By John Fea
Part of this post is cross-posted at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.
Recently Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, made the following statement in an online forum at Immanent Frame:
The deep hostility of the church for the modern world and its dreadful consequences are abundantly evident in the still unfolding child sexual abuse crisis in the global church. Priests and prelates systematically lied to legal authorities, deceived congregations, crudely intimidated parents and children, and duped medical professionals, in order to cover up crimes and protect the church. The papacies of John Paul II and Benedict are implicated, not least by protecting and honoring such egregious figures as Bernard Law and Marcial Maciel. The legal documents published by bishop-accountability.org reveal a deep contempt among church leaders for the institutional transparency and legal accountability that are seen as goods in modern political theory, for modern journalism and psychology, as well as a great fear of the laity (which is to say of the world beyond church walls). Read through these files and you will wonder what the Second Vatican Council, the church’s most explicit engagement with modernity, actually accomplished.
The various goods of modernity were hard won; the language of multiple modernities obscures the fact that Catholicism was one of the major obstacles to their achievement. This is not to absolve the modern of its horrors or to deny that sometimes Catholics stood in courageous and necessary opposition to it (although the church itself mostly did so for its own ends, otherwise it was quite willing to come to terms with even the vilest moderns). It is to call into question the positive valence of the phrase “multiple modernities,” to question the history it elides, and to recognize the brave opposition of secular modernity to Catholicism, which has been on balance a great good.
R.R. Reno, a writer at First Things and a professor of theological ethics at Creighton University, is "shocked" by these comments. He not only thinks that Orsi's remarks are inaccurate, but he wonders how a person making these kinds of remarks can legitimately hold a chair in Catholic Studies.
I’m in favor of academic freedom. Robert Orsi is entitled to his opinions, however foolish. And Northwestern is entitled to employ him. But a Catholic chair?
This is not a matter of mere titles. At Northwestern Orsi runs a Catholic Studies program.
The Catholic Church does not own the word “catholic,” but surely she has a legitimate interest in its use, especially by institutions and professors who seem altogether indifferent to—correction: profoundly antagonistic to—her teachings.
I’m sure Cardinal George in Chicago is not indifferent, and I certainly hope he can bring the administrators at Northwestern to see the lack of integrity involved in the false advertising of calling Orsi’s chair a Catholic chair. And if not the administrators, then at least the donors.
This raises an interesting question. Does a scholar who holds an endowed chair in Catholic Studies need to be a Catholic or promote the beliefs and causes of the Catholic Church?
I have never quite understood the nature of a so-called "Catholic Studies" program at a secular university. Northwestern offers a minor in Catholic Studies that seems to treat its subject matter in a rather detached, academic way:
Roman Catholic ways of thinking, living, and organizing the world have been fundamental to the making of the world’s cultures since the fifth century of the Common Era and remain important around the globe today. The Catholic Studies minor offers the opportunity to interpret the civilizations and cultures of the world through interdisciplinary approaches to Catholicism. Students apply the critical tools of contemporary academic research and conversation to the study of the engagement of Catholics and Catholicism with the realities of their worlds.
Based on this description, it would seem that the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern could be held by anyone who studies Catholicism from a critical perspective, whether that person is Catholic or not.
An interesting comparison might be the Catholic Studies program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. This program, according to its website, was founded in conjunction with the University's Catholic Chaplaincy and the Archdiocese of Chicago. The front page of the website has links to the college Newman Center, the Archdiocese of Chicago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Vatican, the Catholic News Service, Commonweal, and America. All of this suggests that the Catholic Studies program at UIC is an academic program that is something more than a detached study of Catholicism.
If I remember correctly (and someone correct me if I am wrong), the UIC Catholic Studies program was an initiative promoted by then-academic dean Stanley Fish. Fish set out to hire a practicing (do we say "orthodox?") Catholic (Paul Griffiths) for a chair in Catholic studies. Again, someone can correct me about this, but I seem to remember that Fish saw this all in terms of the postmodern university--a form of postmodern perspectivalism. In other words, the faculty in the Catholic studies program at UIC was asked by Fish to interpret the world through a Catholic world view or Catholic theology.
Catholics and scholars of Catholicism out there--please help me understand this.
In the meantime, watch Orsi's inaugural lecture: