Image courtesy Reddit.
A fitting image, especially when Catholic colleges make decisions and announcements like The College of Saint Rose did Friday, December 11, 2015: twenty-three faculty positions cut and several programs and majors cut from across the curriculum. Some of these were professional and graduate programs (e.g., Bachelor's program in Art Education and the graduate program in Communications), while others covered liberal arts subjects like Economics, American Studies, and....Philosophy and Religious Studies. These last three are/were the majors my department offered.
The Sisters of St. Joseph, the women's order that founded Saint Rose in 1920, issued the following statement about the cuts:
Change is upsetting for many in all walks of life, including our own. It creates anxiety and uncertainty, and can leave some feeling overlooked, forgotten, left behind. That is why it is so important in times of change to extend grace, love and affirmation to all in our community. Change also is an opportunity for renewal, and renewal is empowering. Responsible leaders are obligated to recognize the need for change and act carefully but resolutely.
Read the statement and you'll soon note what is absent: any reference or indication of the College's founding as a religious endeavor. It's utilitarian endeavor now; what serves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. A principle that many, including the Sisters themselves, would argue is not part of the Catholic social justice tradition. And that is correct.
And thus the emergence of the Surrender Cobra in American Catholic higher education: the exasperation caused by Catholic institutions who steadfastly refuse to adhere to any semblance of their own Catholic identity. Effectively the Sisters, in claiming to adhere to their founding principles, have gutted their own legacy of any indentifying Catholic elements. What is uniquely, or even characteristically, Catholic about an educational vocation focusing solely on meeting current interests of current and prospective students? Of course that is always a concern--and perhaps it could even serve as an institution's identifying focus--but what's Catholic about that? Adding insult to injury, it seems that the wider world is reawakening to the benefits of liberal education precisely as a path to success in the hard, "real" world of finance and negotiation. So just as it would seem most appropriate to broaden curricular requirements, many seem content with narrowing, if not altogether removing, such time-proven structures.
Vague references to "the spirit of Vatican II" are no help here. The Council's great inspiration--from St. John XXIII himself--was aggiornomento, the updating of Catholic teaching in the modern world, not the hollowing out thereof. St. John was convinced of this, and so too were Council personalities spanning the theological spectrum, from Cardinal Ottaviani (who certainly sought to maintain as much of the received tradition as possible) through Pope Paul VI to even the most radical of the periti like Congar and Kung. (Yes, folks, that will be one of the extremely rare times this blog will comment positively on the theology and legacy of Father Hans Kung. #spiritofcharity) Read Gaudium et Spes, the Council's version of "Stairway to Heaven," (in that both are anthemic crescendoes of awesomeness) and throughout, for all the optimism of reaching out to the modern world, you'll find....THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST with which the Church has been entrusted (Matthew 16:18-20). Gaudium, especially in its latter half, the part of the document few theologians or students care to read any more, spells out in great detail what aggiornomento means socially and spiritually. Those inspired by Pope Francis and those inspired by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI all will find consolation, encouragement, and challenges there.
But what you cannot say is that there's nothing Catholic there. All sorts of changes, all sorts of new visions, documents, and plans of action...but it's still, obviously and in perpetuity, Roman Catholic. <<and this is not the blog post wherein the fever swamp that is Roman Catholic traditionalism is addressed>> After all, Pope Benedict spoke emphatically about a hermeneutic of continuity around this same time in December, 2005.
The same cannot be said of decisions like Saint Rose's on December 11th.
There are many sides to those decisions, many of which stretch beyond anything this blog could, would, or should ever consider. However, this much is clear: all three majors and minors were eliminated, and two faculty--the two most recent hires--received terminal contracts for the 2016 calendar year (i.e., from January to December). This will leave the department with half the faculty from before but with no less responsibility to core curriculum. Students, apparently, will take one class--primarily ethics and that field not necessarily Catholic, or even Christian--and one class only. In other words, one of the age-old experiences of the American college experiment, being inspired by one course to take another, has been eliminated. This development, this progress, the Sisters and the College's administration assures us, remains within the Sisters' founding mission of the College in 1920. Breezy allusions that "change is inevitable" do not offer much consolation here.
Earlier this year when I blogged about Catholic higher education, I problematized this tendency of sisters' colleges to seem "less Catholic." Yet I also defended this thread within the Catholic higher education tapestry because, serving within it, I understood the balance, often observed organically more than publicly stated, between practical, vocational education and the liberal arts heritage of Catholic higher education and, more broadly, Roman Catholicism itself. So Saint Rose has more Education, Business, and Criminal Justice majors than more visibly Catholic institutions like Fordham, Siena, or Assumption--big deal.
Well, now it is a big deal, because the argument going forward is that Saint Rose remains within the parameters of its founding mission without any substantial liberal arts component. There's now nothing, other than one mere requirement for one course. What was once an integral part of the founding mission is now itself found irrelevant. At what point do other integral parts become likewise? Catholic higher education, as known at either Saint Rose or Notre Dame, will cease to exist as we know if this trend continues.
So an appropriate image.
Source: wide use across Google
The voices are legion within the Roman Catholic tradition that speak towards overcoming adversity, pain, and suffering. Already I have petitioned St. Josemaria Escriva, St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa d'Lisieux, and St. John Paul II for their intercession and guidance. Your own prayers for the College, its administrators, my faculty colleagues, and the College's students are greatly appreciated. And perhaps the day will dawn in this crisis. God works in mysterious ways, both enlightening and inscrutable. But there are times when that Surrender Cobra sure seems like the only response. December 11th cannot be viewed as anything other than a loss. I pray that it will not always be the case, but I still lament.