Sunday, May 27, 2012

Comparing Catholic and Evangelical Higher Education

After leaving OBU, I did a master's at Boston University School of Theology.  I'm now working on a doctorate in political science at Georgetown.  While almost all of my writing at Save OBU has focused on conservative Protestant higher education, I actually have more personal experience with mainline Protestant and Catholic universities.  I've had to do a lot of research to learn about fundamentalist and evangelical colleges, for neither of those have ever been "my" traditions.  Fortunately, I've re-discovered that OBU stands in a proud tradition of Baptist higher education (that fundamentalists are blatantly eroding).  But when it comes to mainline Protestant and Catholic higher education, I can speak more authoritatively from my personal and professional experiences and interests.

I've been thinking about the differences for a while.  But they were on stark display for me Friday as I attended my wife's law school graduation at The Catholic University of America.  The ceremony was held in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.  Every element of the commencement exemplified how masterfully the university integrates faith and learning.  Among law schools, CUA is probably considered relatively more conservative.  Yet my wife, who is not very ideological but is basically a secular liberal, felt quite at home there 99% of the time.  The university is unfailingly true to its religious moorings, yet also serves a diverse constituency that spans the ideological and religious spectrum.

Me with my wife, daughter, and in-laws on the occasion of Cara's law school graduation.

Catholic Higher Education
There are nearly 250 Roman Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S.  They are owned and operated by a variety of dioceses and religious orders.  As with their Protestant counterparts, Catholic colleges vary in how closely they enforce official doctrine; whether administrators, trustees and certain faculty must be Catholic and whether they are clergy or lay; and the degree to which they are known as conservative or liberal.

In a way that Protestants can't quite claim, the Catholic intellectual tradition is impressively comprehensive and ancient.  Though Catholics have certainly been marginalized in certain places and times, their universities seem to have a quiet confidence in the continuity of their tradition across the generations.  Though they face increasing competition from state and nonsectarian private universities, they are generally comfortable with their intentionally Catholic identity, their role in clergy and lay spiritual formation, and their dual obligations to the Church and to the wider society.

Protestant Higher Education
Like their Catholic counterparts, Protestants' experience in the higher education business have changed along with the relationship between churches and states.  Long before U.S. states founded universities, colonial and early American denominations established institutions to provide education and training for the clergy, the other professions, and eventually a growing stream of undergraduates.  As states became legitimate players in the American collegiate landscape and education shifted definitively from a mostly sacred to a mostly secular purpose, American Protestant universities generally went in one of two directions.  This shift corresponded with how the churches and their institutions responded to the contributions of thinkers like Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and Darwin as well as the advent and dissemination of critical biblical and theological scholarship emanating from European and eventually American universities.  (This history will be well known to many of you.  Others may wish to consult authoritative works such as Sydney Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People and George Marsden's The Soul of the University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.)

One strand of Protestantism -- we'll call it liberal -- largely acceded to the changing times and more or less tried to make its peace with modern science, history, and the Enlightenment.  While I believe in many cases this criticism is overstated, a lot of people feel that this strand of Protestantism's universities have essentially abandoned their religious character (except for their generally outstanding networks of seminaries and divinity schools).

On the other hand, you have conservative Protestants.  As opposed to Catholic intellectuals (who largely accepted modernity) and mainline Protestants (who largely made their peace with it), fundamentalist intellectuals (such as they were) resisted the tide of modernity that swept across American life.  Marginalized from mainstream institutions that they had come to fear and loathe anyway, fundamentalists retreated to form their own networks of Bible colleges where they could disseminate fundamentalist dogma without the fear of secular or even liberal Protestant influences.

In actuality, it was at least partly out of this milieu that OBU was founded.  And if OBU had remained in that insular, fundamentalist world, we would really have no objections to the provost's meddling.  But since OBU, like a number of evangelical institutions, eventually reacted against both secularism and anti-intellectual fundamentalism and embodied an authentically Baptist and quite distinctive brand of Christian higher education, we are fighting to restore that noble legacy.

Opportunities for OBU
While (white) evangelicals have found common cause with (white) Catholic conservatives in the political realm, the theological differences are, in most places, still quite stark.  Yet I do believe conservative Protestants could learn some things from Catholic universities.

Let's start with administration and governance.  To my knowledge, most Catholic universities require their trustees to be Catholic.  For diocesan schools, there may be geographic requirements as well.  Even so, these schools are increasingly turning to laymen rather than just the clergy to lead them.  Requiring trustees to be Catholic is not the same as requiring them to be Baptist.  It would make a lot of sense for schools like OBU to extend trustee leadership positions to non-Baptist Protestants in recognition that the schools serve a broader constituency than Southern Baptists alone.  It seems that some Baptist colleges (though not seminaries) are finally realizing that they do not need clergy or theologians to lead them.  It should come as no surprise that most academic theologians and career pastors lack the specialized skill sets that would serve someone well as a chief executive of a university.

In fact, this is one of the best things OBU has going for it.  By electing David Whitlock president, OBU trustees thankfully sought a business-minded leader and administrator and avoided hiring a hard-core partisan, ideological disciple of the SBC Fundamentalist Takeover.  Hiring someone who had been nurtured for 8+ years (M.Div. and Ph.D.) in a post-Takeover SBC seminary would have almost certainly meant a president who would cheer Provost Norman on in his quest rather than reign him in, as Whitlock has done.  But it would be nice if we could see some denominational and geographic diversity among trustees in recognition that OBU's constituency extends beyond Oklahoma Baptist life.

Another contrast between Catholic and fundamentalist philosophies of higher education is that fundamentalists adopt a very defensive posture toward their doctrinal commitments.  Whereas Catholic universities prize philosophy as a core discipline in the liberal arts and acknowledge the breadth and long history of their theological tradition, fundamentalist schools tend to restrict access to anything but their pre-approved, narrow views.  At OBU, sequestering the religion and philosophy departments within the school of professional ministry preparation keeps the legitimate, academic study of religion ever under the thumb of deans who are loyal BGCO partisans.  Ever a concern at schools like OBU, this dynamic is getting worse with the expansion of apologetics and "worldview" classes that are more overtly doctrinal and devotional.  Students are paying to sit in university classrooms, not Sunday school classrooms, after all.  Increasingly, some within OBU's College of Theology and Ministry appear eager to blur that distinction.

In general, Catholic universities also seem to have worked out a more tenable understanding of reason and revelation.  Today's evangelical apologists, not completely unlike medieval Catholic theologians of old, would have you believe that you can reason your way to faith.  But in today's crowded academy where theology is no longer the "Queen of the Sciences," the new apologists are having a much more difficult time justifying their very existence, let alone the 20th century fundamentalist faith they are trying to defend.  Modern Catholic thinkers, on the other hand, have engaged science and history much more rigorously.  They emphasize the mystical, but not necessarily the supernatural.  And they seem to have found a balance between wanting a faith that can withstand rigorous intellectual scrutiny but finally realizing there is a difference between faith and knowledge.

Along these lines, I'll close with a quotation that Catholic University of America President John Garvey shared at my wife's law school graduation Friday:
Faith -- is the Pierless Bridge
Supporting what We see
Unto the Scene that We do not --
Too slender for the eye
-Emily Dickinson
For al the "ink" we've spilt here at Save OBU on various strands of the conservative Protestant educational tradition, I thought it might be good to at least consider what we might learn from the vast Catholic tradition.  I don't mean to say that all Catholics have a perfect understanding of reason and revelation or that all evangelicals are clueless.  But this is a crucial topic with profound implications for Christian higher education.  I only seek to raise the comparison between education in the Baptist and Catholic traditions.  Surely each has something to learn from the other.

1 comment:

  1. Very Thoughtful. You make OBU proud; please continue to contribute to its noble legacy. Thank you.


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