Wheaton College fired medieval philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild because he converted to Roman Catholicism. Wheaton, an evangelical Protestant college, has a strong faith statement that all professors are required to sign and believe. Hochschild was willing to sign the faith statement; as Wheaton interprets its creed and the Catholic faith, however, the two are simply incompatible.
The Catholic legal blog Mirror of Justice carries the Wall Street Journal piece that spread the story, and a series of sensible responses to it, starting here. All acknowledge that Wheaton has a perfect legal right to fire Catholics, or anyone else who does not fit the college’s theological commitment. The debate has been about whether Wheaton really serves its own mission well with a blanket exclusion of Catholics. Hochschild, raised a secular Jew, became a Christian at Yale through the study of Christian philosophy. Then a high church Episcopalian, he did his graduate work at Notre Dame, before going to Wheaton. That progression continued, though, and took him beyond Canterbury to Rome.
Wheaton acknowledges that they would like to keep Hochschild, and colleagues thought him likely to be tenured. They also acknowledge that it is difficult to find a first-rate scholar of medieval philosophy who is not a Catholic – Thomas Aquinas has that effect on intellectuals (I know he does on me). The Wall Street Journal article contrasts Wheaton’s “evangelicals only” policy with Notre Dame’s decision to hire non-Catholics, as long as the university maintains a Catholic majority on the faculty.
I am a Presbyterian teaching at a nominally Presbyterian college, and I have written about Presbyterian higher education, especially in Called to Teach. Presbyterian colleges traditionally have had a clear mission, and all faculty members were required to support it. However, the institution had room for some “honored guests” – religious believers from other traditions who nonetheless supported the religious mission of the school. Far from suppressing their differences from the institutional faith of the college, these honored guests hone everyone’s understanding of what the college’s mission and tradition are.
Having honored guests on the faculty (including permanent, tenured members) is not at all like the secular pluralism that has overtaken so many church-founded colleges. There, they suppress all religious commitments in hiring faculty, and soon enough the secular academy sets the norm of what professors should believe. When, on the contrary, a college retains a clear religious mission, it can have room for those who do not embrace that mission, if they nonetheless honor it. As a perfect guest does in visiting another’s home, even if the visit lasts a lifetime.
Joshua Hochschild was willing to be an honored guest at Wheaton. I think they would have been better off, and would better have served their evangelical mission, if they had made a place for him.