he has not received any complaints about the icons since that time.
According to McFadden, Fiore’s battles with the administration had little to do with the actual symbol of the crucifix.
“This was really about identity politics. Georgetown’s Catholic character has nothing to do with crucifixes in classrooms. Identity does not hang on something like that,” he said. “Rather, this young woman felt that Georgetown was not religious enough and was casting about for a cause. This became that cause.”
“There was immense pressure at the time, both inside and outside the university, about the crucifixes. They were considered a symbol of the permanence of our Catholic identity,” he said.
Kieran Raval (COL ’13), Grand Knight of the university’s chapter of the Knights of Columbus, argued the crucifixes are part of an important tradition that keeps Georgetown’s Catholic identity alive.
“It’s a tradition to carry on, not for the sake of nostalgia, but because Georgetown is based on certain truths.” Raval said. “Other perspectives increase a vibrant atmosphere, but at the end of the day, we are rooted in Catholicism.”