The Anti-Catholic Catholic

Several weeks back, I published a column in this space suggesting that in our current pluralistic, multi-cultural worship of the alienated, victimized “other,” some are more “other” than others. Some “otherness” gets you respect and a kind of special veneration, while other sorts of “otherness” – uncool “otherness” – earns you contempt.

It’s simply not true that our culture embraces all diversity; no, people usually embrace the sorts of diversity they like or that make them feel especially “open-minded.” And to be especially “open-minded” and “accepting” of “otherness,” one has to embrace things distinctly different from oneself, which tends to make us look too kindly on some groups just because they’re different, while looking with contempt on others closer to us for no other reason than they’re not different enough.

You find a similar dynamic at work at many Catholic colleges and universities. One of their oddest problems is the overt anti-Catholicism of so many of the faculty, who end up wanting the universities at which they work to embrace any kind of “other-ness” rather than the Catholic one, be it Moslem, liberal Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, New Age astral projection – anything, as long as it’s not (ugh) Catholic.

An old saying has it that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Well “women scorned” have nothing on angry ex-Catholics who have decided to ensconce themselves at Catholic universities. They’re like angry teenagers who left home to get away from those annoying, dysfunctional parents and siblings they grew up with, only to be forced to move back home again after college.

The resentment at being forced back into that place they thought they had left behind them forever is palpable. It shows in their faces; it hangs in the air around them; it colors their every response. “O God, not that Catholic stuff, not again.”

I admit to being a bit confused by such people: not so much by their dislike of Catholicism. Catholicism is hard. It’s different. It’s counter-cultural. But I’m puzzled by their propensity to seek out and accept jobs at Catholic universities.

Taking a job at a Catholic university when you clearly hate Catholicism is like taking a job at a Great Books school when you hate the Great Books. Then, once you’ve got tenure, you start saying things like: “Great Books, Great Books, why are we always talking about Great Books. It’s all just a load of crap!” 

Okay, fine; it’s a free country. People can think whatever they like. But why then take a job at a school that teaches Great Books?

        (Terminal) Bust of Homer (British Museum)

I always imagine such a person’s colleagues saying to him or her: “But Great Books are what we do. We didn’t hide the fact that we’re a Great Books school when you took this job. There are plenty of places where you can go and not teach the Great Books. There are only two or three places in the country where you can. We just want to be one of those ‘other’ places!” 

The problem is, of course, that this sort of “otherness” is still too close. I have no doubt there are people who in the cause of “other-ness” want to eviscerate the last two or three remaining Great Books programs in the country in order to force them to embrace the literature of “the other” – just like every other college and university in the country does.

So, too, with Catholic universities. Every other institution in the country is secular and does pretty much what the others do. There is only one sort of school that can do what Catholic universities do. But for a certain sort of Catholic, it’s just not “other” enough. The odd result is that they want their school to be just like everyone else’s.

A modest proposal for faculty entertaining the prospect of taking a job at Catholic college or university: Please don’t take the job if you hate Catholicism. Why make yourself miserable? No one will blame you if you take a job at one of those other “much better” places: places that do what everyone else does.

Faculty who are nominally “Catholic” who take jobs at Catholic schools imagining that eventually those institutions will change and stop doing that annoying “Catholic thing” are making the kind of mistake engaged couples sometimes make. The old saying is that women get married thinking they can change their husbands; men get married thinking their wives will never change. Both end up disappointed.

The educational establishment in this country is crumbling, critically undermined by its lack of vision and its own internal contradictions. College students who pay monumental tuition and rack up crushing debts increasingly can’t write literate sentences or do basic mathematics.

In these circumstances, Catholic colleges and universities should be cleaning up, offering students of all faiths the best education and moral formation in the country. But they’re not. Often these schools are crippled by their own self-doubt and lack of vision, not to mention their contempt for the difference being Catholic makes.

Many people seem to think the problem with Catholic colleges and universities is that they hire too many non-Catholics. Actually, that’s not usually the biggest problem. Many of our best faculty members at Catholic universities are non-Catholic “fellow travelers” who respect the Catholic mission of the institutions where they work.

No, the bigger problem in most cases are those who checked the “Catholic” box, but who really just hate the Church of their birth in the way only a hurt child disappointed by what they consider to be a foolish and unloving parent can. I wish for these hurt souls something other than what they’ve got now, something less painful.

It’s clear that, for such people, Catholic “otherness” just isn’t an “otherness” of the right sort. They would undoubtedly feel more comfortable associating with the sorts of diversity all of their like-minded peers embrace – at other schools.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.