Monday, December 14, 2015

"I hate Catholicism as I do poison": Harvard University President Charles William Eliot (1869-1909) and anti-Catholicbigotry in the 19th century

Years ago, on a TV comedy talk show called Fernwood Tonight, comedian Fred Willard made this observation to talk-show host Martin Mull: "Isn't it funny how times have changed?" Willard remarked. "During World War II, people were encouraged to shoot Germans. You might even get a medal for shooting one. But, boy, if you shoot a German today, you're in big trouble!"

I thought about Willard's remark as I considered recent efforts to condemn important historical figures--Americans who were once greatly honored. Take President Woodrow Wilson, for example. The New York Times recently editorialized in favor of striking Wilson's name from Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs based on his record of racism.  Wilson might have thought his legacy would be secure after he died; after all, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize! But the revisionists finally rooted out the racist rascal--exposed like a retired Nazi living in Argentina.

In New Orleans, a groundswell of local opinion will probably force Robert E. Lee's statue off its pedestal at Lee Circle, where it has stood for 100 years. I'm a little more ambivalent about outing Robert E. Lee. I read Douglas Southall Freeman's multi-volume biography of Lee  several years ago, and I became convinced that Lee had many noble qualities.

Nevertheless, I sympathize with the people who want to knock Lee of his perch. As a Catholic, I am offended by the many historical figures who continue to be honored in spite of their clear records of anti-Catholic bigotry.

For example, Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School and father of the case method of teaching, barred graduates from Catholic colleges from being admitted to Harvard Law School. Yes, and in spite of this well-known fact, Harvard's law library is still named Langdell Hall.

Harvard's president, Charles William Eliot, supported Langdell's bigoted policy, claiming it was based on the inferior quality of Catholic colleges and not prejudice. Was President Eliot himself an anti-Catholic bigot? This is what Eliot wrote about Catholicism when he was a young man visiting Europe in the mid-1860s: "I hate Catholicism as I do poison, and all the pomp and power of the Church is depressing and mortifying me."

Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard  1869-1909
"I hate Catholicism as I do poison . . ."
So, let the revisionist historians have a ball. Down with all the statues of Confederate generals! Agitate for the revocation of President Wilson's Nobel Peace Prize!  Remove Andrew Jackson's picture from the twenty-dollar bill!

But let's not let the anti-Catholic bigots lie undisturbed. Harvard's Langdell Hall must be renamed! Surely some Catholic Harvard law students are willing to take over the dean's office to make that happen. And Harvard should take down all the portraits of President Eliot and place them in a broom closet--and I mean now!

Indeed, there are scores of anti-Catholic bigots who should be posthumously humiliated: Horace Mann, John Dewey, Lyman Beecher, and President John Adams; and that's just for openers.

As for you, Ulysses S. Grant, don't get too comfortable in that tomb of yours. If the revisionists examine your views on Catholicism closely, you might be evicted from your final resting place and replaced by someone whose life contained no whiff of bigotry. In fact, we 're measuring Harriet Tubman  for your spot right now! Tubman's Tomb--it has a ring to it, don't you think?

Grant's Tomb:
Hey, Ulysses, don't get too comfortable in your tomb. You might get evicted!


Daniel R. Coquilette & Bruce A. Kimball. On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, The First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Friday, December 11, 2015

American Catholicism in the 21st century: Some of our churches are ugly and poorly designed, but God still resides in them.

I once had a Canadian friend who grew up Catholic in Nova Scotia. He told me that a nun who taught in the parochial school once told the school children that Christ is actually  present in the Eucharist and that if one were to scratch a communion wafer, it would bleed.

It was not long before a little boy tested this thesis by pocketing a  wafer during Mass and taking it home with him. Expecting to see blood, he scratched the wafer but was disappointed when it merely crumbled.

The parish priest, when he heard this story, had only this to say. "It is a terrible thing," he lamented, "when Catholics don't know their faith."

And of course this is true. But unfortunately, the Church itself often makes it difficult for people to know their faith because Church leaders do careless and thoughtless things.  For example, my parish, Christ the King, built a new church around 15 years ago to accommodate the growing Catholic community on the LSU campus. Unfortunately, the sanctuary was designed so that the Tabernacle resides at a side altar at the back of the church instead of the front of the church, where it is traditionally placed.

Sunday after Sunday, I see parishioners genuflecting to the Crucifix, not realizing that the tabernacle is not where it is supposed to be.  A few people are aware that the Tabernacle is in the back of the Church and they genuflect in the appropriate direction, but it is awkward.

Likewise, the Stations of the Cross at my parish church are merely 14 Roman numerals.  In the older churches, the stations of the cross are depicted pictorially. Thus, at a traditional Station VI, where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus, we actually see Veronica wiping Jesus's face. 

Some of the traditional Stations of the Cross are works of art carved in wood or stone, but I recall visiting a mud church in the Tanzanian highlands, where the Stations of the Cross were made of construction paper and merely tacked to the mud walls. These primitive Stations were quite moving. Who cared enough, I wondered, to see the Stations of the Cross in their proper place that they created Stations with paper and crayons? But at my parish, all we see are Roman numerals.

And these are not my parish church's only deficiencies. The sanctuary contains no niches whatsoever for the saints, although a space was reserved for a statue of Mary at the back of the church.  St. Joseph is nowhere to be found at Christ the King parish church because literally there is no place for him. And surely that is a poverty.

Nevertheless, the beauty and majesty of our Catholic faith always overpowers the thoughtless construction of our modern Catholic churches, and we are strengthened by the Eucharist, even when we encounter it in ugly surroundings. Sometimes for me, the tactile sensation of the wine and the host are almost like a physical jolt, and I am flooded with gratitude that God called me--the most unworthy of people--to the supper of the lamb.

After I partake of communion, I kneel with the other parishioners and watch people go filing by to receive the Eucharist.  At my parish, I mostly see LSU students, people in their twenties. But there are older people too, some quite elderly; and there are children who are too young to take communion but who come forward to receive the priest's blessing.

We Catholics often stumble, but we keep moving forward, century after century, people of every race and color. Through the Eucharist, Mary's prayers, and the intercession of the saints, we experience the power of God and his presence in our lives. "Look not on our sins, but the faith of your Church," the priest says at every Mass; and he might also add, please overlook some of the ugly edifices we constructed as our worship places.


Michael Rose. Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, let us as Catholics urge the government to forgive student-loan debt

According to Old Testament scripture, a jubilee year occurs every fifty years; and in that year, slaves are freed and debts are forgiven. Leviticus 25:8-13. Pope Francis has proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church that begins on December 8, the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. Would not this be a good time for the  U.S. government to forgive  $1.3 trillion in student-loan debt?

Perhaps not all of it. Of the 41 million people who have outstanding student loans, a great many received good value for their college education and can pay back what they borrowed. But 10 million people have either defaulted on their student loans or are delinquent in their payments. Millions more have gotten economic hardship deferments and aren't paying down their loans.

And for some people, their student loan debt is completely out of control. Liz Kelly, for example, featured in a recent New York Times article, is a 48-year old school teacher who owes $410,000 in student-loan debt--most of it accumulated interest. Will she ever pay it back? Not likely.

A 2014 law review article reported that 241,000 people with student-loan debt filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but less than 300 of them even tried to discharge their student loans. Either they figured it would be hopeless to try wipe out their student-loan debt in the bankruptcy courts or they didn't have the money to hire a lawyer to assist them.

And yet, as Paul Campos explained on his blog site and in a recent book,  we have thousands of unemployed or underemployed attorneys, many of whom have crushing student-loan debt themselves. Why doesn't the government, as an act of mercy, encourage these idle lawyers to help people discharge their student loans in bankruptcy?

Mercy, Pope Francis reminds us, demands justice. "True mercy, the mercy God gives to us and teaches us, demands justice, it demands that the poor find a way to be poor no longer," Pope Francis explained. Mercy demands that institutions insure that "no one ever again stand in need of a soup-kitchen, of makeshift lodgings, of a service of legal assistance in order to have his legitimate right recognized to live and to work, to be fully a person."

Our country now has 23 million people who are unable to pay off their student-loan debt.  Indeed, about 150,000 elderly people are having their Social Security checks garnished by the federal government to offset unpaid student loans. For these people there is no Jubilee Year of Mercy--no forgiveness, and little relief even in the bankruptcy courts.

We are now a secular people--a people who pride themselves on having driven religion out of the schools and the public square. But surely we are not a heartless people. Surely our hearts are susceptible to warming by the words of a great man like Pope Francis.

So let us do mercy in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. And if our government is incapable of mercy, let us look for ways we as individuals can render mercy and to work for a system of higher education that does not drive millions of students into the poor house.

Image result for pope francis year of mercy