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A Catholic renaissance at Princeton

Having taught James Madison at the College of New Jersey (as Princeton was then known), the Rev. John Witherspoon has a claim to the honorable title, “Grandfather of the U.S. Constitution.” What, I wonder, would a good Presbyterian Scotsman like Witherspoon make of the fact that Princeton University Chapel now has a Blessed Sacrament chapel, complete with tabernacle and icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe?

Some might imagine the good reverend spinning in his grave at an impressive rate of r.p.m.’s. I think he’d be pleased, once he got over the initial shock. For Princeton’s vibrant Catholic community is, today, at the center of the enterprise to which John Witherspoon dedicated his life: the dialogue of faith and reason in the service of democracy and human freedom. If you’re a student looking for an intellectually challenging education and a Catholic community whole-heartedly committed to the new evangelization, or if you’re a parent looking for such a school for your son or daughter, you could do far worse than look at Princeton. Indeed, you’d be far better off with Princeton than with several high-priced institutions whose Catholicism is vestigial at best.

The Princeton Catholic renaissance is nothing short of amazing — and heartening. It’s currently led by a marvelous chaplain, Father Tom Mullelly, who believes in leading by forming leaders. Three Sunday Masses, a well-attended daily Mass, and adoration of the Blessed sacrament keep Princeton’s Catholics eucharistically centered. The RCIA program brings new Princetonian Catholics into the Church every Holy Week — during which outdoor Stations of the Cross give a powerful witness to the central story of western civilization. Numerous Bible studies, “Catholic principles” studies, and similar discussion groups maintain a lively conversation about Catholic truth and its application in the world. The campus ministry organizes an annual spring pilgrimage (Rome and Spain were recent destinations). Distinguished Catholic speakers are regularly invited to campus; a Gregorian chant choir offers an introduction to classic Catholic music; and Princeton’s Catholics pray Vespers every Tuesday evening with Princeton’s Episcopalians and Lutherans.

Thanks to the efforts of Princeton’s unembarrassed Catholics, the Department of Religion will offer a for-credit course next spring, “Recent Catholic Thought from Vatican II to John Paul II,” which will be taught by the distinguished Lutheran theologian, Robert Jensen. Those same students and alumni have created a new campus club, the Anscombe Society (named for the late English Catholic philosopher), to defend marriage, promote pre-marital chastity, advance a pro-woman feminism, and, as one of the organizers put it, “defend male and female as distinct and complementary.” The Princeton pro-life group recently sponsored the first interfaith Respect Life service in Princeton Chapel, featuring luminaries like Father Richard Neuhaus and Rabbi David Novak, as well as an evangelical pastor and an imam.

You won’t find any of these things, alas, on too many putatively Catholic campuses; but you’ll find them at Princeton.

Its high spirits are what most impresses me about Princeton’s Catholic renaissance. A faculty member put it in these compelling terms: “There has been a true flowering of John Paul II Catholicism on this campus. It is robust and hopeful. It engages opponents (on issues such as abortion, sexual morality, etc.) on the plane of rational debate and unreservedly links arms with allies in the evangelical Christian, Orthodox Jewish, and Muslim communities. We are not hiding in the catacombs but engaging the culture — even in areas where the prevailing culture on this campus (as with most others) is hostile.

“ … We do not fear inquiry, we relish it. We recognize that truth is never the enemy of faith. We proclaim the Gospel of Life as the … affirmation of the unique, profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every member of the human family.

“We have our faults and failings … . But this is a community of Catholics who are really determined to follow the way of the Lord Jesus. And we’re having the time of our lives.”

If that interests you, or someone you know who’s pondering college, you can start investigating the Princeton Catholic renaissance by e-mailing Aquinas@Princeton.edu and requesting a link to the chaplaincy’s Web site.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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