Something missing?

It is scandalous that most Catholic universities have been silent about attacks on religious freedom

It is generally conceded that the Catholic Church is under considerable legal coercion to change its doctrine and practices to conform to President Obama’s view of how things ought to be. Beyond this local problem, as it were, the persecution of Catholics and Christians in Muslim lands is extensive, brutal, and indefensible. Jennifer Roback Morse, on her Ruth Institute web-site, wrote that, with these recent internal pressures, the American “experiment” in religious freedom is “over.” 

What is striking about this move to subject the Church to the state is that suddenly the newer U.S. bishops seem quite informed and articulate about the threat to the very idea of the public presence of religion and religious based institutions in a society, the importance of which Benedict XVI frequently speaks. No doubt we have not heard from the Supreme Court yet on the core of this radical change in the understanding of religious liberty. But the present administration seems to operate by itself, a regime more of “decrees” than legislation, and with very little reference to or sympathy for the Constitution itself.

Yet, what seems striking to the casual observer in this matter is the silence of the universities, law schools, and colleges that call themselves “Catholic.” Can you imagine silence at Brandeis when Israel is under threat, or indifference at Brigham Young or Baylor when Mormon or Baptist issues come up? 

One might think that the presidents of major Catholic universities would have something to say if the Church were under attack within their own political order. But with the exception of the smaller Catholic Colleges like the prestigious Thomas Aquinas College in California, Belmont Abbey College, and a few others, we hear mainly nothing, almost as if the situation has little to do with the academic existence of Catholic universities or any universities for that matter.

“What is the reason for this silence?” we might wonder. Much has to do with the dominance of “diversity theory” as the operative mode of what a university is. One might argue the diversity criterion is met when within a society there are Catholic universities that are Catholic in spirit and manpower, pretty much what Ex Corde Ecclesiae had in mind. Within the society there would be other universities sponsored by other traditions.

But if diversity becomes the criterion within a Catholic university—something that is thought to be mandated by the culture or by reception of government monies—then one cannot hire or use academic criteria for the definition of what the university is. We have to have a little bit of everything. No one can be asked to do anything that is outside of his diversity. Tolerance comes to mean that we cannot study Catholic things by Catholics. They must be presented by everyone.

The second source is the “social justice” problem. The purpose of religion comes to be understood in terms not of doctrine and religious practice out of which concern for others comes or with due attention to what works and what does not. Social justice quickly becomes politicized into definitions of who is deprived and discriminated against.

It is usually considered that the votes of faculty and students on any university campus, including Catholic ones, are about 90% liberal. This means that the schools in practice are overwhelmingly liberal ethos, and that such wisdom has supported a regime now forcing Catholics to violate their consciences. The function of the university is now no longer to protect or back Church teachings but to change them to conform to the dictates of the relativist society.

This sentiment is reinforcing by the fact that prominent Catholics are the ones who are shrewdly selected to define and carry out these policies. Generally speaking, bishops have been ginger in addressing this anomaly of the Catholic politician seeking to change the Church’s basic teachings. But in lieu of any further public opposition, many conclude that since these politicians are still Catholics in good standing, what they are promoting must be at least permitted, if not quietly approved.

The fact is that, as far as I know, little concern is shown on Catholic campuses for the effort to restrict the Church to the internal order and, with it, to abandon the central tradition of the American tradition about religious freedom. This attack on the Church has been orchestrated, as I see it, under the aegis of “rights.” The administration cries foul when it is accused of being “prejudiced” against religion. It is merely trying to make available to everyone, including Catholics, what they have a “right” to–abortion, contraception, sterilization, and probably soon enough euthanasia.  

The argument against these “rights,” as Hadley Arkes often says, has little or nothing to do with religion but wholly dependent on reason. This fact makes the Catholic position even more poignant. It is the one body that insists on using reason, but is accused of using religion because no one wants to face the truth of the reasons for its position.

So something is missing. At a time when we need most the voices of Catholic intelligence, from the universities and law schools, they are, in these current issues, nowhere to be heard but in the papacy and episcopacy. 

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).