The narrative isn’t anything new.
A Catholic university or college invites a “leading Catholic theologian” to give a talk or to function as a visiting professor. Individuals and groups from outside the institution perform a background check, uncovering facts about this theologian’s public opinions that dissent from Church teaching. Those outsiders publicize the invitation and facts, asking “Why is this Catholic university or college inviting this person?” Unable to defend the invitation in the face of the controversy stirred up by those outsiders, the institution’s president “disinvites” the theologian.
In response, the theologian runs to the left-of-center Catholic press. Berating the institution for capitulating to that tiny minority who seek to silence “free discussion” about Church teaching, the theologian asserts that even worse yet is how this bullying represents a mortal threat to academic freedom in Catholic higher education. Then, too, there’s the omnipresent Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). How long before it steps in to quash discussion by labeling the Church’s “thinkers” as “heretics”?
All of this coalesces as the left-of-center Catholic press bandies about its one-sided version of the “facts.” For example, it quotes other like-minded “leading theologians” who accuse the institution, among other things, of “colluding in the Sovietisation of Catholic intellectual life which many feel is one of the saddest features of the contemporary church.”
That’s the narrative. While the script hasn’t changed for several decades, some names have changed.
Sadly, a lot of people buy into the storyline because the left-of-center Catholic press, take the National Catholic Reporter, for example, tout the latest iteration whole cloth and unchallenged.
Yet, the claims should be challenged:
- A “tiny minority” is seeking to silence discussion about Church teaching. Really? Whether it’s a minority or not is immaterial. What is material is the answer to this question: “Who is really seeking to silence discussion?” Could it possibly be the so-called “majority” whose leaders don’t want anyone challenging their views or control of these institutions? What indemnifies these consummate insiders from critique?
- This tiny minority presents a “threat” to academic freedom. Really? It all depends upon definitions. In its objective meaning, academic freedom is the guarantee that a professor possesses the absolute right to pursue the truth unfettered and wherever the facts may lead. Academic freedom does not guarantee the right for a professor to say whatever he or she wants, that is to say, to take academic license and present as “fact” what are nothing more than mere “speculations” or personal “opinions.” Ask Ward Churchill who learned this lesson the hard way at the University of Colorado. This type of discussion should transpire between those who possess the competence to speak authoritatively and in a public forum where the clash of ideas and data assist in the pursuit of truth.
- Post-Vatican II Catholic theologians have a different, more independent relationship to the Church, its Magisterium, and the CDF. Many Catholic theologians in U.S. Catholic higher education—and especially those touted by the left-of-center Catholic press—believe they are neither subordinate to nor are they responsible to the Church, its Magisterium, or the CDF. Instead, these theologians believe they are subordinate to and responsible to the truth as they define it. Why? They possess a unique, divinely inspired, personal vocation and magisterium. Their call is to define Church teaching and purify it from error. Is that not precisely what the Protestant reformers argued?
Overlooking these flaws, it is interesting to note how those insiders are increasingly turning to Blessed John Henry Newman as their patron. For example:
[Newman] criticized the “shortsightedness” of those who “have thought that the strictest Catholic University could by its rules and its teachings exclude” intellectual challenges to faith.
The cultivation of the intellect involves that danger, and where it is absolutely excluded, there is no cultivation.
Yes, Newman did criticize such shortsightedness. But, the particular intellectual challenges Newman was addressing in his day were those raised by Enlightenment philosophy and Protestant theology. In addition, Newman was particularly disturbed at how theology was being systematically excluded from the curriculum. In his Idea of a University, Newman argued that the faculty of a Catholic university must address those challenges so that students, yes, would develop their intellects. But, they’d do so in a way that would enable them to think about these matters as Catholics do.
It’s time that those “insiders” in U.S. Catholic higher education and their willing accomplices in the left-of-center Catholic press stop making a piñata of those “outsiders” who are calling them to accountability. It’s also time to stop quoting Blessed John Henry Newman out of context.
To read the NCR article, click on the following link: