What Do We Care About When We Care About Catholic Identity?

From 2010-2013 I taught at Mount St. Mary's University, now the center of a massive controversy prompted by the actions of its new president, Simon Newman, an MBA-possessing former businessman who, since taking over his current position, has:

  • Abruptly cut off a retirement benefit that had been promised for years to the university's long-time faculty and -- more importantly -- hourly staff;
  • Made dismissive statements about the value of liberal study, and pushed the university to cut back its liberal arts requirements;
  • Abruptly dismissed from his administrative position Joshua Hochschild, then dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a well-respected professor who had sought to strengthen liberal study and Catholic identity at the Mount, and had corrected the president's rhetoric and resisted some of his calls for change;
  • Encouraged faculty to think of struggling students as animals who needed to be executed, rather than human persons who needed their help;
  • Created a plan to dismiss 20-25 freshmen -- about 5% of a typical entering class at the Mount -- in order to improve the university's self-reported retention statistics;
  • Devised to this end a survey in which students would describe the extent to which e.g. they felt depressed, unliked, and financially unstable during the early weeks of the semester, intending to pitch this survey to students as a tool for self-understanding but then use it to identify those unlikely to succeed, accepting as "collateral damage" those it might mistakenly sweep up;
  • Dismissed from his administrative position David Rehm, then provost of the university, who challenged the president's judgment;
  • Fired Edward Egan, an untenured professor and advisor to the Mount's student newspaper, apparently for his role in helping that paper break the story of Newman's "retention" efforts; and
  • Fired Thane Naberhaus, a tenured professor, for what was described as a violation of his "duty of loyalty" to Mount St. Mary's.

I am told that Newman has also halted publication by the student newspaper that broke many of these stories and forcefully defended its coverage of them in response to criticism by the administration and board of trustees.

There is more, but this is enough to make my point.

In a sane world, the above would be evidence that the president at Mount St. Mary's, and the board of trustees that enables him (note that this board includes numerous priests and bishops, many of whom have been contacted repeatedly about these matters), are working actively to undermine the Catholic mission of an institution that has been praised by the Cardinal Newman Society for its "earnest commitment to authentic Catholic teaching and students’ personal development."

In such a world, the fact that the Mount is bound by the teachings that "charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1789), and that in the context of the Catholic university "the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected" (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, II.2.iv), would be enough for the Cardinal Newman Society to withdraw this endorsement.

In our world? Well, in our world we get this:

The Cardinal Newman Society, which encourages Catholic colleges to stay close to church teachings, has long been a fan of Mount St. Mary's, and includes it among the institutions it recommends. Many critics of Mount St. Mary's have said that its recent actions are inconsistent with the church's teachings on how people should be treated. The Cardinal Newman Society frequently issues news releases criticizing Catholic colleges for inviting to campus speakers who favor abortion rights or allowing student groups to stage The Vagina Monologues. A spokesman said that the society is doing one of its periodic reviews on which colleges it recommends, but that it would have no comment on Mount St. Mary's.

John Schwenkler is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.

Also by this author
The Mount at a Crossroads

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