This is a guest post by Richard McCarty, an assistant professor of religious studies at Mercyhurst University. His article, “Objects of the Inquisition,” appears in the January-February 2014 issue of Academe.
The first incarnation of “Objects of the Inquisition” was a paper for the 2012 annual AAUP conference in Washington DC. I am grateful that it eventually reincarnated as the above article for Academe. I wrote this piece in order to encourage dialogue about the intersections of academic freedom and religious orthodoxy, as well as to motivate scholars and administrators to work together to find solutions for these difficult problems.
As a tenure-track assistant professor of religious studies at a Catholic university, I am particularly aware of how scholarship that transgresses religious orthodoxy can provoke a number of anxieties (ecclesiastical, institutional, professional, and personal). To this day, my contention is that any religiously affiliated college or university must take seriously that the terms “college” and “university” qualify what it is that the institution is and is not: namely, the academic institution is not the church. A relationship may exist between a church and an educational institution, but when an institution dares to call itself a “college” or “university” it is engaging in a mission of higher education. I believe that mission is best accomplished when academic freedom is respected.
That said, I am not suggesting that a college or university must be a place void of religious inquiry from parochial perspectives. There is nothing inherently antithetical to higher education when parochial courses in theology, polity, practice, or ethics are offered. But what strikes me as contrary to the academic mission of higher education is when critical views of orthodoxy are forcibly silenced or condemned with punitive outcomes. If for no other reason, the rigor of higher education is steeped in critique, discourse, and rebuttal. To that end, I know many scholars of religion and sexuality who would enjoy intellectual debate and conversation with the keepers of orthodoxy, so long as that dialogue was grounded in a respectful principle of mutuality—and disagreement did not come with the threat of dismissal.
Admittedly, the cases I highlighted in this article convinced me that the Inquisition was on the rise—maybe not ubiquitous, but on the rise nevertheless. And then Pope Francis happened. What is striking about Pope Francis is not that he is revising dogma or undoing the hierarchy; he’s not. Rather, Francis appears to be applying a more prudential and pastoral approach to church orthodoxy than what his predecessor did. Benedict was willing to thin out the church with the ruler of orthodoxy in order to find its “true” core. In stark contrast, Francis appears to be a leader who is willing to front “the spirit of the law” in order to create relationships and dialogue both in and outside of the church. That is not to say that Francis will consistently embrace the spirit of the law over the letter. For example, we already know that the new pope is unwilling to budge on women’s ordination. That’s not a small issue. And yet, how he approaches contested issues might encourage us to reconsider the intersection of academic freedom and religious orthodoxy.
Namely, if the head of the Roman Catholic Church is willing to be in conversation with ideologies not his own, so too can Catholic institutions encourage dialogue when scholarship transgresses orthodoxy. As I noted in the article, a Catholic college or university can defer to the religious and moral authority of the church hierarchy as a matter of religious commentary, without at the same time abandoning its embrace of academic freedom. What I wish to suggest here is that Pope Francis might be a model to consider when orthodoxy and scholarship collide. Namely, Francis appears to be a figure who respects orthodoxy as a matter of religious practice, without denying the importance of discourse and debate in the intellectual, social, and moral arenas. My sense is that a religiously identified college or university could very well do the same.