While most Catholic leaders have been silent about the removal of the statues of Confederate War hero Robert E. Lee, and the desecration of statues of Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus, it may be time for them to get involved in the debate as religious statues are now on the chopping block. The leadership of San Domenico School, a 167-year-old Catholic K-12 school in San Anselmo, Calif., has removed several overtly religious statues from school grounds in order to make the school “more inclusive” for students of other faiths — or no faith at all.
In an interview with a reporter for the Marin Independent Journal, Amy Skews-Cox, chairman of the San Domenico School’s board of trustees, said the removal of the religious statues is “completely in compliance” with the school’s new strategic plan. Arguing that the statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are “alienating” for students of other faiths, Ms. Skews-Cox claims, “If you walk on the campus and the first thing you confront is three or four statues of St. Dominic or St. Francis, it could be alienating for that other religion and we did not want to further that feeling.”
Echoing Ms. Skews-Cox’s concerns about alienating prospective students, the head of the San Domenico School, Cecily Stock, pointed to marketing concerns as the reason for the abandonment of the Catholic identity — telling a reporter, “What we were finding after doing some research is that in the broader community we are known as being a Catholic school and are not necessarily known as an independent school. We want to make sure that prospective families are aware that we are an independent school.”
There is no question that the school is “independent.” A few years ago, the school removed religious instruction for second-grade children wishing to receive the sacraments of reconciliation and first communion. And, last year, the school removed even after-school catechism — preferring to allow children to learn about world religions instead of Catholic theology.
Refusing to become involved in the Dominican school’s decision to remove the religious statues, Sister Maureen McInerney, prioress of the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, the religious order that founded the school in 1850, said, “It really isn’t my place” to get involved with the details of the operation of running the school. Claiming the school has retained a statue of St. Dominic, the school’s namesake, Sister McInerney told a reporter that “it would be fine” if there was a reduction in the number of statues it welcomes people of all faiths. It is making an effort to be inclusive of all faiths.” And, although Sister McInerney added that “San Domenico is a Catholic School,” the mission statement no longer describes the school as “Catholic.” Rather it is described as having a “Dominican Catholic heritage.”
Indeed, the school’s presiding bishop, the Most Reverend Salvatore Cordileone may have something to say about whether Sister McInerney is correct when she says that San Domenico is a “Catholic School.” As the presiding bishop, Archbishop Cordileone must certify that a school that calls itself Catholic is indeed teaching the truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church. That may be difficult to do when the school’s director of the world religions department openly claims to a reporter that “the Dominican teaching philosophy is not to teach there is only one truth.”
The fact that the truth of Catholic teachings has become contested ground on yet another Catholic campus is not news. With the exception of a few Catholic colleges and universities (like my own academic home, Franciscan University of Steubenville), most of the 230 Catholic colleges and universities have strayed far from their Catholic roots. This all began in 1967 when Catholic college leaders gathered in Land O’Lakes, Wis., to create a manifesto that declared their “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical.” Since that time, most Catholic college presidents have ignored attempts by their presiding bishops to bring their schools into communion with the church.
What is new is that such strong rejection of the Catholic identity is now occurring openly on a Catholic K-12 campus. San Domenico is not the only Catholic school that is removing its statues. There continues to be pressure to remove statues of Father Junipero Serra from a number of Catholic college campuses in California. And although Catholic college leaders have resisted the pressure to remove statues of the Franciscan priest — recently canonized by Pope Francis — who played a key role in the evangelization of 18th century California, it is doubtful they can continue to resist the calls for the removal of his statue. Critics have depicted Father Serra as having committed “genocide” on the culture of the indigenous people. There is also movement to remove a bronze statue of Father Serra that currently stands in the National Statuary Hall, south of the U.S. Capitol rotunda.
In 2015 California State Sen. Ricardo Lara proposed a measure to remove Father Serra’s statue and replace it with a statue of astronaut Sally Ride. And, although Gov. Jerry Brown refused to support the measure, there is great support for the replacement because Ride’s would be the first statue of a gay or lesbian in the U. S. Capitol hall. In the moral panic surrounding “offensive” statues that has consumed the country, it is likely that Father Serra’s statues may not survive much longer.
• Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of “Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education” (Transaction Publishers, 2009).