James Foley and Catholic Education

Like so many others, I was stunned and saddened by the news of James Foley, Marquette University ‘94, who was apparently beheaded by ISIS insurgents as retribution for US airstrikes in Iraq against the group. I did not know James Foley personally, but as a Catholic educator, I feel like I know a lot of students like him: smart, idealistic, committed, and brave. In his story, I see the stories of so many of my students. The gravity of his life and untimely death offers occasion to think about the values that make uncommon virtue so common among students like James Foley. In short, what is it about Catholic education that prepares students to pay the cost of discipleship?

Upon the news of Foley’s death, Marquette Magazine reposted a 2011 piece, “Phone call home,” where Foley reflects on the role his Marquette education played in his experience of political imprisonment in Libya. In this letter, Foley describes his transformation from a “sheltered kid” to someone who wanted to “give [his] heart for others.” In his narrative, he portrays Marquette as a good friend, “The kind who challenges you to do more and be better and ultimately shapes who you become.” This friendship, Foley explains, helped him become the kind of journalist—and person—who could face adversity that many try to avoid but that Christian discipleship promises: the experience of suffering for the Gospel.

Foley’s description of his kidnapping in Libya gestures to profound doubt that threatened to consume him and his colleagues during this ordeal:

“Myself and two colleagues had been captured and were being held in a military detention center in Tripoli. Each day brought increasing worry that our moms would begin to panic. My colleague, Clare, was supposed to call her mom on her birthday, which was the day after we were captured. I had still not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened. But I kept telling Clare my mom had a strong faith.”

Thoughts of his mother’s faith fueled him, even as spiritual despair and bodily harm threatened Foley and his companions. When he was finally able to contact his mother, she reminded him that the Marquette community was praying for him. At this moment, he realized that perhaps it was the power of prayer in community that was sustaining him through this trial:

“I replayed that call hundreds of times in my head — my mother’s voice, the names of my friends, her knowledge of our situation, her absolute belief in the power of prayer. She told me my friends had gathered to do anything they could to help. I knew I wasn’t alone.”

The power of community and relationship sustained Foley during this time, giving him freedom and peace when both seemed impossible:

“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”

This sustaining faith, Foley recognized, is the stuff of ultimate freedom.

Two things stand out to me in Foley’s story. First, I am stunned by his fortitude in the face of grave danger. So many students and alums of Catholic schools evidence this virtue. Welles Crowther, a Boston College alumnus who saved several lives at the expense of his own on September 11, 2001, comes to mind as another outstanding example of inexplicable courage in the service of others. James Foley’s journalistic vocation—an unyielding summons that directed his actions—appears to have strengthened him during these conflicts.

Second, James Foley’s life and testimony exemplifies a profound sense of inextricable relationship with God and other people. His sense of connectedness to the suffering of other humans sent him out to share their stories with the world. His sense of connectedness to God helped him endure this time of unbelievable trial. Even in those moments of intense fear and uncertainty, Foley remembered the most vital lesson that Catholic education can offer: that he was not alone. Let us pray that Foley remembered this same lesson in the final moments of his life, where he suffered the ultimate cost of discipleship.


Institutional Religious Freedom: Broadening the Scope

The 2011 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate has garnered ample media attention as a polarizing issue among U.S. Catholics and the general public. A rhetorical icon for the religious liberty debate, contraception orients discourse about religious freedom to personal practices, political opinions, and religious beliefs. A vital issue for many people –especially for women, who are profoundly affected by reproductive choice and public health policies—a narrow-minded focus on contraception limits both moral discernment and political imagination regarding religious liberty. Broadening the scope of the current conversation, I offer the following reflections on religious liberty and immigration law.

Several states, dissatisfied with federal efforts to curtail undocumented immigration, have passed controversial laws empowering police to ascertain unauthorized residents after stopping them for traffic violations. Setting their sights on employers who might attempt to hire undocumented persons or traffickers who seek to indenture them, Alabama has passed legislation –purportedly to protect civil order and the common good—that forbids “harboring” unauthorized residents. Church leaders argue, however, that the law criminalizes basic Christian pastoral practices by prohibiting religiously affiliated schools, hospitals and non-profits from interacting with or providing assistance to unauthorized residents. In light of this tension between church autonomy and state law, Christians there are faced with difficult questions: To what extent does the law infringe upon the autonomy of religious and religiously affiliated institutions?  To what extent are churches responsible for respecting civic law?  If a law is unjust, ought Christian institutions violate it in prophetic witness to the Gospel? While this case has received significantly less media attention than the HHS mandate and elicited less fervor among U.S. Catholics, it raises similar questions about the theological and ethical content of religious freedom for churches and religiously affiliated organizations.

Catholic legal scholars Richard Garnett (University of Notre Dame) and Gregory Kalscheur, S.J. (Boston College) provided perspective on this tension at BC, in November.  Garnett argued that churches and other religious organizations possess the freedom to organize, govern, and direct themselves in accord with their own teachings.  While religion is an individual experience, religious communities are not merely an aggregation of individuals; these communities represent traditions of shared beliefs. As the right of religious freedom in constitutional law, “church autonomy” –what John Courtney Murray called “the Freedom of the Church”—protects them. Kalscheur argued that liturgies and ordination policies are “uniquely religious” activities beyond the boundaries of civil authority. However, when religious institutions embody their religious mission through temporal and social service activities, they are engaged in activity that the civil authority may have the jurisdiction to regulate; thus, this public service and advocacy is not “uniquely religious” despite ministry outreach to unauthorized residents and not necessarily exempt from civil demands contrary to their beliefs.

For Kalscheur, while churches and religiously affiliated institutions may be called to embody their mission through public ministry, they are called also to cooperate with state laws and regulations in order to protect civil order and foster the common good. For Garnett, government may enact laws that compromise the fundamental public mission of the church.  In the immigration case, Alabama asks the Church to participate in the anti-Christian activity that compromises a fundamental ministry as expressed in Matthew 25: care for those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Alabama’s law pushes undocumented immigrants –some of the most economically, socially, and politically vulnerable—farther into the shadows of society, jeopardizing the life and dignity of individuals, their families, and communities. Catholic institutions ought not abide by this unjust law; rather the Church should vigorously advocate its repeal and resist it through acts of civil disobedience.

This case helps us to think about other conflicts between law and religious freedom, including the HHS Mandate:  it demonstrates significant tensions between church autonomy and civil law; illustrates the importance of Church cooperation with civil authority to protect order, justice, and the common good; and acknowledges that some laws fundamentally conflict with the public ministry of the Church. The Church must respond in a way that protects the integrity of our pastoral work and prophetic witness in the world.


The Jesuits of Boston College came together yesterday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the elite Catholic university.

Jesuits Invade Fenway, Remind Boston College of the Heart of the Christian Mission

Walking through Fenway Park’s E Gate from Lansdowne Street, I am overwhelmed by the sight of priests, Catholic priests.  A parade of Catholic priests, primarily Jesuits, each dressed in a white alb and stole. Some smile warmly.  Some fidget with their iPhones.  Others stare off into the distance.  They are all preparing to concelebrate the Mass of the Holy Spirit in honor of the beginning of the academic year at Boston College and Boston College High School and the sesquicentennial celebration of the founding of these institutions.

The Jesuits of Boston College came together yesterday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the elite Catholic university.

It’s not as if I never see priests or even a lot of priests at one time.  As a doctoral candidate in the Theology Department at Boston College, I have spent the past several years in daily contact with Jesuits from around the world; I know a lot of Jesuits.  It’s just that I have never seen them all vested for Mass processing through the splashy halls of Major League Baseball’s cathedral.  As I progress through the concourse, I exchange hearty greetings with Jesuit friends from almost every continent. I wave to one of my Jesuit teachers standing at the front of the line, but when I am out of earshot, I can’t resist the urge to giggle.

The image of a cadre of vested concelebrants processing through Fenway discloses a basic reality of discipleship: Christians have a way of standing out in a crowd.  Sadly, Christianity does not always stand out for the right reasons. The failures of the clergy and laity are well known to the public.  Sinners that we are, none of us embody this witness perfectly.  It is through God’s unyielding grace that we are called to love God and neighbor as ourselves. In a cultural context that prizes individual success, often without regard for justice, the sight of someone practicing love of God and neighbor sticks out like, well, a bunch of Jesuits processing through Fenway Park. While most of us are not walking through ballparks in collars and habits, if we are living out our baptismal call, chances are some of the other humans are taking notice.

Why is it that Christians are often identifiable in the world?  It is not because we are better leaders, thinkers, teachers, or community servants than others.  Nor are we less sinful or more ethical people generally.  I speculate that it is because, at our best, our actions answer a fundamental question posed by Jesus to his followers and reiterated by Fr. Michael Himes to the congregants at the Fenway Mass: “Who do you say that I am?” At out best, our actions say something about who Jesus is. If our way of being in the world is one characterized by faith, hope, and love, given as gifts of grace for the benefit of all of God’s creation, then we are bound to stand out from the crowd as embodied witnesses to Jesus’ life saving love. We will preach, pray, teach, learn, give, and receive for God’s glory and not our own.  We will direct every human action to the good of Christ’s saving mission. Our diverse ways of serving will be united by their common testimony to God’s love for all of creation, giving disciples a look of those in the world but not of it.

As the Jesuits took the field, the aesthetic awkwardness of this event transformed into a beautiful celebration of the Lord’s Supper, gesturing to God’s abiding presence in all things. As I exited Fenway to Yawkey Way after the final blessing, I could hear the resounding tones of “Now Thank We All Our God” booming from within the park.  The paradox of this rousing Christian hymn flowing from this temple of professional baseball brought a wide smile to my face that I shared with every person who passed by.  Some smiled back and others just looked at me like I was a little crazy, but then smiled back.  That’s okay, though. Christ’s love has a way of sticking out in a crowd.