Tuesday, April 4, 2006

catholic identity

Whew! As our paper goes to press today, I am breathing a huge sigh of relief: A huge project is finally off my back and on the page, for better or worse. I've spent the past month or so working on a perspective-type article examining questions of Catholic identity at (Catholic) universities around the country - what it means in this day and age, how perceptions have shifted in light of JPII's Ex Corde Ecclesiae document, how identity questions are playing out at a time when secular cultural influences have become pretty commonplace in Catholic universities, how different universities have responded to resulting pressures to become more "Catholic." If you live in Minnesota, you might have heard in the news that the University of St. Thomas has been embroiled in a dispute over whether unmarried faculty and staff should be allowed to travel together and share a room on student trips. That was the springboard for the piece, but as a weekly, we aren't really the right type of newspaper to keep up with the blow-by-blow details. I wanted to take a broader look at the issue.

It was a pretty overwhelming task. My stack of notes for this story is so thick that I could have written 10 times more than the 60 column inches I did. Now that it's out of my hands, I keep thinking about what nuances I may have left out. Did I overlook an obvious angle? Did I answer all my own questions? Did I adequately represent the Catholic Studies professor's point about the importance of dialogue in maintaining a vital Catholic intellectual tradition? Would the story have been better if the College of St. Catherine's president had gotten back to me in time with her responses to my questions? Is it balanced, or is it too weighted toward conservative viewpoints? My editor has already reassured me that my article is probably "98 percent perfect," but it's the 2 percent I worry about - and it's the 2 percent that will generate letters to the editor or grumbling sources.

Well, I've got that out. So now I can stop thinking about it. Right?

A friend asked me how I feel personally about the St. Thomas situation, and I realized I have some mixed views. For the most part, I support St. Thomas' right to uphold moral policies based on its identity as a Catholic institution. But I do wonder at what point this right might go too far and intrude upon individual faculty members' right to live their private life as they wish. In a case where a professor is leading a student trip abroad, it seems clear that that is a professional role, not a private one. That professor is really on duty 24-7, so I think the university has a right to insist that the professor's sleeping arrangements model that university's value system. But as I said, where does that end? As one professor posed it to me: If someone is divorced and remarried but did not receive an annulment, that's adultery, according to the Catholic Church. Should (s)he be disallowed from leading a school trip or rooming with the new spouse? That may not happen (not at St. Thomas, anyway - I've heard about divorced faculty being an issue elsewhere). The point is, there's a big grey area.

Also, there is the fact that when many of these faculty were hired, the climate at St. Thomas may have been quite different from what it is now - more open to tolerance of diverse lifestyles without as much of a focus on Catholic morality, for example. (Though the school apparently does have a big nondiscrimination policy even now.) I have empathy for those folks who were hired with a certain set of expectations and now find the climate of their workplace changing. It's not their fault, so no wonder they feel some resistance.

It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.


Liz P. said...

It is interesting to me. Since I went to a Lutheran school, there was an urge to have a Lutheran identity on campus, but it was also open to political and moral disscussion stuff.

And there was a definate attempt to welcome non-Lutherans into the community. Communion for example. We had a blurb in the bulliten each week that Communion was open to all believing people regardless of denomination, etc. I don't remember exactly what it said though.

I think that the Catholic institutions have a greater difficulty with this since the Catholic church has an obvious head, rather than the nebulousness that the Lutheran church can take when it comes to modern moral and political issues.

Add to that the tendency of institutions and academic forums to be more outside of the box than the church it leads to an interesting dilemma about how to stay true to Catholic roots and doctrines and still maintaining an enviroment of searching for knowledge and openness.

(I'm just babbling now?)

Chris had an interesting story. He as at St. T law for Ash Wednesday singing in the ad hoc choir and it was announced at communion that only Catholics could partake. Right, no problem, Chris respects that, but the next phrase the guys said was. (something like this)

"We look forward to the day when all can come to the same table and commune together"

Chris and I know what he was getting at, but at the time it came across, that Chris as a Lutheran was not a Christian, at least in the Catholic Church's sense. I do know that the intention of that phrase was meant to refer to non-Christians, but based on the previous announcement that the non Catholics weren't welcome, it made Chris rather upset.

I'm not exactly sure where I'm going with this. Whether or not the church should dictate a college's regulations or not, but it interesting to ponder.

I'm sure the article was good though. I'd like to read it.

liz said...

A professor of mine (at St. Thomas, naturally) wrote recently about this in Mirror of Justice (which is a fascinating blog, Emilie - it's about Catholic issues, law, and social policy): http://www.mirrorofjustice.com/

It's all so interesting to me - and the same-sex marriage angle plays into it too. If there is a same-sex couple chaperoning a trip, what do we say about that? They can't be married, so what are their options?

I'm sure that your piece is brilliant & I'd love to read it! I always worry about what you mentioned in my writing because you could just keep writing ad infinitum... it's hard to know when to call it a day and go to press. I guess deadlines get in the way. In my mind, 98% perfect is pretty darn good! In the end, you're going to get letters anyway, so maybe your piece can serve as a jumping-off point for dialogue than a final expression.

Emilie said...

Liz P., I think you really hit it on the head when you talked about the "dilemma about how to stay true to Catholic roots and doctrines and still maintaining an enviroment of searching for knowledge and openness." I think that is the big challenge for everyone.

I'm sorry Chris had that bad experience around communion. I feel fairly certain that it was not intended to imply that Chris was not a Christian. The Catholic Church in my understanding recognizes all Christians as Christians (unlike some denominations who have failed to recognize Catholics as Christians), but it's those sticky theological points around the meaning of the Eucharist that get in the way of full communion, I guess. (I'm not a theologian.) I do wish the Catholic Church could find a way to not offend non-Catholics about it, though.

Liz, I have looked at that blog from time to time and think I may have seen that particular post. Is that blog done by all UST Law people?

liz said...

No, I believe the blog is maintained by professors at various Catholic law and public policy schools around the U.S. Three of the contributors are from UST: Tom Berg (for whom I do research), Greg Sisk, and Rob Vischer. I've had classes with all three and absolutely love Berg and Vischer... I'm not such a fan of Sisk, but to each his own!