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.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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