Crazy clericalism at Houston’s University of St. Thomas

Some clerics in leadership at Catholic universities give lip service to “empowering the laity”—when their real agenda is enforcing their own ideology.

Some institutional dramas are so ridiculous, the actors’ motivations so bizarre, that you couldn’t sell it as a movie script. Any decent producer would immediately send it back saying: “Your characters make no sense. They’re just not believable. The story is too absurd.”

Clericalism masquerading as concern for the laity

Imagine this scene: Three lay faculty members at my institution, the University of St. Thomas in Houston, noted their concern in a memo to their colleagues that a member of the Basilian religious order, which founded the university, was not among the finalists for the presidency of the university. For this sin, they were called into the president’s office to be upbraided by none other than the religious superior of the selfsame Basilian order, who said to them, in effect: How dare you ask that someone from my order be among the finalists for presidency of an institution my religious confreres founded and sacrificed for over many decades?

And now get this: This priest, this cleric, then proceeded to scold these three Catholic laypeople (two men and one woman) for not respecting lay leadership in the Church, claiming their attitude was inappropriate “in the Church of Pope Francis.” He clearly missed the irony. Here he was, a cleric, dismissing the opinions and concerns of the laity with the usual disdainful brush-off—keep your thoughts to yourselves—and then accusing them of “clericalism.” Seriously? You couldn’t make this stuff up. (And quite frankly, if I hear one more cleric using the phrase “the Church of Pope Francis” to silence the legitimate concerns of laypeople, I may have to strangle him.)

To get a sense of how absurd this is, try to imagine a group of lay faculty at a Jesuit institution—say, Georgetown—pleading with the governing board of the university that a Jesuit be considered for the presidency (already I’ve engaged in a bit of fantasy). And now imagine that the Jesuit superior general tells them: “How dare you ask for a Jesuit to run this Jesuit school!” The scenario is simply too absurd; no one would take it seriously.

Now granted, there is a Jesuit cleric who serves as president of a major Jesuit university who, when asked recently what he would like to see in 15 years at his institution, replied: “I would like to see a lay woman lesbian as president of this university.” 

But this man’s comment had nothing to do with empowering either lay women or lesbians. We all know the Jesuits aren’t giving up their power and control over these institutions any time soon. This cleric was merely burnishing his “liberal” credentials. These are comments he can make without having to do anything or make any personal sacrifices. Nothing will disturb his clerical status quo. 

The truth is I could call this man’s bluff, since I know several Catholic lay women lesbians—women dedicated to the liberal arts, to the education and character formation of students, and to the Catholic faith, who also have been open about their same-sex attractions—who would make a much better president of that university than this Jesuit cleric.

But this Jesuit wouldn’t find any of the women I have in mind acceptable, given their devotion to their Catholic faith, to the liberal arts, and to disrupting the current liberal status quo. His comments weren’t about empowerment; they were liberal ideology masquerading as empowerment. This man would never surrender power to anyone, let alone a woman or even another Jesuit (dozens of which are superb), unless he could be certain he or she would carry out his ideology faithfully. His inability to insure this result is one reason neither he nor any of his confreres will be giving up power any time soon. They “favor the laity,” but only when the laity do what they want. 

These clerics give lip service to empowering the laity when their real agenda is about enforcing their own ideology. People talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing; this is pure, unadulterated clericalism in a support-for-the-laity guise. Many of us at Catholic institutions want to support and encourage the clerics who have served us so faithfully for so many years, and who we believe can help turn the tide against secularism. What is especially galling in these self-justifying claims about support for the laity is the hypocrisy and mendacity.

Ideology masquerading as concern for diversity

So too at my own institution, the smack-down in the president’s office of the three lay faculty members had nothing to do with empowering laity—you don’t need a Ph.D. to understand that. Rather it had everything to do with ideology and making sure that a Basilian with the “wrong” (that is to say, more conservatively Catholic) ideology didn’t get a chance to interview for the presidency. 

It’s worth noting in this regard that it didn’t make a bit of difference to this room full of powerful, self-righteously liberal men that one of the faculty members they were verbally berating was a woman—and not just any woman, but a woman of high scholarly and administrative accomplishment, who was herself a finalist for the presidency of another prominent Basilian institution. Although, come to think of it, her success in that previous instance might have made a bit of difference. Powerful men don’t like being upstaged by upstart women. They say they prefer defiant women, but truth be told, they mostly only like the ones who agree with them ideologically.

And the other two faculty members? One is a man who has engaged in the oftentimes risky work of lecturing in the People’s Republic of China on politics and democracy. The other is a tax specialist who for the past 20 years has organized dozens of his former students to prepare tax returns for poor people in Houston for free. These are the faculty members who got called into the principal’s office—sorry, president’s office—to get balled out for speaking out: for making a simple, accurate observation in a note to the faculty. It must have been odd for a man who has spent so much time speaking freely in Communist China to find himself silenced on his own campus in the US.

In a world where people talk endlessly about “diversity” and “letting a thousand flowers bloom,” some people seem convinced that certain flowers of a more “Catholic” hue have to be stamped out and torn up by the roots rather than be allowed to grow, bloom, and possibly spread. To such people, a certain type of faithful Catholic witness is like a cancer that must be cut out, put in a jar of formaldehyde, and placed on a shelf to show future generations of surgeons what a dangerous tumor looks like.

Some Catholics wonder why Catholic faculty members are so solicitous and protective of tenure. They mistakenly accept a narrative that says bold Catholic administrations are out there trying to reform Catholic schools, but have to deal with “tenured radicals” who won’t go along. I’m sorry, but this is rarely the case.

What happens more often is that certain faculty members try to call their institution back to its founding principles, and those in academic administration who increasingly see faculty as “grunt employees” would prefer to rid themselves of these troublemakers. The only thing that keeps them from doing so is the protection afforded by tenure. 

Bureaucratized administration masquerading as concern for students

More and more university presidents look upon their faculty as “line workers” in the shop. To “move up” and get better pay, you need to move into administration. That’s where the six-figure salaries are. Since none of “the workers” in the plant can be allowed to make more than their “bosses,” nearly everyone of any importance in the administration makes more than any of the faculty members. And if things get tight, the guys on the line are the first to go. If we don’t need to make as many cars, then we should just lay off a bunch of workers. We’ll still need all the guys in the front office, however. This is why so many administrators have been working against tenure. These presidents don’t see faculty as the intellectual heart and soul of the university; they see them as salary burdens. As the number of students goes up and down, they want to rid themselves of “useless, underproductive” faculty. But the need to fill out all the bureaucratic forms will always remain constant. This, however, is precisely the attitude and approach that caused dozens of America’s once-great businesses like Ford, GM, and Chrysler to go into bankruptcy. And who paid the price for that? The taxpayers and the workers. The executives who drove these companies into bankruptcy walked away flush.

And like those large, bureaucratically-laden corporations, when the current “education bubble” bursts (that debt load of over a trillion dollars that students are supposed to pay back, but which people are increasingly realizing they will not be able to do), then there will be a lot of university presidents and their staffs sitting in posh, wood-paneled offices trying to figure out how to save their skins by securing a tax-payer bailout. “Can education in America be allowed to fail?” they will cry. “What about the children?” Others who bear responsibility will already be in a cozy retirement.

Do the Catholic, liberal arts faculty members at my institution understand that our tuition costs are too burdensome for middle-class families? Yes. Are they anxious about giving our students maximal educational value and helping form them for a life of faith and flourishing? Yes. Do we enjoy the support and encouragement of an administration that shows it understands the needs of our faculty and students? Sadly, no. This is why we voted no-confidence in our administration last spring. It is why we elected these three faculty members to a “Budget Advisory Committee” to watch over the university’s budget, since we have seen not only dropping enrollments, but budget shortfalls of several million dollars each of the past several years, resulting in cuts in faculty and low-level staff, although we seem to have the same number of vice presidents and mid-level managerial positions.

We took these steps because we the faculty wanted to be sure we were prepared for whatever troubles lay ahead, since in the past several years, we would hear rumors of trouble, but nothing definite, only to be told in the spring, that we had a several-million-dollar budget deficit that we had to make up for—by across-the-board cuts in every area! 

Administrative incompetence masquerading as concern for “the process”

In their first report to the faculty this year, the faculty-elected Budget Advisory Committee noted both positive signs as well as some worrisome storm clouds on the horizon, including their concern that the Basilian candidate for the presidency was not among the semi-finalists for the position, even though according to the by-laws of the university, a Basilian should be given preference if a suitable candidate can be found. 

Naturally much depends in such circumstances on what one means by “suitable,” and this gives those intent on maintaining the status quo a great deal of room to hide their true intentions. If all one wants is money and to be like every other secular educational institution in the country, then a devoted Catholic is clearly less “suitable” than, say, a hedge-fund manager, such as Mount Saint Mary’s University hired, and then had to fire when it became known (clearly against the wishes of the president and the chairman of the board) that this man had described ridding the school of low-achieving students as having to “drown the bunnies.”

In our own case at the University of St. Thomas, when the first of the three finalists for the presidency met the campus community several days ago, he was asked, “If elected president, would you openly contradict Church teaching?” His answer: “I might.” When asked about the Basilian character of the school, he said: “I read about it on the website.” This would be akin to a candidate for the presidency of a Jesuit school answering the question “Do you understand the Jesuit charism?” with the reply:  “Well, I read about St. Ignatius on Wikipedia before I came. Is he the one from Antioch or Loyola?” Or better yet:  “I read a book published by Ignatius Press once.” That answer would certainly get him the job! 

Yes, I think we can all see now why this man was considered a more “suitable,” more “qualified” candidate to lead a Catholic, Basilian university than, say, a Basilian priest who was executive vice president and academic dean at St. Patrick’s Seminary and who now works raising funds for the indomitable Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco. There was no contest, really. 

This interview certainly went a long way toward reassuring everyone’s faith in the selection process, especially since one of the next two candidates to arrive on campus is the president of the exact same institution where the man we already interviewed is provost. That won’t be at all awkward. And yet, we continue to be reassured that everything is going smoothly and that the process has been unqualifiedly superb. Any expression of displeasure with it is being taken as disrespectful and disruptive, potentially damaging to the university.

Bullying masquerading as academic due process

Undoubtedly we should have seen this insistence on quieting any potential dissent coming, since the mere mention of the fact by the three members of our faculty-elected Budget Advisory Committee that a Basilian candidate was not among the finalists for the presidency caused them to be called to the president’s office to receive a severe scolding by the chairman of the board, in the presence of the current president of the university, the provost, the superior general of the Basilian Order (whose odd comments I mentioned above, and who, to my knowledge, has never been allowed direct involvement in personnel matters at the university before), and most ominously, the vice president for human resources. Whenever HR is called in, the idea that your job might be on the line hangs in the air like the heavy Houston humidity on a sweltering hot summer’s day. It’s designed to make you sweat.

“No, no,” they were told, “we don’t want to kick you off of anything.” This was not a disciplinary process, they were assured. But it was made clear to them that they had been very, very bad. They were making trouble, potentially disrupting the presidential search; and worst of all, they had offended the Basilian superior. How? By asking why a Basilian was not being considered for the presidency! If you thought that a Basilian superior general would express offense only if faculty members had demanded to know why a Basilian should be considered for the presidency at all—why do we need one of them?—this assumption would make obvious sense to most people. But we’re talking now about a world that doesn’t make any sense.

So after being sent away like children and told that they should “think very hard” about what they’d done—seriously, this is how faculty are treated these days—our three faithful faculty members went back to the business of teaching their students, reading books, and writing articles. Several days later, however, they each received an official letter of reprimand from the president, urging them “to refrain from any further action of this type relating to the Basilian Fathers and to the search process.” Their “failure to do so,” they were told, would “result in disciplinary action up to and including potential termination of tenure/and or employment.” So with no due process, with no adherence to the policies and procedures of the university, after a Star Chamber hearing, three honored, tenured members of the faculty are now threatened with dismissal.

Now I had always been under the impression that a university could strip faculty members of tenure and terminate them only if they had been guilty of breaking the law, abusing students, or not fulfilling their contractual obligations to teach. The sad fact is that a good number of such violations get swept under the rug at a lot of places. But how dare faculty members have the unadulterated gall to speak up about the person who will be leading their institution over the next 10 or 15 years and on whose job performance in that position their livelihoods depend? And then to be scolded by a room full of men, none of whom has anything to lose financially if the institution has serious difficulties in the coming years—not one with any real “skin in the game” as my wife likes to say (borrowing a phrase from Warren Buffett)—well, it’s enough to make your head explode. “Just trust me,” says the gambler, whose losses have been mounting up, as he rolls the dice with your money on the craps table. What reason could anyone have to complain?

When administrators threaten termination in this way just for speaking out, one begins to suspect that they don’t quite understand what “tenure” means. Indeed the whole affair makes one suspect that there was little or no appreciation for what “academic due process” entails. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that anyone at any secular institution (let alone anyone who understood the role of the laity in the “Church of Pope Francis”) would have tolerated the presence of the superior general of a religious order at a university disciplinary hearing.

What could any reasonable person conclude about such a process, other than that the whole affair was simply harassment and institutional bullying? I am reminded of that wonderful scene in A Man for All Seasons when Thomas More is brought without warning, without due process, before a small group of powerful men to be questioned:

MORE: You threaten like a dockside bully.

CROMWELL: How should I threaten?

MORE: Like a minister of state, with justice.

CROMWELL: Oh, justice is what you’re threatened with.

MORE: Then I’m not threatened.

The faculty members in question have broken no law, no published regulation of the university, and done nothing in violation of their contracts. What they have been denied is any proper due process. So perhaps we should all agree that they have not been threatened; they have merely been bullied. They have been harassed (and I believe a court would agree) in the legal sense of that term. They are now suffering in an atmosphere of fear in the workplace for no other reason than they have aroused the ire of some powerful men who were offended at the gall of the “hired help” to speak up and disrupt their plans.

Whatever disagreements I’ve had with my colleagues over the years, they have always shown that they care deeply about our students, and to me, nothing is more important. At the University of St. Thomas, we have a gifted, engaged faculty, and a special blessing that many other Catholic institutions do not:  theology, philosophy, and English literature departments that are absolutely orthodox and completely on-board with the notion of a Catholic, classical, liberal arts education. And we have a science faculty that I think is second to none, along with an international studies program of a quality and character unique in the nation. We have faculty across the disciplines who understand the basic spreadsheet statistics of the institution better than anyone in our own administration, and business faculty who understand budgeting and marketing better than any of the highly-paid consultants we hire. All of these faculty members have earned the right to be listened to—not stifled, not silenced, not treated as though they were ignorant children who needed to be patted on the head and ignored, or scolded when they “get out of line.” 

Presidents come and go every six to 10 years. The only people who will still be at the university in 30 or 40 years are the faculty and some of the members of the staff who dutifully clean and fix our buildings, along with some of the invaluable secretaries who keep the place running and without whom we’d all go insane. These people are the heart of the university. Indeed they are the university. Administrators who don’t understand that should find other jobs—preferably ones that don’t involve people.

What we need now: A miracle (and maybe a good lawyer)

What the University of St. Thomas needs most now is prayer—a great deal of prayer—that the university will not succumb to the constant temptations pressing upon it to become another one of those Catholic institutions, like so many others, that have tried to keep themselves alive by becoming just like every other secular school in the country; and in doing so, not only failed miserably to do what they were founded to do, but often failed in every other way as well. The thoughtful board members and faithful alumni of the institution—along with Catholics across the nation—need to rise up and insist:  “We reject this vision which has taken over so many other schools and destroyed them: gradually killing their spirits, weakening their academic lives, and causing them to become mere shadows of what they once were. We demand something better. We want the sort of Catholic education that great visionaries such as Father Vincent Guinan, Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Father Gerald Phelan, Father Armand Maurer, and our own Father (now Archbishop) J. Michael Miller intended.”

I ask that every Catholic college and university in this country be remembered repeatedly in prayer. Without those constant prayers, and without the help of the Holy Spirit, we will not survive. Mary, Seat of Wisdom, patroness of Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.

Speaking of survival, one burning question I have in my mind is whether a faculty member at a small Catholic university can be stripped of tenure and terminated because he writes something truthful, but critical, of his administration in a public venue such as Catholic World Report

Well, I guess we’ll see, won’t we?

And gentlemen, if you’re tempted to pull that bogus administrator’s ploy of claiming that I have been guilty of using my sabbatical time to do something other than sabbatical work, I have witnesses at a local coffee shop who can testify that I wrote this column on a Sunday evening between 6 and 11 pm, while everyone else was watching football. I take it that what I do in my free time on a Sunday evening is still my own business—I mean, since I’m a layman.

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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 44 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."