A Tough Call

In today's Wall Street Journal there's a front-page story about Joshua Hochschild, an assistant professor of philosophy at Wheaton College whose contract has not been renewed because of his recent converson to Roman Catholicism. The story emphasizes the growing trend towards "mission purity" at some religious campuses: for many years plenty of Protestant and Catholic schools looked for academic excellence as their primary criterion for new hires and tenure decisions, but there have been lots of recent cases in which adherence to some doctrinal or credal affiliation has played a major role both in hiring and in tenure decisions. The case of Baylor's recent president, Robert Sloan, has come in for much discussion over at the Reform Club, where resident Baylor almunus Hunter Baker has had much to say on the topic that is both interesting and important.

Hochschild was hired by Wheaton when he was an Episcopalian, but he was already tempted by Roman Catholicism. Even when he was hired, he discussed the meaning of "Biblical inerrancy" with the president of Wheaton, Duane Liftin. Liftin has a rather impoverished notion of what Roman Catholicism entails, but his understanding of it is not all that different from what is widely beleived among certain Evangelical circles, so it's difficult to fault him for his decision to consider Hochschild a person who could not, in principle, sign the Wheaton statement of faith, and it was on the basis of this that he terminated Hochschild's contract. Academically, apparently, Hochschild was a keeper: the chairman of the philosophy department is quoted as having a favorable opinion of him, and the suggestion appears to be that he was on-track for a positive tenure decision.

Hochschild's case was rather striking to me personally, because so many of the issues involved in his case remind me of my own experience. Since I work at a state school there are no doctrinal constraints that I had to conform to in order to get tenure, and I really wonder what I would have done were I in his positition. On the one hand, his was the only salary in the family, and he knew that he was taking a risk of losing his job by converting. On the other hand, if you really believe in the principles of your faith, you aren't going to compromise them for mere prudential considerations. Hochschild was able to get another job at a Catholic college, but it meant a significant step down, both academically and economically. That's a big sacrifice to make over a principle, and I'm sure it was a very tough call for him to make.

What further complicates the situation, at least for me, is this nagging thought that, all in all, it's better rather than worse for religious schools to start getting tougher about these sorts of things. Forgetting for a moment the Catholic/Protestant divide here, just within the domain of Catholic education I've seen the slow erosion of Catholic principles at certain self-proclaimed "Catholic" schools--to the point where pro-abortion speakers are given platforms to air their views in the name of "academic freedom"--and it gets to the point where one almost wishes there were a few more Duane Liftons of a Roman Catholic flavor floating around inside Catholic Academia. On the other hand, as a Roman Catholic, one can't help but be a little irritated when it's one of us who feels the brunt of this trend. One almost gets the feeling that this is not a good thing for Christianity per se: it's one thing to make sure that your faculty is Christian, but to start emphasizing divisions within Christianity may not be all that salutary, given the hostile secular world that we're up against. Maybe we should stick together a little more. If it were a question of an evangelical keeping his job at a Catholic school, I think that I would be in favor of a certain lenience. John Paul II required that Catholic schools keep a majority of their faculty Catholic, but he did not say anything about excluding non-Catholics altogether. Given that it is the role of the Pope in settling doctrinal issues that many Protestants object to, it is a little ironic that the Pope seems to be a little more, shall we say, forgiving, than the president of Wheaton College in this matter: Lifton is abrogating to himself a more powerful doctrinal role than the one he claims the Pope has by tradition.

Internecine strife is not a pleasant matter, of course. Neither is the abandonment of "mission purity". As Christians, we ought to find a way to work through this problem together.


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