Monday, February 6, 2006

Wheaton College and Dennis Martin

[Another article of mine that appeared recently in The Wanderer, the nation’s oldest national Catholic newspaper.]

CHICAGO—A complete misunderstanding of the tenets of Catholicism resulted in an unprecedented firing of a highly acclaimed professor from the faculty of Wheaton College, a renowned evangelical institution and alma mater of Billy Graham—because, the Wheaton instructor became a convert to Catholicism. That’s the view of Dr. Dennis Martin, associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago, who respects Wheaton’s right to fire any faculty member, including a Catholic, but believes the convert was let go not because of what views Catholics hold but because of what the college president wrongly assumed Catholics believe. I interviewed Martin at great length and respect him greatly, as a friend and thoroughly sophisticated expert on both Catholic and evangelical Protestant scholarly thought. While I did not interview Wheaton’s president, I read his views at great length as he expounded on them on the internet.

The firing has spurred an intriguing theological dispute which is bound to carry over in future relationships between Catholics and evangelicals. Some scholars believe that if the firing were allowed to start a precedent, relationships between Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism who have cooperated so effectively on significant moral issues and public policy positions could deteriorate based on ignorance of the tenets of Catholicism. The ironic point is that they believe the president of Wheaton acted peremptorily and with final authority in contravention of what Catholics really believe, not unlike some charges Protestants have made about the Pope and the Magisterium [the church’s teaching authority] overriding Scripture.

The firing of Dr. Joshua Hochschild has kicked up a national storm with a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. The headline: “A Test of Faith: A Professor’s Firing After his Conversion Highlights a New Orthodoxy at Religious Colleges.” A controversy is raging over the dismissal on numerous Catholic blogs in the country and last week centered on the fact that the president skipped over the details of paragraph 86 in the Catholic catechism which delineates Catholics’ acceptance of the Scriptures..

Paragraph 86 states “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” The provision goes on to state that that the Magisterium may in no way be considered an authority extrinsic to Scripture but is dependent on Scripture.

Martin, himself a Wheaton grad who attended as a Mennonite but converted to Catholicism, argues the firing was unjust and based on the concept that Wheaton “knows Catholic doctrine better than Catholics know it.” Thus, he says, Wheaton is “arrogant” and that “Hochschild was not dealt with fairly according to the college’s own doctrinal statement and policies.” Wheaton’s president says Hochschild’s Catholic faith violates the doctrinal statement that all faculty members must affirm. But Martin says the doctrinal statement is one which he himself could sign today in good conscience as a Catholic. Therefore, Martin argues the firing was unjust and based on the concept “that Wheaton knows Catholic doctrine better than Catholics know it.” Not so, counters the Wheaton president. Why, then, did he avoid paragraph 86, asks Martin. The Wheaton president does not fully respond to this point but cites what he sees as Catholic tradition.

Martin’s views are central in the controversy since (a) he does not dispute Wheaton’s right to hire and fire faculty, a fact he agrees on in his words “without reservation” and (b) that he knows the requirements of Wheaton, having matriculated there in history as a Protestant in 1974. With this background, very few see as clearly as he does the irony of the Wheaton decision since the Wheaton doctrinal statement is not in conflict with a Catholic’s religious beliefs. Wheaton’s president says the trust Catholics place in the Magisterium is well-known and self-evident—trust he understands completely, does not challenge for Catholics but which put a truly believing and practicing Catholic faculty member at odds with Wheaton’s mission.

At issue is the tightening of distinctions between the two religions by Wheaton, seen as a departure from the Billy Graham era when efforts were made for rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics. Also the belief by Wheaton’s president which Martin maintains is falsely based on what Catholics believe. Martin says, “Wheaton’s doctrinal statement does not include anything that a Catholic cannot affirm. The issues that separate evangelical Protestants and Catholics involving the nature of the Church, the priesthood and sacraments among them, are not presented in specifically Protestant form in the Wheaton statement.”

The story is of national significance because approximately 400 U.S. colleges list religion as a factor in hiring practices; full-time faculty where the colleges hire mostly Protestants rose 36.2 percent from 1991 to 2003. Some wrongly insist that by firing a Catholic the action is a discrimination but Martin does not hold this. Again, he maintains the question is not Wheaton’s right to hire whomever it wishes, but that it is falsely ascribing tenets to Catholics which are not requisite to the faith, stemming, as Martin says, from misunderstanding of Catholic beliefs. The firing of Hochschild falls in line with a trend that has reversed an earlier thawing of relationships between evangelical Protestants and Catholics. The Wall Street Journal characterizes the new arm’s- length distance between the faiths is prompted by college administrators “fearful of forsaking their spiritual and educational moorings.” They are “hiring for mission” even when it requires lowering academic standards.

The same goes for some Catholic universities. The new president of the University of Notre Dame, Fr. John Jenkins, who is refreshingly orthodox compared to some predecessors, has reported with some concern that the Catholic percentage of his faculty has fallen to 53 percent compared with 85 percent in the 1970s—just a hairline above the stricture laid down by the late Pope John Paul II who maintained that non-Catholics shouldn’t be a majority at the faculty of a Catholic university.

Grumbling parents of students at Catholic universities may ask, despairingly, what is the big deal about non-Catholics when many so-called “Catholic” professors, such as Fr. Richard McBrien who taught theology for years at Notre Dame in wide variance to accepted Catholic teachings. The answer is, as many point out, that it is of great significance since slowly but surely Catholic higher education seeks to manage a turn-around. Non-Catholic professors need not respond to any authority and can thumb their noses at any discipline but the case can easier be made that Catholic teachers have an obligation to adhere to church norms.

That’s why the Joshua Hochschild case is being studied in evangelical and Catholic universities. Wheaton requires full-time faculty members to be Protestants. They must sign a statement expressing belief in “biblical doctrine that is consonant with evangelical Christianity.” Hochschild, 38, says he’s still willing to sign the Wheaton statement. What’s the trouble then? Essentially, the college president, Duane Litfin, believes he can’t—and because Hochschild is willing to do so, must either misunderstand Church beliefs or implies that the young professor could be compromising his own beliefs. That is not only an insult to Hochschild but exhibits Litfin’s misunderstanding of Catholicism, says Martin. No it isn’t, says Litfin but is a human misunderstanding of some aspects of Catholic theological procedure.

Hochschild has made an interesting spiritual journey. He was reared in Plainfield, Vt. by a Jewish father and Lutheran mother but neither were religiously observant. Noted in public high school as a brilliant student, at Yale Hochschild became engrossed in philosophy but concluded that its basis was religious thought. He was converted as an Episcopalian in his sophomore year and completed his graduate studies at Notre Dame, his Ph.D thesis analyzing the thought of a 15th century Cardinal who sought to re-convert Martin Luther to Catholicism. After receiving his doctorate, Hochschild, offered teaching posts in philosophy by Wheaton and Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md., chose Wheaton because he believed he fell in between the schools’ two traditions.

After signing Wheaton’s statement which maintains the Bible is “inerrant” as well as “of supreme and final authority,” he was interviewed by Litfin who inquired how Hochschild understood the concept of biblical supremacy. The then Episcopalian Hochschild responded that he believed the Bible could be read with acceptance of “authoritative traditions.” An example would be that of church councils. His concept was accepted. Moreover a teacher and scholar, his department chairman testifies that “he was excellent on every score.”

But at the same time, Hochschild was re-thinking his religious commitment, asking himself why he wasn’t Catholic, viewing evangelical Protestantism as flabby scholarship and, in contrast, admiring Catholicism’s rigorous academic tradition, particularly the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. Reportedly he was not impressed with evangelical opinion that the study of philosophy undermines religious convictions. It was at a 2003 scholarly conference at Notre Dame that Hochschild discussed his views with a Catholic priest. To the priest, Hochschild seemed to have embraced Catholicism entirely. Thereafter, Hochschild announced that he wanted to “obey the Gospel commands to eat the flesh of Christ [as a Catholic]” and joined a Catholic initiation class.

That’s when the trouble began. He notified his department chairman who hoped Hochschild could stay, but in accordance with the college rules advised the president. A month-long discussion was initiated between Hochschild and Litfin centering for the most part on whether Hochschild could, in good conscience, re-subscribe to Wheaton’s doctrinal statement which faculty members must renew each year. While Wheaton’s 12-point statement doesn’t exclude Catholics, by emphasizing Scripture as “supreme and final authority” and its focus on identification of Wheaton with “evangelical Christianity” were exclusively Protestant, according to Litfin, who has insisted that Catholics believe the Bible and the Pope are equally authoritative.

But Hochschild disagreed, declaring the Bible is certainly the supreme authority for Catholics who turn to the Catholic hierarchy just as Protestants turn to their minister, arguing that “I see no reason why I should be dismissed from the college on joining the Roman Catholic church.” Litfin insisted Hochschild was “quibbling” and said “perhaps Wheaton colleges has come to a point where, because of challenges such as yours, it must revise its documents to make more explicit its non-Catholic identity.”

Beyond that, Litfin won’t discuss the matter other than saying, “Josh is a terrific young guy. We would have loved to keep him” but citing that a majority of the faculty supports his decision. On Easter eve, 2004 Hochschild was received into the Catholic church. His brother Adam, a St. Louis attorney, says he was initially shocked by his brother’s decision but eventually he joined his brother and became a Catholic on the same day.

Martin views the president’s views a serious misunderstanding of Catholicism. “First of all,” he told me, “I believe any Catholic could sign the doctrinal statement in good conscience without any reservation because the statement is very general. Evangelicals agree on some things but on churchly things—on the question of the nature of church authority—they’re all over the map. Some are Congregationalists. They think that there’s no authority beyond a congregation. Some have bishops, such as the Episcopalians. Some have synods, some have presbyteries—Presbyterians. The constituency of Wheaton college, evangelicals, does not agree on the nature of the church and church government so the doctrinal statement cannot take a position for episcopacy against congregationalism. On the very general level, the way it’s written, Catholics could agree with it. Where Catholics and evangelicals do disagree, none of that is in the statement.

“Now the president of Wheaton tried to argue that Catholics could not in good faith sign the statement because of the one clause in this doctrinal statement which says `we believe the Scriptures are the final authority.’ He says they believe in another authority, namely the church, the magisterium and the Pope. But Catholics do not believe the Pope or Magisterium is another authority: they believe Scriptures are the final authority but that when there’s a dispute over interpreting the Scriptures, the bishops, the councils and the Pope should resolve that. As a matter of fact, Protestants also have various kinds of authority. Their pastors—or in this case the president of Wheaton college—also interpret disputes but they don’t realize that.”

A deciding factor, Martin says, was discovered when Catholic bloggers started reviewing the matter after publication in the Wall Street Journal. An earlier statement by the president was uncovered showing that he had “skipped over #86 in the Catechism when he was trying to prove that Catholics believe in an authority outside and beyond Scripture.” Martin said, “Litfin claimed to show from the Catechism that they believe this. He quoted from the Catechism’s #85, 87 and 88 but skipped #86 which states that the Magisterium is the servant of Scripture. It totally blows Litfin’s exegesis of what Catholics believe, totally blows the basis on which Hochschild was told he could not sign in good faith. Litfin left it out in the 1998 document that is now used as the benchmark for glossing over the Statement of Faith.”

A second problem lay with Wheaton’s preamble, says Martin, the fact that it states its belief in evangelical Christianity rather than Protestant evangelical Christianity. “Actually,” he told me, “if the evangelical Protestants at Wheaton would listen to what Hochschild is saying and what some evangelicals are saying—Timothy George, Mark Noll, Charles Colson, J. I. Packer and others—they would realize that Catholics are one of two major blocks of evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Protestants like Wheaton are one block but Catholics, traditional Catholics, orthodox Catholics form another block.”

The theological controversy rages on—which serves to educate proletarians like me that there are many other things to fight about in the Chicago area besides the usual items of politics, fraud, waste and abuse and double-dealing in Richard M. Daley’s City Hall. But this struggle has vast significance for the future. As a light-hearted aside following hours of written dispute with President Litfin, Martin ruminated: “Looks like my chances for an honorary doctorate from my alma mater are rapidly slipping from my grasp!”

I do not wish to allow mundane secular politics to intrude in this pristine theological discussion—but. But let me murmur a prayer that the pointed and heated discussions Catholic and Evangelical Protestant theologians have conducted don’t interfere with the cooperation which has truly changed the politics of this nation on social issues for the better.

1 comment:

  1. After reading your column, I think that Wheaton's President is right about the need to redefine their statement of faith so that it excludes members of the Roman Catholic faith. That is, if he wants Wheaton to remain an exclusively Protestant institution. However, it will be a neat trick to figure out how to do that without excluding more of their own. C. S. Lewis is a favorite of the people who run Wheaton. But, would he be able to teach there? After all, Lewis adhered to the creed of the Church of England and its "romish" ways.