Reno vs. Orsi on Catholic Studies in the University

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 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.

Reno writes:

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:


Anonymous said…
Is Catholic Studies at a secular university any different than Jewish Studies? Why would it be?
Tom Van Dyke said…
John, an excellent essay.

I'm moved, as much as a dispassionate discussion can move a person.

I'm neither an evangelical nor a Muslim, but I think of them often in these things.

I don't expect a preacher---and don't want one---but most important to me is an empathetic view, how a fellow human being could be down with such worldviews. Cosmological views, whathaveyou.

I would not want a critic of Islam to teach me about Islam, even if he still considered himself a Muslim.

There are very few adherents and believers out there who aren't fully aware why their sect sucks, past and present.

What I need to know is why very many of the best and brightest of humanity continue to adhere to their sects. Their normative theology, as much as "normative" can be described. The best, not the worst, certainly not the failings of their adherents and their leaders.

Theology, not sociology, at least for a Catholic chair or an Islam chair. The historians and sociologists will rush into the ecological voids, we can rest assured.

Dr. Orsi writes:

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.

This is garbage from the first, as Orsi uses the current crisis to set the Roman Church against "modernity."

As the Catholic Chair, he is obliged to explicate "The Theology of the Body."

You could google it. You could spend a lifetime on it.

At least a semester.

I have never quite understood the nature of a so-called "Catholic Studies" program at a secular university.

That's OK, John. I attended a Catholic college on scholarship, and never a word about Catholic orthodoxy. In fact, in four years, I never heard the name "Aquinas." Or the word "pope," come to think of it. True story.

And that's the way it is. I had a "Catholic education," and never even got one. I want to think that the secular academy can do better.

[And it's not as if a Catholic priest or two didn't try to diddle me. It's not as though Orsi is all wet here, OK?]
AnonymousCatholic said…
Based on the excerpt posted here, Reno cites Orsi's antagonism to the teachings of the Church as the basis for his critique.

But Orsi's comment posted here does not exhibit any antagonism to or even criticism of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church at all. To the contrary, his reference to the documents of Vatican II, which do constitute "teachings" of the church and is his only mention thereof, is implicitly quite positive.

Orsi is criticizing the behavior of bishops, priests, and church leaders as individuals, as well as the behavior of the Church as an institution -- its structural issues. Even his indictment of "Catholicism" I would take to be pretty clearly intended as a critique of the lived reality of Catholicism, rather than its teachings.

Sadly and ironically, Reno's comment invoking the threat of retribution from bishop, administration, and donors demonstrates exactly the kind of behavior that Orsi was criticizing in the first place.
Anonymous said…
"Anonymous Catholic" makes exactly the right point---Orsi is critical of the institution and its administrators. In fact, by contrast, he valorizes/sympathizes with the laity whose faith was betrayed by the powerful.

Reno isn't looking for orthodoxy, he's looking for someone who helps perpetuate the cover-up of *crimes* of Catholics against Catholics. All in the name of moving forward of course!
David said…
Paul Griffiths left UIC for Duke, and the new chair, one of my former professors at Iowa, is Jewish (Ralph Keen). He studies early modern Catholicism mainly, but is one of those Chicago-trained historians of religion who do a bit of everything.

Catholic Studies, Jewish Studies, Reformation Studies, the emergent Mormon Studies, etc. all seem to be fraught with conflicts between scholars, donors, administrations, etc. How could it be otherwise?

For many religious studies programs, getting outside funding for an endowed chair in a specific tradition is the only option for growing its department (or even recouping losses due to retirements). Surely there is a dissertaton out there waiting to be written on this new turn in the field due to economics, debates over the public role of religion, and religion in the academy.
Anonymous said…
Fee's confusion is, uh, confusing. He seems not to understand the nature of religious studies at all, or area studies, or, perhaps, the "secular" university. Does a scholar of Islamic Studies need to be Muslim? Does a scholar of Christian History have to be Christian? (Of what stripe?) Does a historian of the United States or a scholar of American Studies need to be a citizen of the US? And does "critical tools of contemporary academic research and conversation" need to mean "oppositional"? Strange perspective, indeed.
Anonymous said…
When I read Reno's argument, I wonder why the Catholic Church bothers sponsoring Catholic Studies programs, or even Catholic universities. After all, certain elements within the hierarchy seem to completely reject the whole idea of critical inquiry. In addition, I think it's sad (and fitting), that Reno does nothing to engage with Orsi's arguments, but instead smears him as a bad Catholic and attempts to intimidate him into silence. This is the voice of a Church that is out of arguments, and prefers the naked exercise of its waning power to engaging the world around it.
John Fea said…
First, I want to thank David for being the only person in this thread to identify himself/herself with a first name.

Second I think 10:42am "Anonymous" misses my point

There is an obvious difference between the kind of detached, objective exploration of a religious topic in a "religious studies" kind of way and a more confessional approach to a subject. Not only do I get this, but I think this is what Orsi does quite well in the lecture I posted.

But I am still confused. I am still wondering whether or not the UIC Catholic Studies program, as it was originally started by Fish, was created in this "religious studies" model. In fact, the Catholic Studies program at UIC is listed as a separate department. If you go to the department link for "Religious Studies" you will see a note that says "ALSO KNOWN AS CATHOLIC STUDIES."

So I wonder, was this program designed to be a program in which the faculty would speak OUT OF a Catholic understanding of the world? In other words, would they teach ethics from a Catholic perspective? Or politics from a Catholic perspective? (I realize that there might be multiple Catholic perspectives on such topics, but you get the idea).

It would seem that such an idea would be very postmodern. (Not unlike George Marsden's argument in *Outrageous Idea*). In other words, did Fish deliberately bring a Catholic thinker (not an objective student of Catholicism who could be of any religious affiliation or none at all) to UIC for the purpose of diversity and some form of perspectivalism.

Has Fish's vision for this department changed since he left. This would seem to be the case with department's hire of a Jewish scholar?

Granted, such a move would certainly be outside the normal parameters of a "secular university." But I am not sure it would be outside the parameters of a university or school of liberal arts and sciences that wanted to be a postmodern university.

This reminds of an interview I had in a history department at a Research 1 University about ten years ago. I said I was an evangelical Christian and this informed how I thought about the world and had something to do with how I thought about history. One member of the committee, who was not a Christian (I have no idea what he/she believed) said in a very postmodern kind of way, "Oh, this is wonderful, we don't have someone like you on the faculty." (I was offered the job).

Now I know such a response might be extremely rare at a Research I university (since most of the faculty are still operating under a modernist resistance to people of devout faith), but this is the kind of thing I was wondering about when I learned that Fish started a Catholic studies program at UIC that was so closely tied to the church.
Matthew said…
I know little to nothing about how Catholic Studies has been conceived at UIC, but as Orsi argues in his inaugural lecture (thank you for linking that!), I think Catholic Studies as envisioned at Northwestern and as embodied by Orsi is analogous to Women's Studies and Black Studies. This means that Catholic Studies is a critical enterprise in the religious studies sense, as John Fea astutely notes. Even more so, this mode of Catholic Studies seeks not only to insert Catholics into histories from which they've been absent, but also to see the beliefs, practices, bodies, and imaginations of Catholics as contributing something unique to the study of religion - something that forces us to rethink our standard narratives and theories. It seems to me that the nature of this mode of Catholic Studies in a secular university (and admittedly, there seem to be a number of different modes of "Catholic Studies") is to study Catholics and Catholicism in order to provide an insightful and incisive vantage point from which to analyze history and religion - a vantage point that might alter the way we perceive that history itself.
Patrick said…
For another fascinating, and deeply substantive, perspective on this debate, see Dan Philpott's post on the new Contending Modernities blog:
Anonymous said…
I'm late to the party, but I thought I'd chime in anyway. I agree with what Matthew said about how Northwestern's understanding of Catholic Studies is more like Black Studies and Women's Studies. I think they're not really striving for a high-church perspective on the faith.

I totally respect Orsi's right to his own opinions on Catholicism and its role in history. I think he's "earned" that right to academic freedom to say anything he likes about Catholicism, even if I disagree.

My only problem here is that if Catholic Studies programs are going to represent what the Church says from the perspective of an insulated and cynical academic, where do Catholics go to study the history and culture of their faith in a way that respects and represents the Universal Church? Just Notre Dame and Catholic University? I truly wish I could have afforded to go to one of those schools.

That said, I'm fine with Orsi working at the post-Methodist Northwestern. It is wonderfully telling that an ex-catholic is paid by an ex-methodist institution to bash Catholics. It's the Americanization story in a nutshell.
- Mariella
Melanchthon said…
i just discovered this blog and am intrigued by the comments. i hope others continue to contribute and i hope to add something from my own perspective as one who's connected in some way to the UIC Catholic Studies program.

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