The Nerve of These Christians

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It is amazing how easily people can be offended by anything to do with religion.

Consider the victims of Radnor Township, a suburb northwest of Philadelphia. The town is home to Villanova University, a nationally prestigious school that one resident admits is important “to our community.”

But Villanova, which is run by the Order of Saint Augustine, apparently has gone too far with its religious displays. It’s almost like the school is forcing people to convert on the spot. No one has mentioned the Inquisition, but we know what they’re thinking.

The controversy involves two crosses. One resident accused Villanova of shoving “these crosses in our faces.”

These crosses are to be placed on either end of a footbridge, which is planned to be built over a busy road, to connect two areas of the campus. The crosses will be four feet, seven inches high and at least 10 feet from the right-away.

The nerve of a Catholic college putting up a cross, let alone two crosses, on its own property where people might actually, you know, see them.

Or, as the old hymn goes:

Lift high the cross,
Unless ye takes offense

In a Philadelphia Inquirer story, Roberta Winters, president of the League of Women Voters of Radnor – she being the one who acknowledged Villanova’s importance to the community – asked if “there are less ostentatious ways to reflect a Catholic institution?”

How silly of a Catholic institution – or any Christian establishment – to dare point out the importance of the cross. When St. Paul said his only boast was of the “cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he did not realize just how ostentatious and offensive he came across.

Crosses and Christian schools go together. Why that seems a problem, I’m not sure. Lately, the College of the Holy Cross appears to have a “Crusader issue” on its hands. One can only hope the cross survives the controversy.

Back in 2009, Boston College placed crucifixes in all its classrooms. A group of faculty members protested. “It’s not how a progressive and enlightened university thinks and operates,” one professor wrote.

The crucifixes stayed and for the past eight years we’ve noticed the school on Chestnut Hill slipping further and further into the dark ages.

What don’t people get about Catholic schools trying to be Catholic? When I toured Catholic colleges in the northeast with my oldest son several years ago, we came across an array of presentations. One admissions dean avoided the word Catholic all together, although he did proclaim the school taught “in the Jesuit tradition.” At the same school, when we went on a student-directed tour, the student hurried by the chapel.

“That’s the chapel,” he said, walking past the building. “Don’t worry. They don’t make you go.”

I don’t expect the admissions people to walk out with a thurible of burning incense, but when they hide their supposed identity, I wonder what they are ashamed of?

At a Catholic school, I expect to see and learn about Catholic identity. It would be the same for a Methodist school. Presbyterian …

My young (Christian) cousin attended a Jewish pre-school. She was taught Jewish prayers, including some in Hebrew. I don’t think anyone complained about a Jewish school acting like, um, a Jewish school.

Would anyone complain if there was a visible display with a Star of David on the school grounds – or would that be rubbing it in our faces?

At Villanova, the bridge is being funded in part by the state because it is spanning a state road. Villanova is also spending “multi-millions” according to the article. Again, the crosses are off to the side, at the ends of the bridge, on Villanova property.

According to an article by the Catholic News Agency, upset Radnor residents notified the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which complained to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot) – unsuccessfully.

From the article:  “PennDot said it could not control what the university did with its own property and with its own funds, which are providing for the crosses and most of the bridge.”

So people driving by, just as if they were motoring past any religious property, will see a religious symbol.

Let the offending begin.

I’ll leave the last word for Villanova president Reverend Peter Donohue, who told the Inquirer:

“On every building on campus, there’s a cross. I understand people’s sensitivities, but it’s just something we’ve always done. It’s just part of who we are. We are a faith-based institution.”


The proposed pedestrian bridge linking two portions of the campus of Villanova University in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania has crosses at either end.
Artist’s Rendering Courtesy of Villanova University.



Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.