Some opinion pieces on the O’Brien controversy

Joel McNaly, writing in the Shepherd Express, mulls over the O’Brien controversy:

At issue was Marquette President Father Robert Wild rescinding a job offer to Seattle University professor Jodi O’Brien, who was actively recruited by Marquette—not once, but twice—to become dean of its College of Arts and Sciences.

There have been a lot of hollow rationalizations offered publicly to try to explain away Marquette’s 180-degree reversal, but the real reason for denying the job to O’Brien two weeks after she signed and returned a contract is obvious. It’s also against the law in the state of Wisconsin. O’Brien is the gay chairwoman of the anthropology and sociology department at Seattle University, which like Marquette is a Jesuit university. Her academic research has included studying ways in which discrimination affects lesbians and gay men. The public explanation for refusing to employ O’Brien clearly is not true. It’s that somehow her academic research into gay discrimination conflicts with Marquette’s Catholic mission.

If that were true, O’Brien would not have been employed at another Catholic university for the past 15 years.  If that were true, two different Marquette search committees made up of MU theologians, administrators and faculty would not have actively recruited O’Brien.

Were there actually theologians on the search committee? That seems easy to believe, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a definitive list of names of members of the committee. Is that public information?

In 2008, O’Brien was a finalist of the first search committee, but she declined a job offer at that time. When the first search failed to attract any of its top candidates, recruitment was reopened. When the second search committee began its work, Marquette leaders, including a representative of Wild’s administration, traveled to Seattle to encourage O’Brien to apply again.

It’s sad Wild looks so bad going into the final year before his retirement. By all accounts, Wild has made great strides not only in building a first-class physical campus in downtown Milwaukee, but in opening up the university intellectually to more diverse students, faculty and academic pursuits.

Under previous presidents, student newspaper editors would get replaced for daring to print opinions on contraception or abortion and the administration would come up with outrageous proposals to wall off the university from the community by closing down Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee’s main street. Wild’s leadership has been much more progressive than that. And it’s simply inconceivable Wild doesn’t know that, for nearly three decades now, it has been illegal in Wisconsin for employers to refuse to hire someone based on the applicant’s sexual orientation. Since Wild has hired gay faculty and administrators in the past and allowed gay student organizations to meet on campus, what has suddenly changed at Milwaukee’s Jesuit university?

Well, here’s one big change: The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has taken an even sharper turn to the far right.  The last archbishop, Timothy Dolan, was far more conservative than the man he succeeded. Dolan’s predecessor, Archbishop Rembert Weakland, was an international advocate for increasing the activism of the Catholic Church on issues of poverty and inequality.

Does McNaly really want to be cheerleading for Weakland? The man was was a degenerate. He paid nearly half a million dollars in church finds for hush money to a former lover. He shredded weekly briefings on child abuse within his diocese rather than hand them over to police, presumably including those pertaining to Lawrence Murphy, the rapist of upwards of 200 deaf children entrusted under his care.

But Dolan also was a smiling, jolly fellow who avoided political controversy. After Dolan moved on to slap backs in New York City, he was succeeded by Archbishop Jerome Listecki. No more Most Reverend Nice Guy. Listecki appears eager to jump into every public political debate, staking out the most extreme right-wing position. He is one of those church leaders with the hubris to presume to decide on behalf of God which Roman Catholic politicians have voted sufficiently in lockstep with the church’s lobbyists to be allowed to partake of communion.  Although the archbishop has no real authority over Catholic universities, Listecki is not shy about overstepping his bounds to try to impose his right-wing ideology on academia.

Listecki was one of the national Catholic leaders who embarrassed the church by opposing the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to the first African-American president of the United States to speak at commencement a year ago. Listecki objected because President Barack Obama did not agree with the church’s opposition to a woman’s right to choose whether to have a child. Notre Dame chose to ignore conservative extremists. Sadly, Marquette did not when Listecki and his judicial vicar, Father Paul Hartmann, who teaches at the Marquette law school, raised objections to the hiring of O’Brien.

The good news is, even though Wild caved in to the Archdiocese, students have received sufficient moral education at Marquette to recognize illegal discrimination when they see it. Hundreds of them took time out during finals week to demonstrate over something other than the cost of tuition.

I take issues with the use of the word “hundreds.” There were maybe 120 people at the largest demonstration, the Academic Senate sit-in; the word “hundreds” suggests plural hundreds, viz. than 200, a which none of the three on-the-ground protests have broken, or come close to breaking. Moreover, there was a huge degree of overlap between attendees of the Senate sit-in and initial May 6 demonstration. Though thousands have students have protested Wild’s decision on Facebook, it’s only been the same hundred or so people actually taking to the street.

Jesuit and theologian Bryan Massingale has become the latest  current and past faculty member to have an opinion piece in the Journal Sentinel. Massingale’s research interests are theological ethics and African-American theology. He’s also shown a conspicuous interest in LGBT issues, though he’s always taken care so as not to explicitly cross Catholic orthodoxy. He’s taught an honors seminar on homosexuality and Christian ethics, spoke on a GSA-sponsored panel on the film “For The Bible Tells Me So,” and written an essay against amending Wisconsin’s constitution to preclude same-sex civil unions (though his primary arguments centered on the harm it would inflict on straight couples, and its redundancy, as gay marriage was already illegal in the state). All of this suggests Massingale wishes to argue for individual LGBT causes, but in such a way that he does not actually endorse them and violate the letter of Catholic doctrine. In a word, it suggests he is an esoteric, in the sense that Leo Strauss used the word.

The possible trend continues this editorial, wherein Massingale again makes a very, very cautious endorsement of LGBT causes by claiming the rescinding appears to be a moment when “Catholicism is not at its best.”  He claims discussion of the O’Brien decision has been obscured by the “red herring” of Listecki’s involvement, which he claims we are not in a position to make definative statements on; and “false dichotomies” between “faith commitment” and “intellectual integrity” :

First, the red herring: that Milwaukee Catholic Archbishop Jerome Listecki acted improperly in voicing concerns to Marquette President Father Robert A. Wild over a leadership hire. As the leader of the local Catholic church, the archbishop is a significant stakeholder in any institution that has the title “Catholic.”

We should remember that this is not the first time a Milwaukee archbishop contacted the administrators of Catholic colleges or health care institutions. The issue, then, is not whether the archbishop was out of line to express his views to Marquette’s leaders. Rather, the question is whether such an intervention compromised the integrity of the university’s decision-making processes. I cannot answer that question definitively, but from what I know of Father Wild, I have to believe that is unlikely.

Now to the false dichotomies. A lot of the discussion assumes that Marquette has to make a decision between irreconcilable choices. Either “faith commitment” or “intellectual integrity.” Either “Catholic identity” or “academic freedom.” Either “Catholic institution” or “research university.” Either “doctrinal fidelity” or “liberal secularism.” What each of these choices assumes is that there is something fundamentally incompatible with being both a research institution committed to the free pursuit of knowledge while also being a university inspired by a faith heritage rooted in the Jesuit tradition.

Such thinking, I contend, misunderstands the genius and spirit of Catholicism. One of the hallmarks of the Catholic faith is its insistence upon the fundamental harmony between discoveries based upon the reasoned pursuit of truth and those illumined by the act of faith. To have to choose between “faith” and “reason” is inherently un-Catholic.

Thus, academic freedom in the pursuit of knowledge is consistent with and even demanded by Catholic faith. Catholicism, at its best, is not afraid of the marketplace of ideas and the arena of open discussion. This is why the modern university is a direct descendant of the medieval ones founded by Catholic scholars. Furthermore, if truths affirmed by Catholicism cannot withstand free debate and dispute, then they should be purified, nuanced or even changed.

This is not a “radical” idea, nor is it a dangerous capitulation to secular relativism. The church’s appreciation for human rights and democratic forms of government; its views on the sinfulness of slavery; its growing appreciation of the equal dignity of women – all of these were formed in dialogue with and in response to currents of ideas both within and beyond the church itself. That the church has much both to learn from, and contribute to, the modern world was affirmed and settled in 1965 with Vatican II’s declaration, “The Church in the Modern World.”

But notice that I said this marks Catholicism at its best. At times there will be tensions – even strains – between faith commitment and intellectual integrity. It is not always immediately obvious how new discoveries and ways of thinking can be affirmed by the faith community. (Remember that even Thomas Aquinas’ thought was held suspect for decades before being vindicated).

But such tensions cannot be resolved through suppressing or disparaging ongoing discovery. For the only institutions without tensions are dead ones. Tension is essential for the vitality of any dynamic organism.

This means that we cannot, and should not, expect Catholic universities and their faculty members to offer uncritical allegiance to every faith dictum proposed by church leaders. As long as religious faith is embraced by fallible human beings, there will be limitations and even errors in every expression of faith. And the correction of such inadequacies, Catholics believe, is evidence of God’s spirit at work. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, “Every truth, without exception, and whoever may utter it, is from the Holy Spirit.”

What Marquette and other Catholic universities can expect, and even demand, in the pursuit of knowledge is that the Catholic faith be respected, that its convictions be taken seriously and that disagreements with those convictions be expressed seriously, rigorously and responsibly – in other words, the same qualities that should mark any intellectual dispute in an academic environment. I do not know what pushed Marquette’s administrators to decide that O’Brien’s work disqualified her from leadership at a Catholic university. I do know that without a fuller explanation, many will continue to feel that this was a moment when Catholicism was not at its best. And red herrings and false dichotomies will continue to fester.

Aquinas is probably the best person to be quoting to defend academic freedom. He might have said “Every truth is from the Holy Spirit.” But he also said

With regard to heretics there are two points to be observed, one on their side, the other on the side of the Church. As for heretics their sin deserves banishment, not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from this world by death. To corrupt the faith, whereby the soul lives, is much graver than to counterfeit money, which supports temporal life. Since forgers and other malefactors are summarily condemned to death by the civil authorities, with much more reason may heretics as soon as they are convicted of heresy be not only excommunicated, but also justly be put to death.

But on the side of the Church is mercy which seeks the conversion of the wanderer, and She condemns him not at once, but after the first and second admonition, as the Apostle directs. Afterwards, however, if he is still stubborn, the Church takes care of the salvation of others by separating him from the Church through excommunication, and delivers him to the secular court to be removed from this world by death. (ST II:II 11:3)

Dan Maguire, in a new letter-to-the-editor,  echoes Massingale in arguing Wild’s actions goes against the supposedly robust tradition of free inquiry within Roman Catholicism:

In places such as Paris, Catholics in the 13th century pioneered the idea of a modern university where, as Cardinal Newman said, many minds could “compete freely together.” Its statutes approved by Pope Innocent III declared the university independent from “bishops, king, and parliament.” Archbishop Listecki needs instruction on the nature of a university. He has enough to do with the current church problems without meddling in university decisions that are beyond his competency or responsibility.

Again, I think this framing freedom of thought as an essentially Catholic virtue is a torturous arguement. As I’ve contended before, Catholicism, as a paradigm of academic inquiry, has built-in features discouraging its own questioning.

Sure, Medieval Catholic monks might have invented the first proto-universities. But just because the Wright brothers invented the 1900 Glider doesn’t mean they could take credit for the Space Shuttle, if they were alive to see it. The early monastic universities were inherently limiting to academic freedom, established to support a very specific array of presuppositions rather than engage in a disinterested, dialogical, and spirited interrogation of reality. The value of inquiry uninhibited by church or state interests was a notion that only gained widespread appeal after the Enlightenment–a movement whose legacy was and is opposed by no institution as vehemently as the Catholic church.

Anyway. On the same page as Maguire’s new letter, one Bill Lange, an alumnus, fingers the true villain in all this: NAFTA.

Republican influence

Don’t be fooled. The Marquette University flap over hiring a dean for the College of Arts and Sciences is not about Roman Catholic theology or philosophy, as claimed by the Most Rev. Paul Hartman, the archdiocesan judicial vicar (Page 1A, May 12). The complaints from the Archdiocese are an attempt to identify Roman Catholics with right-wing Republican Party politics and money.

It’s embarrassing to me as an MU graduate that the Notre Dame administration was able to resist pressure from the hierarchy during the controversy over President Barack Obama’s invitation to speak at the university. Marquette and Father Robert Wild caved in.

If the bishops were really concerned about Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, they would insist that Roman Catholic universities present undergraduate and graduate courses on Pope John Paul’s encyclical “Laborem Exercens.”

John Paul’s encyclical, based on Roman Catholic theology and philosophy cited in previous encyclicals, states that labor unions are indispensible and that labor is prior to capital. Wouldn’t you think that a concerned Archbishop Jerome Listecki would demand that the College of Business Administration at MU have a video for students showing John Paul II in Cuba denouncing “neo-liberalism,” the economic policy that spawned such things as the North American Free Trade Agreement?

There’s more to this than poor personnel administration or bad press; it’s about Roman Catholic identity in a free society.

Bill Lange

Other than the fact that Listecki isn’t pressuring MU to teach ideologically slanted classes on “neo-liberalism,” he provides no evidence suggesting Republican influence on the archbishop or the university itself. The GOP and Roman church both oppose acceptance of homosexuality, but that’s a coincidence (Paul of Tarsus wrote some letters that would eventually find defense in a Scholastic artifice of “natural law” presupposed by modern Catholic moral teaching, and the GOP would experience a mass influx of evangelical Protestants in the 1980’s).

Moreover, Lange’s criticism that MU’s culture is not adequately opposed to “neo-liberalism” is baseless. The Peacemaking Center and student groups like JUSTICE annually host an array of anti-globalization, protectionist, pro-labor speakers at their annual “teach in,” and maintain a robust relationship with the anarcho-syndicalists at the local Catholic Worker house.

Now, I wouldn’t say I have an abiding viewpoint or label on questions of political economy. Rather, I would say my thought runs as an ever-evolving dialectic between classical liberalism and social liberalism. I think the state needs to safeguard against starvation and homelessness, but also needs to encourage work and high employment. Business owners ought to have robust rights, and am reflexively skeptical of regulation; but, as the recent coal-mining and offshore drilling disasters–to say nothing of the gory excesses of the Gilded Age–illustrate that regulation is sometimes the least of many evils. I believe unions have a place in society, but often need checks and balances on their power, like any other institution does. I’m for free trade between nations, and accepting of the realities of globalization. I feel a certain affinity for The Economist. And, as a non-right wing defender of capitalism, I’ve felt my views have absolutely no representation in the political awareness/action groups at Marquette. There is a consensus in Marquette’s left-of-center politically active community, and it is strongly against “neo-liberalism.” This opposition is usually framed within the context of Catholic social teaching. JUSTICE is an acronym, with the “J” standing for “Jesuit.”


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