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Catholic Identity: Shall We Talk?

College and university administrators welcome this time: a week of pomp and celebration with graduating students and their families, culminating in commencement, followed by a period of relative calm in which they can reflect on the academic year and develop future plans. Very likely, in 2010 no administrator looks forward to this period of calm more than the Rev. Robert A. Wild, S.J., president of Marquette University.

Two weeks ago, Father Wild rescinded an offer made to Dr. Jodi O’Brien to become dean of Marquette’s College of Arts and Sciences. Currently chair of the Sociology department at Seattle University, O’Brien had been recommended by a dean search committee. As a university press release candidly acknowledged, the committee had mentioned potential “issues” concerning her candidacy, but senior administrators initially did not give those issues the scrutiny they deserved. It became clear that – since the Arts and Sciences dean must be able “to represent [Marquette’s] Catholic identity” – the decision to hire O’Brien had been premature and needed to be reversed for the good of all concerned.

O’Brien is a self-described “out” lesbian with a long-term partner. The focus of her scholarly work is gay and lesbian sexuality and its interrelations with other social phenomena – in particular, religion and civil society. In a New York Times interview the day after rescinding the deanship offer, Father Wild emphasized that O’Brien’s sexual orientation was not a major factor in his decision. Rather, he said, it had been discovered that her writings included “strongly negative statements concerning marriage and the family.” Wild presumably was alluding, inter alia, to a 2004 article titled “Seeking Normal? Considering Same Sex Marriage.” In the present writer’s judgment, this article is well crafted but manifestly at odds with Church teaching on sexuality – as well as with the underlying philosophical realism that characterizes the Catholic intellectual tradition. It assumes throughout that institutions such as marriage and the family are “socially constructed,” i.e., that they have no independent reality or significance. In this perspective, debate about “defining” these institutions reduces to competing discourses and political wills.

Unsurprisingly, the decision to rescind the offer set off a firestorm. The dean search process and outcome were condemned by Marquette’s Faculty Senate. The administration’s actions, said the faculty body, sullied the reputation of the university and gave cause to wonder whether Marquette was genuinely committed to academic freedom and diversity. Speculation was rife that the president had responded to pressure from wealthy donors, and/or the Milwaukee ordinary. (Archbishop Jerome Listecki later confirmed that he had expressed concerns about the appointment, but added that he recognized the decision was the university’s responsibility.) Groups of students at both Marquette and Seattle U. – also sponsored by the Society of Jesus – protested the decision. The Shepherd Express, a Milwaukee newsweekly, asked why, if being a supporter of gay and lesbian causes did not disqualify a person from serving on the faculty of a Catholic school, it should disqualify her from becoming dean.

Readers of TCT may wonder how such an unedifying scenario could have been allowed to unfold. Academics familiar with the internal workings of most Catholic colleges and universities are more likely to marvel that this is the exception rather than the rule. For, while no topic is more spoken about at our institutions (including Jesuit institutions) than “Catholic identity,” truly crunchy issues are rarely addressed. And while search committees are given copies of college and university mission statements, they almost never are instructed about their implications for the committees’ work. In fairness, such instruction is difficult to articulate. Moreover, given the variety of circumstances that may arise during a search, no formula could substitute for the prudential judgment of the individuals involved. However, certain implications of Catholic identity surely can be proposed for discussion.

To do this, of course, is to invite a war on most campuses. But it is a war that is needed – and one far better to have in advance than in the midst of cleaning up messes after the fact. The debate might well go differently at different institutions, given varied perceptions among stakeholders, including local Catholic ordinaries.

Let me propose the following:

1) Quite apart from legal and public funding concerns, a Catholic institution simply should not make faculty hiring decisions based solely on sexual orientation (or any of the other enumerated categories). However, it can happen that, in the judgment of appropriate officials (in particular, the dean), a prospective faculty member would use his or her position to promote – in the classroom and/or in publications – ideas contrary to Catholic faith. In such a case, a refusal to hire would not constitute unjust discrimination.

2) Respect for academic freedom entails that, once hired, faculty members may pursue their scholarly activity as they see fit. This does not imply a right to promotion and tenure. By the same token, a probationary faculty member whose scholarship is proving to be unacceptable, on grounds of incompatibility with Catholic identity or any other grounds, deserves to be warned of this fact as early as possible by his or her dean and department chair.

3) Because of their overall leadership positions and their roles in faculty hiring and evaluation, deans typically shape academic cultures and students’ educational experiences. Accordingly, dean candidates at Catholic institutions must realize that the content of their published ideas is proper matter for scrutiny. If these ideas are at odds with basic teachings of the Catholic magisterium, or with the Catholic intellectual tradition more generally, the institutions in question have not only a right, but a duty, to reject their candidacies. More appropriate individuals will present themselves.

Now shall we talk?

The late John W. (Jack) Carlson was professor of philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. During his career, all at Jesuit-sponsored institutions, he has served as a department chair, arts and sciences dean, and academic vice president.