"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, June 21, 2010

Catholic higher education: here we go again

Remember the brouhaha a little over a year ago, when the University of Notre Dame not only invited President Obama to give a commencement address but also awarded him an honorary JD? The University did not seem to care that such a move blatantly violated the bishops' directive that "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles"—a directive supported by the local bishop, who boycotted the ceremony. It got worse: Catholics, including priests, who peacefully demonstrated on campus against the event were arrested and prosecuted on orders of Notre Dame's president, Fr. John Jenkins. As Joseph Bottum put it, "when the protests over Obama’s honorary degree began, he decided to raise the stakes, which turned an unhappy situation into a disastrous one." The long-term problem that came to a head a year ago at Notre Dame is that of waning Catholic identity in Catholic higher education. Now it's cropped up again, this time at Marquette and the Catholic University of America.

The Marquette situation started so far south it could only go north. They were going to appoint an avowed, ideological lesbian, "sexuality scholar" Jodi O'Brien, to be Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences over two male finalists who were more academically distinguished. After an uproar both on campus and among some Catholic academics across the country, the nomination was withdrawn. Reporting in the Wall Street Journal, Anne Hendershott wrote:
In a post-settlement letter sent June 9th to the Marquette community, University President Father Robert A. Wild wrote, "[W]e have apologized to Dr. O'Brien for the way in which this was handled and for the upset and unwanted attention that we have caused to this outstanding teacher and scholar." Yet Fr. Wild also added that he stands by his decision to rescind the employment offer, a decision "made in the context of Marquette's commitment to its mission and identity."

The specific nature of the job at issue—as dean Ms. O'Brien would have been charged with helping to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution intended to revitalize Catholic higher education—may have driven Marquette to back off this particular appointment. But the real story here is that in the upside-down world of Catholic higher education, there is more status in hiring a sexuality scholar who denigrates Catholic teachings on sexuality and marriage than in choosing a serious scholar who might actually support Catholic teachings.
The major difference between what happened last week at Marquette and what happened last year at Notre Dame is this: in the end, Marquette chose fidelity over status; whereas at ND, status trumped fidelity. I don't want to explain why appointing an opponent of Catholic sexual morality, who didn't even have heavy-duty scholarship to offer, would have been a mark of status. Trust me: In the "upside-down" world of higher education today, it would have been just that. Of course, Fr. Wild might just have learned something from Fr. Jenkins' bull-headed mistakes. As somebody who taught for years in Catholic institutions of higher education, and is slated to do so again this fall, I can attest that the choice between fidelity and status shouldn't have to be made in most cases. Often, it's completely illusory. Yet some presiding demon seems to have planted that false dichotomy in the minds of Catholic university faculty and administrators who crave the world's respect.  It's a spiritual parasite that seems to suck the vitality out of Catholic identity in that sphere of life.

A subtler instance of that is the appointment of John H. Garvey as the president of CUA. I don't doubt that he has considerable merits and is often right. But I want to focus on one thing he wrote eight years ago and has never retracted or qualified. CNA reports: "In a 2002 letter, Garvey tried to allay concern that Boston College’s Catholic identity will require “a certain orthodoxy,” claiming that “no school that regulates ideas can justly call itself a university.” If that's Garvey's view today, the game is over before it starts.

Every school regulates ideas. That's why there's peer review in every discipline, which is a good thing. Some proposals and arguments are bad, others good, and professionals are bound to discern the difference. Of course it's wrong that Larry Summers had to resign as president of Harvard for expressing a reasonable scholarly hypothesis about women's interest in and aptitude for quantitative science. But that sort of thing goes on in various and subtle ways in the most self-consciously "liberal" universities. It would seem that only religious universities are supposed to forfeit the name 'university' for enforcing orthodoxy. Yet if ideas incompatible with the Catholic faith are allowed to be proposed as truths in a "Catholic" university, then in what sense, beyond the transiently sociological, is it Catholic? Because Catholic parents send their kids there thinking the place is Catholic? Because priests and religious retain some residual influence? Because it has a chapel nobody is required to attend? Maybe things like that are all some administrators mean by Catholic "identity." If so, they're not worth the money. And when I hear phrases like "in the Jesuit tradition," I expect to see the actual Catholics heading for the tall grass.

Garvey's remark was absurd no matter how you parse it. Its only conceivable purpose is to convey the old, false dichotomy between fidelity to Catholic teaching and intellectual respectability. It's like a reflex one picks up in the atmosphere of universities; the Boston area is thick with them, which is perhaps one reason for what Phil Lawler called the "collapse" of Boston's Catholic culture. Let's hope Garvey has "grown" in a direction that liberals who use that word would dislike. But I'm not holding my breath.

Part of the problem is that the people in charge of vast sectors of Catholic higher education are still smarting from the old charge of Catholic intellectual mediocrity, which first surfaced inside the citadel with Msgr. John Tracy Ellis' 1950s exposé. Like a great many American Catholics, such people are a number of things before they are Catholic. So, naturally, when one of those things conflicts with Catholicism, it's the latter which gets compromised. To be sure, there are some well-known and not so well-known Catholic schools that are faithful to the Magisterium and proud of it. Most of my readers will know of at least a few such places. And plenty of younger Catholic scholars in philosophy and theology are sound. But such institutions and people are at the periphery, not the center, of American Catholic higher education. That should come as no surprise when Catholics fully faithful to the Magisterium are nowhere near a majority of American Catholics.

Why is that? Because, like the ancient Israelites and many of today's Jews, most prefer the gods of the world to God. It's a very old problem. Most of the money and power are on the wrong side.
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