Thursday, May 11, 2006

Should Roman Catholics have a place in Protestant institutions?

In last Thursday's issue of the journal BOOKS AND CULTURE, Thomas Albert Howard wirtes on "L'affaire Hochschild and Evangelical Colleges", with the sub-title: "Is a Catholic out of place on Wheaton's faculty?".

To the uninitiated, it needs to be pointed out that Wheaton is the premier evangelical (Protestant) institution of higher education in the USA.

Apparently, a member of the faculty of this distinguished college was let go from the faculty after converting to Roman Catholicism, because Roman Catholic theology is incompatible with Wheaton's statement of faith. The statement of faith is, as is customary at many evangelical colleges, one to which all faculty assent at the beginning of their careers and renew, if they wish, upon signing their annual contracts.

The author of the article, Thomas Albert Howard, is a member of the faculty at Gordon College, another distinguished Protestant College. He collaborates with the Erasmus Institute at the University of Notre Dame (which is a Roman Catholic university) so he might be expected to be sympathetic to Hochschild.

Howard is indeed sympathetic to Hochschild and, in the BOOKS AND CULTURE article, has stirring words with which to challenge the authorities at Wheaton. The matter is, he writes, "the latest manifestation of a simmering conflict of opinion over how evangelical colleges should posture themselves toward the future....Is an evangelical liberal arts college (i.e., not a seminary and not a church), and one that prides itself on intellectual engagement, served by a statutory environment that effectively excludes all Catholics, and indeed most non-evangelical Christians, from the faculty ranks?"

So Howard's basic answer to the question I pose in the headline to this piece is "Yes, they should have a place".

My answer is somewhat different - though you, dear reader, must understand that, as a Hindu, I have no locus standi in the matter. However, I put forward my opinion on what is becoming a cause celebre in the US and will therefore no doubt have global repurcussions.

A Protestant who becomes a Roman Catholic is somewhat like a Democrat who becomes a Republican. Let us imagine the person in question is Jo Brown. Jo is entirely within her/his rights to stop being a signed up member of the Democratic Party and become a signed up member of the Republican Party. But should we expect the Democratic Party to continue to employ Jo as a cheerleader for the Democrats? Clearly, there is a bit of difficulty with this proposition.

There would be equal difficulty with the proposition that the Chairman of the Madrid Football Club should continue to be the Chairman, or inded on the Boardm if he in fact became a supporter of a rival club.

Admittedly, these analogies are imperfect, and a good secularist would argue that there there is no championship or electoral victory involved, and that all we are discussing are (from a secularist's point of view) rather small differences between a Protestant and a Roman Catholic view.

That position is all very well for a secularist. But the secularist's argment does not serve either Protestants or Roman Catholics or indeed any other group, religious, philosophical, political, aesthetic or scientific.

We are all very content, within the ambit of the public square, to be treated equally with people of every other point of view, provided only that we are given equal respect and equal time (an impossibility, I know, but that is the ideal that we all accept and strive towards, however imperfectly).

However, we do believe rather strongly that we have a right to build and maintain "our" institutions, specially when there are considerations such as truth (and even Truth) that are involved. To take a small example, the Roman Catholic version of church history is not the Protestant version of church history, particularly since the sixteenth century of course, but the disagreement goes back to their understanding of God and the universe and power and society and.... The fact that Roman Catholic Church has progressively abandoned its position on various side-issues is neither here nor there. It is immovable on the central points that caused it to throw out the Reformers.

After all, if there was no significant difference between evangelicals and Roman Catholic philosophy, why would Hochschild want to become a Roman Catholic?

However, in the real world, it is difficult to draw such clear lines. There are many in the Roman Catholic Church who are closet-Protestants (and, it appears, there are many in Protestant circles, who are closet-Roman Catholics).

Equally, some Protestant Colleges (such as Howard's home institution, Gordon College), clearly allow if not encourage co-operation with Roman Catholic colleges.

I am also aware of some Protestant colleges that have NO faith requirement at all and therefore have open the possibility of appointing to their faculties every variety of belief and disbelief.

Frankly, I can't see in what sense the last category are "Protestant colleges" (the the word "college" originally meant a community with a common point of view or orientation or set of standards or values...)

However, in the free market there are, and there should be, on one hand, state institutions that hold no particular brief beyond excellence as defined by peers within a discipline. On the other hand, there are, and there should be, institutions that draw a clear ideological line (such as Wheaton), others that draw what we may call a dotted line (such as Gordon College), and still others that draw no line at all.

It is up to these institutions to justify themselves to their supporting constituencies, and it is up to their constituencies to decide to what degree to support particular institutions.

I must say that I surprised and not a little pleased to find that the president of Wheaton, Duane Litfin, and his Board, have drawn an unfashionably clear line.

I would be equally delighted to learn of Roman Catholic colleges that were also unfashionably clear regarding where they stood.

Or Muslim ones or Buddhist ones....

After all, the whole point of the freedoms of speech, religion and association is to enable a variety of individual voices and a variety of institutional expressions. Wheaton is free to stand by a clear line. Hochschild is free to become a Roman Catholic and move institutions. Gordon College is free to have a dotted line, and Howard is free to work both in Gordon and at a Roman Catholic institution.

That is the difference between the "liberty" that was progressively established by the Reformers and their spiritual and intellectual heirs, and the "liberty" that the French Revolution failed to establish. The resulting difference, for example, between the USA and France, are still clear for all to see.

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