St. Ignatius Gate entrance at Boston College (Photo: Boston_Starbucks_Rebel / Wikipedia)
Once, I was a theologian.
to tell you the truth, as a believing Catholic who seeks to understand
what it is she believes, I am still a theologian. I was taught this on
the first day of my "Method in Theology" class in Toronto, and it wrote
itself permanently on my heart. All believing Catholics who seek to
understand what it is they believe are Catholic theologians, which means
that Ross Douthat is a Catholic theologian. His academic critics are
... academics. Some of them may be Catholic theologians, but I wouldn't
assume thatespecially not if they got their training at Boston College.
"Own your heresy" tweeted Douthat, and Father James Martin, SJ seemed to throw up his hands in holy horror. Oh, how irresponsible! Oh, how potentially damaging to a career! Oh, how the CDF will swoop down like a wolf upon the fold. Except it won't, and it almost never doesand they're too busy packing up Monsignor Charamsa's office right now anyway.
brain-blowing combination of asserting that what is not Catholic
teaching is somehow Catholic teaching and then shrieking like a
frightened schoolgirl when the word "heresy" is uttered is what the
American Catholic/Jesuit theological academy is all about, and I should
know. I was in it for two of the most miserable years of my life.
the Affair Douthat unfolds, I keep attaching faces to the names I
hadn't heard or seen for many years. One of them belongs to an active
homosexual who brought his boyfriend along on the departmental retreat
and shared a room with him. Another belongs to an active unmarried
heterosexual who brought his girlfriend along on the departmental
retreat and shared a room with her. They were both very pleasant and
cheerful men. I liked them very muchwhich does not erase the facts that
they did not believe the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning
sexual morality and that today they are professional Catholic
Boston College. It's been ten years since I first
turned up for "Accepted Students Day", and eight years since I left with
my professional hopes in tatters, but the very name still plunges me
into depression. The contrast between the loving, thoughtful environment
of my Canadian theologate and the neurotic, boastful, overrated,
double-faced snake pit that was the Boston College theology department
transformed me from one of the "rock stars" of my Canadian
collegesuccessfully juggling coursework and three jobs, graduating magna cum laudeinto a hysterical wreck, unable to read print.
Ignatius of Loyola composed a prayer that begins, "Take, Lord, my
liberty, my understanding, my entire will". In the post-Vatican II era
it was set to a jolly tune, and I had sung it blithely in Toronto
without the slightest clue what losing one's understanding might mean.
In my case it meant forcing myself, in agony, to make the little black
marks on the page make sense and then exploding in fury when the
document before me was merely some speculative nonsense about a
"Markian" community that may or may not have existed. "Might", "should",
"it could be": the weasel words of academia.
I had worked
enormously hard to get to Boston Collegethree years of busting my brain
and non-stop reading, writing, volunteering, ministry placements,
jobsand I had loved it. When I got the phone call on February 24, 2005
telling me I had been accepted for the Boston College PhD program in
theology, my heart ached with joy. My lifeI was still a single woman
thenwas finally on track: I would finish my PhD, get a job in a Jesuit
college, walk forever in the groves of academe, well paid, serving God
doing what I loved best.
Reality slapped me in the face when I
arrived for "Accepted Students Day"April 1, I believe. April Fool's
Day. The Holy Father, John Paul II, was dying. This was uppermost on my
mind, and when, at a meet-and-greet, I found myself face-to-face with a
celebrated (in the USA and Canada, that is) professor, I said something
like "Isn't it sad about the Holy Father?" and he saidto me, whom he
had just met"I think he's dead already and they're just covering it
I was staggered. I don't know what I replied, but no doubt it
was Canadian-polite. At one point I was mysteriously whisked away by a
plainclothes nun-professor who had a conspiratorial air. She chatted
about her own time in my hometown, and I had the impression I had been
singled out stealthily. But why?
That was what it was like for the
next two years. Outrageous gossip about professors and theologians I
respected as heroes. ("So, Dorothy, does X have AIDS?" "Y was a drunk,
of course." "I hope it's true Z had a mistress.") Conspiracy. ("Tell me,
Dorothy, what does Professor Q say in his classes about....")
Outrageous remarks. ("Bishops are thugs!") Boasting. ("And I said,
‘Senator...’") And paranoia. Insane paranoia. ("Dorothy, don't write that down!")
my amazement, I discovered that a professor I admired was nervous of me
because he thought I was "conservative"not a good thing to be in the
Boston College theology department, let me tell you. ("But I thought I
was center-left", I wailed to a friend from home.) And after
a visiting priest-professor had a neurotic hissy fit aimed at me before
all my classmatesbecause I questioned his view that the ordained
priesthood and Sunday Mass attendance were ultimately doomedand I
complained to the priest-professor in charge of this class, he suggested
that this man, too, was afraid of me.
Me: a small 35-year-old
graduate student from Canada, a PhD student far from home, completely
dependent on my stipend, my future career dependent on the goodwill of
my professors. Him: a tall, 50-odd year old American Jesuit priest with
tenure at an insanely wealthy American Jesuit university. But somehow I was
the scary one, as if I spent my evenings on the phone denouncing all my
professors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As if the
CDF really had the time to chase every random American professor in
Catholic academia. As if these professors were actually that important or influential. Of course, Benedict XVI was the pope then, and my stars, how the hissy-fit throwing professor hated him.
I did not know, when I blithely applied to study with them, was that
the Boston College professors whose books I had admired did not publish what they really thought.
I had no idea, for example, that one woman professor was all in favour
of women's ordination until I turned up in Boston and saw a Charles Dana
Gibson cartoon of an elegant Gibson Girl wearing preaching bands stuck
to her office door. The delicate balance I had admired, the appeal to
both liberals and conservatives while sticking to the bounds of
orthodoxy, was just a clever trick. The profs would say what they liked
in class to their students; tape recorders were, of course, banned.
was also a lot of theological arm-twisting. In one scarring incident, a
pastoral theology professor showed up to my PhD seminar class with two
large female henchmen-students and photocopies of an article about
Archbishop Sean O'Malley's obedience to the Roman directive not to allow
Catholic adoption agencies to give children to same-sex couples. The
topic of the seminar turned out to be, "How do we convince the
Archbishop to disobey Rome?" As I tearfully (stupid tears!) defended a
child's right to a mother and a father, priest-colleagues stared
silently at the table.
U.S. Senatorsparticularly Catholic
Senatorsconsulted the moral theologians of Boston College on a regular
basis. One of my Jesuit professors, to the dismay of another Jesuit
professor who ranted to me about it, testified that opposing gay
marriage was not in keeping with Catholic tradition. This, I imagine,
was technically true, since there had never been gay marriage to oppose
before. But, naturally, that was another clever trick.
theologate in Canada was run for the students; the theology department
of Boston College was run for the professors. Students were pawns to be
collected and either groomed to continue the professors' intellectual
legacy at other Jesuit colleges, pumped for information about other
professors, or bored senseless by Big Names sitting firmly on their
The emotional damage wreaked on students was certainly
not confined to me. One M.A. student from the American South, a
Protestant fan of Flannery O'Connor, had come to Boston College to learn
about Catholicism. Within weeks she was terribly confused. She asked
different students what Catholicism was and cried a lot. She told me she
had been told, by a "liberal", it was better to be a Protestant than a
"conservative" Catholic at Boston College. I wonder if she ever did
become a Catholic.
You will have noticed that I have not named
names. I do not name names because I will not honor my professors'
paranoid fears about me, the "conservative" who came to Boston College
thinking she belonged there. I thought I belonged there because I
thought it was a Catholic college with a Catholic theology department.
don't like to call it a 'Catholic' theology department," said a
professor to me while I was there. But, yes, they do. They do when it's
I was very cross with God, naturally. I couldn't
understand why He had allowed me to go to Boston College but not
equipped me with the mental strength to survive the PhD. I was furious
and frightened when He took away my ability to read print. (I could
always read the internet, I discovered.) I couldn't find Him anywhere on
campus, saveoccasionallyduring the Benediction organized by the
undergrad Saint Thomas More Society. I used to visit the
(uber-modernist, ragged metal) statue of Saint Ignatius of Loyola to ask
Saint Ignatius what was going on, but I couldn't find Saint Ignatius
What would Saint Ignatius have thought, I always wondered,
of the one million dollar building named after him? What would he have
thought of the $40,000-a-year undergrad tuition-and-board? What would
he, who told his Jesuits not to take money for their teaching, have
thought about the millions made off the bodies of the football players?
Boston College was founded for the poor Irish Catholics of South Boston,
but the only Southie accents I heard came from the lips of one ancient
retired Jesuit, a secretary and the groundsmen toiling over the
landscape so beautiful, manicured and dead.
Today I believe
God sent me to Boston College not to become a professor at a Jesuit
university, as I then believed, but to meet my housemate Ted, who was a
traditionalist Catholic and a blogger. Thanks to Ted's influence, I too
became a blogger, and that has shaped my whole post-academic life. It
has also made me more relevant to contemporary Catholic discourse, which
is no longer confined to the privileged few who are courted and
developed by their professors, butthanks to the internetis open to all Catholics who canand willread and write.