The Brazen Word

In a Dec. 4 visit to St. John’s, Father Benedict Groeschel, one of the most outspoken Catholics alive, sent what was, to some, a shocking message to a group of about 100 St. John’s community members: “I was here nine years ago and gave a talk where I belly-ached about how the school wasn’t Catholic enough,” he said. “I probably won’t be back for another nine years.”

Groeschel’s analysis introduces a question worth asking: why, at a University that emphasizes its position as a Catholic institution, is it difficult for an outsider (or insider, for that matter) to sense a Vincentian environment?

In recent history, the University has struggled with maintaining a tradition that is primarily Roman Catholic, secondarily academic, and finally athletic. But in an era where it seems obvious that athletes, regardless of how poor their grades may be, are accepted into what was once regarded as one of the most prestigious universities in the country (see Derwin Kitchen), and where numerous University-sponsored events contradict its Vincentian mission (see Elephant Man concert, among a laundry list of others), St. John’s has, for better or worse, become estranged with its traditional priorities.

This struggle allows the University to flourish by inviting diverse programming and academic initiatives that are essential to any college-level education. It hinders the University when, because of these initiatives and attempts at appeasing disparate cultures and religions, the school waters down its base.

The latter is the unfortunate case in our cafeterias during Lent, as the University dining halls continue to serve meat on Fridays.
As a Catholic, I find this problematic, as the University is appeasing non-Catholics at the cost of hindering students like myself. What I hear in response to my complaint is that a large portion of the St. John’s community is not Catholic. This fact alone has deeply secularized and muddled our University’s identity at the cost of providing Catholics a Catholic environment at a Catholic school. But why?

If I attended a Jewish University, I would not expect to be able to get a pulled-pork sandwich on campus.

And while I would have no problem attending a secular institution (the fact that St. John’s is a Catholic school had no influence on my decision to apply), I find it disheartening that a Catholic University would ignore such a simple, fundamental religious tradition, especially in the season of Lent. One of the staples of this University is that it is Catholic; to compromise that part of its identity is inconsistent and detrimental to its mission as an institution of higher learning.

A student that goes to St. John’s, regardless of religious affiliation, deserves a Catholic environment.

The struggle of being at once Catholic and a university goes much deeper for St. John’s, though. At least one professor in the school’s theology department has and continues to teach a kind of theology that blatantly contradicts Roman Catholicism.

“The Virgin Mother was not actually a virgin,” I and others I know have been taught. “Jesus had blood brothers,” I’ve heard.

I find it important for a University, even a Catholic one, to have professors who are not Catholic teaching in science, English, and even philosophy departments. But for a non-Catholic to teach wholly un-Catholic dogma in the St. John’s University theology department? Seems a bit inappropriate.

I respect and admire administrators for continuing to walk the fine line between maintaining Catholic values and excessively secularizing a Catholic institution. But I feel ashamed that the school I call my own fails to appease its base, that it does not stay true to its most fundamental values, and that it compromises one of its potentially outstanding attributes.

“We are St. John’s,” they say. I’m not sure what that means any more.