In 1877 some concerned citizens of Wheaton, Illinois, decided that they needed to do something about the strange little college that stood in the midst of their town. It had been there since the early 1850s, first as a Wesleyan school called the Illinois Institute and then—reinvented by Jonathan Blanchard, a Congregationalist minister, abolitionist, sworn enemy of “secret societies,” and former president of downstate Galesburg’s Knox College—as Wheaton College. On almost every conceivable political or social issue Blanchard was a radical, and he worried the local burghers.
So they turned to the Congregational Association for help. Blanchard, they said, was guilty of “narrowing [the college’s] constituency to a small class of men of extreme views.” He needed to be shown that the more moderate and hence wiser path was to offer “a broad, generous, liberal education under moral and religious influences.” All denominational and doctrinal extremities were to be shunned; Blanchard and his red-hot revivalist fanatics needed to be submerged in the lukewarm bath of mere “moral and religious influences.” The Congregationalist authorities, having long been frustrated with Blanchard anyway, were more than happy to do their part: They declared that Blanchard was no longer a Congregationalist minister and Wheaton no longer a Congregationalist college. Blanchard ignored them and continued on his chosen path—and Wheaton has been an interdenominational college ever since.
In 2004, the administration of Wheaton College chose not to renew the contract of Joshua Hochschild, an assistant professor of philosophy, for one reason and one reason only: He had expressed his intention to be received into the Roman Catholic Church. (Full disclosure: I consider Josh Hochschild a friend, and during his time at Wheaton, where I teach, I came to value him greatly both for his intellectual incisiveness and his deep Christian commitment.) Hochschild, after some pleading by his department, was ultimately allowed to remain at Wheaton for another year, but in 2005 left to teach at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Maryland.
This event did not draw much attention beyond Wheaton as it was unfolding, but when a reporter for the Wall Street Journal heard about it some months later and wrote an article that appeared in January 2006, a considerable amount of public comment ensued. Much of the commentary has been less than well informed and less than enlightening, but once the proper clarifications are made, the Hochschild case can be seen to illuminate a set of crucial choices facing Wheaton College—and, perhaps, Christian higher education in America.
First, misconceptions and clarifications:
• Some commentators have assumed that Wheaton has only recently decided to exclude Catholics from teaching positions. In fact, in the 2004–2005 academic year Josh Hochschild became the first Catholic ever to hold a full-time teaching position in the nearly one-hundred-and-fifty-year history of the college.
• Some have assumed that the Statement of Faith—which all employees of the college must sign—is crafted in such a way that all Protestants are acceptable but no Catholics are. But many Protestants would reject Wheaton’s position that the Holy Scriptures are “of supreme and final authority in all they say” or its affirmation of “the bodily resurrection of the just and the unjust.” The statement is not even one that all evangelicals could sign. For instance, one of the most famous of all evangelical leaders, John Stott, is not sure he could affirm “the everlasting punishment of the lost.”
• Some have contended that Catholic colleges do not in this way exclude Protestants, but while most Catholic schools do indeed allow Protestants (and Jews, and Muslims, and atheists) to join their faculty, such policies are by no means uniform. Schools such as Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, Thomas More College in New Hampshire, Ave Maria University in Florida, and Thomas Aquinas College in California expect their faculty to be faithful Catholics, though they may make exceptions in certain cases; and each of them would certainly think it a serious matter indeed if a faculty member left communion with Rome in order to become a Protestant.
• Some have said that Hochschild allowed his situation to be publicized because he rejects the idea of an exclusively Protestant college. But Hochschild has written, “I expected to lose my job upon converting to Catholicism, and I acknowledged the college’s right to exclude Catholics. I have never challenged this right.”
What quarrel, then, does Hochschild have with Wheaton, if he has one at all? There is indeed a key point of dispute. Wheaton’s president, Duane Litfin, contends that Catholics who believe they can faithfully sign Wheaton’s Statement of Faith—especially the clause about Scripture—are mistaken, either about what Wheaton’s statement means or about what the Catholic Church teaches. Hochschild disagrees, contending that Catholics do indeed affirm that the Holy Scriptures are “of supreme and final authority in all they say,” and that the statements on the Bible in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents on which it is based (notably Dei Verbum from the Second Vatican Council) clearly support his contention.
President Litfin counters that, when the Statement of Faith is read in its proper context—which includes a preamble that identifies Wheaton “not only with the Scriptures but also with the reformers and the evangelical movement of recent years”—it becomes clear that the statement about Scripture is intended to imply clear dissent from the Catholic position that Scripture is co-equal with Holy Tradition, and that Scripture and Tradition form an indissoluble whole that is authoritatively interpreted by the Roman magisterium and by the magisterium alone. In other words, a reasonably careful and informed reader of the statement will discern that the phrase “supreme and final authority” is meant to invoke the central Reformational commitment to sola scriptura.
To this Hochschild replies that the statement simply doesn’t say that, and the ordinary or obvious meaning of the phrase “supreme and final authority” quite accurately captures the Catholic position on the Bible. (Thus Dei Verbum : “Yet this magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.”)
At the risk of seeming to weasel my way out of a tight place, I must say that I think both men—and I have talked or corresponded with both on this matter, and at some length—are exactly right. Certainly Wheaton’s Statement of Faith is instantly identifiable to any reasonably informed person as an evangelical Protestant document: No Catholic would ever think it a sufficient formulation of core Christian belief. It arises from the disputes of twentieth-century American Protestantism and is meant to stake out Wheaton’s territory in those disputes. If the statement is meant to exclude anyone, that would be liberal Protestants or half-hearted evangelicals. I do not believe there has been any point in Wheaton’s history—until now—when the college’s board of trustees has looked at the Statement of Faith with Catholics in mind.
To a large extent this is because, throughout much of American history and late into the twentieth century, evangelicals and Catholics had little to do with one another. They came, by and large, from different ethnic groups; they lived in different neighborhoods and even in different regions of the country; they went to different schools”in short, they were socialized into American culture in dramatically different ways. Throughout much of its history Wheaton College’s leaders would have reacted with horror at the thought of Catholics on the faculty”but they would have been highly unlikely to entertain that thought in the first place. Catholic scholars would have been equally unlikely to think of teaching at Wheaton. Duane Litfin is right to say that Wheaton is getting hammered for taking a position that, as recently as thirty years ago, scarcely anyone on either side of the Reformational divide would have questioned.
But times have changed. And here is where the correctness of Hochschild’s position comes in. He is not the only Catholic to look at Wheaton’s Statement of Faith and think, “Yes, that suits me very well.” Having served on hiring committees a number of times in Wheaton’s English department, I have seen dozens of applications from Catholic scholars who see nothing in Wheaton’s self-description that would rule them out.
Now, in some cases these Catholic applicants fail to understand what kind of school they are applying to: They think Wheaton is a Christian college in the way that Notre Dame is a Catholic university—that, to borrow terms favored by President Litfin in his book Conceiving the Christian College, Wheaton is an “umbrella” institution rather than a “systemic” one. Umbrella institutions welcome all sorts of people, with all sorts of beliefs, onto their faculty, as long as those people can support the principles on which the institution is founded. (Thus Notre Dame in no way compromised its mission as a Catholic university when, some years ago, it hired Nathan Hatch—an evangelical Protestant who both graduated from Wheaton and served on its board of trustees—as its provost.) But Wheaton is in fact a systemic institution which asks all of its faculty—and indeed its other employees—to affirm, not merely to support, its core beliefs.
Still, in any given year several Catholic scholars apply for jobs at Wheaton, not because they are ignorant of Catholic doctrine or of Wheaton’s institutional purpose but precisely because they do understand the systemic nature of Wheaton’s faith commitments and are genuinely enthusiastic about teaching in such an environment. If such problems did not arise thirty years ago, they are certainly arising now and will do so for the foreseeable future—unless Wheaton’s board of trustees revises the Statement of Faith to render unmistakable its commitment to a specifically Protestant and non-Catholic theological stance. Certainly either clarification or change is called for. The current situation creates a great deal of unnecessary friction, confusion, and pain in the hiring process.
But what principles or concerns should guide Wheaton’s leaders as they reflect on the options before them? It is easier perhaps to say what should not guide them. First on that list would be the all-too-common assumption that religious particularity is always a bad thing, that it amounts to “sectarianism” or violates the gospel of “diversity.”
On the contrary, there are good reasons that some colleges and universities might choose, in the interests of intellectual coherence and the promotion of fruitful conversation, or in the interests of, say, service to the Church, or out of a love for Truth itself, to confine their constituency to those who share a set of core beliefs. The wide-open doors of the modern university—even supposing that they really exist—are a good thing but not the only good thing. Certain valuable and productive conversations happen in classrooms at Wheaton or Thomas Aquinas that simply cannot happen in the classrooms of secular universities. This was a point lost on the concerned citizens of Wheaton in 1877—with their longing for the unspecifiable uplift of “moral and religious influences”—and it is equally lost on many of Wheaton’s critics today.
Moreover, as James Tunstead Burtchaell has shown in his book The Dying of the Light —a book well known to the leadership of Wheaton College—dozens and dozens of American colleges and universities have discovered that there seems to be no “undo” button for schools that broaden their religious self-understanding. What happened at Harvard, and then happened at Oberlin, is now being completed at Davidson: The history of American higher education indicates that such sequences of events run one way only. So any school that has a distinctively Christian character and wishes to retain it had better take great care before “opening up” the institution to the previously excluded.
Yet if Wheaton were to accept Catholics on its faculty, this would not be a “broadening” of the kind that Burtchaell describes so compellingly. By such an action not a single provision of any orthodox Christian creed would be compromised; not a single concession to theological liberalism would be made. Such a move would not signal that Wheaton takes its core theological commitments any less seriously. Rather, it would reflect an acceptance of the fact that Catholics and Protestants have a far better understanding of each other, and a deeper recognition of their great common cause, than has been the case since the earliest days of the Reformation. (My colleague Mark Noll and his coauthor Caroline Nystrom have explored this reconciliation with great skill in their book Is the Reformation Over? )
Indeed, some people believe the rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants is so nearly complete that the acceptance of Catholics as faculty at Wheaton would mark a relatively minor change. I wish I could agree, but I cannot. Certainly such a decision would reverberate in Wheaton’s constituency: There are many alumni and other donors who share the old hostility to and suspicion of Catholicism. And I am sure President Litfin has thought more than a few times of how he might handle that first phone call from a Baptist or Presbyterian parent irate because his daughter, under the influence of a charismatic Catholic professor, has just expressed (while nervously clicking the beads of her rosary) her desire to be received into Mother Church.
Then again, perhaps Wheaton would gain more support than it would lose by such a move and develop a stronger, if altered, constituency. Such matters are hard to calculate. In any case, the doctrinal modifications are more significant. President Litfin sometimes says that they would amount to “changing the DNA” of Wheaton, and, while I might quibble with that metaphor, it has some force. The school contains quite a wide range of Protestants: Arminians and Calvinists, Anglicans and Dispensationalists, Baptists, Nazarenes, Plymouth Brethren. These folks disagree on quite a few things. But they all accept a doctrinal statement that draws heavily on the Nicene Creed. More important in the daily life of the college, they all use the Bible in a similar way.
This is a kind of binding agent for the community—we may not agree in our conclusions about the Bible, but people carry Bibles around a lot, and quote from them, and employ them to cite evidence for arguments in a way that I rarely see among my Catholic friends. Faithful Catholics don’t believe in the authority of Scripture any less than evangelical Protestants, but they certainly employ the Bible in very different ways, largely because it is more natural for many Catholics to cite magisterial interpretations of Scripture than to cite Scripture directly.
President Litfin sees this difference as the fundamental one that separates Catholics and Protestants. In his reading, “the Catholic principle” is the view that “the Scriptures and Tradition, both as authoritatively interpreted by the magisterium, are our supreme and final authority,” while “the Protestant principle” is the view that “the Scriptures alone are our supreme and final authority.”
I do not wholly disagree with this, though I think one cannot separate the Catholic view of Holy Tradition from its position on (especially) apostolic succession and holy orders—just as sola scriptura is inextricable from the other “solas” of the Reformation. And I would also argue that this strict dichotomy better captures the situation in 1540 than the one we are faced with today.
But let me for the sake of argument grant the point. Does it follow that Catholics and Protestants cannot be coworkers in a school like Wheaton? Certainly it has long been thought that this difference is more momentous than, say, the differences between Arminians and Calvinists regarding soteriology, but I can see no obvious reason for this to be so. Questions of how we may be saved are no less significant than questions about who authoritatively interprets the Bible. Nor are they obviously less germane to Christian higher education.
To be sure, if Catholics taught at Wheaton we would all have to make not-insignificant rhetorical adjustments. We would need to learn to make arguments in somewhat different ways and to hear different kinds of arguments as having possible validity. Such adjustments, I believe, would mainly have an invigorating effect on the campus’s intellectual and spiritual life, but they wouldn’t be easy.
I have other concerns. Would the clause in the Statement of Faith affirming that “all human beings are born with a sinful nature that leads them to sin in thought, word, and deed” need to be revised to make room for those who believe in Mary’s immaculate conception? What would it do to the Christian unity and fellowship of the faculty to have some among us who (while not doubting that the rest of us are Christians) do not believe that we belong to the Church in the form intended by Christ?
I think it is important to avoid the claim that the differences between Protestants and Catholics are insignificant; they are not, and it is frivolous to think that they are. But it may well be that sufficient common ground in the gospel exists, and is recognized to exist, so that it makes sense for a college like Wheaton to take a significant step toward effective Christian unity. It was, after all, the prayer of our Lord that we be one as he and the Father are one, and if we neglect any legitimate and significant opportunity to pursue that oneness, great is our sin.
President Litfin, while seeing such a change as a kind of genetic engineering, has also noted that this is a “prudential judgment” for Wheaton’s leadership. After all, since the Congregationalists washed their hands of Jonathan Blanchard, Wheaton has been a self-defining entity, accountable to no other institution. Its leaders can engage in genetic engineering, if they so wish. And as they meditate on this issue, I would encourage them to reflect on the college’s mission statement: “Wheaton College exists to help build the church and improve society worldwide by promoting the development of whole and effective Christians through excellence in programs of Christian higher education.”
What elements of Wheaton’s mission are aided by its faculty being confined to Protestants? This, it seems to me, is the question that matters most. I must confess that I have difficulty in saying what such elements might be. Conversely, the riches of Catholic intellectual traditions, when embodied in persons of deep Christian conviction and piety, offer great resources for the fulfillment of that mission. Wheaton has never neglected the traditions themselves, but it has chosen to pass over brilliantly gifted proponents of those traditions when those proponents have also stood under the authority of Rome. At this juncture in the history of Christianity in the West—when it is besieged in so many ways by so many opponents—I am not sure that a school like Wheaton can afford to go it alone much longer. Even if we could, would it be wise and charitable to do so?
We are, so our motto states, “for Christ and His Kingdom.” Josh Hochschild was a strong contender for that Kingdom while he was at Wheaton, and he has contended for it no less vigorously and skillfully after swimming the Tiber. Josh and I remain allies in that cause, but I lost something valuable when he ceased to share with me the daily work of teaching the extraordinary students whom Wheaton attracts. And though Josh will do fine work at Mount Saint Mary’s, or wherever he goes, I think that when he left Wheaton the cause lost something, too.
The Reformation may not be over, but many of the suspicions and hostilities that accompanied it should be. Wheaton could strike a great blow, not for insipid and vacuous “moral and religious influences,” but for true Christian unity, if it welcomed into its midst Josh Hochschild and other Catholic teacher-scholars who share his passion for Christian truth.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College and author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis.