1.19.2006

this is a toughy

Are Catholics and Evangelicals cut from the same cloth? by David Batstone Wheaton College pulled a shocker last spring by terminating the teaching contract of a professor following his conversion to Catholicism. Though popular among students and highly respected by his peers, The Wall Street Journal reported, assistant professor Joshua Hochschild became controversial once he shifted theological camps. I do not question the right of Wheaton College to establish its own standard for hiring and firing professors. Christian colleges conceive of their mission quite differently than a secular higher learning institution. They give spiritual and ethical formation equal priority to intellectual pursuit. Therefore a critical piece of the puzzle is following the mission in hiring. But it does trouble me that in the case of Hochschild, the Wheaton administration showed so little theological imagination. Ironically, the college hired Hochschild, 33, to teach its students medieval philosophy, with a special emphasis on the work of Thomas Aquinas, a giant in the world of Roman Catholic theology. One might say that Hochschild got too close to his work, for the depth of the Catholic tradition began to tug at him. In 2003, he made a choice of conviction to leave his Episcopalian church home and join a Catholic community. Though the distance from Episcopalian to Catholic may seem a small leap to some, it crossed a line in the sand at Wheaton. In the church of my childhood--a staunch evangelical church in central Illinois, just a few hours drive from Wheaton--Catholics were not considered to be Christians. I was taught in Sunday School that Catholics did not read the Bible and elevated Mary the mother of Jesus into a fourth place in the Trinity. Worse yet, we learned that Catholics did not believe Jesus died once and for all for our sins; he had to repeat the act every time the Catholics took Holy Communion. My understanding of Catholics changed when I began working in ministry in poor communities first in the United States, and then Latin America. I met Catholics who loved to read the Bible and faithfully explore its message for their lives. On many occasions, I was humbled by their sacrificial quest to follow the path of Jesus. Of course, over the years I discovered that there are all kinds of Catholics, just as there are all kinds of Protestants. Some Catholics are happy to go through the motions and find shelter in the security of orthodoxy. Other Catholics desire a living, breathing faith that fills them with wonder and purpose.... I do not want to misrepresent Wheaton College or its administration as anti-Catholic. In the front page story in The Wall Street Journal covering the Hochschild firing, Wheaton President Duane Liftin showed a refreshing attitude. In weighing the decision, Litfin reportedly said he wanted to keep Hochschild, "a gifted brother in Christ," on staff, but felt that he had to uphold a "faculty who embody the institution's evangelical Protestant convictions." Unlike in my childhood church, at Wheaton Catholics can be embraced as sisters and brothers in Christ. Wheaton, however, chooses to define its institutional identity in a narrow orthodoxy. The Wheaton faculty are required to sign a faith statement anew each year. The credo points to the "supreme and final authority" of scripture. While the statement does not prohibit the acceptance of Catholic doctrine, it unashamedly aligns Wheaton with "evangelical Christianity." Hochschild told the Journal that he would have no trouble signing Wheaton's statement of faith after his conversion, and informed Wheaton's President Litfin as such. Litfin said-- according to documents acquired by the Journal--that a Catholic "cannot faithfully affirm" the Wheaton faith statement because Catholics regard the Bible and the pope as equally authoritative. It is a shame that Wheaton students will study within such a shallow theological bandwidth. It is almost as if a wall separates Catholics and Protestants, and it cannot be breached in the pursuit of Christian understanding. Oddly enough, despite their historic breach, an Episcopalian and a Plymouth Brethren will find themselves on the same side of the wall at Wheaton. I humbly suggest that the administrative team at Wheaton College pass some time in prayer with Catholic contemplatives, or work in the slums of Calcutta with Catholic missioners, or reflect on transformative education with Jesuits. Bringing these historic Christian practices, rooted in the Catholic tradition, into a young student's education would serve to enhance a church guided by the evangel.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Ray Grieselhuber said...

Seems a shame to me.

1/19/2006 10:17 PM  
Blogger John McCollum said...

Me too. But this situation begs the question that has plagued me throughout my adult Christian life: who's in, who's out?

Obviously, only God can judge the heart. But all of us believe that there are theological boundaries, right?

Say your Protestant Christian friend 'converts' to Mormonism? Or to 'Christian' Science? Or becomes a Jehovah's Witness? At what point do you break fellowship with someone you once considered a brother?

Not sure I have an answer.

1/20/2006 7:09 AM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

The problem is further complicated when you consider that Christian colleges/universities are part of longstanding theological traditions, and that their faculty are expected to uphold those traditions. This cuts boths ways, incidentally. There's been recent controversy at Notre Dame, where Erik attends, about the diminishing number of Catholic faculty members.

I don't think there's an easy answer. I can't fault the former Wheaton faculty member for following through on his beliefs and converting to Catholicism. Nor can I truly fault Wheaton for desiring to uphold its Reformed tradition. When you sign on to teach at these institutions you generally have to sign an agreement stating that you will abide by the teachings and traditions of that institution. And like it or not, that's part of the package.

I have a friend in the Vineyard who was asked to leave her faculty position at Cedarville Bible College because she believed in the present-day reality of the spiritual gifts. Cedarville, being the cessationist place that it is, couldn't abide that. So she was asked to leave. It's unfortunate. Everybody loses in some sense. The college lost a fine professor, and the professor lost a job. But I do understand why a Christian college would want to insist on adherence to its particular take on Truth.

1/20/2006 7:40 AM  

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