From Heaven to Earth: reflecting on the Boston College crucifix controversy

This piece was subsequently published in the May 2009 edition of Dimensions: The Newsletter of the Thomas More Center for the Study of Catholic Thought & Culture, at Rockhurst University.

Back in February of this year, I wrote an open letter to the President of Boston College in which I expressed my unconditional support for his action of placing crucifixes in all of the college classrooms while students were on Christmas break. In that letter I reflected on my own experience as a student at Rockhurst University, but perhaps more importantly, on my experience as a Catholic.

What does a crucifix really mean, writ large? It is a sign of contradiction. It is a reminder that the God-Man condescended to die by our ignominious methods so that we might have eternal life. It is an enigma, a puzzle, a constant examination of conscience. Yes, our sins put Him there. Yes, our sins keep Him there.

I think that as a Catholic university student sees a crucifix in a classroom, it is perhaps, unfortunately, background decoration that doesn’t stand out. Indeed, most Rockhurst students who are Catholic have attended Catholic schools their whole lives and a crucifix for them would be notable by its absence, not by its presence. It is perhaps we who have to struggle the most to keep the relevance of the cross and its contradictions ever before us.

But what about the Jewish, the Muslim, the agnostic, the atheist, or the ever-growing number, as a recent poll indicated, of “non-religious” students? What relevance does the crucifix have for them? In an institution that still studies in our TH 1000 class the question of what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, it is perhaps more appropriate than ever to note that the crucifix has every relevance, perhaps more, for these non-Catholic students.

In the first place, it is the raison d’etre of the institution in which they are in at the moment. Beyond the fact that we are in a Jesuit university, Catholics invented universities and the Church, despite numerous calumnies over the ages, has always taken care to preserve scholarship of note. If that crucifix in the classroom vanishes, so does the university.

Indeed, the very way we reckon time is measured from the Man on the Cross’s birth. However silly and mendaciously Orwellian it is to label as “BCE” what we have always known as “Before Christ,” even the most staunch revisionist will admit at the end of the day that the emperor’s new clothes don’t change the fact that time is still recognized and reckoned from Christ, and that the new labels, which lamentably, even some Christians adopt, are a victory in the tradition of Pyrrhus.

The core curriculum which every Rockhurst student, regardless of discipline, must submit him/herself to flows from the Western intellectual tradition, which is unabashedly, with few exceptions, Christian in character. The crucifix is the starting point for the ruminations of Augustine, the thoughts of Boethius, the poetry of Dante, the synthesis of Aquinas, the brush strokes of Raphael, the Requiem of Mozart, and the reconciling of Maritain. It is also the starting point for the rapacious satires of Voltaire, the hatreds of Nietzsche, the discoveries of Galileo, the hypotheses of Darwin, the cynicism of Marx, and the denials of Dawkins. The Western intellectual tradition at almost every turn is informed by the lessons of the crucifix – the contradictions which show not only God’s ineffable love for us, but our hesitant and often failing steps, like St. Peter’s when stepping out of the boat, in our attempt to follow, understand, and return that love.

But, most importantly the crucifix is for us a subtle question. As I said in my letter to Fr. Leahy, BC’s president, regarding certain protests by faculty: “I think the real fear is in the confrontation of that crucifix with what goes on in the mind of an undergraduate student on a daily basis. A lecture might be occurring, group work might be happening…a chance glance upwards: there is Our Lord on the Cross. He beckons. The student thinks: what does that Man – who thought Himself God – have to do with me? Yes, that question is uncomfortable…because it challenges the status quo.” And isn’t that what a true undergraduate education is supposed to do? Challenge the status quo so we can reveal the reasons for our beliefs and actions? Certainly. But perhaps, more importantly, what a Catholic undergraduate education is supposed to do, as BC’s Jesuit community recently reminded us in this most subtle of gestures, is challenge the daily encounter of our beliefs not just in books, but in the simple crossed wood of the crucifix, in the embrace of a Man who loved us so much that He died to save us.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen founded True Restoration in 2006 and served as its first President until 2023. He now lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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1 Response

  1. pam proietti says:

    I found this posting by Heiner very thoughtful, very beautiful, and persuasive. While studying in a graduate program at Boston College–end of 1970s and early 1980s–I had not been particularly religious, most of my teachers were secular,and many of them were apparently atheists. Yet, many years later, the gift I have most cherished from my Catholic/Jesuit education is that profound awareness of and appreciation of the culture of philosophic Athens and Biblical Jerusalem–a gift which was given to me by means of a counter-cultural Jesuit education. Bravo for the Jesuits at Boston College. May their enlightened commitment to both Athens and Jerusalem long endure against the cultural challenges posed by these foolish and self-destructive representatives of political correctness—pam proietti