Friday, January 20, 2006

Catholics and Evangelicals

The thinking nets are all aquiver over the firing by Wheaton College of a professor of medieval theology (especially Thomas Aquinas) because he converted from Episcopalianism to Roman Catholicism. That that was the actual reason Joshua Hochschild was fired seems not to be in doubt, by all accounts. The president of Wheaton confirmed that the firing was justified, because no Roman Catholic could possible sign the faith statement required to be signed every year by every Wheaton prof upholding the Bible as the "supreme and ultimate authority" for faith. For Roman Catholics, according to President Duane Liftin, the Bible and the pope are equal authorities -- and thus, by implication, no Roman Catholic could be qualified to teach at Wheaton.

There are a couple of ironies at play here, and one of them is tragic. The first irony is a sad one: Prof. Hochschild was a sincere Christian who apparently got too close to and took seriously his field of study. As a student especially of Aquinas, he was won over to Roman Catholicism. (For some, the swim from Episcopalianism to Roman Catholicism may seem less than olympian, but for Wheaton it's a leap of fate!) That's not exactly unknown to Lutherans: We have lost several notable scholars to other faith traditions, traditions in which they were steeped by virtual of their academic involvement. My friend Robert Wilken swam the Tiber after decades of teaching the history and theology of the early Church, and my hero Jaroslav Pelikan went East after a similar amount of time teaching the Fathers. (Curiously, a life of teaching about Luther and the Reformation never made a Lutheran out of Roland Bainton: He remained a Quaker to his death, as I understand it. Might that say something about the relative charisma of Luther over against Augustine or Origen? Never mind ... .)

The tragic irony lies here, however: Wheaton is a fine college; I like Wheaton and have considered encouraging my daughter to go there when the time is fulfilled that she leaves the nest for college. I think the academic and social life there are pretty laudable. Or maybe I thought that. In such a context it seems unfortunate (to put it mildly) that religious bigotry seems still to hold sway. Here's what I mean.

Wheaton offers courses in the history and theology of the medieval Christian Church -- which means most the Roman Catholic Church. But it doesn't want a Roman Catholic to teach it! Now, Wheaton is a strong and committed "evangelical" college, requiring that all its faculty annually sign the faith statement I referenced earlier. But professor Hochschild was fired even though he was willing to sign that statement honestly, without a second thought, and in good conscience. For him, there is nothing incompatible between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism on the authority of Holy Scripture. But Wheaton doesn't believe him. It prefers to judge him based on a stereotype of Catholic theology -- and a pretty crass one, too, for an academic institution to proffer. As my old Catholic aunt might say, "How dare they tell him what he believes -- and what we Catholics believe?"

Of course, the issue of authority is a big on in the Church: It is a major (if not THE) issue through the Church's history, and it remains a big issue within each Christian tradition. Wheaton is justified, if only by virtue of his history, in insisting on the Christian commitment of its faculty (although there are problems with that, I think: I'm sceptical, for example, of Christians' trying to teach the Koran -- or maybe even the Torah!) And if the authority of Scripture is at the base of the definition of "Christian," there are not many who would dispute that. But to invoke the invective -- most of it intellectually dubious and offered in a situation far different from the contemporary one -- of the Reformation about the claims of the papacy to equal -- or even superior -- status with the Bible seems to be itself intellectually dubious in the current age.

I've made no great study of the papacy and "infallibility." In fact, I share with much of Christendom disdain for the arrogance of the unilateral declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility (even though I don't think that the doctrine itself is as far-reaching or offensive as many claim). But I've read some pretty hardcore pro-papalists. And I've never seen a reasonable claim that the Pope and Scripture can claim equal authority. Oh, sure the Pope in a sense guarantees the proper interpretation of the Scripture -- but the focus is still on making clear the witness of Scripture. The Pope can't just up and declare Scripture irrelevant -- regardless of how one reads some of the papal encyclicals through history! (That's mostly, but not entirely, a joke, by the way.)

I guess that I'm saying that I'm disappointed in Wheaton College (won't they be hurt to learn that?). Their motto seems to be "Intellectual freedon, si -- though within limits; religious liberty, no." I'm disappointed that Wheaton officially manifests such a dark-ages kind of insensitivity to the advances that have been made in mutual understanding between Roman Catholics and (evangelical) Protestants. Wheaton made an official statement of intolerance that is bound to be felt in the school life, too. And I question whether that is an appropriate atmosphere at an institution of higher education.

I affirm religious colleges. Heck, I went to a couple myself, and my wife is currently a grad student at Bethel (a Baptist school with a very definite evangelical identity). I think it's great to come to new intellectual maturity within a context that values a peculiar religious heritage. (Please don't ask me about Liberty University, however.) And I appreciate an administration and structure that is not wishy-washy or namby-pamby or "liberal" or "post-modern" or even (in some senses) "irenic."

But I wish such schools could and will maintain such an identity while at the same time remaining true to the charter of liberal-arts education and to catholicity of interest.


Camassia said...

Portraying it as scripture vs. pope is probably a misdirection, but it is true that the decisions of canonical councils carry the authority of dogma in the RCC, which is as authoritative as you can get. It is interesting that he was willing to sign the document anyway, but I expect he takes the Catholic position that nothing the councils decide will go *against* scripture, but will merely augment or clarify it. I guess the question is whether "highest" means "higher than anything else" or merely "not lower than anything else."

Anonymous said...

I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.'
Clarence Darrow