Higher education is going through a complicated period of reconstructing power relations that involve gender, race, social status, and politics. Catholic universities are part of this momentous change. The commitment to fostering a sense of belonging for all students requires wisdom and prudence, whose absence can turn this effort into an ideology aimed at silencing dissent and inhibiting debate. But trying to introduce words like “mole hunt” into discussions on cultural change does not exactly support constructive dialogue. It is even more surprising when such words come from two faculty members of a Catholic university like Villanova.
In an March 29 op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, two of my colleagues took aim at new course evaluation standards that Villanova will implement. A university-wide process that began with student input led to the addition of three questions to course evaluations after pilot testing between 2017 and the fall semester of 2018. These questions, which consider “cultural awareness” and a professor’s sensitivity to student identity, aim to help faculty members better understand their students in order to teach more effectively.
Legitimate questions can be raised about how these new questions on diversity and inclusion might affect female faculty or historically underrepresented minority faculty, even though these new questions will not be used to evaluate faculty. But this was never the point raised by my colleagues. In fact, they accused the new evaluation system to be “almost perfectly designed to stifle Catholic moral teaching in the classroom.”
Academic freedom is a complicated issue, and the Catholic Church has a problematic reputation in that regard. Catholic scholars, like myself, have not forgotten how an institutional “thought police” threatened academic freedom in Church’s history — cases including the silencing of American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray in 1954 for his work on religious liberty, and the theologians fired from their posts or silenced during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI for exploring new frontiers of Catholic thought on issues such as non-Christian religions and human sexuality. No one wants to go back to those times, not even in the name of “diversity and inclusion.” Catholic higher education today is not about to replace one kind of suppression of academic freedom with another.
I believe in this case, my colleagues have fundamentally misunderstood the idea of a Catholic university. They wrote that “those who teach courses about Catholic doctrine on marriage and the family may now live in fear that their own university will treat such views, and those who teach about them, as insensitive or worse.” Anyone who teaches at a Catholic school has the responsibility to present, accurately and completely, the teachings of the Church.
But Villanova University is not a parish nor a seminary for the formation of priests. It is a Catholic research university whose mission is to teach Catholic doctrine (“this is what the councils, the popes, the Catechism, and the other official documents say”), and at the same time, teach where the intellectual and theological tradition of the Church has landed on specific issues, and how it is evolving thanks to contemporary thinkers. To accurately teach about family and marriage, one has to mention, for example, the material from pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia and the Bishops’ Synod of 2014-2015 that address issues like homosexuality, divorce, and pre-marital cohabitation.
In my undergraduate course on the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, we often address the teaching of the Church on homosexuality, for example, considering where the teaching comes from, where it stands today, how it is being shaped — and also politicized by those who suggest a causal connection between homosexuality in the Catholic Church and sexual abuse of children.
At a Catholic university, this academic freedom is an integral mission of the university on behalf of the universal Church.
Arguments like my colleagues’ suggest that attempts to promote sensitivity contradict the mission of a Catholic institution, and amount to progressives’ plan to marginalize conservative Catholics. Yet in reality, a measure like the new course questions is not political pressure. On the contrary, it makes Villanova more Catholic — more open to rigorous debate, without separating the “Catholic” from “university.”