Monday, January 09, 2006

The Price of Principle

Joseph Bottum of FIRST THINGS: On the Square analyzes a recent Wall Street Journal feature on Joshua Hochschild, an assistant professor of medieval philosophy, who was recently fired from the evangelical Wheaton College for his conversion to Catholicism. Mr. Bottum doesn't buy the supposed conflict; he has larger fish to fry:
The larger point this time, however, is the claim that religious conservatives are being hoisted by their own petard. They wanted strong religious identities in America, and they’re getting it good and hard—and meanwhile, let ecumenical journals like FIRST THINGS claim what they will, the rift between Protestants and Catholics reveals an ongoing tension on the religious side of the culture wars:

Historically, religious colleges mainly picked faculty of their own faith. In the last third of the 20th century, however, as enrollments soared and higher education boomed, many Catholic colleges enhanced their prestige by broadening their hiring, choosing professors on the basis of teaching and research. As animosities between Catholics and Protestants thawed, some evangelical Protestant colleges began hiring faculty from other Christian faiths.
But now a conservative reaction is setting in, part of a broader push against the secularization of American society. Fearful of forsaking their spiritual and educational moorings, colleges are increasingly “hiring for mission,” as the catch phrase goes, even at the cost of eliminating more academically qualified candidates.
Well, maybe. But the general response of serious religious believers, Protestant and Catholic alike, is likely to be: “Good for Wheaton.” Or, rather, “Good for Wheaton—given that the evil of Christian disunity exists.”

Duane Litfin, the president of the school, insists that a Catholic “cannot faithfully affirm” the twelve-point Wheaton faith statement required of faculty members, though Hochschild says he was willing to sign it, and, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the statement “doesn’t explicitly exclude Catholics.”

Maybe Hochschild would have to affirm the statement in a special sense as a Catholic. Indeed, he was doing that even while he was an Episcopalian: At his hiring interview, the Wall Street Journal reports, Hochschild told the school’s president that he agreed with the faith statement’s assertion that the Bible is “of supreme and final authority,” though, he added, that Bible should be read according to “authoritative traditions.”

Of course, if affirming only in a special sense is going on, the school is doing its share—as when President Litfin insists that the net, though unwritten, effect of the faith statement is “unmistakably Protestant.” Still, that net effect was well understood: In his 2004 book Conceiving the Christian College about Wheaton, Litfin had said as much, and, the Wall Street Journal reports, “Hochschild recalls thinking he would probably lose his job” when he decided to become a Catholic. A close reading of the story suggests that there is actually less controversy at Wheaton College than the Wall Street Journal needs to make the article as dramatic as the newspaper would like it be.
Here's the dish he's prepared:
the whole thing is sadly hard on Professor Hochschild, who has suffered a pay cut to teach at a Catholic school, and only because he has taken a principled stand on questions of faith—which is the exactly the lesson schools like Wheaton hope to teach.

And yet, principled stands are supposed to cost something; otherwise, they’re not stands but merely poses. In the end, Wheaton is, I think, to be applauded for trying to prevent the decline of religious identity James Burtchaell documented in his magisterial study The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches. (And see Terry Eastland’s report on Davidson College in the current issue of FIRST THINGS.)

Getting rid of a serious, principled, and popular medieval philosophy professor is a sad example of the cost of Christian divisions, against which we pray ut unim sint: that they may be one. But until those divisions are healed, the shared Catholic and Protestant struggle to maintain religious identity in a secularized culture will occasionally create such disturbing incidents. If Catholics are concerned—as they ought to be—about the Catholic identity of their own colleges and universities, then they must accept the right and even duty of Protestant schools to maintain a Protestant character.
The sad scandal of a broken Christian Church makes such regrettable incidents possible. Professor Hochschild paid for his decision to enter into communion with the Catholic Church. However, I believe Mr. Bottum has a point.

Exactly how could Mr. Hochschild have continued participating in Wheaton College's mission if he fundamentally couldn't embrace it without qualification? And why would Wheaton College compromise their commitment to evangelization by employing such an ambivelent witness? There's no blame worthy to indulge in here. Instead, there's the sad testimony that brothers in Christ remain divided.

We Christians do not stand united with each other. We must pray and work for the day in which we are. Until that time, our respective communions--and the institutions beholden to them--may make demands on us to preserve their integrity. We must be willing to honor those demands, or we risk shattering the evangelical mission in which we're called to participate. If we value our own identity, then we must share that respect with our seperated brothers. Otherwise, we become hypocrites that refuse to live as Christ calls us because membership in Club My Church/Tribe feels better. The world desperately needs greater witness than that.