Sunday, January 22, 2006

Having an “Honored Guest”: Why Wheaton Should Not Have Fired a Catholic

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.


Anonymous said...

From Jew to Episcopalian to Roman Catholic, Hochschild's odessey-of-faith demanded that he display "the courage of his convictions" and resign, lest he appear a dilettante.

For its part, Wheaton College might better choose faculty who are more spiritually well-grounded, rather than well-travelled.

As for me, a Jew by birth and by learning, I am less able than some to enjoy Aquinas' Summa Theologica, given his lifelong advocacy for the painful death of heretics and non-believers, which later became Church doctrine and was actively practiced against Jews, and others..

Anonymous said...

I have a great deal of respect for Wheaton's mission and for the seriousness with which they take it. I do not doubt that they are perfectly within their rights to let Hochschild go. However, I have heard (from those friendly to Hochschild) that the Wheaton administration has been taking some heat from its orthodox alumni for the radical/unorthodox public stances of some its professors. What better way could there be to silence the howling than by firing an orthodox Catholic? The alums are reassured that Protestant orthodoxy is being served, while the radicals are left with one fewer 'conservative' faculty member to deal with.

By the way, from what I have read, Hochshild's desire to stay at the school was directly related to his love for his students, his colleagues, and the institution. The pledge which he was required to take is quite ambiguous, which is why he could take it in good conscience both as an Anglican and as an RC.

I'm unsure of what to make of the accusation about dilettantism other than to suggest that it is certainly morally dubious to question the seriousness of a person's religious convictions without some very good evidence. It is, in any case, an eccentric usage to call a man with a Ph.D. in medieval philosophy who had been a practicing high Anglican for some time a religious (?) dilettante for converting to Roman Catholicism.

Gruntled said...

I hadn't thought of the faculty politics implications of removing Hochschild. I gather from the Wheaton president's public protestations that that was not his prime concern.

And I agree that Hochschild's religious trajectory does not seem flaky to me. Really, he almost went all the way up the Tiber from secular zero the first time, and only held the line at the semi-Protestant Episcopalians because that's where his first Christian friends held.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your point gruntled. While I think that faith-based colleges need to stay the course on their beliefs, unless this professor started trying to proslytize his students to all convert to Catholicism then I do not think this is a big deal. As a Wesleyan I would not have a problem with a Calvinist teaching a course so long as they were not trying to convince me of predistination. As a presbyterian you probably have different views on predestination, but you get my point. I think in this day and age it really matters more whether you agree on the essentials of the faith. Deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc... John Wesley in his sermon called Catholic Spirit identifies some of theses essential beliefs and practices and then said "If it be, give me thy hand." You do not have to believe exactly what I believe, but if we do agree on the essentials then we are brothers in Christ.