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Hiring Catholic--Hiring for Mission?

I followed the earlier discussion of hiring Catholics at Notre Dame with great interest.  Now John McGreevy has shed further light on the issue in Commonweal and asked for reactions here.

My own thoughts on hiring for mission in Catholic higher education are spelled out at length in A People Adrift.  I have repeated and elaborated on them in talks to faculty groups, administrators, and trustees on any number of campusesand I have benefited greatly from the feedback Ive received.

Ive tried and failed several times to distill my thoughts to a blog-appropriate length, but Ill try again.

First, I disagree strongly with any suggestion that the loss of a specific Catholic identity to Catholic institutions of higher education would be unimportantor that it can take care of itself without a deliberate strategy to resist powerful forces of secularization built into the society and academia.  Miscamble, McGreevy, and Leslie Tentler in her recent review in Commonweal say the same.

Second, at least for most major Catholic universities, the strategy of assuring that Catholic identity by hiring Catholics is Dead on Arrival.  Instead, they must pursue the strategy of hiring for Catholic mission. 

The two strategies are quite different.  One is organized around the religious adherence or identification of prospective faculty hires.  The other is organized around the kind of scholarly record, teaching skills, and intellectual agenda that prospects could bring to the campus.

Most major Catholic universities have had religiously diverse faculties for decades now, and many, especially urban universities, have similarly diverse student bodies.  Any significant initiative to hire Catholic will prove offensive to non-Catholic members of the community and their Catholic colleagues.  It will require a religious test alien to the academic culture of universities and injurious to the religious presence in scholarly life that Catholic universities should represent.  It will stir from the get-go a degree of resistance that will be overcome by nothing short of top-down fiat disruptive of the university community.  

Further, hiring Catholics does not in itself guarantee that the Catholic mission of these universities will be preserved and nurtured.  There are plenty of Catholics socialized to teach and do research in ways indistinguishable from their non-Catholic peers and have no particular relation to the Catholic mission of an institution.  As McGreevy makes clear, there are plenty of outstanding non-Catholic scholars whose work and outlook is extraordinarily pertinent to questions central to the maintenance and renewal of the Catholic tradition and community.  It may even be the case that an articulate atheist willing to engage in genuine conversation about religion and, say, Chaucer studies could make a greater contribution to a Catholic universitys distinctive mission that a Chaucer expert who was a daily communicant but whose expertise in Middle English had nothing to do with religion one way or another. 

Finally, a focus on religious adherence rather than scholarly agenda and interests poses the problem inadvertently raised by Father Miscambles comment that the 53 percent of the Notre Dame faculty listed as Catholic may be inflated by those who answered Catholic on the faculty questionnaire but for whom the practice of the faith appears nominal at best.  Appears?  How are we to know?  And what is nominal?  Perhaps the Notre Dame questionnaire should also ask those identifying themselves as Catholic whether their faith is nominal or not?  Or include a question about the frequency of their reception of the sacraments?  Perhaps a faculty committee could vote on this matter.  Or the provost decide.  What about once-fervent faculty members whose faith turns nominal or faculty members whose faith was nominal and then becomes reinvigorated?  Why not follow the logic of confessional colleges and demand periodic avowals of faith?

The strategy of hiring for Catholic mission is not a slam-dunk either.  But its chances of successand Im talking about major universities, now, not small colleges where the situation may be differentare far greater.  Hiring for Catholic mission (or more precisely for the Catholic dimension of an essentially educational mission) is also, I would wager, likely to achieve the result of adding more Catholics to the faculty but not by seeking that goal directly. 

The mission of an institution of higher education is, of course, an educational mission but the mission of a Catholic institution of higher education should have a Catholic dimension. And neither the educational-academic mission of a Notre Dame nor its Catholic dimension will be the same as that, say, of a small womens liberal-arts college or one that has found a new niche serving non-traditional, predominantly minority students in urban settings.  So Catholic institutions need to become much clearer about what their missions are, in the first place.  A university is not going to enlist heads of departments, faculty committees, and deanslet alone boards of trusteesin any meaningful effort at hiring for mission unless the university engages in a continuing candid institution-wide discussion of the mission.  And believe me, that is a pretty unlikely discussion if hiring by baptismal certificate or church attendance is lurking in the background. 

In the absence of clarity and specifics, the void is filled with all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes.  In practice, not rhetoric, the mission for some is evangelizing students or simply protecting what faith they come with.  For others, it is simply not giving scandal by associating a Catholic institution with ideas or individuals of dubious orthodoxy or morality. For many it is honoring the founding religious order and the schools heritage by simply becoming preeminent, whether among Catholic institutions or peer secular ones. 

I agree that something is very wrong when students graduate from Catholic colleges and universities without any serious exposure to or knowledge of Catholicism, its riches (and its failings), past and present.  But something is also very wrong when that is the caseand it is the casewith the 90 percent or so of the Catholic students who are pursuing higher education at state, community, and non-Catholic schools.  

When it comes to universities like Notre Dame or Georgetown/> or Fordham or
Boston/> College/>/>, the part of the Catholic mission that seems to be regularly understated is scholarship.  Not just scholarship in general, i.e., peer-reviewed publications across the whole range of various disciplines but scholarship especially oriented toward maintaining and renewing the Catholic tradition and worldwide community (not infrequently by conversation with critical or alternative views) and for addressing questions that are of exceptional interest to it (here the text of Ex Corde Ecclesiae has a lot to say). 

Such scholarship can as easily be pursued and is no less necessary in the fields of history or literature or economics or political science as in theology.  It can also be pursued by individual scholars on secular campuses.  But it might well be more extensively and profoundly pursued at a Catholic university like Notre Dame because (a) it would be more apt to be valued and rewarded there and (b) it would be fostered by an environment where the questions, concerns, history and vocabulary enlivening it were more widely shared. 

And this, it seems to me, should be the critical question for hiring for mission (or, to repeat, for the Catholic component of an educational mission): Does this prospective faculty member have anything in her teaching and research repertoire, alongside the expected level of disciplinary skills and achievements, to contribute to this kind of scholarship as pursued in this kind of community?  It is

Starting there by no means solves all the problems or overcomes all the resistance.   But because that starting point bears a kinship with the academic questions that are normally used for defining a faculty slot, for recruiting and interviewing, and so on, it bears at least a reasonable chance of success.  At least for major universities, a campaign to hire Catholics does not.


Commenting Guidelines

I agree with much of what Peter has to say, and have argued as much in two articles specifically addressing the problem of identity in the context of Catholic legal education.In the first piece, entitled "Justice and Jesuit Legal Education: A Critique" published in the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, I argue that Jesuit law schools misleadingly portray themselves as offering a distinctive brand of legal education in that they claim to "promote justice." This catch-phrase and others like it (such as "forming men and women for others") is borrowed from the documents of the Society of Jesus. When the question is posed how these schools specifically promote justice, they all point to their legal clinics which serve the poor and disadvantaged. Although this is a valuable service for those in need and a great experience for students, it does not distinguish these schools in the promotion of justice since every law school in the country has at least one such clinic. Moreover, the education about justice that does take place in the clinical setting is almost entirely affective in nature rather than intellectual.Instead, the one indispensable feature that a Catholic and Jesuit law school must have in order to be deserving of the name is to bring the Catholic intellectual tradition to bear on questions of law and justice. This must be done both in the classroom through the law schools curriculum and in the research and other intellectual work supported by the school. In order to do this it must, as Peter says, have people who are both qualified and enthusiastic about taking up this mission. Although one would expect many who would find such an intellectual endeavor attractive to be Catholic, many welcome participants may not be.The full article can be accessed here: second piece entitled The Air in the Balloon: Further Notes on Catholic and Jesuit Identity in Legal Education will soon be published by the Gonzaga Law Review. In it I expand on the original thesis, explaining the fundamental error in understanding mission, namely, as an additional ingredient like the icing on a cake. Instead, I argue that mission should be understood as something integral, as the breath, (ruah is the Hebrew word) that literally inspires and gives life to the institution, filling it with meaning and purpose like the air in the balloon.To fulfill this mission a Catholic and Jesuit law school needs people who are knowledgeable about the Catholic intellectual tradition, who appreciate its importance and relevance to the questions of today, and who are willing to engage it in their teaching and scholarship. This, as Peter suggests, cannot be accomplished simply by counting Catholic heads. Indeed, the task at hand is even more difficult than he describes. Few Catholic academics are qualified to take this mission up, in part because of the enormous failures in catechesis that have take place over the past two generations. Indeed, many do not know the faith, let alone how it and the intellectual tradition it inspires relate to a particular discipline.I would be happy to provide this second article to anyone interested upon request.

Thoughtful post. But, I think you exagerate terribly the process that might be used to hire practicing catholics as faculty, and opposition to it in the academic community. Such a process could be no different from the affirmative action, either official or informal, currently used to hire women, racial minorities, and gays across academia. Academics are used to that already.

I do wonder about the legal framework of pro-Catholic discrimination outside of a context of clearly defined mission, particularly as it relates to fields that have no obvious relationship to theology, let's say, chemistry. It's one thing to define a Catholic mission and then have it happen that Catholics are the most able candidates to fulfill it; it's another thing to say that my mission as a Catholic school is to be filled with professors who self-identify as Catholic. These schools are walking a fine line because, although they value their Catholic heritage, they probably also value their diverse student body and academic prestige. To impose a more structured Catholic framework on the school risks both if done with too heavy of a hand. On the other hand, I really don't see why a school can't demand that every department find ways to fulfill a well-defined mission, with or without Catholic professors filling that role.

It's interesting that this issue would crop up around the same time that the National Catholic Register publishes its own "Catholic Colleges Identity Guide 2007-2008." You can see the whole thing at, the paper surveyed a number of Catholic colleges and reported on how strong these institutions' Catholic identities were. I found their criteria for discerning this identity very instructive. Here are the questions they asked:1. Did the president make the public profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity?2. Is the majority of the board of trustees Catholic?3. Is the majority of the faculty Catholic?4. Do you publicly require all Catholic theology professors to have the mandatum?5. Did all Catholic theology professors take the oath of fidelity?6. Is the head of campus ministry Catholic?7. Do you exclude advocates of abortion, euthanasia or cloning as commencement speakers or recipients of honorary degrees?8. Do you exclude sponsoring pro-abortion campus groups?9. Do you exclude coed dorms?10. Do your student health services exclude referrals to abortion clinics?I wonder how many people actually find this survey helpful. It does sem to get at some of the questions one might ask when considering college, but I find it most revealing in the questions it fails to ask--particularly regarding the school's commitment to Catholic teaching on social justice and the actual academic credentials of faculty members. It's all about sex and fidelity to Rome.

Good point Mark. It the framing of the question that is the point. The same goes, Peter, for your questions. What is the Catholic dimension? Is it Augustine's, Thomas', Francis', Ignatius, Gregory the Great?You wrote an interesting reflection on Benedict's book of Jesus. As the Vatican does you seemed to turn it into a belief question. Namely, the divinity of Christ. However the nature of Jesus it is clear that he came to save sinners and tend to the poor and downtrodden. The solid quality of Notre Dame, I submit, is due largely to the life lived by Ted Hesburgh who is, as I see it, is the quintessential Catholic of our times. As Tracy Ellis said: "Not even close." Even with its delving into, at times, a concern for the upper class Catholic, the quality of its faculty bespeaks by and large the strong direction of Hesburgh.I am sure that Ted would be the first to acknowledge that he is not perfect. Yet he is the embodiment of everything that is good about being Catholic. I guess it is our papal mania which makes us neglect so much other good stuff in the church. For example, Garry Wills wrote a riveting book on Jesus: "What Jesus Meant" which should be mandatory reading for the Vatican and every Catholic university. Is that not the more important question to raise?

The principal issues in play between Professor McGreevy and Father Miscamble relate to Notre Dame specifically, whereas the very interesting discussion so far has been framed in more general terms. I return to the two articles. The support for much of what I say appears in the web site of Project Sycamore,, an organization of Notre Dame alumni interested in preservation of the Catholic identity of the University.I pass by the peculiarity of the publication in Commonweal of a response to an article in America. It is as if a letter in the Washington Post were to take issue with one in the New York Times. Readers who dont subscribe to America are in the dark. But doubtless contributors to this discussion, at least, have examined Father Miscambles article.He grounds his discussion upon the Mission Statements declaration that the Catholic identity of Notre Dame depends upon the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals on the faculty. The term predominant number has always been regarded as meaning a solid majority. The author, former President Edmond Malloy, C.S.C., said it means more than a mere majority, and that numbers count.Mr. Steinfels believes that this goal is not feasible for most major Catholic universities. The Catholic component of their faculties has been too far reduced. He does not say that it is not feasible for Notre Dame. While the Catholic proportion of the faculty has fallen from 85% in the 19780s to 53% a year ago, that is still a majority; and the student body is 85% Catholic. Father Miscamble believes that with, but only with, firm leadership by all in governance, the Mission Statement requirement can be met without dilution of academic standards. While Dr. McGreevy suggests that perhaps it cannot a point to which I return I read his dominant message to be that it is not necessary, and might even be unwise, to try. He stresses the contributions of non-Catholics in general and in particular a number of the scholars he listed are non-Catholics -- and he fears that an emphasis upon hiring Catholics would deter non-Catholics from coming to Notre Dame. In his department, as Father Miscamble pointed out, past hiring has left only 12 Catholics on the faculty out of 32, which Dr. McGreevy evidently finds entirely satisfactory.Dr. McGreevy does suggest that there is a supply problem, noting that only 6 percent of faculty at the top fifty research universities "self-identify as Catholic."But if that percent seems low, the numbers are large; and Notre Dame is the premier Catholic university in the land. More, while his department was hiring Catholics at a low rate, six other departments in A&L were hiring at a 60% or better rate, according to Dean Roche. And surely to refer to an element in the preceding discussion they were not hiring by baptismal certificate or church attendance. The Mission Statement standard was adopted after extensive study and discussion. It reflects Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Neither are infallible. But when a Catholic university declares to parents, students, and donors that its Catholic identity depends on there being a Catholic faculty majority, honesty obliges it either to maintain that majority or to amend the statement. If faculty disagree, their recourse, I suggest, is to seek amendment.

Except for a one-semester professorship at Baylor, I've spent my entire academic life teaching at state universities. Reading this thread leaves me puzzled. My field is philosophy. I can't imagine what difference it would have made to my work had I spent some part of my career at a Catholic institution. I always had the freedom to choose my own course material and the topics about which I wrote. I would have expected the same at any decent Catholic school. In fact, for family reasons, I once applied for a job at Holy Cross. In the course of the interview process, there was no indication that I would be expected to do something different from what I had always done. For other, and valid, reasons, I was not offered the job. Holy Cross is a good school, so far as I could tell, comfortable with its Catholic identity. I would guess that the same thing, mutatis mutandis, would have been true had I been a mathematician, a physicist, or any number of other things.I do recognize the problem of a Catholic school having very few practicing Catholics on its faculty. I just have no idea about how to deal with the problem.


About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.