Harvard as the path to damnation

Like planned parenthood and Daniel Berrigan, Harvard has never been very popular with Catholic America. There are a few who don't mind the great bastion of Eastern intellectualism--the kind of people who read Playboy and don't say so in confession, who snicker wickedly when the bishop belches into the pulpit microphone during his Christmas sermon and especially the ones who root for USC against Notre Dame every November. But real Catholics aren't so kind. As a sign of serious spiritual decay, a Harvard education ranks right down there between nymphomania and a marked distaste for fish. It's not that Harvard is so evil, of course--it's just that Georgetown, Fordham, Holy Cross, St. John's and Notre Dame are so, well, orthodox. Maybe if Derek Bok became a Jesuit and Joe Restic started giving locker-room speeches like Pat O'Brien things would be different. But for now, almost every Catholic high school senior unavoidably learns that the path to the Ivy League is fraught with genuine spiritual peril.

Brother Ignatius Jones, FMS, is a case in point. Brother Ignatius is your basic old-line Catholic teaching brother, which means he is like a priest because he can't get married and has to wear a black-and-white habit that makes him look like a six-foot penguin, although he doesn't have to say Mass every Sunday and instead gets to say things like "Jesus Christ" without having to wrap a sermon around them. Brother Ignatius taught calculus in my high school in New York, and he taught it really well, because everyone learned it really well. If you didn't learn it really well Brother Ignatius would say something like "Jesus Christ" loud enough to cause inner ear damage, and then remind you that although he was 58 years old he could still punt a football 65 yards. Sometimes he would demonstrate by kicking a solid oak desk half-way across the classroom, which was impressive enough that everyone would buckle down to derivatives. Brother Ignatius did not care for the idea of my going to Harvard.

"Jesus Christ," he would say, eying me as if I had developed a recent liking for Martin Luther, "Harvard doesn't have a religion department--you might just as well be going to Yeshiva or someplace like that." (Ignatius had done graduate work in mathematics at Yeshiva and had never recovered from the shock.) Worse than that, though, Harvard didn't have discipline--no more parietals, no compulsory chapel at 6 a.m. And to top it all off, Harvard had women. The path to damnation was opening wider and wider in Ignatius's eyes.

Reason would not work. I made my case forcefully, noting that none of the major Catholic schools had parietals anymore, that even Holy Cross had surrendered to co-education, that early-morning chapel had gone the way of all flesh, even at Fordham. In short, all of Ignatius's arguments were bogus--Harvard could not possibly corrupt me any more than the purest citadel of religious learning. Fulton Sheen would have been proud of me.

But Ignatius was not. Calculus class became a horror, and the slightest fudged quadratic would inspire the oak-desk routine. Then Ignatius began dropping hints muttering about how when he was a missionary they really had to discipline the heathens. I looked around and saw nothing but people stepping out to St. John's and Fordham for their admission interviews. With my faith shaken by memories of the last heathen Ignatius had to discipline--an unfortunate physics whiz who three years earlier had barely survived the fall-out when Ignatius heard he was on his way to Yale--I decided it was time for a heavy-duty campaign.


The next day I cornered Ignatius after class, and walked down to lunch with him. Like a fox confronted by an ambitious canary, he listened carefully as I made my pitch.

"Brother," I pleaded over the meatless chile, "all those other schools you talk about have Jesuits." Ignatius was clearly on the ropes now, because if there is anything Ignatius hates more than an Ivy League professor it is a Jesuit professor. Jesuits--an order of priests that spends much of its time being intellectual and professorial, or sometimes political, like Fathers Berrigan and Drinan, or sometimes bureaucratic, like Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame--are, in fact, the bane of Ignatius's existence. (They are the bane of most Catholics' existence, because they usually adopt a lofty air that implies they are somehow privy to the wisdom of Creation and a bunch of other theological secrets the rest of us are, quite literally, dying to be let in one. But Ignatius is especially sensitive to the "brilliant Jesuit" mystique, probably because the Jesuits aren't interested in Math teachers with extraordinary punting ability). "Harvard," I pressed on, bearing in as his defenses crumpled, "doesn't have single Jesuit. Not one. Nothing but WASP's, but they're pretty harmless."

Ignatius gave in, and returned to his parabola with a resigned air. Though the fireworks stopped in Calculus--he tore an Achilles tendon a week later and never quite returned to All-Pro kicking form--his warnings stayed with me. The day I sold my sould to John Harvard I was a marked man.

There are few things in life worse than not being welcome at an Irish bar, probably because everyone is welcome at an Irish bar except Italians and Jews and Poles and Puerto Ricans and Lithuanians and Portuguese and lepers and convicted axe-murderers and, worst of all, WASPs. But, bearing none of these ethnic handicaps, and bearing a fairly obviously Irish mug besides, I had never felt uneasy about strolling into the local pub and shooting the breeze with a group of old-timers who look like they've just stepped out of the mists in "The Informer." That is, I never felt uneasy until I went to Harvard.

Mid-way through the first semester of freshman year I journeyed back to New York and naturally had to visit the city's quintessential Irish bar, a little hole-in-the-wall in the wilds of forgotten Queens called The Liffey. The usual crowd was there--a veritable sea of middle-aged pug noses and freckles, resounding with the dull roar of angry brogues protesting the blindness of an insufficiently partisan basketball referee. James Joyce smiled benignly from several wall posters, four signs urged me to join the IRA, and behind the bar rolled Tommy, the spherical bartender who had taken enough time off from hustling customers at the pool table to come back and draw a few glasses of Guiness stout. Feeling serene, I sat down for a night of beer and blarney.

Then it happened. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a particularly drunk old-timer, the type who spends his days going to the wakes of his "life-long friends" and his nights telling strangers what dirty so-and-sos they were for not leaving him anything in their wills. Definitely someone to avoid, but as avoiding a drunk at an Irish bar is about as easy as outswimming a tiger shark, I knew I was a goner.

"Why hello there, son," he said, sidling up to the bar with the obvious desire of buttonholing me for a drink. Having read "The Last Hurrah" I was well aware that any defensive maneuver short of armed resistance was useless, so I gave in and ordered a round. My companion smiled and said "God bless you"--Irish drunks are the only people in the world who say "God bless you" when you haven't sneezed--and then began the Inquisition.

I survived the questions about my parents, grandparents and place of residence pretty well, and pulled off a real coup when I told him I had a cousin in the IRA. I thought I had him aced until he popped The Question.

"Where do you go to school, son?"

He had me and I knew it. Sister Patricia in third grade had rather painfully impressed on me the evils of fibbing, so rather than spend four years in Purgatory I had to fall back on a rather weak evasion. (Father Lavin calls such evasions "sins of ommission," but it was only worth 18 months in Purgatory so I figured I was ahead of the game and went on with it).