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Board of trustees at Catholic University nixes tenure for Eastern religions scholar

NCR Staff

In a highly unusual move, the board of trustees at the Catholic University of America has denied tenure to a faculty member despite approval at every other level of review, including unanimous support from the Academic Senate.

The June 8 decision came on the application of Michael Stoeber, a professor in the department of Religion and Religious Education.

Members of the board -- which includes all 8 American cardinals and 16 other bishops among its 49 members -- apparently took a special interest in Stoeber. Sources told NCR that Msgr. Richard Malone, currently on the faculty at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Philadelphia archdiocese, studied Stoeber’s published work on behalf of board members in advance of the June 8 vote. Malone is a former theological adviser to the U.S. bishops, as well as a former staff member for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

Stoeber is a specialist in Eastern religions. Faculty sources, who asked not to be identified, say the board was especially concerned with writings by Stoeber that touch on reincarnation and on hell.

While sources said board emembers have investigated other tenure cases, they could not remember another instance in which the board actually rejected an application.

A university spokesperson declined to say whether the board had ever done so following a positive faculty recommendation, calling it an “internal matter.” According to the university’s policies the board does have that prerogative.

A special meeting of the Academic Senate is scheduled for July 8. University policies allow for the creation of a special joint committee in the event of a dispute between the Academic Senate and the board, and Fr. Stephen Happel, interm dean of the School of Religious Studies and Stoeber’s department chair, told NCR that he expects the senate to request such a committee in the July 8 meeting.

In terms of whether he’s optimistic that the verdict on Stoeber can be reversed, Happel said, “I don’t have a clue what might happen.”

A spokesperson for the American Association of University Professors, a group that monitors tenure and academic freedom cases, told NCR that the action was “highly unusual” and “of obvious concern.” Catholic University is already under censure from the AAUP for its 1987 dismissal of Fr. Charles Curran, who defended a right of dissent from church teachings. Curran, a moral theologian currently teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, first drew attention when he objected to Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal document reaffirming the ban on artificial birth control.

Stoeber declined to discuss his case. “My tenure application is still ongoing,” he said in an e-mail to an NCR reporter. “I have nothing to say publicly or privately about the issue because it is still in process.”

The action against Stoeber comes on the heels of the resignation of Fr. Raymond Collins as dean of the School of Religious Studies under pressure from Catholic University’s president, Vincentian Fr. David O’Connell (NCR, June 18). Though the two matters are not directly related, Collins had approved Stoeber’s application and supported it before the Academic Senate and the board of trustees.

The tenure process at Catholic University requires a faculty member to make application in the sixth year of service. Stoeber’s case began in the fall of 1998. A tenure application moves through three levels of review -- department, school and Academic Senate. In Stoeber’s case, most of these ballots, including the vote of the full Academic Senate, were unanimous in his favor.

Stoeber’s application came before the board of trustees at an early March meeting. The board decided to table it along with several others until its next session in June.

A faculty member at Catholic University said the timing struck many of his colleagues as suspicious. “Faculty feel set up, that this got put off until the summer purposefully so no one would be around to protest it,” he said.

Sources told NCR that on April 14, a librarian from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary contacted Happel seeking information on Stoeber. According to the sources, the caller said he was acting for Malone, who was investigating Stoeber on behalf of the board.

Attempts to contact Malone, who was in Rome as NCR went to press, drew no response. According to sources, Happel went to Collins seeking advice on how to respond to Malone’s request.

Sources told NCR that Malone was unlikely to be acting on behalf of the full board of trustees. Instead, they said Malone was probably collecting information for one or more of the cardinals. In addition to his connection with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua through St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Malone also has ties to Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who chairs the Catholic University board. After coming back from Rome in the 1980s, Malone worked in an institute in Boston created by Law. Also associated with Law’s institute at the same time was Fr. Francis George before he was named a bishop and eventually cardinal of the Chicago archdiocese.

Sources told NCR that in a previous tenure case at Catholic University, George had expressed concern with what a faculty member had written about reincarnation but had declined to block that application.

George was not present for the June 8 vote on Stoeber.

Bevilacqua, through a spokesperson, declined comment. “Questions on the matter are appropriately answered not by an individual board member, but rather by the administration of Catholic University,” said Cathy Rossi, the cardinal’s director of communications.

“As a member of the board, Cardinal Bevilacqua takes an interest in all issues that come before board members. This may include, from time to time, issues of tenure,” Rossi said.

A university spokesperson told NCR the Stoeber case was “a matter internal to the university and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

“I think it’s a tragedy,” Collins said of the decision to deny Stoeber’s tenure application. “He is a promising scholar and was part of an effort in the School of Religious Studies to build a major program in inter-religious dialogue.”

Happel told NCR that since he was the one who proposed Stoeber for tenure, “I am obviously in favor of his application, as are the other members of the department. Like the other faculty who supported him all the way up the line, I was surprised” when the board turned him down.

Stoeber is the author of two books, Theo-Monistic Mysticism: A Hindu-Christian Comparison (1994), and Evil and the Mystics’ God: Towards a Mystical Theodicy (1991).

Experts in his field said Stoeber enjoys a reputation as a mainstream scholar. “His books were solid on the Indian side and gave Christian theologians something to think about,” said Jesuit Fr. Francis Clooney of Boston College, who reviewed Stoeber’s books for The Thomist, a Catholic journal with a moderate-to-conservative reputation. “They were well-received. No one I know of bashed them as radical or liberal.”

Stoeber addressed reincarnation in a 1990 article in the scholarly journal Religious Studies, where he distinguished between two strands in Hindu thinking about reincarnation -- one a “retributive” model, in which reincarnation is a reward or punishment, and another a “soul-making” model, in which reincarnation gradually leads to moral and spiritual growth.

“This hypothesis of rebirth as a process of soul-making seems to me to be less ‘fantastic’ than religious eschatologies which envision a bodily resurrection in another space and time after only one arbitrary lifetime in this world,” Stoeber wrote.

Clooney said the comment could be taken “lots of different ways.”

“My experience of studying Indian texts is that their theological arguments are plausible, carefully argued,” Clooney said. “It’s very solid theological reflection. If that’s what he meant, it’s a tenable position.”

Happel said the board’s concerns have not been officially expressed. “Whatever you’re hearing is all speculation,” Happel said. “There’s just no information available.”

Jordan Kurland, a spokesperson for the American Association of University Professors, said that although the AAUP cannot censure Catholic University again, they could issue a “supplementary report” and make action on that case a condition for lifting the original censure.

If the June 24 meeting does not lead to positive action on Stoeber’s application, Kurland said he was dubious that a lawsuit would offer much help. “The courts won’t mess around with someone at a church institution who teaches religion and gets in trouble for questions of doctrine,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999