A joint letter circulated by two theology professors on the O’Brien case

Via McAdams, yet again:

Our purpose is to invite discussion on the hiring decision regarding Dr. O’Brien from the perspective of Catholic mission and identity.

In recent days there has been much consternation at Marquette University over rescinding the offer of the deanship of the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences to Dr. Jodi O’Brien of Seattle University. At a procedural level, there is little that is defensible in making an offer and then withdrawing it (though, of course, if pre-hiring decisions were mistaken, the university should not necessarily be prevented from rectifying those mistakes before it has made any contractual commitments). For many faculty members, it remains a mystery how things proceeded from the search committee’s forwarding of names to the provost, to what took place between him and the president of the university and others in making a final decision and extending an offer. Protests have been registered over these procedures, including the unfair treatment of Dr. O’Brien in the matter.

However, other substantial issues have also been raised. One letter circulated refers to “more fundamental concerns about our institutional commitment to diversity, inclusion, and academic freedom.” Many feel that the decision by Fr. Wild and Provost Pauly to rescind the offer violated these principles. Apart from the procedural issues involved and affirming these principles, we believe even more is at stake for Marquette University.

We defend the stated reasons in the Wild/Pauly letter that the primary concern for rescinding the offer had to do with Catholic mission and identity. Since this is not a regular faculty hire (where “hiring for mission” must also be taken into consideration) but a significant public leadership position at the university, it is important that the candidate be able to represent that identity and support it before constituencies on and off campus, as it is well spelled out in our official mission and identity statements, and more significantly, not oppose it in action or scholarship. There is little to dispute that Dr. O’Brien’s advocacy of “queer Christianity” (her nomenclature in her article “Seeking Normal? Considering Same-Sex Marriage”) and LGBT cultural strategies vis-à-vis the family, same-sex marriage and alternative partnering (not to mention her analysis and apparent promotion of cyberspace promiscuity– see her article “Changing the Subject”) cannot be squared with Catholic teaching on this very public issue, which is so controverted in our society, and in Christian churches—witness its divisive effects in nearly every mainline Protestant denomination. As these viewpoints are integral to her scholarly vocation why should a Catholic university invite her to lead its “flagship college” which cultivates the arts and sciences, when from the perspective of Catholic vision and Christian humanism such advocacy undermines human flourishing?*

No doubt, many (faculty and students alike) will disagree with this Catholic vision or say that they take exception to this particular manifestation of it as it concerns theological and philosophical conceptions of the human person, of human sexuality, and of the moral life. Even many Catholics (some Jesuits included) do not accept this teaching. Nevertheless, it is not a foregone conclusion that in the interests of preserving Catholic identity — an issue that we agree should remain dialogical — the university somehow violates principles of the academy if it does not offer major governance positions to candidates who oppose aspects of that same identity. After all, Catholic universities exist “From the Heart of the Church,” the English title of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities, Ex corde ecclesiae. This applies not just to theology departments and campus ministries, but to all units of the university because they are at the service of truth and of Catholic intellectual life. Marquette University does state under the rubric of faith that:

As a Catholic university, we are committed to the unfettered pursuit of truth under the mutually illuminating powers of human intelligence and Christian faith. Our Catholic identity is expressed in our choices of curricula, our sponsorship of programs and activities devoted to the cultivation of our religious character, our ecumenical outlook, and our support of Catholic beliefs and values.

It is true that not all faculty members at Marquette University see themselves as agents of Catholic intellectual life, and the dialogical nature of a university invites critical discussion and disagreements over a vast array of issues with other Christians, adherents of other religious traditions, and all people of good will who can support the mission of Marquette University. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine how Dr. O’Brien’s scholarly project is consistent with “Catholic beliefs and values.” Therefore, while we regret the procedural debacle and any injustice done to Dr. O’Brien, we are grateful that in the hiring process for an Arts and Sciences dean, Catholic mission and identity became a deciding factor.

Ralph Del Colle
Associate Professor of Theology

Mark Johnson
Associate Professor of Theology

*The Catholic position on homosexuality was succinctly stated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their 2006 statement Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care which (quoting a Vatican document) says the following:

“Moral conscience requires that, in every occasion, Christians give witness to the whole moral truth, which is contradicted both by approval of homosexual acts and unjust discrimination against homosexual persons.”

McAdams remarks, importantly, that neither Del Colle or Johnson approved the rescinding of the offer. I think no matter what one thinks about the imperative to sustain a “Catholic identity” or the moral status of homosexuality, they would have to concede that O’Brien was mistreated. She was approached with the job and encouraged to apply, twice. She had both verbal and, she claims, written contracts promising her the job. She had started looking for a house. Then, a month and a half later, the opportunity is withdrawn, and the only reason offered for the rescinding is that some of the work she had informed them of up front was only just now found to be unacceptable.

I don’t know how representative Del Colle and Johnson’s orthodoxy is within MU’s theology department, having only taken two classes within it. One, Intro 101, was taught by a vaguely hippyish older woman specializing in environmental theology; the other was a Hebrew Scriptures course taught by a Jesuit who took visible glee in confusing Christian students with some of the more atrocious bits of the Old Testament. That kind of disturbed me. I mean, I’ll also point to the violence of the Old and New Testaments, but never with glee as an end, and only to defend a point about the profound moral shortcomings of the Bible and the necessity for secular ethics. But this guy’s a priest, who by all appearances was amused by leaving the faithful amongst his students with fundamental, unresolved questions about the hypothetical goodess of God.

What I know about this Jesuit’s other ministerial work doesn’t seem to indicate a clergyman who eventually found himself an unbeliever made bitter and cynical for having no way out of the life he chose under faulty pretenses. He appeared sincere in his belief; so he was probably trying to force students to develop some sort of nuance in their understanding of divinity; yet that seems like an emotionally manipulative way to go about doing it.

So, if my experience allows me to say anything, I would have to say the Marquette theology department tends towards a higher degree of quirkiness than Del Colle and Johnson.

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One Response

  1. This post is very good Bento. It shows me that, if you can’t find a student to take over, you should just keep up the word warrior post-grad … you have a good voice on many matters, this one included.

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