Since the National Conference of Catholic Bishops voted last week to require Catholic university theology professors to conform with church doctrine in their teachings, many within and outside the church have called this a pernicious challenge to intellectual diversity and inquiry. Such hand-wringing comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what truly threatens dissident values in the United States and in the modern world. Far from challenging diversity of thought, the bishops’ is the only position that can preserve it.
Along with the bishops’ call for Catholic universities to recruit Catholics as presidents, faculty members and trustees “to the extent possible,” the call for conformity is part of an attempt to staunch the secularizing forces of modernity that the bishops believe threaten these institutions. Whether one adheres to Catholic orthodoxy or not, one must acknowledge that, for better or worse, the bishops face an awesome foe.
Liberalism–the commitment to possessive individualism and the free market–has long been the dominant ideology in the U.S., shared by the left and right, by Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, as the great liberal political thinker Louis Hartz acknowledged, the all-embracing American liberal tradition “has been one of the most powerful absolutisms in the world” and “its compulsive power has been so great that it has posed a threat to liberty itself.”
With the global triumph of capitalism and “American values,” liberalism and the radical individualism it engenders has destroyed traditional values and social relations and has assumed a seemingly unassailable hegemony. Orthodox Catholics–along with orthodox Protestants and Jews–offer the most powerful opposition to this trend. Pope John Paul II, for instance, repeatedly has attacked the free market because it “leads to an unbridled self-interest.” In an America that embraces atomized individualism and what Protestant fundamentalists long ago called “the world’s frantic search for empty pleasure,” orthodox Catholicism–which follows St. Paul’s admonishment to “be not conformed to this world”–is a truly countercultural force.
The question before the bishops and before anyone committed to a real diversity of opinion is how to nurture and assert dissident values in a society stultified by the deadening consensus of “liberal absolutism.” Simply put, if a Catholic university does not discriminate in the hiring of its faculty and infuse its curriculum–and not merely its theology courses–with its own version of Christian ethics, it will certainly be subsumed by the prevailing norms and cease to be genuinely Catholic. As our history has shown, orthodox religions’ attempts to reach accommodation with liberal society inevitably result in the wider culture absorbing and assimilating, taming and converting on its own terms the creeds in opposition to it.
That paragon of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, argued vociferously that liberty could only be safeguarded in a society that fostered a true “diversity of thought and discussion.” For the sake of both Catholicism and genuine intellectual diversity, a Catholic university must remain distinctive and autonomous from society as a whole. The greatest threat to American liberty and intellectual discourse has never been posed by that shopworn boogeyman, religious orthodoxy, but by what Tocqueville diagnosed 160 years ago as liberalism’s “tyranny of opinion.” It is a paradox that in a society long governed by liberal absolutism and in today’s “McWorld” of totalizing consumerism, only a strong measure of institutional authority and hierarchy can maintain the distinctiveness and diversity essential to the preservation of freedom and true democracy in the wider culture.