Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

April 18, 2001:
Christian outreach funded by the university
A Prince editorial stirs up debate

By Emily D. Johnson '01

In the Prince's March 12 weekly magazine supplement, Niraj Bhatt '03 objects to a spring break SVC trip partially funded by the university. The trip consists of eight students traveling to Calcutta to work with the Roman Catholic Order of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by the late Mother Teresa. The objective of the trip, quotes Bhatt, is "raising awareness and facilitating thoughtful engagement in issues facing others in the international community," and "to witness, know, love, experience and serve the poorest of the poor."

Bhatt's main objection was to the Roman Catholic mission of conversion, citing covert and unrequested conversions of the dying, trading food and medical care for conversion, poor or nonexistent medical supplies and training, and a papal initiative to evangelize India. He does not believe a trip of this kind should be supported with Princeton funds.

The article is clear, well researched, and full of quotes from the Pope, former nuns of the Missionaries of Charity, and Mother Theresa. It makes a good point. The problem is that Bhatt used harsh, one-sided language in describing the Catholic Church, and then drew Protestants and Baptists into the fray for a mass censure. At one point he said, "The Pope seeks to achieve religious cleansing of all of Asia, and the self-righteous, concerted Christian attack on other societies to destroy their very nature is malicious and predatory." He ended by asking his readers to consider the ethics of funding unsafe medical practices, sustainment of poverty, salvation via suffering and deathbed conversions through the riches of the President's Fund.

Such language caused a mild uproar among Princeton's Christians, Hindus, atheists, and Muslims alike. There was a private and instinctual indignation among the Aquinas Catholic e-mail list. (Princeton's student body is self-declared 25 percent Roman Catholic.) Non-Catholics and non-Christians were calmer, but still eager to discuss the issues of Christianity, Hinduism, conversion, and the legitimacy of Bhatt's argument. Most students were suspicious of or uncomfortable with Christian outreach programs like the Missionaries of Charity; all thought the article had gone too far.

Overall Bhatt's article made it clear that just as the religions on campus are becoming increasingly diverse, religion at Princeton is an increasingly discussed subject. Anti-Semitism of the '50s has given way to a weird mix of tolerance, evangelization, and slight Christian mistrust. There is minor religious tension; I have two good friends who broke up because they could not reconcile their Catholic-Muslim differences with marriage and children, and groups like Agape (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) which are highly evangelistic make some students feel uncomfortable. But by and large religious differences contribute positively to campus relations. We all dislike Brother Steven, who means well but spends whole afternoons preaching on the corner of Washington and Prospect, condemning short skirts, flirtatious behavior, and hellbound nonbelievers.

I went to see the opera Samson and Delilah on a free music department ticket along with a Muslim, a Jain, and a Jew. I went to Yom Kippur services and sat behind a guy I met at Catholic bible study. Hundreds of students have been to nondenominational services at Westerly Road Church. As for my own religious affiliation, I happen to be part of the Catholic 25 percent. There are Catholics in Agape, Easter-Christmas Catholics, daily massers, rosary sayers, Eucharist venerators. There are lapsed Catholics and alienated Catholics and the regular church-going Catholics. At Princeton, anything goes.

Two days after Bhatt's article was published, Paul Deeringer '01 wrote a letter to the editor in response. He proclaimed himself neither Christian nor Hindu and agreed that while Western media often discounts non-Christian religions or portrays them as fundamentalist and primitive, the description of missionaries as know-nothing zealots is often true, but generalizing this description to all missionaries overstates the point.. His letter goes on to speak for, I believe, the majority of students on campus.

" . . the article neglects to investigate what Christian baptism actually means. Christian baptism is an act accompanying conversion of the heart and profession of faith; the ritual and "magic words" do not "make" a Christian. This is a crucial point the article overlooks as it succumbs to its own accusations of ignorance, at least with respect to Christianity. "Certainly, the Christian church often finds itself at odds with democratic ideals. Hinduism, however, furnishes a doctrine supporting the caste system, in which there is little to no social mobility. When a society classifies a group of people as untouchable, can we speak of that society as tolerant or fostering human rights?

"[Mother Teresa] was a nun, and she did what nuns do: minister to the poor, sick and dying, and spread Christ's Word. That's it." After reading Deeringer's letter the campus gave a collective sigh of relief. The Catholics were a little disappointed to lose the race to rebuttal. Others lost interest in the issue almost immediately and never read Deeringer's letter. But most students agree with Professor Peter Singer's statement in the November 20, 1999 issue of the Prince Magazine, applauding the International Break Trip program, which includes this year's trip to Calcutta. "If even a small proportion of the students who go to these countries begin to take an interest in development issues," Singer wrote, "and start to think about what the rich countries can do to help them, the benefits will far outweigh the costs of the trip."

You can reach Emily Johnson at edj@princeton.edu