Catholic Identity: Shall We Talk?
By John W. Carlson
The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org), May 21, 2010 (slightly expanded).
Reproduced with permission.
College and university administrators welcome this time: a week of pomp and celebration with graduating students
and their families, culminating in commencement, followed by a period of relative calm in which they can reflect
on the academic year and develop future plans. Very likely, in 2010 no administrator looks forward to this period
of calm more than the Rev. Robert A. Wild, S.J., president of Marquette University.
Two weeks ago, Father Wild rescinded an offer made to Dr. Jodi O'Brien to become dean of Marquette's College of
Arts and Sciences. Currently chair of the Sociology department at Seattle University, O'Brien had been recommended
by a dean search committee. As a university press release candidly acknowledged, the committee had mentioned potential
"issues" concerning her candidacy, but senior administrators initially did not give those issues the
scrutiny they deserved. It became clear that - since the Arts and Sciences dean must be able "to represent
[Marquette's] Catholic identity" - the decision to hire O'Brien had been premature and needed to be reversed
for the good of all concerned.
O'Brien is a self-described "out" lesbian with a long-term partner. The focus of her scholarly work is
gay and lesbian sexuality and its interrelations with other social phenomena - in particular, those of religion
and civil society. In a New York Times interview the day after rescinding the deanship offer, Father Wild emphasized
that O'Brien's sexual orientation was not a major factor in his decision. Rather, he said, it had been discovered
that her writings included "strongly negative statements concerning marriage and the family." Wild presumably
was alluding, inter alia, to a 2004 article titled "Seeking Normal? Considering Same Sex Marriage." In
the present writer's judgment, this article is well crafted but manifestly at odds with Church teaching on sexuality
- as well as with the underlying philosophical realism that characterizes the Catholic intellectual tradition.
It assumes throughout that institutions such as marriage and the family are "socially constructed," i.e.,
that they have no independent reality or significance to which societal understandings should in some way conform.
In this perspective, debate about "defining" these institutions reduces to competing discourses and political
Unsurprisingly, the decision to rescind the offer set off a firestorm. The dean search process and outcome were
condemned by Marquette's Faculty Senate. The administration's actions, said the faculty body, sullied the reputation
of the university and gave cause to wonder whether Marquette was genuinely committed to academic freedom and diversity.
Speculation was rife that the president had responded to pressure from wealthy donors, and/or the Milwaukee ordinary.
(Archbishop Jerome Listecki later confirmed that he had expressed concerns about the appointment, but added that
he recognized the decision was the university's responsibility.) Groups of students at both Marquette and Seattle
U. - also sponsored by the Society of Jesus - protested the decision. The student newspaper at the latter said
that, given O'Brien's acceptance and indeed prominence on their campus, the Marquette move in effect questioned
Seattle's own Jesuit and Catholic identity. The Shepherd Express, a Milwaukee newsweekly, asked why, if being a
supporter of gay and lesbian causes did not disqualify a person from serving on the faculty of a Catholic school,
it should disqualify her from becoming a dean. It should be noted, however, that Father Wild and his administration
received strong support from other quarters, including The Cardinal Newman Society, as well as several Marquette
students and faculty bloggers.
Readers may wonder how such an unedifying scenario could have been allowed to unfold. Academics familiar with the
internal workings of most Catholic colleges and universities are more likely to marvel that this is the exception
rather than the rule. For, while no topic is more spoken about at our institutions (including Jesuit institutions)
than "Catholic identity," truly crunchy issues are rarely addressed. And while search committees are
given copies of college and university mission statements, they almost never are instructed about their implications
for the committees' work. In fairness, such instruction is difficult to articulate. Moreover, given the variety
of circumstances that may arise during a search, no formula could substitute for the prudential judgment of the
individuals involved. However, certain implications of Catholic identity surely can be proposed for discussion.
To do this, of course, is to invite a war on most campuses. But it is a war that is needed - and one far better
to have in advance than in the midst of cleaning up messes after the fact. Incidentally, the debate might go differently
at different institutions, given varied perceptions among stakeholders and other members of the surrounding communities,
including individual Catholic ordinaries. (Father Wild is reported to have said to Dr. O'Brien, "Milwaukee
is not Seattle.")
Let me propose the following as matters of general principle:
1) Quite apart from legal and public funding concerns, a Catholic institution simply should not make hiring decisions
based specifically on sexual orientation (or any of the other enumerated categories). However, it can happen that,
in the case of a prospective faculty member, appropriate officials (in particular, the responsible dean) will come
to a well-considered judgment that this individual would use his or her position to promote - in the classroom
and/or in publications - ideas contrary to Catholic faith, and even in a manner disrespectful of that faith. In
such a case, a refusal to hire would not constitute unjust discrimination.
2) Respect for academic freedom entails that, once hired, faculty members may pursue their scholarly activity as
they see fit. This does not imply a right to promotion and tenure, which must be earned through quality teaching,
scholarship, and service. At the same time, a probationary faculty member whose scholarship seems to be unacceptable
- on grounds of incompatibility with Catholic identity or any other grounds - deserves to be warned of this fact
as early as possible by his or her dean and department chair. To the extent possible, a mutually acceptable resolution
should be pursued.
3) Because of their leadership positions in matters of educational policy, and their roles in faculty hiring and
evaluation, deans typically shape academic cultures and therefore student experiences. Jesuit and other Catholic
institutions understandably are concerned to maintain a certain type of academic culture. Accordingly, dean candidates
at such institutions must realize that the content of their published ideas is proper matter for scrutiny. If these
ideas are at odds with basic teachings of the Catholic magisterium, or with the Catholic intellectual tradition
more generally, the institutions in question have not only a right, but a duty, to reject their candidacies. More
appropriate individuals will present themselves.
Now shall we talk?
John W. (Jack) Carlson is professor of philosophy at Creighton University
in Omaha, Neb. During his career, all at Jesuit-sponsored institutions, he has served as a department chair, arts
and sciences dean, and academic vice president.
Copyright © John W Carlson 2010
Version: 12th June 2010