Boston College’s president, Father William Leahy, SJ, is a man of no small dreams, having publicly declared his intention of leading BC to the position of world’s premier Catholic university. (I’m still trying to figure out what BC is doing in my beloved Atlantic Coast Conference, but that’s perhaps another matter.) One has to admire Father Leahy’s sense of purpose, which less charitable souls might even call chutzpah. Recent goings-on at BC suggest, however, that the university is more likely to become a Catholic imitation of politically-correct Harvard than the greatest Catholic institution of higher education on Planet Earth.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was invited to deliver this past May’s BC commencement address and to receive an honorary degree. Many BC students were thrilled; they admired her, and getting Dr. Rice to their commencement trumped that other Boston-area university, the one in Cambridge. But Father Kenneth Himes, OFM, the theology department chairman, and Father David Hollenbach, SJ, who holds the Flatley Chair in Father Himes’ department, were not thrilled. To the contrary, they were very unhappy campers, and organized a petition, signed by some two hundred other BC folk, which strongly objected to Rice’s honorary degree. Why? Because, they claimed, an article she had written in Foreign Affairs had argued a view of the role of national interest in US foreign policy that was incompatible with the teaching of the Catholic Church. And because Dr. Rice had, in office, committed grave errors of “practical moral judgment” — meaning her role as National Security Advisor in the decision to go to war in Iraq.
As Father Paul McNellis, another Boston College Jesuit, usefully pointed out, Himes and Hollenbach misrepresented both Rice’s concept of national interest and its place in the formulation of foreign policy, and the Church’s settled moral teaching on international public life. As for Iraq, Himes and Hollenbach were playing politics in the guise of moral theology. For Fathers Himes and Hollenbach seemed to assume, as self-evidently true, that the US-led action in Iraq did not meet the standards set by the just war tradition. But that is not self-evidently true at all, as I tried to demonstrate in the April issue of First Things. Serious just war analysts could and did have different prudential judgments about what should be done, in early 2003, about a genocidal maniac who, defying a dozen UN resolutions, was about to break out of “the box” of international sanctions and resume his quest for regional hegemony and weapons of mass destruction, and his support for international terrorism. But to assert, as a moral given, that the action undertake by the US-led coalition in Iraq was unjustified and indeed unjustifiable is, as Father McNellis put it, a “political disagreement masquerading as a moral and theological dispute.”
That, alas, is par for the course in today’s American Catholic theological guild, in which Fathers Himes and Hollenbach are prominent members. Another member of the guild, Father Drew Christiansen, SJ (now editor of America), has gone so far as to propose revising the Catechism of the Catholic Church to establish, not a parallel magisterium of theologians, but a shadow government of theologians who would determine when the criteria for the morally justifiable use of armed force has been met. No small ambitions there, either.
I certainly don’t wish to suggest that Father Leahy’s hopes for Boston College are misplaced or untoward. Still, the BC commencement follies came in the wake of some other — shall we say — peculiarities in Golden Eagle-land. Another member of the BC theology department, Father John Paris, SJ, publicly supported the campaign to euthanize Terry Schiavo. BC has also been home to efforts by prominent and wealthy Catholic laymen to reinvent Catholicism as Catholic Congregationalism, under the rubric of improved management practices.
There are great teachers and great students at Boston College. Unless Father Leahy gets his faculty to understand that the Sixties are over, however, his honorable ambitions are going to be, and should be, frustrated.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3215.