Last week I drew attention to the way in which Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, slammed the Catholic Church in an online tirade.
I’m someone who respects (and respectfully disagrees) with a great deal of loyal Catholic dissent.
Yes, I worry that too much of liberal Catholicism has become academic rather than real, in control of academic departments and authoritarian in temperament. Yes, I wrote a quite negative review of Fr. James Keenan’s book, A History of Twentieth Century Moral Theology. And, yes, I’ve said some harsh things about mushy-headed Jesuits.
Therefore, I think readers will recognize that I don’t agree with a lot of what the so-called progressive Catholics stand for. But I know from experience that their dissent is often intermixed with a profound loyalty to the Church, as well as, in many cases, a lifetime of service.
Professor Robert Orsi’s outburst, however, strikes a different note. It’s one of bitter denunciation. It seems bizarre to me that such a person should hold a chair in Catholic Studies. Can we imagine a chair of Jewish Studies who repeats simple-minded slanders against Jews: rootless cosmopolitans, money grubbing shysters, and other libels? Orsi’s comments operate at the same level.
I’m in favor of academic freedom. Robert Orsi is entitled to his opinions, however foolish. And Northwestern is entitled to employ him. But a Catholic chair?
This is not a matter of mere titles. At Northwestern Orsi runs a Catholic Studies program.
The Catholic Church does not own the word “catholic,” but surely she has a legitimate interest in its use, especially by institutions and professors who seem altogether indifferent to—correction: profoundly antagonistic to—her teachings.
I’m sure Cardinal George in Chicago is not indifferent, and I certainly hope he can bring the administrators at Northwestern to see the lack of integrity involved in the false advertising of calling Orsi’s chair a Catholic chair. And if not the administrators, then at least the donors.
CLARIFICATION: Some folks who commented on my post last week wrongly supposed that Notre Dame was responsible for giving Orsi a platform on which to issue his preachments. That is not correct.
The “Contending Modernities” project has a great deal of promise, because it breaks down the false truism that the pre-Vatican II Church was “anti-modern,” when, in fact, the nineteenth and twentieth century Catholic Church had a variety of very sophisticated responses to and engagements with secular modernity. Neo-scholasticism, in other words, was and remains a “contending modernity”—a very important insight.
Robert Orsi’s comments appeared on the website of the Social Science Research Council, a New York organization that was drawing attention to the Notre Dame project and solicited comments, including Orsi’s.
In short, Orsi was not invited, sponsored, or endorsed by the Contending Modernities project. On the contrary, his remarks depend upon the crude (and still dominant) historical caricature of Catholicism as “reactionary.” That’s a mentality that the Notre Dame project is designed to break down.