09 January 2006

WSJ article

This is an interesting article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal regarding Wheaton College's letting go of a faculty member who converted to Roman Catholicism on the putative grounds that he could no longer affirm the school's "Statement of Faith." The interesting thing is that the Catholic-convert professor insisted that he could while Wheaton's president refused to accept that, it seems.

Joseph Bottum makes some helpful comments over at First Things, though the one that struck home most clearly to me was his observation that:

The problem, really, is the difficulty in crafting a faith statement that can be signed by every Protestant—from the highest of high-church Anglicans to the lowest of low-church fundamentalists—but can’t be signed by any Catholic. In the end, all such things are likely to run on a wink and prayer, which says a great deal about the incoherence of some Christian disunity.

This story led me to go read over Wheaton's faith statement and I think Bottum's point is a good one. The statement seems to me to be broad and vague enough as to be relatively acceptable to almost any Christian holding to Nicene orthodoxy.

Wheaton is certainly free to exclude on theological grounds whoever they would like, but it seems to me that either they need to make the exclusion of non-Protestants explicit or they should tighten up their faith statement.

Of course, I'm in rather the opposite position from the Wheaton professor, as a confessional Protestant teaching at a Roman Catholic university. The American implementation of the Vatican's policy on Catholic colleges (Ex Corde Ecclesiae) specifies that such colleges seek to assure that the majority of the faculty are Catholic and that all faculty understand and sympathize with the school's mission as a Catholic university. Catholic theological faculty, however, are held to a tighter standard and must be approved by the bishop in some manner.

None of this, however, requires faculty to affirm a statement of faith akin to what Wheaton and many other evangelical colleges require. Some Catholic schools do require faculty to sign some kind of promise to uphold Christian moral teaching and not be openly and overly critical of the Catholic church. But this sort of thing varies from school to school.

Ironically, some of my colleagues joke that I, as a confessional Protestant, am a better Catholic than many of the supposedly Roman Catholic faculty. Unfortunately, there's some truth to that, though it certainly isn't at all true across the board.

In any case, I think the events at Wheaton and the articles raise some important and tricky issues about the character and boundaries of an education that attempts to maintain and pass along a particular religious tradition.

Institutions that require subscription to an established confession (at least to be full-time or voting faculty), though they can have difficulties of their own, at least make these kinds of issues relatively clear. And there is something to be said in favor of an education that seeks to operate within a specifically circumscribed tradition rather than a broader and less defined "evangelicalism" or the like.

On the other hand, there are also advantages to a looser holding of boundaries such as one finds at many Catholic institutions or places such as Baylor University or, in a somewhat more narrow manner, Wheaton. Such schools provide an education within a broadly Christian tradition while, at the same time, exposing students to a variety of perspectives from those who actually hold to those views and know and understand them from the "inside."

Perhaps the resolution here is to recognize that a variety of institutions serve a variety of different goals and needs and that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Maintaining a distinctive theological identity in the context of a secular culture, however, always remains a challenge.