A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Weeding Out the Catholic Faculty at Wheaton

First, my apologies for the semi-pun in the subject line. It is, I realize, the sort of thing that my husband would write. But I couldn't think of a sufficiently interesting subject line.

Many bloggers, both Protestant and Catholic, have recently discussed a Wall Street Journal article concerning the firing of one of Wheaton's professors. You may get the whole article here
if you've not already read it, but these are the main points of the case, as I understand it:

1) Joshua Hochschild was an Episcopalian when he was hired at Wheaton to teach medieval philosophy.
2) He converted to Catholicism while a professor at Wheaton.
3) He informed the college of his conversion, knowing that, as per Wheaton's policy of employing only evangelical Protestant faculty, he might be fired.
4) He said that he could still affirm the college's mission statement.

5) He was fired anyway.

Other bloggers have already discussed whether a Catholic really could, in good conscience, accept the Wheaton mission statement. I'll just say briefly that I as a Catholic could affirm it, with the understanding that agreeing that the statement that "the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say" does not mean denying that there are matters on which the Scripture does NOT speak, for which there may be a different authority. Catholics do believe, after all, that the Church cannot contradict the Bible. That means that Scripture is the final authority in all it says: neither the Church nor the Pope can overrule it.

Of course, I can also understand why some Catholics might read the statement differently, given that it was actually intended to prevent hiring Catholic and Eastern Orthodox academics. While I could affirm such a statement in the abstract, I would not sign it -or recommend signing it- if doing so was assumed to be a denial of my beliefs as a Catholic. Nor, for that matter, would I want to be employed at a school that had a general policy of non-hire with regard to believing Catholics, even if I could squeak by as an exception of some sort.

Having said that, I'm not out to discuss whether Professor Hochschild was right or wrong in thinking he could or should remain a faculty member at Wheaton. Rather, my concern is with a statement of President Litfin, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal article:

Mr. Hochschild was "quibbling," the president retorted four days later. "Perhaps Wheaton College has come to a point where, because of challenges such as yours, it must revise its documents to make more explicit its non-Catholic identity."

This quote is what stuck out to me when I read the article. I wasn't surprised that Wheaton had fired a professor who converted to Catholicism: I had already known of its policy against employing Catholic faculty. I do understand that Wheaton has a commitment to its own faith tradition, and that it has a right to retain only faculty members who represent that faith tradition. I understand that there may be Wheaton alumni and parents who would be disturbed if students were to be taught by Catholic faculty. The firing of Hochschild, while it might have been a cause for disappointment on my part, isn't what disturbed me.

My concern is that President Litfin’s comment about rewriting the mission statement seems to indicate a clear rejection of recent Evangelical and Catholic efforts to establish common theological ground. Rather than rejoicing at learning that a Catholic colleague could affirm the same twelve points he could, Litfin suggests that such a statement isn’t exclusive enough. (For that matter, Litfin’s comment also suggests that the college’s mission statement is not, in fact, intended to mean what the school's website says it is intended to mean. If it is a document that needs to be changed to make clearer the school’s Protestantism, the statement should not be said to provide merely “a summary of biblical doctrine that is consonant with evangelical Christianity” but rather to provide a summary that is limited to the theological shape of evangelical Christianity.) Though the current statement represents (for the most part) a common ground of mere Christianity which could be a starting point for further dialog, Litfin at least wants to retreat from such possibilities, to move from a statement of truly historic Christian beliefs to a litmus test that will more clearly “weed out” any unwanted Christians.

There’s nothing wrong with retreating when under threat -nothing wrong with rallying the theological wagons in order to protect the living treasure within- IF the threat one faces requires such action. What saddens me is that Litfin, at least (I’d hate to assume that Wheaton as an institution agreed with him) thinks that this is the proper response to the current, much-improved state of affairs between Evangelicals and Catholics. While other Evangelical Christians are reaching out, he wants to reach back. That, to me, is the real tragedy of the Hochschild case.


Blogger Kevin Jones said...

Very well-thought-out analysis. I had thought the convert had been a bit jesuitical in his interpretation, but now I see how that could be made.

I suspect the last four words of the line about Holy Writ being "fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say" was to keep out any anti-Trinitarian conflicts that could arise with the rest of their statement had they committed to a more strict version of Sola Scriptura. But they can't make it broad enough to include Trinitarianism and simultaneously exclude "high church" ecclesiology.

I don't have any particular beef with an institution committed to a uniform orthodoxy of its own, but it seems many Wheatonites do. Perhaps that is why it made it into the papers.

1:19 AM  

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