Notre Dame disputes may signal a shift
By PAMELA SCHAEFFER
A question critical to defining American Catholicism -- the right relationship of Catholicism to culture, of religion to politics -- is at the heart of an intense controversy swirling for months around a young scholar at the University of Notre Dame and reverberating through U.S. academic circles.
On the surface, the issue is why Holy Cross Fr. Michael J. Baxter, 41, failed to gain the support of a majority of Notre Dame's theology faculty when he applied for a tenure-track position last year.
Under the surface lurks a youthful challenge to American Catholicism's old guard. Baxter, mentored by Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, represents a shift, some academics say, in the way Catholicism is defined and practiced in the United States. Baxter's allies say he blows apart the usual liberal-conservative categories that have often been used to describe Catholics since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
First a bit of history:
Baxter was rebuffed despite solid academic credentials and an affirmative action program at Notre Dame for Holy Cross priests. Sources inside and outside the university trace his troubles to his activist, countercultural stance.
Baxter is far from shy in expressing his views. He advocates a countercultural role for American Catholics, drawing on the influence of such 20th century figures as Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement; Msgr. Paul Hanly Furfey, peace activist, staunch defender of the poor and long-time chairman of the sociology department at Catholic University in Washington; and Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, firebrand anti-war protester.
In his articles, Baxter attacks some icons of liberal theology -- "Americanists" who, in his view, have posited a false harmony between church and state. He argues that a long-standing mission to belong, supported by U.S. bishops and theologians and aimed at proving Catholics can be good citizens, has diluted Catholic teachings and devitalized the Catholic witness in the United States.
To some, including Notre Dame's president, Holy Cross Fr. Edward "Monk" Malloy and historian David O'Brien, Baxter's is a refreshing voice, the voice of a new generation. O'Brien is among the icons Baxter has attacked.
"I think he has a legitimate point of view," said O'Brien, professor at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass. "There's always a balancing act between faith and culture, and he comes down on the side of faith. He's trying to protect us from our tendency to be reductionist when we do historical or social analysis."
To Fr. Richard McBrien, former chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame, and a strong player in shaping its present direction, Baxter's church-state views are "sectarian" and "diametrically opposed" to Catholicism.
Surprised and vexed by Baxter's denial in a unanimous vote of the theology department's appointments committee last year, Malloy intervened. In a rare use of his presidential powers, he imposed Baxter on the department, appointing him visiting professor for a three-year term.
Malloy's action prompted another unusual event. The Faculty Senate denounced Malloy in a formal resolution on Dec. 3, 1996, saying such a "unilateral" action "seriously erodes the confidence that a faculty ought to have in a president" (NCR Dec. 13, 1996).
The Faculty Senate is headed by McBrien, who says his concern was over "process" -- that is, Malloy's intervention -- rather than the qualifications of the candidate.
"I knew if anything went wrong with the process I'd be blamed," McBrien said, referring to the theology department's negative vote. "I studiously stayed out of it. I never made any effort to sway anyone's vote in any way."
Baxter was unwilling to be interviewed by NCR. But his positions are clear from his writings. He sees serious conflicts between the national agenda and gospel values. He even challenges the foundations of the American experiment itself, contending against Americanists that a constitutional separation of church and state has served religion poorly.
In an article published in the DePaul Law Review, winter 1994, Baxter had harsh words for Catholic scholars and leaders who endorse divisions "between 'faith' and 'politics.' " Much as feminist scholars decry a historic split between spirit and body in Catholic teaching, Baxter said the dualism of religion and politics "explains how Catholic slave owners could reconcile caring for the souls of slaves while at the same time buying, selling and abusing their bodies."
In American Catholic history, conflict between religion and politics was "virtually inconceivable," Baxter wrote. As a result of a "chameleon-like" adaptability, Catholics fought against each other in the Civil War, accepted the "politics" of segregation and supported virtually every subsequent war: "the so-called Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War ...
"Catholic 'faith' also proved accommodating to the 'politics' of industrial growth in the post-World War II era and the prosperity that came with it, as well as to the expansion of the U.S. economic interests around the world," he wrote.
Shift under way
Baxter's characterization is unpopular with some influential theologians. But his supporters say his views represent a shift under way in Catholic theology, a perspective with strong appeal to a new generation of Catholics who are searching for muscle within the Christian faith. Some label Baxter a "conservative," but supporters say he is an evangelical or a prophetic radical who, in the manner of liberation and feminist theologians, understands that commitment to gospel vision requires vigorous social critique.
Even some who disagree vehemently with Baxter regard his position as worthy of representation at Notre Dame, where the theology faculty boasts some 35 full-time professors, another 15 part-time, and, according to its chairman, Lawrence Cunningham, is the largest department at the university.
G. Robert Blakey, O'Neill Professor of Law at Notre Dame and a member of the Faculty Senate, wrote a 12-page dissent from the Faculty Senate's denunciation of the president, supporting both Baxter and Malloy.
Baxter possesses "a witness and a voice that belong around here," Blakey said in an interview. "The notion that they would have denied him access to this place and the students -- there's no other word but shameful."
'Not my Notre Dame'
Blakey wrote in his dissent, "This is not my Notre Dame. My Notre Dame has no narrow intellectual orthodoxy ... [but] is a house with many mansions, of many perspectives, of a skeptical attitude toward easy generalizations.
"Is the senior leadership of the [theology] department so afraid of controversy that it cannot admit a dissenter into its camp?" he asked. He added, "A faith afraid of a fight is a faith already moribund."
Malloy wrote a letter to Cunningham last July defending his intervention. "While there are a number of methodological and substantive points about which we do not agree," he said of Baxter, "I have no doubt about his abilities, the depth of his training or his potential to become an outstanding member of the department.
"Precisely because he takes a different approach, I find the prospect of his joining our faculty exciting."
Citing Baxter's solid credentials in the field of theological ethics -- one of Malloy's own areas of expertise -- Malloy noted in the letter that university statutes require active pursuit of qualified Holy Cross priests, members of the religious order that founded the university, for academic roles. In light of the statute, an affirmative action program allows Holy Cross priests to be hired as "add-ons" to budgeted staff allotments.
Malloy's supporters in the controversy -- including a powerful contingent of academics from six universities who wrote the Chronicle of Higher Education on Baxter's behalf -- said the president had acted in the interest of academic freedom.
Cunningham described the controversy as "a tempest in a teapot. This has turned into something rather large, which I deplore," he said. "The sad thing about this is that it has now turned on whether or not this person is a capable or incapable scholar, which were not the grounds on which the decision was made."
Both McBrien and Cunningham insist that the negative vote was unrelated to Baxter's church-state views but rather stemmed from a generally unfavorable reaction to him during the usual hiring process for new faculty. That included several days of interviews and discussions involving both faculty and graduate students, as well as an on-campus public address, Cunningham said.
Holy Cross Fr. David Burrell, theology professor at Notre Dame and a former department chairman, was deeply distressed by the turndown and wrote a long letter to NCR.
"I really do think some important things are at stake here," he said in a telephone interview. "It relates very much to what Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin had in mind" when he spoke of the need for divided Catholics to find common ground.
"Big questions are not solved by labeling people 'sectarian' and then saying that has nothing to do with Catholicism," he said. "That's not discussion. That's a new magisterium."
The "old-fashioned way of framing the debate in Catholic thought since the Second Vatican Council" -- liberal versus conservative -- "has little meaning for younger Catholics," he said. The reason? The conflicts have their roots in intra-church politics of the 1950s and '60s and the subsequent fight over the church's stance on birth control, he said.
A third position
"Baxter represents a third position that I like to call a Catholic Worker perspective," Burrell said. "It says, 'Look, we can't do Christian ethics without a strong social critique."
Increasingly, Burrell said, American social policies supporting war and materialism, abortion and euthanasia, not to mention social conditions that breed poverty, are prompting many Catholics to recognize "that the culture is shifting from under us," he said.
Regarding the need for a variety of views to be represented in the theology department, Burrell said, "Of course. That's what we call a university."
In an analysis of Baxter's dissertation, prepared by Cunningham for Harry Attridge, Notre Dame dean of arts and letters, and obtained by NCR, Cunningham acknowledged that an Americanist posture prevails at Notre Dame -- though he said in a telephone interview that his remarks in that area were made in jest.
He had written, "The supreme irony, of course, is that Baxter wants an appointment in an institution that is the embodiment of the Americanist tradition. How does Baxter hope to be a member of a community which holds up as its ideal God, country and Notre Dame?"
In a letter to NCR, Alfred J. Freddoso, philosophy professor, had an unceremonious response. "As far as I know, other departments in the university do not use nationalism as a criterion for employment," he wrote.
In the rest of his letter, Freddoso outlined the controversy as he sees it, corroborating confidential testimony of several others who spoke with NCR.
"What's the rap against Michael Baxter, CSC?" Freddoso wrote. "There are two main problems. First, Baxter has forcefully articulated the position that there is an inherent tension between the demands of Christian witness and the founding principles of the American polity, with the result that Christian witness in the American context will inevitably be countercultural in a way best embodied, as Baxter sees it, by the Catholic Worker movement. ...
"Baxter's second problem is that there is an ongoing and nasty personal feud between his dissertation director, a former Notre Dame theologian, and several senior members of the theology department, one of whom presently serves as the chair of the Faculty Senate after having chaired the theology department for several years.
"If you are puzzled by the fact that none of this seems relevant to Baxter's competence or promise as a teacher and scholar, then you are in the same position that Fr. Malloy was in when he appointed Baxter to his present position. Malloy was motivated in part by a desire to prevent the theology department from embarrassing itself intellectually. In this he seems to have failed," Freddoso concluded.
Major parties in the "feud" to which Freddoso referred are McBrien of Notre Dame and Hauerwas, an influential Christian ethicist who taught for 14 years at Notre Dame before moving, reluctantly, to Duke University in Durham, N.C.
McBrien, well-known to NCR readers as a columnist and a proponent of full and open debate within the church, is a prominent liberal theologian. He is author of the two-volume work Catholicism and general editor of the one-volume Encyclopedia of Catholicism.
Throughout the 1980s, McBrien was chairman of the theology department, where Hauerwas, a Methodist, had taught since 1970. Disagreements with McBrien prompted Hauerwas' departure. McBrien said Hauerwas had considered him to be insufficiently "ecumenical."
As a sign of Hauerwas' repute, he has been asked to deliver the Gifford Lectures in the year 2000. Among the most respected lectures in the world, they were established by Lord Adam Gifford in the late 19th century for delivery in Scottish universities on the subject of natural theology.
William James presented his renowned work Varieties of Religious Experience in the lectures in 1902. Other Gifford notables include French philosophers Etienne Gilson and Gabriel Marcel, Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr and church historian Henry Chadwick.
Hauerwas -- sometimes described as an "absolutist" in his church-vs.-culture stance -- and McBrien have sharply divergent views. McBrien said in a telephone interview that he had advised Baxter not to get his doctorate under Hauerwas at Duke but to attend a school where he would be steeped in Catholic tradition.
"He made a mistake in not entering a doctoral program where he could deepen his control over what I would call the mainstream Catholic tradition," McBrien said. In McBrien's view, Hauerwas, like Baxter, is a "sectarian," a category of Christian first defined by 1931 by Ernst Troeltsch in The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches and described in McBrien's Encyclopedia of Catholicism as "one who defines the church as the exclusive locus of God's activity, and the mission of the church as limited to a countercultural, otherworldly salvation."
McBrien alluded to his concerns about Hauerwas and his Catholic students in his encyclopedia, where he wrote: "Although sectarianism is diametrically opposed to Catholicism, a certain sectarian orientation has emerged in recent years in portions of the Catholic peace movement and in some younger Catholic moral theologians influenced by Protestant sectarian ethicists."
By contrast, Catholics, McBrien said in the interview, are called on by Gaudium et Spes (The Second Vatican Council's "Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World") and the social encyclicals generally, "to engage the world, to collaborate with the world, to endorse where they can.
"Even on the abortion issue you have this interplay," McBrien said. "People who are against abortion, as I am, but take a Gaudium et Spes approach, realize that you have to recognize both moral law and civil law, and you have to make accommodations in the legal order.
"Sectarians," he said, "will often use the word countercultural to describe their theological-political position."
Among Catholics, the countercultural approach is sometimes reflected in the peace movement, McBrien said. "In order to promote a perfectly good cause -- that is, peace," activists "use arguments that severely limit the normal range of Catholic vision." McBrien said he was concerned about "a trend among some of the younger scholars" to buy into the countercultural approach "too uncritically."
"I'm not saying I don't like it," he said of the perspective, adding that he considers Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, to be a saint. "I'm saying [the countercultural approach] is not representative of the Catholic tradition. It's like a dissenting opinion. Should it be represented? Of course. But overrepresented? I hope not."
McBrien said the countercultural view was already taught in the theology department by John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian who often writes about the Christian witness to the state. Baxter "is not a voice crying in the wilderness," McBrien said. "His position has strong representation in the law school among people there who address issues of religion and politics. I think it's represented by some people in the philosophy department, maybe elsewhere."
Another letter writer to NCR, Peter Walshe, professor of government at Notre Dame, disputed Freddoso's notion that Baxter had been a scapegoat of a feud between two scholars.
Freddoso "would have us believe that Baxter and his mentor Hauerwas are challenging a compromised Catholic liberalism exemplified by McBrien," Walshe wrote. "If there is indeed a feud between McBrien and Hauerwas, we might do well to understand it as a rivalry between liberal and neoconservative theologies."
Baxter wasn't turned down because of his views, McBrien said. "What people have told me is that he was rejected because he was not sufficiently conversant with the whole spectrum of moral theology today."
Not given a chance
Burrell, however, said Baxter's supporters think he wasn't given a chance to demonstrate what he knew. And George Marsden, evangelical Protestant and history professor at Notre Dame, said it was "hard to imagine any other basis for the decision" against Baxter than his unpopular views.
"I had him as a student at Duke," Marsden said. "He's wonderful intellectually to deal with because he's very bright and understands other people's points of view. He's very authentic and his ideas are very stimulating.
"There are people of good will in the theology department who came to the conclusion that he wasn't academically competent," Marsden said. "To me, that's astonishing and also to others who know him at Duke and at Princeton."
Reflecting the reach of the controversy, 13 professors, including some notable scholars, wrote the Chronicle of Higher Education saying they had all been "highly impressed" by Baxter's "work as a scholar."
"Baxter has been involved in the Catholic Worker movement and his radical perspectives are reflected in his work as a moral theologian," they wrote. "While many of us do not share that viewpoint, we think that Notre Dame is enriched if that viewpoint is represented there by such a talented and gracious scholar."
Signers were Robert George, Leigh Schmidt and Robert Wuthnow of Princeton; Philip Gleason, Marvin R. O'Connell, David Solomon and Marsden of Notre Dame; Frank Lentriccia, Alasdair MacIntyre and Kenneth Surin of Duke; Ruth Marie Griffith of Northwestern University; Beth S. Wenger of the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Hibbs of Boston College.
In a telephone interview, Hauerwas seconded Burrell's view that shifts are under way in Catholic theology and practice.
"Catholicism is going through a very interesting time in which the battles that seemed so important in the 1950s simply are no longer all that relevant to the challenges before the church today," he said. "I teach undergrads at Duke who are Roman Catholics who have never had any Catholicism to revolt against. They come to class wanting to know what Catholics believe, not what it is they ought to disbelieve."
Baxter's position is that faith for today "involves a rediscovery of the politics of Christian speech, where suddenly you begin to understand that representing the crucified Messiah has implications far deeper than simply for one's personal salvation," Hauerwas said. "I think the struggles that are involved with Baxter's appointment at Notre Dame have everything to do with Catholics learning to rediscover their peculiar commitments within a world that may not always be friendly to those commitments."
Baxter "is trying to help Catholics see that enemies of their faith are powers outside the church -- the Pentagon rather than the Vatican," Hauerwas said. "The debates have changed, and Baxter represents a reconfiguration of those debates. He is giving intellectual power to the witness of the Dorothy Days and the Berrigans."
In addition to his doctorate from Duke, granted last year, Baxter earned a master of divinity degree from Notre Dame in 1983. While at Duke, he received the coveted Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship in 1993 and won a graduate essay award from the College Theology Society in 1995. He served as visiting research fellow at Princeton University's Center for the Study of American Religion from 1995 to 1996. He has also published or presented numerous academic papers (including some in such conservative journals as Communio and Pro Ecclesia), a key to success in the academic world.
In the years between Notre Dame and Duke, Baxter cofounded the Andre House of Hospitality in Phoenix and served as its director for four years. He also founded the St. Joseph the Worker Job Service program in Phoenix. Earlier in the 1980s he worked in campus ministry at Notre Dame, where he established and directed the Center for Draft and Military Counseling. During the Gulf War, he went to Germany to counsel conscientious objectors in the U.S. military.
Baxter has also earned the deep respect of other young Catholics, who say he was influential in their spiritual formation.
"His outlook is very appealing to me," said Jim Zajakowski of Chicago, "partly because it focuses on what I think are the most crucial issues of faith and practice -- where people should be living out their faith. He answers hard questions about what that might involve and the implications."
Zajakowski, 33, and a master's student at Catholic Theological Union, was part of the Catholic Worker community in Phoenix. "We talked a lot about abortion at Andre House," he said. "We were also concerned about capital punishment, homelessness, poverty, the need to care for people who were fleeing the violence in Latin America."
Jim's wife, Amy Zajakowski, described Baxter as "an idea person." She said, "We spent lots and lots of hours talking about why people might work with the poor, what that means in terms of being Catholic."
Maureen Sweeney, a lawyer for Catholic Charities who, along with her husband, Frederick Bauerschmidt, met Baxter at Duke, said "Mike is extremely committed. Rather than addressing big policy issues on a government level, he's concerned with the response of the individual Christian -- beginning with himself."
She added, "I think Mike's always going to be controversial. He speaks his mind very clearly, and people respond differently to him."
She noted that he had encountered opposition from some parishioners when, in a homily at Holy Family Church in Hillsborough, N.C., on Jan. 20, 1991, he challenged the prevailing opinion that the Gulf War was a just war and strongly defended the rights of conscientious objectors. At the same time, she said, he had listened respectfully to opinions of those who disagreed.
In that homily, Baxter said, "The church demands that Catholics not rally around their leaders once war is waged ... but that they cleave to their Catholic tradition. ... What the church fears in this time of war is our complacency. The church fears our instinct to follow the herd, to march in lockstep with whomever is in charge. ... The church fears that we will, in these times, become so American that we will cease to be Catholic, to be followers of Christ ... The church fears that we will lose our vocation."
Bauerschmidt, who teaches theology at Loyola College in Baltimore, said Daniel Berrigan, who did prison time in the early 1970s for anti-war protests and later was arrested for his protests against nuclear weapons, had been "a big influence" on Baxter -- as had Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.
"Mike took a course on religion and film" as a college student, Bauerschmidt said. "He said that watching nine Ingmar Bergman movies" -- their portrayal of "the meaninglessness of life without God" -- was a factor in his decision to enter religious life. "He went from being in some ways a very typical college student to one who wanted to be a priest."
In his article in the winter 1994 DePaul Law Review, titled "Overall, the First Amendment Has Been Very Good for Christianity -- NOT," Baxter vigorously disputes assumptions that the American experiment -- specifically separation of church and state -- has produced a healthy climate for their coexistence. Rather, Baxter argues, the arrangement has served historically to exclude perspectives of religious groups that are out of sync with the dominant political vision, including Native Americans, Mormons and Roman Catholics.
Further, he argues, the American arrangement has robbed Christianity of its inherent political power, causing it to "disappear" into a privatized sphere, and to reflect "whatever colors and hues are dominant" in the culture.
Baxter said he is not arguing for a merger of church and state power -- a return to the "confessional state" model that undergirded the crusades, inquisitions and witch trials and the growth of European fascist ideology -- but for a recognition that Christianity "does not 'work with politics,' nor 'apply to politics,' nor have 'political implications' " but rather is "always, already political."
Drawing upon the vision of Furfey, who lamented that Christians had "grown dangerously complacent" in the late 20th century, an age he described as "shockingly at variance with Catholic principles," Baxter recommends strategies for "bearing witness," for challenging the existing social order through movements that peacefully call its assumptions into question.
"What the Catholic Worker exemplifies is that Christian faith, in and of itself, is political ... in the very gathering of Christians to live out the gospel," Baxter wrote. Baxter named several other Christian communities that he feels exemplify a similar vision: the Koinonia Community in Americus, Ga., the Worker Priest movement, some ecclesial base communities of Latin America, most Trappist monasteries, the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of Jesus, the L'Arche Community where the late Fr. Henri Nouwen lived in community with handicapped men and women, and "the prophetic black churches" that fueled the Civil Rights movement.
World without ends
In a recent essay in Pro Ecclesia, titled "Writing History in a World Without Ends: An Evangelical Catholic Critique of United States Catholic History," Baxter takes on the late John Tracy Ellis, the eminent Catholic historian who wrote American Catholicism. Ellis shows his Americanist colors, according to Baxter, when he commends the American Catholic hierarchy for allowing Catholics, in the interest of church unity, to take either side in the debate and war over slavery.
"Why does Ellis not see that buying and selling black flesh violated what the bishops of Baltimore called 'the limits of the doctrine and law of Christ'? ... Why does Ellis choose instead to commend the 'wisdom' of the bishops in keeping out of politics for the sake of the unity of the church?"
As for Ellis' account of the Civil War, Baxter asks: "What kind of ecclesiology is it that allows Ellis to suggest that the church is united even as its members are arrayed against each other in battle?"
Baxter also challenges views of the late Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, an architect of Vatican II teachings on church and state, who argued that Catholicism and U.S political institutions were compatible. There can be "no such fundamental harmony," Baxter contends, without ignoring the "ultimate beliefs" that should set Catholics apart.
Baxter said the growing acceptance of Catholics by non-Catholics in the United States "should be narrated not so much as a success but as a failure." The price, he said, has been ongoing accommodation to "un-Christian elements of the existing political and cultural order."
In another article, "Eruditio without religio: The Dilemma of Catholics in the Academy," published in Communio, summer 1995, co-authors Baxter and Bauerschmidt wrote, "The problem has been that in the process of moving into the mainstream, Catholic intellectual life has lost its identity and purpose. Institutionally, Catholic colleges and universities have become ... vocational centers for training in democratic ideology and capitalist theory and practice. ...
"Meanwhile," the authors complained, "spirituality has become a matter of mastering our interior lies, a hobby to be indulged in after hours, when we turn off our minds."
In a review essay published in Modern Theology, April 1995, Baxter offers a negative assessment of two books by liberal theologians: The Church and Morality: An Ecumenical and Catholic Approach, by Fr. Charles Curran, and Fullness of Faith: The Public Significance of Theology, by Franciscan Frs. Michael J. Himes and Kenneth R. Himes. One source, who preferred anonymity, said this article may have been critical to Baxter's troubles at Notre Dame.
Curran is a liberal moral theologian, widely respected by American scholars, who was ousted from a teaching post at The Catholic University of America in 1987 after the Vatican declared him unsuitable for teaching Catholic theology.
According to Baxter, Curran's "church catholic" is located almost exclusively within the pale of what has been called 'mainstream liberal Protestantism' and its emerging Catholic counterpart."
The upshot, Baxter wrote, "is that Curran leaves us with a church lacking any distinctive discourse of its own, a church that blends in thoroughly with its surroundings, a church that ceases to be a sign."
Curran took sharp issue with Baxter's review, saying in a telephone interview that he had been misrepresented. In fact, Curran said, he had turned down a request from Baxter inviting his comments. Curran said he told Baxter that he would not respond because the review was based on "a perspective that just doesn't leave room to dialogue.
"In every book I've written, I've argued that sometimes the church must be in tension" with the culture, Curran said. "At times it must criticize, at other times learn from the culture.
"I belong in the middle" with regard to the culture, Curran said, "where the tradition has always found itself. Catholics avoid the extremes. ...
"The most distinguishing aspect of Catholic theology and life is its emphasis on mediation," Curran said. "Catholicism has always said that the divine is mediated in and through the human."
Baxter's is "a very logical and appealing position," he said. "But if you insist that church always stands against culture, you have to deny what has always been a part of Catholic tradition, such as taking human reason seriously, our understanding of God coming through the sacraments, our whole natural law background, the fact that we structured the church from the Roman culture.
"We did too much of that, maybe, but that's what we did. ... History reminds us of all we've learned from culture." From the American experience, "the Catholic church has learned an awful lot about human freedom and human dignity," he said.
Curran added, "The Catholic church in the United States has the biggest hospital system, social service system and educational system under private auspices, which serve not only Catholic but all kinds of folk. How can you be countercultural and still do that?"
At the same time, Curran said, "I think the greatness of the church is that there's always a place for the individual to bear witness to a particular virtue. That was once the role of religious in the church. Now it's the role of the baptized. There's also a great danger of individualism and materialism in our society. We have to fight that.
"I also believe that a university has to have all sides represented, but somebody teaching at a Catholic university has to be familiar with the Catholic tradition," Curran said.
We're getting old
Baxter extends the Americanist plot line in U.S. Catholic history to other historians as well -- Jay Dolan and David O'Brien, to name two.
O'Brien said he took Baxter's criticism of his Americanist views lightly. He said he, Dolan and Philip Gleason, another Catholic historian, had been in the audience some time back when Baxter presented a paper attacking Ellis, Dolan and O'Brien.
"I thought it was funny," O'Brien said. Why? "We're getting old. It reminded me that one of the first articles I wrote when I was a young scholar was a criticism of historians of the previous generation. I heard echoes of myself.
"There's a whole theological and ethical argument that Hauerwas represents," O'Brien said," one aimed at "urging a faith community to be more serious about its own integrity and to speak from tradition and faith in a clearer kind of way." In attempting to speak to the broad culture, "there's always the danger that the integrity of the faith will be watered down, perhaps lost.
"I like Michael," O'Brien added, "and I'm sorry about the problems he's having. I wrote Michael and told him I find this hard, because I know people on both sides. I have a lot of respect for Richard McBrien and Larry Cunningham and others in the department. Cunningham is a widely respected person, not one you would think of as being ideologically involved, so maybe it's more complicated than we realize."
Cunningham said his goal now in regard to Baxter is "to make him feel welcome. Who knows, he said -- "He may turn out to be the greatest ethicist since Reinhold Niebuhr."
Cunningham insisted "the sectarian thing" is "a red herring" in the conflicts. "I've always argued that the Catholic tradition is like a big salad bar," he said. "There are a lot of things you can put on your plate, and one of those is a religious identity that stands against the predominant culture. Monasticism is what 'flight from the world' is all about. Catholic Workers are a kind of sectarian movement in the positive sense." But that model has to be seen "within the larger tradition."
In his analysis of Baxter's dissertation, Cunningham said the correct Catholic position is "both/and" rather than "either/or," embracing many parts.
But in a written response to that analysis, Baxter accused Cunningham of a "logical fallacy. ...
"If one wishes to espouse a "both/and approach in theology then one is logically compelled to allow both the both/and approach and the either/or approach," he wrote.
The larger context
Cunningham, however, said Baxter makes too much of a minority perspective, without addressing how it might "cash out" in the world and its place within a larger context.
Blakey, meanwhile, expressed dismay at "the arrogance of the theology department -- or rather, some old dogs in the theology department," in his interview. By rejecting Baxter, the department effectively told Duke and Princeton, where Baxter earned high regard, that Notre Dame knew better, he said.
"Where does Notre Dame rank vis-a-vis Duke and Princeton?" he asked rhetorically. "Give me a break."
National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 1997