Wednesday, December 23, 2015

surrender cobra

from an ESPN report on a familiar scene in sports television:  a player or team makes an amazing play to win the game at last possible second and the opponents' fans stand, dumbfounded, with their hands on their heads.  It often looks like this:

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:
Nearly 100 years ago, Sister Blanche Rooney, CSJ, and other brave Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet saw a need and acted.
Inspired by the legacy of the original Sisters of Saint Joseph, who as women in 1650 took the radical step of going into the world to minister to the poor, the sick and the desperate of Le Puy, France, Sister Blanche envisioned a college that would teach and empower young women to be citizen leaders grounded in faith and dedicated to excellence and service.
In founding The College of Saint Rose, the local Province of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet recognized that, just as they were responding to a need, fulfilling its mission would forever require the college to be alert and amenable to a changing reality in the larger society, and especially among its current and prospective students.
In other words, to meet and serve people where they are.
This founding principle is why we support President Carolyn Stefanco, the Board of Trustees and all those on campus working diligently to lead our beloved Saint Rose in updating academic programs and priorities to meet the changing needs of students who count on the college to prepare them to succeed in a world they will inherit.
and then a bit later:

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.


  1. What a worrying trend, my friend. You set it forth very well here without caving into hysteria. But one has to wonder about the future of authentically Catholic education from K-college. It's disheartening that such a great legacy is being squandered.

  2. There are a lot of surrender cobras (great image) going on right now across the nation, and not just about St. Rose. You know how sorry I am to hear this. Thank you for writing this publicly.

  3. p.s. "Read Gaudium et Spes, the Council's version of "Stairway to Heaven," (in that both are anthemic crescendoes of awesomeness) ...." is one of the most fun lines I have read in a while. Kudos!

  4. Perhaps the "defenestration" of the Catholic genesis is a sign of a larger malaise - that of a loss of Catholic/Religious Moxie and involvement in the world. Where the Jesuits were once "the educators" and the Nuns ran the wards at the hospitals, now we have...uhm? The worldliness of Gracian and the uprightness of Romero and the engagement of Tutu (okay, an Episcolpalian? an Espiscapalian, oh whatever) is more a memory (I could include PJP II, Poland, and Regan, but it might not support my end point, so I conveniently discard this unfortunate piece of data).

    That is unfortunate, as at a time when we have a lack of social justice, a lack of social morals, a lack of decency in our own conversations with our own citizens, and a lack of understanding with every other countries' citizens (in particular our wars to establish whose God/form of government is the most just and merciful and righteous...). It would seem that we need more basic religion/education (thou shalt not lie, cheat or steal, that you may act like a gentleman at all time, and may your not throwing stones from your glass house please the Lord by your actions) and less shrill cantankerous wailing that Adam and Steve are shacking up and getting funky. Perhaps the value of a Catholic genesis and religious education is more the outreach to bring most of us to a better understanding of our own foibles and follies, and less of what or how our neighbor has failed? Could the upwelling of non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics to Francis be that he engages with the non-Catholics, “the unwashed, the sick, and lame” etc. as opposed to his predecessor, “God’s Rottweiler” for his focus and stance on the intricacies of blah blah blah. (In the same way the many ex-Republicans are more Ronin (our leader has died, but we are still hold our honor and faith) and less Rhino (Republican in name only as we don't preach zero taxes for rich guys)). If there was a time for Catholic moxie, now sure is it.

    Has the college perhaps failed to bring the values of a Catholic education and envelopment to the masses, who currently now yearn to breathe the fragrant air of accounting? Sure. Probably. And the Sisters’ waffle in the release only adds salt to the wound. However, in so much as the ballet and the arts has to continually defend, engage and attack to remind its detractors and the unilluminated of its value, so now does the Church. I waffle on the value of “Liberal Arts Education” and some days I am very much more than merely the Devil’s Advocate– very much like finding a whore in the temple, n’cest pas? But, the venal behavior and crassness of the everyday serves as a reminder that there is more to life than “the end justifies the means”, “Never give a sucker an even break” or “Fuck off, I take what I want”. This “more to life” is what I hope a liberal arts education strives to provide with a central tenet of Catholic inspired “service before self”, leading to a foundation of knowledge and behavior that can provide our country with the mortar and bricks that can and will sustain and refresh the promise of E pluribus Unum.

    Then again, I could be wrong.