September 18 sees the opening of the John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, California.
Recently, Catholic blogger Clayton Emmer posted an interview he conducted with the founder of the university, Derry Connolly, on his blogsite, The Weight of Glory.
It’s a very interesting interview, especially when Clayton inquires about faith formation and the place of academic freedom in the vision of this new Catholic university.
According to Connolly, the theology faculty “must be highly visible Catholic spokespersons” and “align themselves with the Church on issues facing people in the media and in technology in the community.”
Furthermore, “If they want to end up as chair of the philosophy department at Notre Dame, they shouldn’t come to John Paul the Great Catholic University, because we’re not going to allow them to do that type of academic research". (Does he mean critical and credible research?)
The faculty, in short, “needs to be steeped in the fundamentals of the Catholic faith and in Sacred Scripture”, noting that in the writings of Pope John Paul II, “there’s always a scriptural basis for his teaching.”
Does such an emphasis on “scriptural basis” mean that Intelligent Design theory will be taught in the university’s science department? That question was never posed to Connolly.
Indeed, Clayton missed a number of opportunities to engage Connolly on several important issues facing not only Catholic higher education, but the Catholic Church in general.
For instance, Connolly is adamant that at John Paul the Great Catholic University, “faculty cannot take positions that are at odds with the teachings of the Church.” He likens faculty at his university to baseball players at “home plate” where there are “definite boundaries.”
Freedom, apparently, is relegated to the “outfield.” “There are a million things people can go do which are not inconsistent with the teachings of the Church. Just play on [the outfield],” says Connolly. “Academic freedom at our university means you need to follow the rules . . .”
Clearly, faculty with questioning or dissenting views will not be welcome. Faculty – and theology faculty in particular – are to serve as stenographers for the Vatican. What a betrayal of Catholicism’s rich intellectual heritage!
Ironically, Clayton posted his interview at a time when in Iran, the ruling fundamentalist Islamic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is calling for a purge of “liberal and secular” academics.
I would like to ask Connolly how his university’s policy on strict adherence to church doctrine and the banning of any critical examination and questioning of such doctrine, differs from Ahmadinejad’s desire to crack down on “liberal” thinkers and teachers in Iranian universities.
Building on this, is Connolly aware of and/or interested in identifying any points of connection between the various forms of religious fundamentalism present in the world today?
What does he make, for instance, of Charles Hinton’s contention that “the one force that binds together all forms of fundamentalist religion is their adherence to patriarchy?”
It’s also a pity that Clayton didn’t challenge Connolly on his narrow and limited understanding of Church. Clearly, Connolly views the Church as, in the words of Catholic columnist and author Chris McGillion, “a kind of club with an inflexible set of rules, to which all its members must subscribe. Those who don’t [ . . . ] are made to feel unwelcome; those who question the rules are asked to leave or forced to go.”
Yet does this “kind of club” reflect the example of community modeled by Jesus?
Is it the only way to view and understand the reality of Church? Is it even an appropriate way to understand Church?
What are other ways present in our Catholic tradition and experience?
Are some of these more equipped than others to emulate Jesus and thus invite and encourage people to flourish, both individually and communally?
Unfortunately, Connolly’s new university isn’t really that new when it comes to its reactionary perspectives on life’s complexities and its narrow understanding of Catholicism.
As David Landry, an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, has noted, “Catholic schools across the country run the spectrum. There are schools like Ava Maria [where], for example, if you’re ever divorced, you can’t work there. And if you get divorced, you’re fired. Thomas Aquinas College in California requires all faculty and staff to make an oath of fidelity [ . . . ] that you’ll never dissent from a single one of the Catholic Church’s teaching.”
At the other end of the spectrum are Catholic institutions like Georgetown, the Jesuit university that has extended health care and other benefits to employees’ domestic partners.
“Georgetown, Boston College, Holy Cross, Loyola, Dayton, Marquette, San Francisco, Santa Clara – these are schools that are on the other side of the spectrum,” says Landry.
“And [ . . . ] if you think about [all these] schools, where's the quality, where's the reputation? [ . . .] Well, Marquette has a natinal reputation, and Boston College does, and Georgetown.”
Will Connolly’s John Paul the Great Catholic University achieve such renown?
Well, it’s clear from Clayton’s interview, that Connolly doesn’t want his university to be in the same league as, say, Georgetown. Such institutions don’t pass muster to be part of “the club”.
Connolly would rather aspire to the Franciscan University of Steubenville, noting that “we’ve hired staff who graduated from Steubenville . . . guys who are young, can connect with kids, are on fire for their faith.” Steubenville was also instrumental in Connolly’s own faith formation. He notes in the interview that his first day at the Franciscan university “changed my life.”
Yet according to Landry and others, Steubenville, along with institutions like Ave Maria and St. Thomas Aquinas College, don't have a national reputation as centers of higher education and “never will because of their rigidity and their insistence on [a] pure enclave mentality.”
Here’s hoping that John Paul the Great Catholic University breaks free from such a mentality and gets to both experience and share the richness of the Catholic tradition – a tradition that, as another great pope, John XXIII, reminds us, is more about “cultivating a flowering garden of life” than it is “guarding a museum” . . . or a club.