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Intrepid an ambiguous ballroom for students


Although Jesuits should not argue too often in public, I would like to put another spin on Jesuit Fr. John Dear's opinion piece about Fordham University's senior ball on the USS Intrepid (NCR, May 2)

First, I -- and a good number of other Jesuits -- agree that an aircraft carrier war museum is the wrong place for a dance. Second, I'm proud of the student journalists -- Eric Montroy and Eileen Markey and others -- who first raised the issue when they learned of the Senior Week committee's decision. I also admire the commitment of those, including Eileen and her father and John Dear, who, in their Good Friday demonstration at the site, were willing to be arrested in witness to their conviction.

But I can't accept John's conclusion that the whole episode demonstrates Fordham's failure as a Jesuit university.

First, the Intrepid is an ambiguous symbol. For those who remember World War II, it represents heroism, victory over fascism. For those who see its larger context -- as a glorification of war -- it celebrates death.

Second, to make its larger meaning clear takes some education.

To expect that all or even most Fordham students, as a result of the school's Jesuit identity, would quickly come to the same moral judgment on a prom site is -- in the words of one of the student protesters -- not education but thought control.

There are about 35 Jesuit faculty and administrators in a total faculty of 525. Fordham is "Jesuit" not because Jesuits call all the shots but because a historical community of Jesuits and laypersons -- including faculty, students and alumni -- cherishes that identity. Today's 35 Jesuits would agree on basics: We try to teach students to "find God in all things," and become "men and women for others." When it comes to working out the details on how to accomplish those goals, Dear has been in the society long enough to know that most Jesuits think for themselves and teach their students to do the same.

Perhaps to illustrate our collective ethical insensitivity, Dear quotes one unnamed "Jesuit theologian," who says, "We're all Niebuhrians here. Coercion and war are necessary and justifiable. Jesus' ethic can't be applied socially. He never meant it to be. So what's wrong with a party on the Intrepid?"

Faculty who did not follow the debate carefully in the student journal that first raised the issue may not have appreciated that the Intrepid is not a World War II memorial but a museum -- almost a celebration -- of all of America's wars. But the Niebuhrian quote is not as indefensible as it appears. Jesus had no social program, but the church has developed one, including a just war theory, from his life and teaching. Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian socialist, was not a pacifist; he developed his theology in response to the threat of Nazi Germany, but the same theological principles led him to speak out against the Vietnam war, where the Intrepid last saw service.

World War II had been over for 30 years before today's students were born. The graduating seniors have had two history, two philosophy and two theology courses. Given that all of us -- from their parents, grade school and high school teachers to the curriculum committees of most universities in the country -- have failed to instill a deeper historical consciousness, it is remarkable not that the senior committee thought it would be cool to dance on an old warship but that a handful of protesters, because they took Fordham's Jesuit identity seriously, used the student press and moral suasion to raise the issue and force the best controversy this school has seen in years.

With John Dear, I sat in on the student forum when the pro- and anti-Intrepid forces argued their case. The opposing sides actually listened to one another, the senior committee was willing to reconsider and the administration helped look for an alternative. But it was too late for the university to be released legally from its Intrepid contract.

As sophomore president Michael McCarthy, who is on the anti-Intrepid side, put it, "Maybe this is our shining moment, not our bitter defeat." There will be two senior dances -- one much smaller than the other -- and both sides will meet and party afterwards. The students who protested are satisfied that their case was heard, that the administration dealt with them fairly, and that Fordham will never dance on a warship again.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College and teaches literature.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997