Pledging Allegiance to the New McCarthyism

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Imagine it is 1955 and professors at major Catholic universities are asked to write a “solidarity statement eschewing all association with Communism and affirming their commitment to America and American values, including free-market capitalism.”  Imagine faculty members were asked in addition to specify how they would personally inculcate those values in their classrooms, mentorships, research with students, and in all other areas of their professional life?  Imagine that it was additionally made clear that this “request” was coming from the Office of Academic Affairs and the Provost’s Office and that their solidarity statements were being offered to help faculty members get started on their own.

What an outrage there would have been!  “Fascists!  This isn’t the America we fought two world wars to protect.  These are the things we fought two world wars to protect ourselves from!”

Catholics, in particular, might have looked upon such “loyalty oaths” as targeting them, given how often Catholics were suspected of being “un-American,” especially given the criticisms of free-market capitalism that had often emerged from the Vatican and certain influential European Catholic scholars and bishops.

Indeed, many Catholic professors might have objected that, while they loved their country, their faith convictions and the intellectual and magisterial traditions of their Church would not allow them to sign on unreservedly to full-throated support for laissez-faire, free-market capitalism. Moreover, they might well have believed that such matters should not be made the foundation of their educational mission.  “I don’t go into the classroom to make my students think a certain way or come to particular conclusions,” we might have heard a devoted professor say. “I try to help my students to read with sensitivity and understanding, to write clearly and with passion, to speak with others fairly and honestly, and to search always for the truth no matter who is speaking it.

Other Catholics, however, given this traditional suspicion of Catholics among America’s WASP elites, might have been eager to show their solidarity with the “in-crowd” by insisting on how important it would be for everyone to show that Catholics are not “aliens” – that they are, rather, “good, faithful Americans, who believe in all the things Americans believe in,” not at all controlled by some pope in Rome or his ecclesiastical minions.

Besides, “good” bishops wouldn’t oppose American values.  They would support America, American business, and American military ventures.  So what decent red-blooded American Catholic could object to signing his or her loyalty oath?

There are good reasons why people look back on the McCarthy Era with disdain as an especially dark period in American history.  So, one has to wonder why, after all these years of insisting that McCarthyism represented one of the low points of American political life that the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota would think it a good idea to send out an email to all its faculty members “inviting” them “to participate in a project aimed at demonstrating our faculty’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

“We hope you’ll take the time to craft your personal solidarity statement [emphasis in the original] which will be added to statements of other faculty and academic staff colleagues and then shared collectively with the St. Thomas community in both virtual and physical formats.  See this sample for the beginnings of a virtual version, which features statements from faculty leaders and members of Academic Affairs.” The excited invitation continues:

For your statement, we’re asking you to share how you personally will engage in the work of creating an inclusive and equitable campus community that truly values all.  What, specifically, will you do in your classroom, in your advising meetings, in your mentorship or research with students, or in other areas of your professional life?  Our BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ students, as well as those who identify with other historically marginalized groups, need to know they have allies at St. Thomas who will actively stand and act in solidarity with them.

As an adult convert to Catholicism, whose parents were none too happy about his conversion, I can attest to the fact that “Catholics” were one of those “historically marginalized groups” in American society.  They still are. One might have thought the administrators at a Catholic institution would have taken note of this fact and called to mind the problems Catholics faced the last time loyalty oaths to the reigning “Americanism” were all the rage.  Sadly not.

Remember what an uproar greeted John Paul II’s proposal in Ex corde ecclesiae that theology professors should obtain a mandatum from the local bishop?  How people claimed that this was an unwarranted intervention into the academy that would compromise its intellectual freedom and integrity?  Where are all those voices now to decry a much more sinister insertion of an alien political ideology into the academy?

Catholic universities ought to fend off this new ideology, using what has always helped them to weather such storms: a healthy devotion to the Catholic intellectual tradition. But because many so-called “Catholic” institutions divested themselves of any devotion to their faith community decades ago, a host of alien ideologies have rushed in to fill that vacuum.

Such institutions failed to understand that their Catholic identity would not burden their intellectual endeavors, but would be their greatest protection against the fads of the day and the demands of tyrannical mobs. A Catholic university that casts away its faith commitments is like a knight who casts away his armor and shield because he thinks them too heavy, only to find that he now has nothing to protect him from the spears and arrows of his enemies.

President Eisenhower’s comment about McCarthy’s foolish sideshow was this: “It is a sad commentary on our government when such a manifestly useless and spurious thing can divert our attention from all the constructive work in which we could and should be engaged.”  Just replace “our government” with “a Catholic university” in that sentence, and you’ll have the right idea.


*Image: Turkeys (Les Dindons) by Claude Monet, 1877 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]

You may also enjoy:

Professor Smith’s No Heart for Newman’s University

Fr. Bevil Bramwell’s American Catholicism: A Schism Set in Amber


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.