Brian McDaniel, the blogger at Ora et Labora, has been spearheading an effort to put together an electronic petition of 4000 “signatures” in support of the decision by the Board of Trustees of the University of San Diego (a Catholic university) to rescind its offer of a senior, chaired position to radical heterodox theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther. I have signed the petition and I hope that others will as well, but the issue raises the question of what the relationship is supposed to be at a Catholic University between academic freedom and obedience to Church teaching.
I hope I can be forgiven if I begin with an anecdote. When I was still a relatively fresh convert to the Roman Catholic Church, I attended meetings of the local Legion of Mary. At the time I was only 27, which made me roughly 30 years younger than the next youngest person in attendance. One member was a very kindly woman who had lived in France most of her life and spoke with a soft voice and a beautiful French accent. The group had a discussion one evening of the banality of the hedonistic popular culture that surrounded us (hey, it was the 80s, man, not like now when everyone is so deep) and she clicked her tongue and said that the people who scoff at Christianity and the calling to holiness that it entails have no idea of the freedom that comes with abandoning oneself to God’s law. That idea–that abandonment to a certain mode of life in which one’s choices are constrained by certain principles constitutes a kind of freedom–has stuck with me ever since.
To remain faithful to the truth would appear to be the duty of every Christian at the very least, and I imagine that professors who teach the truth are doing their jobs a little better than professors who teach what is not true. Famously there are professors who think that the notion of “truth” is relative at best and outmoded at worst, but ironically it is precisely those professors who think that truth is relative who ought to be committed to the idea that the nature of truth is determined by the context within which the concept is invoked, and within the context of a Catholic university the concept of truth is decidedly realist in nature, and not the least bit relativistic or outmoded. So it seems to me that, especially if you’re a relativist about truth, you have to admit that, well, when in Rome….
It is here that the comment of my erstwhile Legionary companion seems apropos to me. Academic freedom, like any sort of freedom, is very important, but its importance lies in how it is defined. We do not value any and every freedom simply by virtue of its being an instance of freedom. We do not value, for example, the freedom to shoot at random passersby from our bedroom window, or the freedom to molest little children while they are sleeping. Some freedoms can be valued in one framework though not in another. Within the framework of Islam, for example, the freedom of men to take up to four wives is valued; within the framework of American culture, however, this is not viewed as a freedom to be valued. Similarly, to teach literally any and every theologoumenon as though deserving of equal intellectual respect may be a freedom that can be tolerated within certain institutions, but it simply cannot be tolerated within the framework of Catholicism, since the Church claims for herself the right to stand as final arbiter of which theologoumena are demanding of our assent. Colleges and universities that self-identify as Catholic in this country have long enjoyed the benefits of academic freedom that have not always been available in other countries, but Americans in particular ought to be sensitive to the need for accuracy in advertising. If you want to pass yourself off as a Catholic institution, you’d better offer something Catholic, or the marketplace is going to make mincemeat out of you, and that appears to be the message that the board of trustees is trying to send to the University of San Diego, where the faculty were, predictably, irate that a board of non-academic poltroons would have the temerity to intervene in an apparently academic decision.
It’s rather curious that Reuther was offered the chair in the first place. She is one of a shrinking number of “celebrity scholars” whose fame hangs principally on their willingness to say idiotic things. Peter Singer of Princeton, for example, has made a name for himself by advocating a version of utilitarianism that is so radical that he can’t think of any reasons to prefer the life of a severely disabled human being to that of a fully abled dog. Reuther’s views, a rather boring laundry-list of activist positions from the late 60s and early 70s, can hardly hope to compete in a marketplace of ideas that has, by now, seen just about everything, and indeed her views now seem downright old-fashioned compared to others that are on offer. It is perhaps a sign of her waning influence that semester-long offers at USD are the best that she can hope for.