This weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an interesting story about Joshua Hochschild, an assistant professor of medieval philosophy, who was recently fired from the evangelical Wheaton College for his conversion to Catholicism.
It’s well known among journalists that one of the most strictly constructed pieces in American newspapers is this sort of cultural essay in the Wall Street Journal (on weekdays, it’s the center column on the front page). The piece nearly always begins with an anecdotal lede¯a description of a person in the first paragraph, followed immediately by the particulars of the controversy in which the person is involved¯and then moves to a claim about a larger point the culture, looping back at the end to the person who began it all and offering some (often wry) comment about it all. The strict formula makes for a nice, tight little essay, circular in construction and usually very readable.
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 F IRST T HINGS 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.
The problem, really, is the difficulty in crafting a faith statement that can be signed by every Protestant¯from the highest of high-church Anglicans to the lowest of low-church fundamentalists¯but can’t be signed by any Catholic. In the end, all such things are likely to run on a wink and prayer, which says a great deal about the incoherence of some Christian disunity. And 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 F IRST T HINGS .)
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.
In addition to which :
Someday we would like to break even. That almost never happens, however, with magazines of serious ideas. F IRST T HINGS is a very lean operation that depends for survival upon subscriptions and advertising income—and the generous response to the annual appeal now in the mail. If you are not a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS , we are pleased to say that is easily remedied by checking out the “Subscribe” button above. That way you receive the current issue each month and don’t have to wait and wait to find out what everybody is talking about. Well, not exactly everybody. If everybody subscribed, we wouldn’t need to make this pitch. But we do. Thank you for your help.